They had turned a corner, bickering with an intensity that mirrored the brashness of the red-gold leaves, and their vibrant expensive jewellery, scarves, “vintage” satchels. One girl broke away from the others, declaring grandly – ‘It’s cold, it’s cold, winter’s coming!’
Her friends stopped. Elise shook her head, shivering. Alicia laughed. Rin briskly rubbed her hands and countered, ‘Then you should’ve given him a coat, not a sandwich.’
But they were hungry, standing in the croissant-scented path sweeping down to reveal new assortments of cafes, bars, lovely restaurants with flowers and origami napkins.
‘He was hungry!’
‘Well then, Coralie, why didn’t you give him more?’
Rin pressed down confidently on the handle of the nearest coffee shop and let herself in. The bell above the door rang, a mop-haired boy smiled in welcome: ‘What would you like?’
It was quieter here; the bustling world outside dimmed a little. The friends settled themselves at a table in the corner, putting down their bags, clasping their mugs of hot chocolate.
‘I’m going to kill myself,’ said Elise.
Alicia glanced at her and looked away. Rin was occupied in doling out the walnut cake, fussily making sure each slice was the same, surreptitiously licking the knife. Jazz was being played over the stereo like theme music, as if they were acting in a television drama where each character had some essential trait, some crucial role. The window framed them, as well as the ornate post office across the street, towards which a grey figure was moving, softly.
‘He’ll get hurt,’ murmured Coralie. A uniformed officer had stridden over, snatched the edge of a white duvet, and was gesticulating in anger. By his feet, the lone man’s breath rose in a curling, pleading mist.
‘Ah, he’s shouting back,’ observed Rin. She passed over a lily-bordered plate of cake.
‘I mean, it was all the food I had on me,’ Coralie argued. ‘And I didn’t want to give him money, he might spend it on alcohol or –’
‘Or drugs? Wow, Coralie, I thought you were against social stereotyping.’
‘This is just being practical, it’s what the charity warned…’
‘And your answer was an avocado and jackfruit sandwich? How very thoughtful. But what if he’s allergic? Maybe he actually wants a cheese and bacon muffin. Maybe you’re perpetuating a cycle of dependency that’ll culminate in all your cash being frittered away. Your parent’s cash, I should add.’
‘Leave her alone, Rin,’ said Alicia, laughing again. ‘She doesn’t mean any harm, it’s only for her CV.’
Coralie slammed down her teaspoon with an ineffectual clink. ‘Be serious, it’s people’s lives we’re talking about!’
‘I’m going to kill myself,’ whispered Elise. ‘I’m going to kill myself.’
‘People’s lives!’ cried Coralie.
She gathered herself up, rushed outside, the bell of the door clanging in her wake. Mugs and spoons in hand, they watched as she flew over to the officer and displayed her charity contact cards, fanning them out explaining, presumably, what each was for while the figure stared, wide-eyed and, as she fumbled in her satchel for something else, dashed madly off.
‘You can’t help,’ said Elise, fiddling nervously with her sleeves as Coralie returned, red-faced, to her seat. ‘Why can’t you help?’
‘I can, I’m doing my best! It’s you – you never do anything, you never try!’
‘Have some cake,’ said Rin, innocently.
‘Nothing happens if you don’t try. And winter’s the worst; without a home, they have to prepare…’
They retraced their path, enjoying the golden glaze of the autumn sun on skeletal branches, Rin telling jokes about their mutual friends. They reached the crossroads, Rin leaned back against a wall, and jumped. There was someone huddled in the nook. She peered down.
‘Hey, Cora, it’s the guy who received the brunt of your largesse.’
Now they noticed the stillness.
‘Is he dead?’
Coralie was wearing gloves – pretty burgundy leather things, trimmed with faux fur. She reached out tentatively, trying to feel the woman’s pulse and, failing that, her breath.
‘Take off your gloves, idiot!’ said Rin impatiently. ‘They’re too thick, you can’t feel anything.’
Her friend had a frightened expression; she drew back her gloved hands. ‘It’s too cold.’
‘Come on, everything’s fine.’
‘I will, you know,’ said Elise softly, her voice shaking. ‘I will.’