My Winter Competition Entry 2009.
This is a contest entry. Only judges are asked to rate this story until after January 4th. Judges, please make Nick's job easier by remembering to leave a comment alongside your rating.
Toby Davenport was a man I met just one time, but on that freezing December night, he quite literally saved my life. And from what other people have told me, I'm not the only one.
I can remember how my breath clouded the air in front of my face, and how cold the iron barriers of the bridge felt against my shaking hands. I can remember how dark the water looked in the starless night, swirling, daring me to jump, to give up and end it all.
And I nearly did. Hanging on to the closest lamp post, I climbed the balustrade as carefully as possible. Things had to end on my terms, and I couldn't do that if I fell.
I took a deep breath, and bent my knees, wondering briefly if things would be easier if I took my coat off. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I turned to throw it back onto the sidewalk. I figured someone could make use of it.
Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a man appeared underneath the next street light. He was the scruffiest looking man I'd ever seen, unshaven, and unclean. When he smiled I saw that he was missing a couple of teeth. It confused me as to where he had come from; it was a long bridge, and the crunching of the snow should have alerted me to his presence.
"Don't you want that anymore?" He said to me, pointing at my discarded coat. I shook my head.
"Won't be needing it where I'm going."
"Where are you going?" His look was suspicious. "I hope you aren't going to do anything silly." While he had been talking, he'd edged closer toward me, closer toward my coat. I wasn't sure which one of us he was going for. I chuckled loudly at him, aware of the slightly hysterical note in my tone.
"Now, why would you think that? Staying there would be the silly choice." I gestured to the city lights on the far side of the river. "This makes perfect sense to me." I muttered to myself. When I looked back he was standing directly behind me. Suddenly, his hand shot out and hooked itself around my wrist, sending me crashing onto dry land.
"Don't be so damn stupid." He snarled at me, his face inches from mine. I tried to get back up, but he shoved my chest ,burying me deeper into the snow.
"As if you'd understand." I grumbled to myself like a sulking child. I'm not particularly proud of everything I said or tried to do on that night, but it needs to be told. "You don't know anything about me."
"That's exactly right, lad." He nodded, throwing my coat back into my face. "But you don't know anything about me either. Get up, we're going for a walk."
To this day, I still have no idea why I decided to follow this complete stranger into the down town area. A man I'd never seen before, and as he'd said, a man I didn't know anything about. However there was something about his tone, the confident way in which he held himself, in which he spoke to me, that made me feel like I had to see what he had to show, like it wasn't even my choice.
As we trudged along, I quickly became grateful he had given me my coat back; it was freezing. Still,the brisk pace and the barrage of questions on his part barely had me thinking about the cold. Query after query he fired in my direction, where I worked, whether I had family. In return, I explained everything about my life that he wanted to know. I told him how sure I had been it was me that was about the get the big promotion at work, but instead I'd been fired, and how because of that, my wife had left me, and taken the kids with her. Not once did he interrupt me; instead he waited until I had finished, and then asked more questions. I'm not sure how long or how far we walked, but eventually we came to a large disused warehouse.
"In you go, lad." He said, holding the door open for me. "See what you think about this."
There must have been twenty or thirty people inside that warehouse, each and everyone of them working, or helping out in some way. There were fires set up all over the place, each one roasting something. Men and women were cleaning pots and plates in a bath that had been set up underneath some water pipes, and then passing them to whoever was cooking so that food could be set out onto tables of various different shapes and sizes.
It was one of the closest-knit communities I had ever seen. But what amazed me the most was how happy these people seemed. I stood in the doorway, agape, as the man walked past me, and began greeting everyone. He stood on a chair, and called everyone into silence.
"Everybody! There's somebody I'd like you to meet."
And suddenly, at least twenty pairs of eyes were on me, staring. Nobody said a word and the silence stretched on for a full minute before anyone moved again. Then the warehouse was a flurry of activity once more. I quickly found my guide.
"What is this place? And what are you all doing here?" I asked. In retrospect, I realise these were probably stupid questions.
"None of us have anything you described. We haven't had jobs for Lord knows how long. Most of were living on the streets for years before we found this disused warehouse. Then, I realised that if we worked together, we'd be able to get enough food to feed us all. And here, we have a dry place to sleep, even if it does get cold in the winter."
"Surely you'd all rather live in the real world?" It seemed incomprehensible that anyone would want t live here. Still, his reply really put my life into perspective to me.
"Yes, I guess we would. But, I know for a fact I woudn't make it out there alone. The only reason I'm still here today is these people. They're my family now, and my friends. I'd be nothing without them. People aren't really defined by how much they have here. They're defined by who they are as a person. So as long as we have each other, we don't need fancy houses, or fast cars. You know what I mean?"
I nodded at him wordlessly, recalling the number of times I'd thought the same thing.
"I haven't spoken to my family in years." I admitted. "Sarah wouldn't let me, she didn't like them much."
"You should go see them." He told me, and I knew it wasn't a suggestion. "Want to eat with us?" I nodded again, suddenly aware of how hungry I was. Trying to commit suicide really takes it out of you.
That freezing December night, I sat down with those homeless people, and had one of the happiest meals of my entire life. The laughter was infectious, and instantly they included me as one of their own. It was like everthing had clicked into place inside my mind. If these people could get by with the bare essentials, I could certainly do it with a little more than what they had. I promised myself that I would get a job, find my children, and become a part of their lives again.
By the time we got back to that bridge, the sun was rising over the city skyline. My footprints on the barriers could still be seen, and I swiftly wiped them away.
"Thankyou." I told him. "For all that you've done tonight." He shrugged.
"Just remember us." He replied simply. "If you ever feel that way again, remember us."
"I will." I promised, and seemingly satisfied, he turned and started to walk away. "What's your name, by the way?" I called.
"Toby!" He shouted back. "Toby Davenport." He didn't even stop to wait for my next question.
Later, when I went back to the bridge, I tried to find the warehouse Toby had taken me to that night, but it was nowhere to be seen. Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if maybe it never happened, that I'd hit my head and passed out in the snow, but I know I'm not that imaginative. It really happened.
About a year ago, I got talking to another man in a bar, and the name Toby Davenport came up. This man had had a similar experience it seemed, he'd been down on his luck, and a homeless man had shown him that things weren't so bad.
Thanks to him, my life is back on track. My family and I are closer than ever, and I get to see my children all the time. I have a job I love, teaching English at my local high school. And I'm happy, because of one man who had nothing to give me but his words.
It's the greatest gift I've ever been given.