Doris sometimes wondered if she was a ghost. She could move through crowds like she was invisible without ever touching another soul. She knew it wasn’t true of course, she felt far too much to be dead, but still she wondered. Shaking the thought from her head, Doris adjusted her layers, pulled the odd socks further up her hands, grabbed her tartan shopping trolley and set off. Tonight they were switching on the Christmas lights and she was damned if she was going to miss it. The ceremony was one of her favourite things, so full of cheer, hope and happy memories.
The market square was alive with hundreds of people crowding the cobbles. Greasy fast food from the various trailers scattered around the perimeter filled the air with pungent smells while the crowd swayed to the strains of Nat King Cole blasting out of the enormous speakers. As she hummed along tunelessly she was transported back to happier days: decorating the tree with her new husband during their first family Christmas when Carol was only days old. But those times were long gone. It would never be like that again. An icy gust of wind caused Doris to shiver but she turned her back to it and looked around. Twinkling fairy lights had been strung up wherever possible giving the place a party feel and she smiled. Christmas was still special. Towards the church end of the square was a stage with three of Santa’s helpers dancing as they threw candy canes out to the crowd. Above their heads, soapy foam spluttered out from a machine in a feeble attempt at snow.
The microphone crackled into life and through the feedback Doris could make out a voice starting a countdown, she supposed it was some ‘celebrity’. Halfway through she couldn’t help but join in, “5…4…3…2…1…!” The crowd erupted into cheers and Doris was amongst the loudest. As colourful bulbs lit up the night, the young mother beside her started in surprise as if seeing Doris for the first time and moved her little girl with a look of disgust. Sadness washed over the homeless woman as she realised that she didn’t belong here after all, this was a place for families, dreams and miracles. The spell broke and she trudged away deciding on the spur of the moment to head for the shelter early. It was bitterly cold and a warm bed would be most welcome.
She was not the only one to have come along ahead of time and all available beds had been allocated to other nobodies who lived their lives on the streets. Dejected, Doris plodded down to the basement soup kitchen to thaw out before the metal shutters rolled up and the food was served. At least she’d get a hot meal today, which would help before she had to brave the bitter cold again.
Two hours later, Doris was fed and back outside. The temperature had dropped significantly and she sniffed at the air fancying she could detect a trace of snow, just what she needed! She decided to head for the park, there was a nice circular group of densely planted firs that she could squeeze in the middle of. They would help to ward off the piercing wind and the needles that had fallen would provide something of a mattress, she just hoped no-one else had remembered it. Again fate was unkind, old George was already curled up in there, “Whaddya want? Go on, piss off!” he yelled at her. “There’s no need for that you grumpy old scrote,” Doris shot back as she turned away thinking hard. She was drowsy and so very cold, where could she sleep tonight? Shivering, she sat on a bench to catch her breath and rub life into her freezing limbs. Doris let her mind wander back to when life was kinder, when Brian had been a better husband and Carol had been the light of her life. Carol had been such a sunny child and despite being a slightly rebellious teenager she had shown the makings of being a compassionate adult, but Doris had not had the chance to find out. Shortly after Carol left for university the family’s world turned upside-down. Brian hadn’t been truthful about his job, the one he lost a year previously due to ‘financial discrepancies’. To cover his sacking Brian re-mortgaged the family home and transferred a wage across each month. He even left the house every morning as usual. Eventually he’d confessed all, but by then it was too late. The house was repossessed and the bailiffs had taken everything of value. All that remained was the loan shark.
The Police knocked only weeks later saying there’d been a terrible accident. Doris knew the truth, the moneylender had settled the debt.
Doris slept on a friend’s couch, pledging earnestly to help, but after only 3 months that had ended unexpectedly and Doris had taken to wandering the streets as the feelings of betrayal and abandonment took over. Before she knew it she hadn’t slept indoors for a month and life as she knew it now had begun. No longer Mrs Watkins but just another worthless tramp to be spat on and kicked around. A hot tear ran down her face and Doris dashed it away, “Pull yourself together woman,” she mumbled while standing up and rearranging her clothes, she was wearing them all to stave off the cold which was still managing to get through. Wishing she had gloves and not these stupid socks, Doris grabbed her trolley and traipsed along until she came to the park fence. Yawning, she squeezed through the gap into the church yard and thought about spending the night here. She’d have her pick of spots as no-one else came in at night, they all found it too spooky.
Doris packed herself tightly into a recessed corner of the church. It had been a long tiring night, hard to find somewhere to sleep after the hostel had turned her away. She was panting and shivering violently, so cold she couldn’t think properly. A fleeting thought about hypothermia came and went, but she simply didn’t have the energy to register it properly. Fatigue washed over her. She’d be fine, she always was, she was a fighter, a survivor. Her eyelids drooped, her breathing became shallow and her body gave a hypnotic jerk, waking her slightly. As she felt herself pulled back into unconsciousness she thought she could see a shadowy figure standing on the edge of her vision, but exhaustion stopped her eyes from focusing properly. As her eyelids drooped again a pressing voice urged her to please wake up, don’t do this. It sounded like her daughter but it couldn’t be. Carol was gone. Carol was dead, her life taken by a drunk driver. As the darkness closed around Doris the shadow-figure changed shape and there was Carol, standing before her mother, holding out her arms in a sad welcome…