The sky was black when Liz woke. Still dark when she walked out of her apartment, and into the street.
‘Morning, Miss Featherwise,’ said her doorman, greeting her with a tip of his cap.
Across the main road, in the park, light was splintering its pink hue defining the horizon into land and sky. Liz paused to watch the line expand. Her lips curled at the sight, her heart pushed through her ribs. Her favourite time of the day. If she ever had a daughter, she vowed to name her Dawn.
‘Can I hail a cab, Miss Featherwise?’
‘No. Thank you Lawson, but I’d rather walk.’ She must, she was desperate to find him again. Liz offered Lawson a small smile, and he tipped his cap again in response.
Liz retraced her steps, from yesterday, to the station. She approached the corner where he laid yesterday.
There he was. The vagrant. Covered by newspapers, a tatty hat and coat, and shoes with holes in the soles. He was sleeping. It was the fall of his hair, over his eyes, the strong chin and the width of his back that moved Liz to tears.
She knew this vagabond. Once, she’d loved him. Of that she had no doubt. What she did doubt though, was whether to follow the path down which her heart was leading. Her hand lingered, outstretched towards him. She crouched down, the tips of her patent-leather black Mary-Janes inches away from his makeshift bed. As she leaned in, his eyes flew open.
The man’s eyes widened in shock and disbelief. He shook his head, as if to rid a memory or vision running loose in his brain.
‘Lizzie,’ he croaked. ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’
‘It’s me, James,’ Liz answered. She opened her mouth, the words failed to come. How could she ask the questions burning within.
He sat upright. He emitted an odour: unwashed skin and clothes, poor hygiene and diet mixed together in a heady combination. Liz choked, tried to pull it off as a cough.
‘I am sorry you have to see me this way, Lizzie,’ James said, avoiding eye contact. Liz’s heart beat faster; he was the only person who’d ever been allowed to call her Lizzie. ‘I guess you must have questions. You can ask away. I don’t mind.’
‘What can I do for you? What do you need?’ Liz asked.
‘Those are not the questions you want to ask, though, are they Lizzie?’
Liz hung her head.
‘You want to know how I ended up here, homeless, in a corner near Parliament station. Don’t you?’ His tone was provoking, accusing.
Liz took a deep breath; her mouth filled up with his smell. Every morsel of self-will was summoned to prevent her from gagging. She wanted to help James, however she could. Primarily, a shower, a visit to a day spa, haircut, pedicure. She scolded herself for her superficial wishes. Her mind meandered back to their relationship. He was always so well-dressed, so proud of his appearance, manners and attention to general maintenance. He’d been a high-earner, ambitious and driven to succeed. How the hell did he wind up here?
‘Go on,’ he continued. ‘Don’t be shy, ask away.’
Liz dragged her gaze to him. ‘What happened?’
On reflection, after he’d shared his story, she wished she’d never asked. Never even leaned towards him. She should have thrown money into his hat and ignored the stirring within, the sensations that came to life, the thrill of recognition. Of unfinished business between them. Of who he used to be.
As she led him back to her apartment, her heart sank like a rock to the bottom of the riverbed. She ran a bath for him, drizzled essential oils into the water. While he soaked, she washed his clothes and put them in the dryer, astonished they’d not disintegrated. She cooked breakfast: eggs, bacon, avocado, tomatoes and mushrooms on sourdough toast. Made a coffee. It was all laid out on her dining table when he stumbled out, a towel wrapped tightly around his hips.
‘Lizzie, thank you for this,’ he muttered. Liz remembered he was never very good at humility. ‘You didn’t have to do it, you know,’ he went on. ‘I’ve accepted this to be my fate.’
‘James, it’s a meal. You’re clean. Your clothes are almost dry. That’s all.’
Even as she uttered the words, she knew it wasn’t all. He did too; she read the meaning behind the intensity of his stare.