This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1670 words.
Steve liked to sit in the gap at the side of the steps. The spot gave him some protection from the wind, and the slight overhang above kept off the worst of the rain too. People hurried back and forth to and from this access to the bridge, and paid him no heed. The police rarely appeared, and it seemed that there was nobody to complain about him sleeping there. A small opening under the old stone steps provided the perfect place for him to store his sheets of cardboard, and the rolled-up sleeping bag. For almost a year now, this had been his small oasis, in a city full of rough sleepers. The sound of the traffic on the bridge above lulled him to sleep, and the subdued lighting along the riverside path was not too intrusive.
Steve noticed her red shoes first. Bright, poppy-red, against the dark grey worn stonework. His back against the wall, he watched as the colourful flowery dress appeared, a bright contrast against the dull evening gloom. Her hair was jet black, and shining in the reflections from the lamps by the river. The shoulder bag matched her shoes, swinging gently as she walked off along the path. The scent of her perfume came to him on the stiff breeze, as her heels clicked on the cobbles, like the sound of a horse trotting in the distance. A woman dressed for summer, in late November. Steve retrieved his bedding from the opening, and prepared to settle down for the night.
It must have been two nights later, perhaps three, when Steve heard that distinctive sound again. Muffled by the fog lingering over the Thames, it was hard to make out where it was coming from. He leaned forward, turning his head to look up the steps. But she appeared from the mist right in front of him, facing him this time; heading for the steps, not away from them. He was startled, and felt silly at his alarm. The same colourful dress, shoulder bag, and shoes. The perfume now overwhelming, close up. Steve smiled as she came closer, chancing a friendly nod too. But she carried on as if she couldn’t see him, and headed up the steps without hesitating.
Rolling a cigarette, Steve stretched his legs out inside the tattered sleeping bag. Thinking of the woman, he suddenly realised that he hadn’t been able to make out her face. Was she young, or old? Pretty or plain? Pale skinned, or swarthy? Perhaps it was the fog, or the unexpected speed of her approach, but he had no memory of a single feature. One thing was certain. She must have been cold, wearing that summer dress.
As the winter arrived in earnest, Steve dreaded the coming Christmas season. Revellers walking along the embankment, other people heading to the train stations in the capital, off to spend time with family and friends. He had manged to get hold of two extra heavy coats, and would wear them both at night. At least he would be warm enough, as long as the rain held off.
The familiar sound woke him from a troubled sleep. The click-clack of heels, coming down the steps this time. Sure enough, he could make out the red shoes in the gloom, and soon got a whiff of that heavy perfume. As the familiar dress appeared, he did something out of character. Quickly struggling with the zip of the sleeping bag, he freed himself from the bedding, and stood up. He felt an overwhelming need to follow her, although he didn’t know why. By the time he started walking, he could no longer see her in the distance. But he could make out the sound of the heels on the cobbled surface. He quickened his pace, and finally caught sight of her up ahead, walking purposefully next to the riverside wall. He got close enough to see her hair, wavy and deliberately styled, still shining as before. He walked faster, wondering what to say to her, watching his arm extend to touch her shoulder, as if doing so of its own accord.
Then she was gone. As his arm reached out, she just vanished into the gloom, the sound of the heels stopping, the smell of the perfume not lingering in the air. Steve looked around. There was no other path, nowhere to turn off to, no seat to sit on, or steps leading up to the street above. He grinned, feeling silly again. It must have been his imagination, that was the only explanation.
Over the next few days, leading up to the dismal prospect of the 25th, he found himself waiting for her. Arriving early at his spot, he listened for every sound of clicking heels, his neck craning up the steps, hoping to see those red shoes, and colourful dress. But there were no red shoes, no strong perfume, and no shining black wavy hair. Steve knew a place where he could get a nice dinner on the day. The same charity provided a seasonal meal for people like him every year. They would sing carols, give out paper hats, and even small gifts of warm socks and hats. Like last year, he would go there again. A few hours in society would be just enough, and the hot food would be welcome.
Back under the steps, he felt full for the first time in ages. He had a new hat, and they had filled his flask with tea before he left. A kindly old lady had told him he could stay if he wished, they had mattresses on the floor. Steve had thanked her, telling her he had somewhere he had to be. Christmas night by the river, the area deserted and peaceful, cold and clear.
For some reason, he decided not to get into the sleeping bag. He had a strange feeling that he couldn’t put his finger on, and he was soon proved right. She was walking straight at him this time, and he was sure she would notice him. He would say something. ‘Merry Christmas’ would be acceptable, given the time of year. Her lipstick was as bright as her shoes, her face pale, from what looked like an application of heavy powder. The wavy hair obscured one eye, but above the other one, the eyebrow was thin, and darkly outlined. The bright dress was longer than he remembered, and as she mounted the first step, he could see that she was wearing old-style stockings, the kind with a seam up the back. Steve stood up.
She carried on walking up the steps without replying. She hadn’t even looked in his direction, or acknowledged his presence. For a moment, he was crestfallen. But what had he expected? Why would this woman have bothered to enter into conversation with a shabby homeless man anyway? The perfume pricked his nostrils, and he started off up the steps after her, still unsure what to say when he caught up.
At the top of the steps, the bridge seemed unusually busy. He twisted and turned to avoid the people walking along in both directions, and noticed the cars and buses in the long line of static traffic. There were lots of old cars, and the buses looked different too. Perhaps they were filming something? Steve got over against the balustrade of the bridge away from the bustle on the pavement. Looking right and left, he spotted the woman standing at the far end. She was lighting a cigarette, and casting around as if expecting someone. Could she be waiting for me? Steve thought that was unlikely. It was unusually warm on the bridge, and he unzipped the heavy top coat, before pulling off the woolen hat. A man walked past in a short-sleeved shirt, holding the hand of a small boy, who was wearing shorts.
Taking off the second coat, he walked in the direction of the woman. His shoes felt suddenly tight, and looking down, he didn’t recognise the smart black lace-ups on his feet. He felt very hot, and ran a finger around his neck, amazed to discover that he was wearing a collar and tie. That stopped him in his tracks. Where had his clothes gone? The track suit trousers he had been wearing were now smartly pressed khaki, and the matching jacket tightly buttoned, with a leather belt around the waist. On the left hand side of his jacket, a medal glinted in the light from the lamps on the bridge. Steve found it hard to breathe. He ran a hand through his hair, dislodging a smart cap, with a shiny black peak. His hair was no longer long and unkempt, but neatly trimmed, with something oily in it. He stood still, transfixed on the moment.
Her voice was louder than he had expected it to be, and her smile wider than he could have imagined. Her accent was harsh, local, very London. “Where you been? I’ve been waiting for you I have. I don’t know, keeping a girl waiting. I thought you was a gentleman”. She leaned forward and kissed him, smelling of that same perfume, and tasting of tobacco. It was a perfect kiss.
The two men in yellow jackets were wandering along the embankment. One of them was pushing a large open cart, and the other was throwing things into it. Discarded water bottles, sheets of cardboard, empty cider and wine bottles. Every now and again, the council cleaned up the area, especially when the Christmas holidays gave them the chance to work unhindered by pedestrians. The man pushing the cart pointed at a small opening by the gap under the stairs to the bridge. His overweight and tired-looking colleague reached in, removing a tattered sleeping bag, a shiny chrome flask, and three large sheets of cardboard. He threw the rubbish into the cart, and they carried on walking.
My thanks to Sarah Vernon for the prompt, and the photo.