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by Linda Woodhams

A crumpled man sleeps alone in the dark shadows warmed by the city’s wealth. Each day at dawn he stretches his neck skyward to check that the Shard still stands proud and dominant in the sky. Yesterday had been unsettling. He’d cowered and watched from his cardboard home as the triangular peak floundered and wobbled with the passing clouds. On windy days he imagines the foundations shuffle, as if in sympathy with the overfull Northern Line trains beneath. As its self-appointed, unpaid keeper, he is concerned for the welfare of the building. The security guards look bored and blasé, he believes they depend on his support. He stares with anxious eyes at the daily queues that jostle and push. Hundreds come to visit, but they haven’t seen it grow, step by step, inch by inch, as he has. He still marvels at the ingenuity of mankind, this destitute watchman of the third age.

A woman watches him from a window seat in a fashionable wine bar; too early for alcohol, she grasps a cappuccino in both hands. A friend had told her where he could be found. Rubbing at the steamy windowpane, she licks her finger and draws a window in the glass for a clearer view. She recognises him at once. He’s shuffling around in that old grey coat, slightly round shouldered as always, although he’s become more so. She pictures his coat as it once hung by the front door, a soldier’s greatcoat ready to battle with the daily commute. She remembers being with him when he bought it and is surprised he still wears it. But that was before. That was when he had a respectable job with a team of city architects, before that young upstart arrived fresh from university and stole his precious job. And that was before he disappeared, unable to stand the shame of being “let go”. She looks at him now and sees that, yes, he has definitely been “let go”.

Her eyes leak a little sorrow and her empty cup cries “it’s not fair”. He continues to look skyward. Ever curious, she thinks with a wry smile. He glances in her direction and recoils. She wonders if he’s recognised her, but they both look away, not daring to hope.

She stabs at the bowl of glittering sugar cubes with her shiny spoon. What could she say to make things better? She doesn’t want him back, just wants to know he’s safe. And she has to consider the children. What could she say to them? This is what your father has become. Are you still proud to be his son?

“He’s a poor old sod, isn’t he?” The barista stands behind her, staring out and nodding towards the man. “We usually take him a sandwich or something around this time.” She turns to him, forcing a grateful smile. “Oh, that’s very kind of you,” she says. “He is now, yes. But it wasn’t always so, you know. It wasn’t always so.”

Linda Woodhams is a retired teacher, recently moved from London to Worcestershire, UK. Married with two grown sons, she is currently editing her first novel and enjoying writing short stories and flash fiction. She’s had one short story published by Black Pear Press and flash fiction longlisted by Retreat West.