Tony watched the girl cross the park. She had a rucksack on her back and a sleeping bag bundled into the crook of one arm. She wore torn jeans and a battered brown leather jacket. Her pale blue eyes were huge in her thin, beautiful face.
Bill offered him a can, but Tony didn’t even look round. The girl walked easily, not made awkward by the pack on her back.
“Hey Bill,” Tony said, still staring. “You ever seen her before?”
“Huh!” Bill frowned as he rolled a spliff; he couldn’t really concentrate on more than one thing at a time.
“The girl, you know the girl?” Tony gestured with his can. Bill looked up.
“Na,” he said, with a shrug. “Hey Tone,” he went on. “It’s gonna t’be a cold one tonight, we should find somewhere to kip, somewhere warm?”
The girl slid from sight behind a screen of trees. The sky above was full of heavy, grey clouds and Tony’s breath steamed in the air. He was already numb from sitting on the cold park bench.
“A’right,” He said, “You got somewhere in mind?”
It was a spot at the back of the Royal Hotel, a grating just big enough for two. Hot air rushed out in streams, thawing Tony’s frozen fingers.
“So we’ll come back tonight,” Bill said, and then promptly went down the alley to pick up a stash of cardboard boxes and cover up the vent. “Don’t want anyone else finding our spot.”
As darkness fell, the coldness in the air grew; on windy corners it hurt to breathe. Tony realized he wasn’t wearing enough layers, but then you never had enough layers, not for this kind of cold. It seeped into you, sapping your strength, stealing your breath.
On St Savior’s Street, the doors of the church hall were open, sending light and warmth spilling out into the night. The Tuesday free food kitchen was the highlight of the week. The food was filling and hot and a few hours of warmth in the hall were worth the trek across town.
Tony glanced around. It was packed tonight.
Bill found some friends and went over to talk to them while Tony joined the queue for food. And suddenly there she was, the girl from the park, falling into line behind him. He smiled at her and she smiled back; she had pushed the hood from her head and soft brown dreads fell about her face. Tony felt himself flush.
“Hi,” He stuck out a hand, feeling awkward as a twelve-year-old boy, ‘I’m Tony.’
“Winter,” she replied, smiling up at him with wide, blue eyes darker than he remembered. Her fingers were warm against his and her pale face was flushed.
He smiled in return and stepped up in the queue.
They ate together, shepherd’s pie with peas and hot milky tea. She told him about coming down from the north, “Cos the big city’s warmer, innit?” And he told her about a summer spent picking fruit and hops in the West Country.
When it was time to leave, Bill was nowhere to be found. Tony wasn’t worried—the man had friends, and sometimes when he was with those friends, he’d forget his other friends. He waited by the door for Winter to get her stuff, his worn sleeping bag wrapped around him like a cloak.
They left together, stepping out in the chill, dark night through which soft white flakes of snow were starting to fall.
He took her to the vent. The lights of the hotel sparkled on the new snow. The boxes were still stacked in place; he shoved most of them aside, but saved a few for a mattress.
“This is lovely,” she said, as if he had brought her to a room inside the hotel. “I really like what you’ve done with the place.”
She sat huddled on top of her rucksack as he created the makeshift bed where they would sleep, hurrying against the wet snow that threatened to soak the cardboard. He laid their sleeping bags out neatly then stepped up to her and took her hand. She smiled; her fingers were as cold as the snow.
They lay down together wrapped in the sleeping bags, her head resting on his shoulder.
“You’re so warm,” she said.
Tony smiled. He hadn’t been this close to a woman in years; he didn’t like entanglements or complications.
Winter reached up and ran her cold fingers along the line of his jaw.
“You’ve been on the streets a long time, haven’t you, Tony.”
He nodded without speaking.
“You got family looking for you, an ex-wife or old girlfriend you still see?”
Was she jealous?
Winter smiled. “Well, I think you’re great Tony,” she said and she squirmed closer, her body warming at last where it pressed against his.
The hot air from the vent flooded over them as flakes of snow melted on their faces.
Tony closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of the heat spilling from his skin to hers. He fell asleep with Winter cradled in his arms.
When he woke some time later, she was still there, hot his chest, but he was cold. His fingers were numb, and his toes; he couldn’t feel his legs either. The cold flooded his lungs with each breath, eating into his skin beneath coat and sleeping bag. It was everywhere and he couldn’t fight it.
Winter lay on his chest like a lead weight.
Tony felt a swell of panic.
He could feel ice crusting his eyelids, frost sliding down his arms. Each breath burned. He tried to move, but couldn’t. He tried to scream but the voice on his lips was a chill mist.
Above him, the sky was ink black and devoid of stars.
Spider watched the flashing lights from the edge of the park. The sky was silver-grey and snow was falling again. Spider finished his fag and lit another; he chain smoked when he was nervous.
“Hey.” It was Kiki, just come in from his last john, “What’s this?”
“Police found a body by the Royal.” Spider stared at Kiki hard in the face. “It’s Tony Lloyd,” he said. “Bill’s gone to find out what happened.”
“Tony’s dead?” Kiki said.
Spider hadn’t really liked Tony, who had no time for the kids who worked the street. No, Tony was an old fashioned alcoholic and proud of it, too drunk most of the time to keep a house or hold down a job. Still, the brush with mortality was sobering. Spider had been out last night himself. It had been freezing.
Just as Spider was thinking it was time to move on, Bill appeared around the edge of the ambulance. He was pale and staggered as he walked—not drink this time, but grief.
“What happened,” Kiki called.
“The cold. He died of the damned cold!”
“But it doesn’t make sense,” Bill insisted. “He was on a vent; a real hot vent behind the hotel. Who dies of hypothermia while sleeping on a vent?”
“Maybe someone turned the heating off,” Kiki suggested.
Bill looked at him as if he was mad. “In the middle of winter?”
Bill turned to Spider as if to say ‘what is this guy thinking’, but Spider wasn’t really listening.
There was a girl crossing the park. She was moving briskly, rucksack on her back, sleeping bag in her arms. Her face was flushed with warmth, soft, brown dreads framing blue eyes. Her skin seemed to glow in the pale winter sunlight and he couldn’t stop staring.
She was beautiful.
—M E Rodman lives in Bristol, England, has a BA in Creative Writing and has been previously published in the anthologies Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion and A Picture’s Worth.