It was evening on a cold, windy New Year’s Eve as Stephen Stein made his way along the drab downtown high street. There were few people about and the shops were closing or closed. He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in a dark store window. A wild mop of straggly grey hair, a thick beard of matching grey with touches of white, a black greatcoat, stained and smelly, and heavy brown boots, scuffed by hundreds of hours of tramping the streets.
Stein adjusted an incongruous chequered yellow scarf at his neck, brand new, it even had the price tag – thirty pounds. He’d found it in a bin, put out for collection. Now he rolled it and put it in a pocket in case someone had second thoughts and came looking for it.
“Hi Stevie boy, Happy New Year!” It was Robbie, the owner of the laundromat, a genuinely kind-hearted guy and one of the only people in this small town full of small-minded people who’d give him the time of day.
Stein pulled his gaze away from the window and his eyes glinted at the twenty-pound note held out to him.
“Get yourself some whisky on me.”
Stein felt a stab of excitement mixed with desperation as his nicotine-stained fingers reached out for the money. “Thanks, Robbie, that’s real kind of you, man.”
“Look, Stevie, I’ve gotta rush, Maggie and me, we’re going out tonight. Celebrating, though to tell the truth I’d rather be at home, seeing the new year in with the TV and a few cans. But, well, you know Maggie ….” He patted Stein’s shoulder, reminding himself to wash his hands when he got back. “Take care, Stevie.” With that he was gone, as if he’d evaporated into the cold air.
Stein eyed the illuminated yellow sign in the distance and began to shuffle in its direction. His thoughts brightened at the bottle he would buy, anticipating the smell of whisky, the burn of alcohol on his tongue, and oblivion in his pit under the cold, concrete steps to a car park he called home.
He put his hand on the door, excited now by the sight of the lighted, bottle-full window, when he felt a hand on his arm. He looked up in surprise at a young man in a smart grey suit. “Hey, what?”
“Hi, my name’s John. John Diamond. Looks like you could use some help, buddy.”
Stein’s bloodshot eyes scoured Diamond’s fresh face. Why, he couldn’t be more than thirty. Just a kid. “What’s it to you?”
“Well, look, buddy, it’s none of my business but you look, well, rough, if I may say so.”
Stein coughed. “Well, I’ve had it tough, man. It ain’t easy ….”
“Listen, buddy, ever thought of turning your life around, getting smartened up, getting a job, earning money instead of dossing on the street and living on handouts?”
“All the time, now if you don’t mind.” He turned back to the door of the liquor store.
Diamond clutched his sleeve. “Listen, I know someone who can help you. Just the man to get you back on your feet, give you pride in yourself again!”
Stein rubbed his grizzled beard. “OK, where do I find him? Maybe I’ll look him up sometime.”
Diamond tugged Stein’s arm gently. “Why not now? It’s New Year’s Eve. Time for a new start!”
Stein’s mouth was dry and the whisky seemed so close but so far. “Well, where is this guy?”
“Follow me, he’s just down the street, in the Mellor building.”
“Why, that’s a big shot office building.”
Diamond smiled. “It’s OK, I’ve got a key. I’m the general manager there.”
Stein looked around in awe at the leather sofas and chairs inside the huge lobby. Man, imagine being able to sleep there in the warmth tonight!
Diamond gestured to a lift. “It’s upstairs.”
Stein got in, fingering the twenty-pound note in his pocket. He hoped this wouldn’t take long. But well, maybe this guy, whoever he was, could help? Maybe fix him up with somewhere to sleep? Maybe even give him some smokes?
Diamond chatted pleasantly as they went up several floors, then down corridor after corridor until they reached an office door.
“This guy work late, then?” Stein asked.
Diamond smiled. “He sure does.” He opened the door into a reception area with a red corner sofa. He sat down and gestured to a door. “He’s in there, behind the curtain. I’ll wait here for you. I’m in no hurry.”
Stein went through the door into a lighted passageway. Sure enough, there was a heavy brown curtain at the far end, but what the hell was the guy doing here at this hour? “Hi, good evening, I’m Stevie Stein, John Diamond told me to come and see you.” He pulled the curtain back and stood, horrified. He looked and he stared and tears began to streak his dirty cheeks as the penny dropped. His shoulders heaved as he sobbed like the lost soul he realised he was.
Stein pushed the liquor store door open. He recognised Jake behind the counter. He wasn’t unfriendly, an OK guy.
“Hi Stevie, what’ll you have?”
Stein felt a little embarrassed. “Jake, your wife, Bella, she cuts hair, doesn’t she?”
Jake looked surprised. “Sure she does, runs the best hairdressers in town!”
Stein held out the twenty. “Look, man, I know it’s New Year and all that, but would she … would she … tidy me up, you know, cut … this?” He ran dirty fingers through his grizzled hair.
Jake smiled. “Why, I guess so, but it’s New Year’s Eve! Why the sea change?”
Stein cleared his throat. “Well, tell you the truth, John Diamond was here, took me to see someone. Someone I should’ve seen a long time ago.”
“The manager of the Mellor building. Young guy, thirty maybe.”
Jake seemed surprised. “Manager of Mellor’s is old Andy McCarthy, he’s retiring soon. There ain’t no John Diamond there. Not that I know of.” He took down a bottle of Jim Beam. “Here you are, Stevie, on the house. But I’ll take the twenty and Bella will see you tomorrow at ten. She’ll open up just for you.” He smiled. “Don’t be late!”
“I won’t, and thank you, Jake, you’re a good guy.”
“You take care now, and Happy New Year.”
Stephen Stein shuffled down the street but there was a lightness in his shuffle. He thought of John Diamond and the man in the mirror. That man was gone. Change could only come from within. He tossed the whisky into a waste paper bin.
Taken from the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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