Derek sighed heavily as he watched the rain roll slowly down the window pane. Outside, dark shadows of passers-by hurried across the street, clutching their coats close around their bodies in a vain attempt to keep out the bitter November wind. Empty crisp packets swirled and circled, higher then lower, before collecting with used cigarette butts and sweet wrappers in the gutters. A black crow hopped shabbily on the damp paving slabs, calling out dismally.
Derek pulled his own cardigan tighter to his thin, worn frame and shivered. The cold seeped into his small, dingy room through the cracked window frame. He reached a hand out to touch the yellowed radiator. Stone cold.
“There’s a surprise,” he murmured hoarsely to himself.
With a groan, he hoisted himself unsteadily out of his chair and made his way slowly to his small kitchenette where he buttered a thin slice of bread and cut a little piece of cheese for his evening meal. Derek found that his appetite was less and less as each day passed.
As he slowly chewed the slice of bread, his eyes wandered back across the room to the window and, beside it, a framed, faded photograph which stood on a small table.
From the photograph, a girl smiled back at him. She was a child, wearing a straw hat much too big for her from which her dark curls spilled out, and standing on a sandy beach. In her hands she held a bucket and spade.
It seemed a lifetime since Derek had last held her in his arms, or picked her up and carried her on his once-broad shoulders, or wiped the dirt from her little face and the tears from her eyes. Memories of donkey rides at the seaside, the gulls wheeling overhead in the azure sky, and of fish and chips on the pier under the setting summer sun flitted dimly through Derek’s mind.
A more vivid - a more painful - memory surfaced. The day on which Derek had lost his Lucy forever. The day on which Derek had been left alone in the world.
Derek shuddered as he lowered his aged body back into his chair by the window. Outside, the wind now howled. The room seemed to grow colder and colder.
Derek started awake. He had been dozing in his chair for much of the afternoon, warmed only slightly by the thin, watery rays of the winter sun. Now the shadows were already lengthening on the street below his window and school children were cycling past on their way home. As Derek watched, a girl in school uniform crossed to the threshold of the building opposite and slipped in quickly through the door.
Derek allowed himself a slight, wistful smile. From the window at which he often sat passing away the days, he had seen this girl before, many times, since moving into the street. With her dark, curly hair she reminded him of Lucy.
Half an hour, an hour passed. The street lamps guttered into life; the street became enveloped in the winter darkness. Derek shuffled across his room to turn up the light, then shuffled back to sit in his chair. He looked out into the gloom.
The door across the street opened and a warm glow shone out over the threshold. The girl, dressed in a jacket and jeans, stepped out into the street, turning as she did so to talk to somebody inside and unseen. As she turned back to the street, she looked up towards the window and her eyes met Derek’s.
Slowly, Derek inclined his head toward her, and smiled. Uncertainly, cautiously, the girl smiled back. Derek raised a gnarled hand and gave a little, tentative wave. Now the girl smiled more broadly, showing bright teeth in her pretty face. Tossing her scarf back over her shoulder, she skipped down the steps into the street and was gone.
The days rolled past unceasingly, one into another, unchanging. Throughout them all, Derek sat in his chair by the window, ate his meagre meals of buttered bread and cheese, and shivered as the cold gnawed deeper and deeper into his bones. For hours he would sit looking down into the street below, watching as Christmas decorations gradually appeared in the windows and as people carried trees into their homes. At night, little lights of red, green and gold would twinkle and blink from within, while the pavement grew icy and frost clung to the street lamps.
Each morning, the girl would step out of her house and head to school, muffled now in a thick coat and gloves, a woolly hat pulled down close over her curls. Each morning, she would look up at Derek’s window and smile as he waved frailly back to her.
Derek would sleep for much of the rest of the day, but he would always wake before the girl returned home from school, welcoming her back with a raised hand from where he sat, a small figure in the window above her. Sometimes, the girl would be in the company of other girls, and would stop outside her house to chat and laugh with them before they would head on their way. Sometimes, she would leave the house again after dark, returning home only hours later. Once, Derek noticed her talking to a boy, of about her age, at the corner of the street before hurrying up to her front door, her cheeks flushed and her grey eyes bright. But she would always look up to Derek’s window before turning into the house, and more times than not Derek would be there to wave back.
At those times, Derek would, for just a small while, forget the dull ache that pulsed through his body. When he exchanged smiles with the girl across the street, Derek would, for just that moment, feel a little warmer despite the December chill. Derek would often find his gaze then straying to the faded photograph which sat near to him. Unchanging, fixed in time long, long ago, his daughter would silently smile back.
On Christmas Eve, as he sat nodding in his chair, Derek was startled awake by a knock at his door. Slowly, he hobbled forward and opened the door to see a neighbour standing there, holding a small red envelope and smelling strongly of beer.
“Merry Christmas, Derek,” said the neighbour, holding the envelope out to him. “Card for you just came - girl caught me as I was coming in just now.”
Derek took the envelope, hands trembling, and thanked his neighbour, who made his excuses and hurried off down the corridor to his own flat.
Turning back into his room, Derek fumblingly tore the envelope open and pulled out the Christmas card within.
“To the man in the window,” he read aloud, his finger tracing the words on the card. “Merry Christmas and a happy new year!”
He looked at the name signed below, in neat, cursive lettering.
“Emily,” he whispered.
Derek brushed away a tear as it trickled down his yellowed cheek.
Carefully, he placed the card beside the photograph on his table and stood for a moment, looking from one to the other.
Then, slowly, he eased himself back into his chair by the window and looked out across the street, towards the house where Emily lived. From within, the Christmas lights twinkled warm and bright. Outside, shadows moved, ghost-like, across the street, which lay black like a chasm between them.
A crash splintered the night air.
Derek awoke with a start, head jerking forward as a sound like loudly tinkling water met his ears. Through misty grey eyes, he saw small shards of light dancing round his feet, shivering and jumping in the lamp glow. Near to him was a black, jagged object. Derek leaned down to peer at it. It was a rock.
Looking back to the window, Derek saw that it was shattered to pieces. In the street below, he heard laughs and footsteps retreating into the distance. A bitter gust of wind strafed across his face as he gaped, tired and astonished, into the night.
It was now past midnight. Derek pulled the curtains across the window to keep out the cold as best he could and crept to bed, pulling the coverlet tight over his body as he drifted into a restless sleep.
The next morning, as Derek creakingly began to collect the shards of broken glass from beneath the window, he heard a voice from the street below. Looking over the sill, he saw Emily standing there, cheeks rosy with cold and a concerned expression written on her young face.
“Are you alright?” She called up to him. “I saw the window was smashed in…I wanted to check you were OK?”
“I’m…fine,” Derek called out, hesitatingly. “Somebody threw a rock in the night…I’m just making sure I get all the glass picked up and out of the way, gently does it.”
“Would you like me to come up and help you? It might be quicker!”
Derek blinked. He paused before continuing.
“That would be…that would be very much appreciated, Emily.” He paused again. “It is Emily, isn’t it?”
“It is!” Emily smiled back warmly. “I see you got my card then!”
“I’m Derek,” he said.
“It’s good to be formally introduced at last,” Emily laughed. “Let me get a dustpan and brush to help - I’ll be over in five minutes!”
Turning, she hurried back into her house.
Derek stumbled over towards his door and leaned against the wall unsteadily, his breathing shallow and ragged. A lifetime of regret, increasingly entrenched upon by pervading loneliness and isolation. In Emily, a reminder of what he had lost, but also a spark of hope. Pain mingled inextricably with joy. From his window he felt he was watching her grow from girl into young woman, walking with her on the twisting, riverine paths of life. As the months rolled by, he foresaw that he would share with her her triumphs and her happiness; he would comfort her in her moments of sadness and bitterness. He would watch as she walked back from her final exams, as she celebrated birthdays, as she fell in love for the first time. He would be there for her. Her man in the window.
The door buzzer sounded.
“Hi Derek,” Emily’s voice came through. “Got the dustpan and brush. Could you buzz us in please?”
Derek pressed the button and waited. There was a knock on the door.
Carefully, Derek opened it.
“I brought my mum with me - she’s a nurse and when I told her about you she just wanted to check you were OK,” Emily said, by way of explanation as to the woman stood beside her. From under dark curls streaked now with silver, the woman stared back at Derek, her grey eyes wide.
“Derek,” she gasped quietly.
Derek breathed more heavily now, licking his dry and cracked lips. He did not answer. Emily looked at her mother in confusion.
“Derek,” the woman repeated again, louder this time. “I…what…I think you have to please explain exactly what is going on here!”
She was angry now, her voice rising as she spoke. Instinctively, she clutched her daughter to her side.
“Lucy…” Derek started, his voice a croak. “I…I didn’t mean any harm. You have to believe that.”
“I have to believe that?” Lucy demanded. “I have to believe that? How dare you. After you walked out on Mum and I. After you left us for her. You know we barely scraped by? For years. It killed Mum. You know that?”
Tears started in Derek’s eyes as he looked pleadingly at his daughter.
“I…I’ve regretted it all my life since, Lucy. You’re my little girl. I’m so sorry. So sorry. I’ve tried to make it up to you…God knows I’ve tried. You never let me.”
“I told you, years ago - I don’t want anything to do with you. I told you to stay out of my life. Your little girl? You lost her when you treated Mum like you did.”
“Mum?” Emily said unsteadily, her face etched with worry as she looked from Lucy to Derek.
Lucy did not look at her but instead snarled at Derek, her voice now trembling with icy rage.
“And what the hell do you want with my daughter?” She said. Her eyes darted to the broken window. “Oh God…Have you been watching her all this time? Is that it? You’re spying on her? And on me too?”
“She’s my granddaughter, Lucy…” Derek pleaded. “I have no-one…I wanted to see my granddaughter. I wanted to see her grow up.”
“How the hell did you even find out where we lived?” Lucy retorted. “I can’t believe…you found out and you moved in opposite? This is so messed up…you need help, Derek. And you’d better get out of this street - I don’t care where you go - as long as you stay the hell away from us. If not, I will get the police involved, believe me.”
Derek shook his head sadly, tears now flowing down his cheeks.
“I thought…after all this time…”
“Goodbye, Derek,” Lucy said. “Come on Emily, we need to go. Come on.”
With an arm around her waist, Lucy steered Emily away from the door. As she did so, Emily’s eyes, moist with tears, met Derek’s. She parted her lips as if to say something, but no words came. Then - she was gone.
Slowly, Derek shuffled back to his chair and lowered himself into it. Slowly, he turned his head to look out through the shattered window. Across the street, he saw Emily’s door shutting firm.
A bluebottle crawled lazily along the sill.
Outside, Derek heard the dismal howling of the winter wind.
A shower passed over, leaving behind it thick drops of rain. As the raindrops began to weep down the window pane, Derek felt the unforgiving cold gripping him ever more tightly.