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Short Story: One bag

Short Story: One bag

Short Story: One bag

It wasn’t the first time that he had been there, but it was the first time that Anna really saw him. Saw his scratched face, his bare feet and dirty jeans. Saw his unwashed hair that clumped together in a mass of dreadlocks. Beneath his head was an old canvas bag, covered in handwritten words and patches of fabric. As she sidestepped his feet, which were stretched out onto the footpath, she quickened her step, hoping that he would not open his eyes and ask for money. As she stopped to cross the road, Anna glanced back towards the doorway of the old building. She began to wonder about him, a shiver running up her spine. Realising that she was late for an appointment with a patient, she used the same techniques that she taught them to quiet her mind and refocus.

Anna arrived at her office and called in her first patient. She sat listening, stretching her pedicured toes inside her Italian leather boots. Suddenly she couldn’t get the image of his bare feet, exposed to the full force of the elements, out of her mind. She shook her head, silently chiding herself for the distraction. Her patients relied on her to listen to their problems and to help them work through them, and all she could think about was this drunk.

At midday, Anna stood in line at her favourite café, a place that beckoned you to enter with the strong aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans. As she scrounged in her bag for loose change for her latte, her mind drifted back to him and she felt a pang in her stomach. Maybe she should have thrown him a few dollars.

Shaking her head emphatically, the pang gave way to a feeling of irritation.  Why should she work hard and pay taxes, when people ‘like that’ were drinking themselves into a stupor and winding up homeless? Why should it be her problem? She carried her lunch to a nearby table and shook her head again. She decided to find a new route to walk to work.

That night, as she did every Thursday night, Anna caught the train to her parents’ home for dinner. She craved these nights at ‘home’, knowing that the conversation, warmth and home-cooked dinner was far more enticing than eating Thai takeaway in the quiet of her small apartment. Opening the front door, the smell of spaghetti bolognaise greeted her. Her parents were talking and laughing in the large kitchen. She smiled to herself. Dorothy was right. There really was no place like home.

Anna’s father scooped her up for a bear hug, just as he did every time he saw her. “How are you doing, button?” he asked.

“I’m great Dad,” she answered, knowing that it wasn’t quite the truth.

“Dinner’s almost ready, love. Why don’t you have a seat?” her mother suggested.

Anna sat at the table and watched her mother finish cooking, while her father poured drinks and cheekily stole a taste of the bolognaise. She loved watching them, two people clearly still in love and so happy. She traced the scratches on the table with her finger. This table had been in this kitchen her whole life, its scratches evidence of a life lived. She found herself wondering about the scratches on the homeless man’s face. How did they get there? Were they too evidence of a life lived?

As they ate, they started sharing the highs and lows of their week, something that had been a family tradition for as long as Anna could remember. After the usual chatter about work, television shows and social occasions, Anna stared at her plate and cleared her throat.

“Umm … today I nearly tripped over a homeless man on the street. You should have seen him. He was so dirty and he had no shoes on. I’d say he was drunk or hungover.” Her voice became firmer and louder as she continued. “I just don’t understand how people let themselves get like that!”

Her mother and father listened quietly. Then her mother put down her glass and sighed. “Let me tell you a story. One afternoon a woman and a very young girl were walking down the main street. As they neared the post office, they noticed a man curled tightly into a corner, with a large piece of old cardboard covering his legs. He was scruffy, unwashed and clearly had been sleeping on the streets for some time.

“The woman tried to hurry past the man, worried that he might be dangerous, but the young girl stopped in her tracks. She stared at the man for so long that the woman felt uncomfortable and mumbled an apology to him.

“As they continued walking, the young girl asked her mother why the man was in the corner using an old box as a blanket. The woman explained that the man was homeless and that perhaps something tragic had happened in his life and that was how he had ended up there.

“The girl could not stop thinking about the man and when she returned home, she began searching her mother’s sewing cupboard for scraps of fabric. The woman asked her what she was doing and the girl explained that she was going to make a blanket for the man they had seen. The woman was so touched by the child’s empathy that she offered to help her.

“Together, they spent hours making a patchwork blanket for the man. They took it to him and left it for him while he slept.

“If that child, who was perhaps around four or five years of age, could show this much compassion, surely you, as a 27-year-old woman, can do the same.”

Anna nodded, staring down at her plate, feeling ashamed of her previous thoughts. Her mother was right. After dinner, she waited for the train, tucking her hands deep into the pockets of her thick wool coat. She silently urged the train to arrive, longing to escape the icy wind that stung her cheeks. She began thinking about his hands. How cold they must feel on a night like tonight. How they must ache in the middle of a freezing winter. Then and there Anna resolved to stop and see him the very next day.  When she awoke the next morning, Anna dressed quickly and grabbed the red-and-white knitted scarf that hung on the back of her bedroom door. 

She approached the old building with sweaty palms. The familiar bare feet were once again stretched onto the footpath. She thought he might have been sleeping, his eyes closed, head once again resting on the tatty canvas bag. Stepping forward quietly, Anna knelt beside him and placed the scarf gently on the ground. His eyes sprung open in alarm.

“It’s starting to get cold,” she explained softly.

The look of alarm was replaced with a small, albeit slightly confused, smile.

“Oh … uh … thank you,” he mumbled.

“I’m Anna.”

“Toby,” he said simply and held his hand out to shake hers.

Anna hesitated. She stared at the long, dirty fingernails on his gnarled old hands briefly before extending her own.

Toby smiled, a wide smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. Anna stood up and smiled back at him. “Well … see you tomorrow, Toby.”

As she headed off for work, she had a spring in her step. Although it was Toby with the scarf, she herself felt warmer. In one small smile she had sensed more gratitude than she had ever seen before. 

Anna stopped in to see Toby each morning on her way to work. Sometimes she bought him breakfast, other times something useful like woollen socks or the yellow hat that she had knitted last winter. Each day she learned more about his life.

“I had a wife, you know. She was beautiful. High-school sweethearts, we were.”

“What happened to her?” Anna asked tentatively.

“It was a few months after our daughter was born. Lizzie had been to pick James, our son, up from school. He was five  and he was so full of energy. Lizzie always joked that he could talk with a mouthful of marbles underwater.”

Anna smiled, as did Toby.

“The police said that the kids wouldn’t have even seen the other car coming, so I guess that’s a small blessing, isn’t it? The other driver was drunk. Middle of the afternoon.”

Anna felt a lump form in her throat as she realised that Toby was just like anyone else. He was a husband, a father.

“When they died, my whole world stopped. I just couldn’t get it together. Never did. Over 20 years now. Miss ‘em every day.”

Day by day, Toby told her more about his family and his life on the streets. His was a story of loneliness, of cold nights and long days.

One bitterly cold morning Anna arrived to see Toby. In one hand she held a steaming cup of coffee, in the hope of warming him up. A few metres before she reached his usual spot, Anna stopped and stared.

Toby was gone. Nothing remained in the place where he usually sat. It was almost as though he had never been there.

Suddenly the chilly morning felt warm, compared with the heavy, icy feeling in the depths of her stomach. She scanned the streets for signs of Toby, hopeful that he had gone for a walk or decided the time had come to move on. But surely he wouldn’t leave without telling her. They had formed a bond these past few weeks.

She stood rooted to the spot, staring at the cold, hard concrete as though she hoped that he might just reappear. Hearing footsteps behind her, she turned to see Mr Griggs from the corner store across the street. Toby had told her how Mr Griggs often bought him over some ready-to-expire strawberry milk and day-old pies from the warmer.

“Toby died.”

Just like that.

Anna felt her knees weaken beneath her and the coffee dropped from her hand, sending a creamy spray over her boots as it hit the ground. She reached out and steadied herself against the wall of the building, tears welling in her eyes. Mr Griggs awkwardly patted her shoulder.

“You wait there.”

He turned and walked back into his store, returning with Toby’s canvas bag from behind the counter.

“I packed up his things. Do you want ‘em? Ain’t no-one else who’ll want ‘em.” 

Anna nodded her thanks. She walked slowly towards her office, clutching the bag to her chest, unable to think about anything other than the fact that Toby was gone. The funny headline at the newspaper stand reminded her of Toby’s dark humour. She watched a father carrying a child on his shoulders and thought about Toby. 

Rounding a corner, she slumped onto a bench in the park. Her knees were still weak, her hands trembling. This was the first time that she had really looked at the bag closely. She ran her fingers over the patches, seeing now that they were scraps of baby clothes. She smiled as she recalled him talking about his children. She recognised that the handwritten words were song lyrics.

Toby’s whole life had been packed into this one bag. She thought about that for a moment and wondered – if she were to die tomorrow, what would be in her one bag? Of all the “things” that she had, what would it be that mattered most, that summed up her life?

She carefully opened the bag and pulled out the familiar scarf and the knitted yellow hat. Tucked inside the hat was a scrap of paper with a crudely written note: Anna, you brightened my days and made me realise that life is for the living. You brought me peace and I know that when I finally am reunited with them, in whatever afterlife may exist, I will be the man they need me to be, instead of the self-pitying, shadow of myself that I had become. Thank you for seeing that in me, for seeing beyond. Toby.

Anna felt her chest tighten and again her eyes begin to well.

In a small pocket she found a faded photograph of his beloved wife and children. It was dog-eared and creased and on the back the words “my everything” were scrawled in smudgy pencil. She traced their faces with her finger, recalling the stories that Toby had told her about them. She smiled, remembering how much Toby had loved them.

In the bottom of the bag, she felt something soft. She lifted out a small patchwork blanket. It was dirty and torn, just like Toby’s jeans had been, and made from fabric scraps. It only took a moment for the realisation to hit Anna and as it did the tears that had been welling in her eyes finally spilled down her cheeks and dripped onto the blanket.

Toby may have been gone, but Anna had only just returned.

About our Short Story author:

Nicole Halton

Nicole Halton lives to write. Her time spent writing fiction provides an opportunity to take a momentary break from the craziness (and delight) of life with three
small children; an opportunity to lose herself in a world that doesn’t include muddy gumboots.

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