I wrote this story yesterday with the aim of writing something with hope, something with a ‘happy’ ending. I find that I often dwell in dark places when I write and I wanted to try and come out of that on this occasion, a challenge I hope has been achieved. As usual all comments are welcome!
I met Jerry outside our building. He was wrapped in a sleeping bag holding a paper cup squeezed in the middle to make a number 8. I’d seen him a few times before, always in the same spot, always with the same big fat ladies cup. Usually I walked by him. Forgot he was there as he never talked when I passed, but just sat reading a book, turning the page with one hand and holding the cup with the other. But one bitter day, so cold the frost was harder than the concrete it covered, he spoke.
“Have ya got a pair of shoes to spare?”
As a smoker I was used to all the lines used by those that begged. I need money for a hostel or a cup of tea or can you spare a cigarette? This one however took me by surprise. I lit up and stood next to him; let my eyes wander over his feet. He was wearing slippers, a blue pair with a huge hole at the end that showed the guts of a craggy nail.
“Where d’ya get them from?”
“Charity shop. They were grand in the summer; comfy for my bunions, but now they’re just no good.”
He didn’t need to say much more. Nobody would let a man out in winter with slippers on unless it was by accident, a glitch of a diseased memory. So I went to Pennys and bought him a pair of boots, sturdy looking things with thick soles along with a few pairs of woolly socks that were fit for climbers, according to the packet. “Will that do ya Jerry?”
“Aye Keith. Aye.” He talked with a lilt from another place. One lost long ago, but persistent. Scotland he told me once, but nothing more than that. He wasn’t a man to be pressed for details.
After that he always gave me a nod, wriggled a leg in the air to show me he still had them. As if I doubted he needed them in the first place.
The next time he spoke it was for a suit.
“What do ya need a suit for Jerry. You movin’ up in the world?”
“My daughter’s wedding. Some fancy hotel in Meath. It has stars apparently.”
I tried to take him into Pennys, then Dunnes, then Marks & Spencers, but they wouldn’t let him in. With each rejection I saw him die a little. “Hey Jerry what about that charity shop where ya got the slippers?”
The girl behind the counter knew him by name. She gave him a hug and pulled out a chair for him to sit on. “So what can we get for you today Jerry?”
He looked at me to speak for him. Somewhere along the way I had become his interpreter. “He needs a suit… for a wedding.”
“Right well let’s see what we have then.” She went to a rail at the back of the shop and fingered through the hangers. She had the longest neck I had ever seen, slim and beautiful.
“Now let’s give these a try.” She pulled back the curtain to the dressing room and handed him the first one.
Clothes got flung to the floor, while his boots got kicked beneath the curtain into the middle of the shop. When he pulled the curtain back I had to try not laugh. She giggled and then pinched her lips as a punishment. The sleeves only reached his elbows, while the trousers were stuck fast to his calves. I don’t know how he got into it, never mind how he was going to get back out. “It may be a bit small for ya Jerry.”
He nodded and moved onto the second. She left us to deal with customers. By number four we had cracked it. A perfect fit, it was charcoal grey with a red spotted dickie bow that I saw him eyeing up while we waited to pay. Only for buying it I’d never have known it was from a charity shop.
“That’ll be 10 euro.”
“But, it says 20 on the label.”
“Jerry always gets a discount. Wouldn’t be much of a charity shop otherwise would we?!”
I didn’t want her to think I was cheap. “But it’s me paying, so just take the full amount yeah?”
She took the 20 and handed the bag to Jerry. “Have fun now, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Jerry laughed at that, a kind of growl a bear might make when snoring.
“I’m Karen by the way.” I glanced at her neck and shook her hand.
Weeks passed and I didn’t see Jerry, missed him on my morning smoke. I said it to Karen and she told me not to worry. “Jerry’s a nomad, never stays in one place for long. I’m sure he’s fine.”
So I got on with work and life and falling in love, and put him to the back of my head for a while. Then I got a new job, and knew I’d have to leave Jerry’s spot behind. On my last day I went out for an afternoon smoke, as we had a few drinks in the office and my lungs were needing to catch up with my liver. I fumbled in my pockets for a light, and then remembered it was on my desk as I’d taken it out to light the candles on the cake.
“Need a light?”
A guy held out a lighter. It was a Zippo, flame so high it could have taken out a forest. “Thanks mate.”
“It’s yours.” He pressed it into my hand, his fingers coarse as scales.
“Ah no, I can’t take that. I have one inside.”
“I want you to have it.”
There was something familiar about him, something my intuition knew, but brain didn’t. He turned to walk away and I saw them, the thick soled Pennys boots on his feet. “Jerry?”
Then came that bear growl. “Tis indeed Keith.”
His beard was trimmed and his face a healthy pink. Clothes no longer hung off him, but looked like they belonged. I wanted to ask him so many questions. Pummel him with why’s and where’s and how’s, but I knew he wasn’t a man for details.
“Take care Keith. Of yourself and the girl.”
I let him walk away. A man who had found his swagger, a man that had built himself back up. Lighter in hand I looked at it, simple and solid with an engraving on the back:
Turns out all I needed was a pair of shoes and a suit