Home For Christmas
‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year!’
The music enveloped her briefly and she hummed a few bars of the festive tune before turning her attention to the Christmas tree, resplendent in the large alcove next to the chimney breast. It was a real tree – and absolutely huge – it nearly touched the decoratively architraved ceilings with its uppermost branch on the top of which a gold glittery angel perched bravely, overseeing the festivities below with a benevolent eye.
The tree was beautifully decorated, with gold and red baubles vying for prettiness against the gold and green lights which twinkled merrily in the semi lit room. Fat, round golden baubles, with a satin sheen reflected the glow from the lights perfectly. The tree was a myriad of loveliness, it’s gracious green boughs surely scented the room with the unmistakable and instantly recognisable spicy, pine aroma that brings to mind scenes just like this one with the tree overburdened with beauty, whilst an ever growing pile of gaily wrapped gifts, all shimmering golden and red – a forest of generosity for the inhabitants of the cosy room.
She eyed the fireplace. A magnificent fire burnt in the cast iron basket – eager, tawny and golden flames licked their way up the chimney and
if she inhaled very, very deeply she could almost smell the Applewood scent, drifting around the large yet homely living room with it’s fat, squashy velvet sofas, arranged in an L shape with three occasional tables each with a golden or red Christmas ornament adorning the polished wood surface. Two of the family members were draped lazily and gratefully over one of the sofas now – long legs stretched out towards the fire, warming thick sock clad toes. On one of the tables sat a platter containing a small mound of mince pies – inhaling again she imagined that she could smell the spicy, fruity mincemeat and her mouth watered at the idea of biting into the crumbly, soft gold pastry – her tongue savouring the flavours long after the Christmas decorations had been taken down. She loved mince pies.
The whole room seemed to be cast in a golden glow of merriment and warmth, redolent of Christmas, absolutely evocative of the season. The two chandeliers, with their crystal droplets reflected the sparkle of the gold and red decorations hung in swathes along the picture rail; fat bunches of holly and mistletoe dangled over the doorway leading into the parquet floored hallway, where yet another tree clamoured for attention; Christmas cards crowded the mantlepiece, jammed in between the tinsel swags and the large snow globe; golden candles flickered sending wild shadows reflecting up the pale green walls like Christmas ghosts hovering over the evening watching and waiting for a chance to appear. A bowl of tangerines and nuts on the side table beneath the huge bay window made her mouth water again. There was another bowl of golden wrapped chocolates on another table on the far side of the room. She heard someone shout above the music ‘Buffet’ and the occupants of the sofa rose languidly, carelessly throwing newspapers into a scrunched up pile on the velvet cushion. One patted his stomach in anticipation, or disbelieve at the growing paunch where once a set of six pack abdominal muscles sat. She imagined walking into Dining Room, where the buffet would be laid out on white clothed tables with silver and gold decorations mingling between platters displaying delicious finger foods. There would be a bowl filled with steaming hot soup, next to a pile of silver bowls and white napkins. Trifle, Biscuits, Christmas cake to round off the feast. Port and Brandy sat in crystal glasses lined up on top of the drinks cabinet with no worry of the polished wood surface being damaged by spillage. Her stomach rumbled as the last inhabitant of the golden room left and the distant music notes sing songed towards the window where she had taken a seat on the ledge.
She turned herself away and buried her hands deeper into her threadbare coat. It’s pockets were thin, and no protection against the bitterly cold frost which was settling it’s icy breath onto the streets, the trees, the cars and all those people who did not have a home this particular Christmas Eve. The pathways and pavements were coated with a thin film of frost, the light from the streetlamp making the icy dusting sparkle like diamonds, but she knew diamonds were hard and cold and that sleeping outside was going to make this Christmas Eve a long and ardous one.
The path was growing slippy as the temperature dropped quickly. She trod carefully in ill fitting shoes, which she had found to her great delight earlier that month – they were a size too small, but still, they were better than nothing, and she would have been reduced to nothing had she not found them because her old pair of shoes has literally fallen apart on her feet.
She cast a glimpse at the Christmas Eve sky and did not delight in the cloudless, starry sky. She did not stare eagerly between the constellations, searching for a Santa Claus who could not visit her because she did not have a chimney or a stocking hanging up over a festively decorated fireplace. Instead, one look at the clear indigo sky told her that it was going to be cold. Very cold.
The park was best avoided, already it was covered in a white blanket of frost; in the crisp chillness of the night, it looked cold and foreboding; it’s landscape no longer benevolent. It’s trees no longer friendly havens of shade from warm summer sunshine, instead they stood silent and menacing. Dark shadows waiting to envelope her into a neverland of cold and fear. The park was not the best place to be, despite the benches – though uncomfortable, better than a pavement. She resisted the lure of a surface not covered in the detritus of everyday life – the discarded Costa coffee cups; the fast food wrappers; the urine soaked newspapers gathered in the corner of the warmer shop doorways. She opted for the detritus. It was marginally safer than the park, anyway. She’d learnt that much.
Gathering her coat around her, and her sad little bundles of her life now- the few meagre blankets, the precious little food she’d managed to scrape together from department store cast offs, the one jumper with the hood – a hood! It provided so much warmth! She headed for town and for the doorways of the shops that hadn’t invested in homeless spikes to keep ‘the likes of her’ out. She slipped and skid along the now thickly iced pavements towards a doorway at the back of a store where once she’d spend money carelessly, randomly on things she wanted but didn’t need. She remembered, briefly, because it didn’t do to remember too much about the life she’d taken for granted before; she remembered shopping in this very shop. How she’d once been a valued customer instead of a nuisance the staff shooed away from the entrance. Which is why she went around the back – there was less chance of being moved on, even though the store would be closed on Christmas Day. People – the police, the store security, they didn’t want the homeless around the front of the shop.
Unpacking her few blankets to form a barrier between her and the bitterly ice cold stone step, she huddled herself into the darkest corner of the doorway, throwing her hooded jumper on over the coat, pulling up the hood. Her hair was streaky and lank, she felt it’s coarseness as she arranged the hood over her frozen ears. She pulled out every pair of socks she had left and put them over her bare hands – her gloves had gone missing one night while she’d slept. There may be honour amongst thieves, but other homeless did not possess the same morals. It was each to their own.
Wearily – the streets made her tired in a way previous activity never had. When you were homeless, where did you have to go? So she, along with the others, simply put one foot in front of the other, a daily trip to wherever her feet would carry her. To nowhere. Wearily, she sat down, pressing herself as far against the wall of the doorway as she could to try to remain invisible, anonymous. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself. The streets could be very unfriendly. It was a game played by people who had homes to go to – intimidating those who did not. She’d been verbally and physically abused whilst she was on the streets. She was lucky that the abuse so far had only taken the form of violent words and a few kicks and punches – like you would kick rubbish away from out of your path. She knew other people who’d not been so lucky. Sexual abuse, rape, was what she feared the most. However unattractive she might look now – and she rarely looked in a mirror to find out because she didn’t like the person who stared back at her – however dirty and dishevelled, however grimy and tacky she looked – there was always someone who had a home who would be willing to take her for granted. That being on the streets somehow made people who weren’t think that they had the right to take her sexual favours for granted. Whether she liked it or not. She knew of women who this had happened to. She didn’t want to be one of them.
Sleep overtook fear as she drifted into a cold, uneasy slumber. She wasn’t asleep – she supposed she was dozing – because there was always a part of her that was alert, ready to take flight, ready to leap up and grab her ragged bundle of what she had left and run. Run as fast as ill fitting shoes and a diet of fresh air and other people’s leftovers would allow her to move.
The sound of voices, of movement alerted her moments later and her eyes snapped awake – fully awake. She pressed herself against the cold wall and shivered. She could see her breath in front of her and she tried to keep as still and quiet as she possibly could. Laughter, and the sound of cans and bottles being discarded thoughtlessly, kicked across the street. Shouts. She sat in quiet terror, waiting for the half dozen or so figures to move on. They didn’t. One of them moved towards the doorway, unzipping trousers advising his companions that he was taking a whizz. The smell of warm urine hit her quivering nostrils. Repulsed, she watched a tiny stream trickle towards her blankets. She willed herself not to react as she wanted to – to snatch the blanket out of the way, so her few possessions wouldn’t smell of a strangers’ body waste. She clamped her mouth shut tight and fought not to breath as the man leant heavily against the opposite corner of the doorway, clearly drunk, he staggered away zipping up his trousers. He ran, slipped on the icy pavement, steadied himself and shouted ‘Hey, you bastards, wait for me… I want to get home for Christmas too, you muppets’.
Home for Christmas.
The words formed a sad, lonely loop in her head as she gathered up her belongings. Now that her doorway was covered in urine, she would have to move.
Home for Christmas.
She shivered into the frozen night air, and stumbled on the diamond frost covered pathway around to the front of the building. She found a vacant doorway. If someone was already there, you didn’t intrude. That was their home for Christmas.
This vacant doorway was hers.
© Amy J Steinberg 2017
Footnote – On any one night in 2016, it was estimated that 4,134 people slept rough. Rough sleeping figures (these are not Homeless Statistics – just people on the streets on any one night of the year) have increased every year since 2010 – the biggest upward surge being in 2015 which co-incided neatly with the Universal Credit roll out which began to effect new caimants.
The 1996 Housing Act (as Amended by the 2002 Homeless Act) states that local authorities have duties towards homeless people, however, in order for the local authorities to fulfil that duty, a homeless applicant for housing has to meet strict ‘homeless criteria’ in order to be considered eligible. This is how people remain on the streets – because they do not meet all the criteria – a woman who has fled an abusive relationship, for instance, could be accused of making herself deliberately homeless by fleeing domestic violence. Quite often, homeless people find themselves in a catch 22 – and still on the streets.
Over 4,000 people a night sleeping rough. One thing is for sure, for those who are part of that statistic, it won’t be a very Merry Christmas.