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Late For Alf, by Lesley Atherton
So, that was it. I stretched my hand out and touched him. He was cold. I’d never thought all that much of him before. He’d been one of the many street people I’d seen begging, and the one I chose to help. I can’t tell you why I chose him, but it wasn’t his good manners that swung it.
I think everyone ignored him except me, but I took an unexplained shine to him. I’d usually stop and give him a sandwich and some milky tea in a plastic cup.
But this morning I was late. I took a different route and journeyed by taxi instead of the bus. I didn’t see him that morning, and he didn’t see me.
That day’s hailstones were heavy, deafening on my office’s windows, and Alf didn’t cross my mind for one second until I left the building to make my way home. By 5pm, the hail had turned to a beautiful feathery snow. I walked the five minute stretch to the bus station and looked towards Alf’s usual bench. He was asleep. I walked to him as usual and laid my daily contribution by his side. It was only then that I noticed the colour of his hand and, worryingly, the lack of steamy breath coming from his mouth or nose.
Even his unwashed odour seemed somehow lessened, as if it had been frozen out.
‘Alf,’ I said. Commuters looked at me, unconcerned but momentarily curious.
‘Alf - I’ve a sandwich for you. BLT today. And a brew.’
I shook his arm. Gently. He was unresponsive; cold; his eyes unseeing.
I called one of the bus drivers. Together we checked Alf. We touched his face, hopefully, but it was no use.
He was gone.
I still rush past your bench, Alf - twice every week day. And I still buy a sandwich and a milky tea in a plastic cup. Now it’s Harry who takes it from me.
He’s one of life’s casualties.
And a chatterbox - the things I could tell you about him.
Harry’s alright but I’ve never forgotten you, Alf. I wish I’d woken just five minutes earlier, had caught my first bus, had bought you your usual breakfast, and shared our usual morning witticism. I don’t blame myself for your passing, just wish I could have helped. Or said goodbye.
Alf, I miss you.
(Published in Feet on the Table. Audio recording also available.)