It had been a long morning even thought the day was young. The chill of the concrete pavement seeped up through the cardboard into his bones. He had not looked at the sky, knowing it would be slate grey. The cold, damp atmosphere enveloped him and sapped away at his soul. A steady stream of commuters had already marched past him. Most steadfastly ignored him. A small minority had mumbled some abuse under their breath. A smaller minority still had offered kind words. None had thrown any money into the plastic cup offered out in front of him.
The ironic thing was that not so long ago, Eric had been among them. Every morning, he used to put on a shirt and tie, kiss his wife goodbye and set off for work. He would have marched past the vagrants sitting at the side of the street, striving to avoid eye contact. Wondering why they didn’t do something to pull themselves out of the gutter. It didn’t take long for Eric to fall. His wife left him for another man. In the ensuing breakdown he lost his job. The house went soon after. The last thing to go was his dignity.
Someone stopped in front of him and fished around in his pocket. Eric knew not to get excited. The first few times he had looked up expectantly only to receive a mouthful of abuse or a patronising lecture. Once someone had made a show of rooting around in their wallet before dropping a load of old receipts in his cup. He wondered which one this man would be. Allowing his mind to drift, he started to imagine what he would do if the man gave him some money.
He was hungry, but then he had got used to it. He could murder a drink. Alcohol took away the cold and the pain for a short time. For brief moments, the numbness would seep through him soothing his soul. Give him numbness over cold, hunger and sadness any day. The man was still there rummaging around in his wallet. For reasons he could not fathom, Eric started to think about his old job at the newspaper. He had been a cartoonist and illustrator. He used to really his work and it lightened his mood.
The man bent down and stuffed something into his cup before walking off. Eric snatched at the cup, eager to see the man’s donation. Would it be a sarcastically penned note of advice? A piece of chewing gum wrapped up in paper? It was neither. It looked like money. Erik suddenly found it hard to draw breath. Nobody had ever donated paper money before. His spirits soared as he fished out the note and unfurled it. Twenty pounds. He could get very numb indeed with twenty pounds and have something to eat. Hiding the note, he looked left and right to make sure no other vagrants had noticed his windfall. Being robbed now would be a cruel twist of fate.
Making his way around to the supermarket, he began mentally spending the money. He began to salivate for the first time in longer than he could remember. Feeling like he was walking on air, the pain began to melt away, he could see the supermarket ahead of him. Just beside the supermarket was an art shop. He wondered why he’d never noticed it before. Probably because they don’t sell food or super strength beer.
Pausing in the doorway of the supermarket, he looked wistfully over at the paints and pencils in the art shop, scrunching the twenty pound note in his pocket. A security guard, his interest piqued by the automatic door constantly opening and shutting. “Oi – mate! You coming in or what?” Eric turned and stared at him. “I just don’t know.” He replied.