Flash fiction – 498 words
The old man shuffled into the food court. His feet barely left the ground, as if he was scared that lifting a foot would cause him to float away and join the bright red balloon, escaped from a child’s hand, thumping madly on the glass ceiling.
Rain hammered and thunder rumbled deep, loud, and long. The rattling cups and saucers and rocking tables were a vivid testament to nature’s violence.
The man’s grey woollen jumper and dirty black jeans were soaked. His thinning hair, plastered to his head, revealed the stark outline of his skull. His sunken dark-rimmed eyes, staring fixedly at the ground, contributed to his skeletal appearance.
People were careful not to touch him as he shambled along leaving a puddle trail as he walked. Sean watched him reach the seated area and drop heavily into a chair.
It wasn’t long before a security guard approached. Sean imagined the one-sided conversation. He’d heard it himself plenty of times when he was homeless and needed a place to sit for just a few minutes.
“You can’t sit here if you’re not eating or drinking,” the security guard would say. “You have to buy something or move along.”
“Excuse me a minute,” Sean said to his next customer.
He put a slice of apple pie on a plate, carried it over, and set it in front of the man.
“Here you go, sir. Sorry for the wait.”
The man looked up, a mix of confusion and relief on his face. Sean thought he was going to cry but he didn’t.
“Your coffee will be just a few minutes,” Sean said. The security guard frowned and stalked off.
Sean finished serving his waiting customers then measured out more coffee. As the coffee brewed, he watched the man tear roughly at the pie but elegantly place a small piece into his mouth, before chewing slowly. The contrast between the wanton destruction of the pie and the need to appear civilised was familiar to Sean. He knew how easy it could be to feel less than human when you were at your absolute lowest.
Sean returned to the table with two cups. He put one down in front of the man, then sat beside him. The man wrapped his hands around the hot cup and steam rose from his wet grey gloves.
They sat there in silence, sipping coffee and listening to the raging storm. The man stopped shivering and closed his eyes and Sean went back to work.
It was still raining heavily when Sean finished for the day. The man was standing just inside the doorway leading from the food court to the outside. He was watching the water cascade down the glass door.
Sean stopped, shucked off his heavy winter coat, and put it around the man’s shoulders. He forced his umbrella into the man’s hand, smiled, pushed the door open and ran for his bus knowing it was the small kindnesses that could make all the difference.