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Contemporary Fiction

I sit at my foggy window seat, looking out onto the rapid pace of the city, as people go about their daily business.

You can always tell the ones who are running late. They’ll suddenly burst into a small trot for several meters, then resume their fast-walking pace, while trying to navigate between the slow walkers and the early morning tourists - stopping to look up at every shop sign, while snapping selfies, as the mad crowd rushes past them.

It's early for some, late for others, and just, now - for people like me. I come in here to get out of the cold, and as long as I behave myself, Gail, the young woman that runs the place doesn’t mind. It’s when the place gets busy amongst the morning rush, that she usually asks me to make room for paying customers and lets me know what time I can come back. However, time is something I no longer monitor. To me, time is a complex passage of the progress of a day, and nothing more. Because, when you live in the world of the invisible, time passes you by, so you lose track of it very easily. Like now, it is today, but anything beyond that is out of my control. I know day from night, warmth from cold, and shelter from the elements. Perhaps, survival is what’s beyond. Anyway, what else is there to know, when you’ve learned to just take life one day at a time?

Each morning, I look forward to sitting here, so I’m always the first waiting for the shop to open to claim my spot. Staring out the window, I like to pretend that I’m sitting in some far-off exotic holiday getaway, without a care in the world, enjoying the smell of morning beverages and baked delights wafting through the small corner shop’s bohemian atmosphere. It seems to transport me to a time and place in memory when I was once part of those frenzied people rushing past my view.

Then, on cue; the pressurised steamy sounds interspersed with sporadic morning conversation, invade my daydreaming state, filling me with both a feeling of remorse and a sense of trepidation. A reminder that not too long ago, life was good. I had a city job, in a city building, with a home in the heart of the city. I drank at city pubs, ate at city restaurants, and bought my clothes in city shopping malls. To me, life was one big city. I didn’t know of any other existence - until the downturn happened. Without forecast and without warning, the company went into administration. Those that accepted redundancy, left happy with a soft landing - a cushion to financially see them through their new job searches. Those that stayed with a plan to ride out the potential takeover, foolishly found themselves surplus to requirements, and without a cushion to fall on, some fell deep into the depths of the city’s gutters and damp alleyways. I am one of those that landed at rock-bottom, so quickly found myself destitute – as well as unemployed.

I have always said that most of us are just one pay cycle away from homelessness, but I couldn’t do anything to change that. Highly in debt, maxed out on my credit cards, and a mortgage that kept increasing with every interest rate change, I worked proverbially from hand to mouth. What was left after the taxman took his cut of my pay, the bank took the rest – leaving me only with pot noodle money and cat food. It was just a matter of time before my world came crashing down over my head. I just never planned for that moment.

The bell above the shop door rings, snapping me out of my depressing flashback - as some early morning customers arrive for their daily shot of wide-eye. I take a moment to study them. Eyes fixated on the large hanging wall menu - like they’ve decided to order something other than their usual pick-me-up, they scan the offerings on display. However, they’re just checking the prices to see if anything has changed. Nothing has. In the continual rising cost of living, Gail has managed to keep her prices stable. She says it maintains the status quo with her customers, because change could very easily destabilise their lives. Like all of us, they are creatures of habit. Each day, they ride the same train at the same time to the same destination, and stop in here to order the same drink, the same snack, before they head to the same job at the same company in the same city that they’ve always worked in. It’s a cycle of life. Vicious or not, it’s a repeatable behaviour that most of us must follow to survive. But no-one realises how important it is to stay focussed and employed, until they’re no longer part of that routine.

In the office, you are someone. No matter what your job is, people greet you, they talk small talk to you, like everyone is part of a large group of friends. They plan, they design, and they report the results of everyone’s collective efforts. But when going home time comes around, they all trundle off to their own lives in their own neighbourhoods and lock themselves away behind closed doors to unwind from the day and prepare for the next.

There’s a distinct difference between workmates and friends. In my opinion, workmates demand too much of your time, so being in the company of their needs and jealousies for eight hours a day, is enough to send anyone running home to shut the world out. It’s when times become difficult that you realise who your true friends are. Mine seemed to have been grouped into the category of workmates. I’ve been too estranged from my childhood friends to still consider them in that light or to ask them for assistance, so I reached out to my workmates to see if they could help. Most of them had quickly changed allegiances to their new work surroundings, so offered very little in the way of encouragement. I quickly realised I was on my own in the middle of a concrete jungle, drowning in the sewers of the forgotten.

Moving to the city had been a new adventure for me. A long way from home, single, and living alone, the people at work were the only meaningful conversations I would have during the day, but any hint of meaningful friendship there was no more than a lunchtime stroll in the park, or a quick drink at the pub until the evening rush hour died down. After that, it was home for me to eat, feed the cat, sleep, wake, and start again.

The wonderful aroma of freshly brewed beverages that are permeating my nostrils right now, remind my senses that we’re at the height of the morning rush. Reluctantly, I look over toward Gail, adeptly using tongs to place all kinds of sweet and savoury food into paper bags, stuffing sweeteners into cardboard drinks trays, and placing environmentally friendly cups with lids into the tray grips. She manages to do this with an unwavering positive attitude and smile of admirable sincerity. Momentarily catching her eye, she flashes a warm smile toward me, gesturing for me to stay, then points at the world outside the large shop window and feigns a shiver. I understand. It’s winter in the city and the recent freeze has everyone tucked up into long coats, woolly hats, and scarves to stave off the cold. I only have an old army-style jacket with fingerless gloves, and interpreting Gail’s movements, I don’t think she wants me to return to the sub-zero temperature outside. I’m in no hurry to vacate my orchestra seat to the day’s overture. A kind ex-neighbour of mine has adopted my cat, so I have nowhere else to be. I’m happy to stay amongst the warmth and wonderful smells in here that promise to send me into dreamland, but as I drift off into a power nap, a blot on the landscape blocking my view toward Gail, causes me to look up.

“Anyone sitting there?” A young man in a very warm looking coat asks, while pointing to the seat opposite me.

It is all I can do to answer him with clarity. My core is still feeling the effects of sleeping in a cardboard box under a nearby railway bridge, so my voice quivers a response.

“N-n-no,” I sputter.

Without invitation, he hurriedly sits opposite me, like he fears someone else suddenly usurping his claim to the vacant seat. Laying his mug of alluring aromatic hot liquid onto the table between us, he ensconces himself in reading something on his smartphone, like that is his only avenue of convenient communication to the world around him. I smile and mutter “Smells wonderful,” as I breathe in the aroma of his morning sustenance. He ignores me, so I go back to staring out of the window. The city is now alive with people passing left-to-right, right-to-left, and mingling just outside the window, dancing to keep warm, before choosing to enter the shop. A couple of women recognise each other and huddle together for a quick chat.

“What are you drinking today?” one of the women asks.

“My usual,” is the reply.

“Have you seen what’s in the display case?”

“Don’t tempt me,” the second woman says. “I just have to look at them and I put on weight.”

They laugh like that exaggerated declaration hovers between fact and fiction, waiting to see what side of the argument it will fall. Looking around the shop for an available seat, they both catch my gaze in their search for a table to gossip at, and linger their stare at my position, like they are about to invade a foreign land to steal its resources.

Sitting at a table without a drink or food, invites all kinds of gazes. There are the ones that bluntly say, “If you’re not eating or drinking, move on and let someone else sit there.” Then, there are the gazes that analyse you. “He looks like he’s homeless. What’s he doing in here? I hope he hasn’t soiled the seat.”

Attempting to identify what gaze the two women are throwing my way, Gail’s voice booms through the echoing room.

“There you go, hun! Your usual. Enjoy!”

Catching me unawares, I look at the steaming mug on the table in front of me and the generously sized, tasty-looking baked delight placed on a plate accompanied by a fork and a folded napkin. A state of confusion envelops my thoughts, causing my hands to turn my palms upward - as if to say, “I can’t afford this.” But before I can speak, Gail smiles and nods her head, looking like she is practicing telekinesis to move my hands toward her offering. I hesitate not. The hot mug soon becomes a hand warmer, while my returned smile signals my pleasure. I mouth a silent “Thank you” to her and she nods her acceptance.

Satisfied at my overwhelming joy of a free breakfast, Gail heads back to her till to ring up another sale. The city clock is ticking, and customers are showing eager signs to not be late to work. It’s the financial district and finance must be monitored at all times.

I cut a piece of the delicious looking triangle of pleasure and place it tenderly in my mouth. Surprisingly, the man sitting opposite looks up from his phone and smiles at me.

“Good?” he enquires.

“You wouldn’t believe how good,” I answer – slowly chewing the crumbly piece before washing it down with my beverage.

“Life is good,” he says – without knowing my circumstance.

“It is, today,” I muffle the words, while stuffing my mouth with another delectable piece of food.

Feeling warm inside from the hot drink, I turn to look at the blurry crowd of people outside rushing past the frosty window, then repeat to them in a loud whisper, “It is today…”

 

 

September 21, 2023 09:20

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10 comments

Martin Ross
15:30 Oct 20, 2023

I find the least kindness or even simply interaction can transform a stranger, and your story reminds me to consider and examine how those around me are feeling or experiencing and offer whatever I can to help. Wonderful empathetic work - thanks!

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Sol Caine
00:18 Oct 21, 2023

Martin, People are always in a hurry, and a lot of the time, they stay focussed on one thing. Themselves. Once in a while, it is rewarding to stop and take in your surroundings, and to really see those less fortunate than you. Even a word of kindness to someone downtrodden can leave a positive impact. We don't all follow the same timeline. Thank you for your great feedback.

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Martin Ross
15:49 Oct 21, 2023

Sue has always chided me for being a “talker” — chatting up every stranger I meet in the grocery line, in the waiting room, at restaurants. If my dollar store or Kroger’s clerk is sour or cold, I ask how the day’s going or tell them how much I like their “ink” or glasses or, when appropriate, their imaginative hair coloring, and nine of 10 times, they brighten up. I leave my table as clean as possible, cut slack for mistakes in the kitchen or my order, and tip big unless the server was just arrogant. Had a homeless woman once bust into tears...

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Sol Caine
16:07 Oct 21, 2023

That's a very kind thing to say. Thank you.

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05:05 Sep 27, 2023

Such a beautiful story!

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Sol Caine
05:09 Sep 27, 2023

Thank you, Melissa. What a wonderful comment.

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Joe Smallwood
14:21 Sep 22, 2023

Ah life! We still have to live, no matter what happens. A cuppa Joe not withstanding! It's a small world bounded by common emotions, what we all feel. Thanks for reading one of my stories. I enjoyed this. Thanks.

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Sol Caine
02:48 Sep 23, 2023

Thanks, Joe. A little kindness along the way helps. Thanks for commenting.

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Mary Bendickson
20:04 Sep 21, 2023

Was wondering why mc couldn't get a part time job helping out at rush hour. Thanks for liking my Walking to California.

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Sol Caine
23:38 Sep 21, 2023

Mary, I had thought about that too, but might have needed a whole book to tell that one. :) Thank you for reading my story.

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