A Hot Coffee, a short story for Christmas by Liz McSkeane

A woman’s routine of a coffee and bagel is challenged by a beggar pricking her conscience

Liz McSkeane’s  first collection of short stories, Lessons, will be published by Turas Press next summer.

Liz McSkeane’s first collection of short stories, Lessons, will be published by Turas Press next summer.

 

Whenever she visits her favourite coffee shop, every second day perhaps, she sees him sitting there in all weathers. On this day, a week before Christmas, he is occupying his usual space on the pavement beside the door of the cafe, close enough to be visible to passers-by but not so near as to be seen through the plate-glass window, lest he bother the customers or the proprietor inside.

For the last couple of weeks, part of the forecourt of the shopping centre has been roped off to create a little market area where two men operating out of a temporary Portakabin are doing a roaring trade in pine trees from the Dublin mountains, going for €60 a pop. The spot occupied by the homeless man, if he is homeless, is a few paces behind them. He is wrapped in an old sleeping bag, a woollen hat covers his head, one gloveless hand extends an empty paper cup to the people who are contemplating the Christmas trees or the shoppers passing by.

The day is dry and bright and very cold. There is talk of a yellow snow warning. Shivering, she hurries from her car to the cosy cafe and breathes in the scent of Fairtrade coffee and hot cinnamon rolls. Happy to see that her usual table is unoccupied, she places her bag on the seat before joining the queue (which she really shouldn’t do) to give her usual order: an americano and a toasted bagel. As she taps her card to pay, the amount debited from her account flashes up on the screen. At the same moment, an image of the man sitting on the pavement outside flashes into her mind’s eye.

Many years before, one of her old friends used to scoff at people who gave money to charities or even a few coins to a beggar on the street. Not because the needy were undeserving. But the main effect, he insisted, indeed the purpose, of handing over money was to make the donor feel better. It changed nothing. In fact, it made things worse, as it papered over the cracks, delayed the moment when the beggar would wake up to the structural oppression that put him on the street, and rebel. If you wanted to support a just revolution for a fair society where nobody lived in poverty, you had to ignore the individual beggar on the street.

That is not the reason she so rarely responds to the frequent requests for change, or a few coppers for a hostel, or the silent pleas on makeshift cardboard notices it’s impossible to avoid if you walk around the city – I am hungry. Of course it isn’t. But there are so many people living such desperate lives. And on the few occasions when she has yielded to the urge to stop, place a few coins into an outstretched hand or cup, the warm glow of having done a good thing never lasts long. Sometimes, it doesn’t come at all and when it does, it is accompanied by a sinking feeling that she has not yet been able to identify. How much difference would her few coins make anyway? And was he even a real beggar? You just never knew.

Plus, if you stopped to give money to one homeless person, the impulse to stop for the next person in need and then the next, would be that much stronger. If you give to one person, why not to another? Why not to everyone? Who is to say that this particular man, sitting on a freezing pavement in December, has a greater claim on her generosity than anyone else, by virtue of a simple accident of location, that his patch happens to be on her way to her favourite cafe?

But today, none of this seems to matter. The usual reservations about what he may or may not do with any hypothetical coins she might place in that cup, spend it on drink or drugs and so on, have faded in a haze of Christmas lights, music, a bright blue sky, the scent of pine needles. All there is here, now, is a poor man wrapped in an old sleeping bag in the freezing cold, and although hidden from her line of sight, as she turns from the counter to carry her bagel and coffee to her special table his image rises before her as vividly as though he were right in front of her.

Why has he not faded into the background in the usual way? She has passed by him many times in recent months, every second or third day on her way to the cafe. This identifies her, she has just realised, as a person who has the means to spend small sums of money on a regular basis, so much per week, per month, per year, on non-essential treats. This all adds up to a significant amount, perhaps even enough, the involuntary, intrusive calculations conclude, to pay for this man’s food for several weeks or more.

Even more disconcerting is a growing sense of acquaintance. Although she has never spoken or even nodded to him, the familiarity of his presence has started to give her the sense that she knows him, not personally, but rather in the way you know someone you often see walking their dog, a person with whom you might pass the time of day without wanting to get into a conversation. And along with this false sense of familiarity arises a growing impulse, which she has so far resisted, to greet him in some way, perhaps with a nod or a smile. In fact, if she is honest, the routine of passing him several days of every week without acknowledging his presence has become a bit of an effort.

She does not have to step over or even around him, to reach the door of the cafe. But she does have to walk by him and that is almost as bad. Today, as she herself shivered on the short walk from her warm car to the cosy cafe, she had to make a conscious effort to look straight ahead and not down, lest her eyes might meet his.

From his features and demeanour, she surmises that he could be a foreigner, possibly from a particular ethnic group which is easily recognised by a mode of dress, especially of the women, who wear long, voluminous skirts and shawls. Some commentators claim that they are part of an extensive, well-organised network which is expanded from time to time when reinforcements are flown in from their country of origin to prey on the generosity of the gullible Irish and funnel their takings to the Mister Bigs, the Godfathers who employ them. So, not real beggars. Professionals, for whom begging is a job.

But even if that is all true, and who knows whether it is or if these are just stories made up to discourage people from handing over money and making it too much worth their while to sit on Irish streets and yes, there may be something in it but on this bright winter’s day, a yellow snow warning just announced, the one indisputable fact is that that a person, not young, is sitting on the freezing pavement wrapped in an old sleeping bag, one outstretched hand clutching his empty paper cup.

As she places her coffee and bagel on her special table, she thinks of the few euro she has just spent that could have gone into that paper cup, of the hours that the beggar, professional or otherwise, has been sitting there and the many more hours that he will spend there until the light fades. This is the moment, before she sits down. She must either take off her coat and get settled, or just do it. She is hot with embarrassment.

The air outside is so sharp, her eyes blink and her cheeks sting. She leans forward and places a few coins in the paper cup.

“Can I get you a hot drink?”

He does not seem surprised. “Thank you.”

“What kind?”

“A cappuccino. Two sugars.”

In the brief interlude since she abandoned her own coffee and bagel, a noisy crowd has pushed in. Of course she has to queue again to order the homeless man’s cappuccino. This annoying wait leaves time for troubling thoughts to intrude. Is she being scammed? Is he really an employee of a sinister Mr Big? One of the coffee machines must be giving trouble or perhaps the two harried baristas are having trouble coping with a string of lattes and yes, cappuccinos and other complicated variations on the simple coffee. Whatever the cause, her precious 20 minutes’ break are slipping away, her own americano must be tepid and her toasted bagel will be stone cold by the time she gets back to it.

The extended delay is giving her too much time to think. The baristas and the proprietor might not appreciate her encouraging a beggar to continue squatting at their door. Even worse, it occurs to her that she may have set some kind of precedent. Now that they have spoken, now that she has put a few coins in his paper cup, now that she has invited him to have a hot coffee, they are no longer complete strangers. Not acquaintances either, of course, but somewhere on the edge between knowing and not knowing. And there will be other days, many of them stretching far into the future, when she will walk along the same shopping centre forecourt as she makes her way to take her morning or afternoon break. It now seems unthinkable that she would walk past him without giving some sign of recognition or acknowledgment.

She wonders if she has now committed herself, assumed some degree of responsibility for him, however small, even if only to extend a greeting. Would he, for example, expect a few coins from her, a hot drink, every time their paths crossed? Would she expect it herself? And if not, why not? It’s due to freeze tonight, the temperature will plunge below zero, snow is on the way. If he is found dead on the pavement in the morning, it happens, people have died in doorways in this city, will I tell myself, at least I bought him a hot coffee? Will I think, all I did was buy him a hot coffee?

And if these questions apply to this particular man who, after all, she has walked past many, many times and who, for reasons she does not understand, has now stepped out from behind the cloak of invisibility which had obscured him until today, then should she not be asking the same questions about all the others, people huddled in doorways and living in cardboard boxes throughout the city, all over the world? An accident of location and habit has placed this man right in front of her. Something, perhaps a change in the temperature or some change in herself, has jolted her into becoming fully aware of him. Surely, then, all others suffering the same plight deserve the same attention, if not from her, then from someone.

“It’s very cold today,” she says, handing him the coffee.

“Yes,” he smiles.

When you delve into it, really try to unravel the web of actions and consequences and origins, this life of mine – my warm coat, my cheap food, my car, my mobile phone – all my comforts, are purchased at the expense of this man and others like him. Of course, she herself hasn’t taken anything away from this particular person, nor from anyone else, not directly. But the vastness of the distance between where actions begin and their consequences are felt, the absence of a visible link, a one-to-one correspondence between cause and effect, between the wealth of her life and the poverty of his, doesn’t mean the connection isn’t real. The only reason she is here, handing this person a Fairtrade coffee in a recyclable cup, is because he is there.

Her toasted bagel has indeed gone cold. She spreads a low-fat butter substitute on it anyway. For those who don’t have the energy left to organise, make demands, rebel, not even against their own Mister Bigs who take the proceeds of their days out in the rain, in the cold, sitting on pavements, docility must be a necessary condition for survival.

If only she had never thought of that hot coffee.

For the next few days, she takes her break elsewhere. When she does go back to her favourite café, she makes a point of going a little later than usual. Getting out of the car, she catches a glimpse of him through the pine trees that crowd the forecourt in front of his patch, filling the air with their sweet, green scent. He is sitting in his usual spot, wrapped in the same sleeping bag, holding out his paper cup, as though he hasn’t moved for the last three days. It is so cold, her breath freezes on the air. She zips her puffa coat right up to the collar so that it covers the lower part of her face. When she approaches, he doesn’t look up. She doesn’t look down. It is hard to walk past, eyes straight ahead, without wavering, much harder than it used to be, but she manages it.
Liz McSkeane is a writer and publisher. Her debut novel, Canticle, was joint winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair and she won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award for her poetry. Her publications include one novel and four books of poetry. Her first collection of short stories, Lessons, will be published by Turas Press in summer, 2022.

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