Traffic Lights

The first snow of the season arrived as the last of the year’s leaves still clung to the nearly naked trees. Their golden yellow autumn hue finally giving way to brown. The blue skies of late September and early October were now hidden behind a thick covering of dark, murky grey.  As Jay, the social worker, walked from the office, to his car, he realised he pulled his coat collars up around his ears, feeling the bitter bite of the temperatures dropping.  The wind had dropped, and the snow started, in sloppy, wet splodges on his windscreen, as he made it to his car and set off home

He reached the first set of traffic lights just a fraction too late, they’d turned red.  Jay groaned inwardly at the extra delay between him and his tea.  He started to flick through the car phone so he could ring his partner and check that the oven was on when an unexpected tap at the window made him jump.  There was a man, holding a cup which had in the bottom of it a single 2 pence piece along with the remnants of a drink. Jay didn’t have any change.  Feeling awkward, he gave a sympathetic shrug of the shoulder and the pulled face of a liberal trying to convey the message that ‘I am really sorry that you are doing this and that I don’t have any change but that I am a nice person and that hey, I am a social worker and on your side’. The lights turned to green and with the impatient blast of a car horn behind him, Jay was jolted from the uncomfortableness of the moment, rescued from having to deal with the disappointed reaction to his poor brush-off. Full of liberal guilt, he drove off.  After his tea, once he’d settled for the night, he watched Newsnight. The programme had a special feature on rising homelessness and poverty associated with changes to Universal Credit.  He enjoyed talking the politics of it with his partner.

The man at the traffic lights stepped back quickly as Jay drove off.  The slushy snow was making the road treacherously slippy.  Jay’s panicked acceleration had sprayed up a shower of wet, brown muck leaving his legs spattered in damp which it would be difficult to dry off.  He stayed by the lights for over an hour, begging for small change.  Most ignored him.  Studiously staring forwards rather than make any eye contact.  Some, like Jay, awkwardly looked at him but then tried to apologise for not opening the window.  Two were kind. They threw him some change.  That would be enough to get a hot drink in the morning.  As the traffic died down, and the snow fall increased, he decided to try and find some shelter.

The multi-story car park stairwell stank, urine and other, more musty smells.  But it was out of the snow, and the body heat from more people joining him, seeking refuge and the collective street safety of others, meant it gave some respite.  He pulled the banket around him tighter.  He’d got a new one today from the foodbank near the church.  It itched, but it didn’t have holes in it, and it smelt clean.  He shivered as he tried to sleep.  But he was hungry and it was bitterly cold.  His chest rattled as he breathed.  He had been feeling a unwell these last few days. 

Jay spotted the police chatting to the car park attendant as he drove into the multi-story that next morning.  As a social worker he was naturally nosy, so he asked if everything was OK.  ‘unknown man found dead in the stairwell, no suspicious circumstances’ was the response. The tone was unemotional. Jay raised his eyebrows. For a moment, he saw the face at his car window from the previous evening’s drive home. Then the passing moment ended and he made a decision between Costa, Greggs, Nero and Starbucks as to which one he wanted to make him a morning coffee.

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