The few large houses in the cul de sac were dark, blind to him. Drizzle was just perceptible in the glow of the streetlamps and invisible against the black sheen of the wet pavement. Georgie stood in the shadow of a holly tree, watching the others go in. Now he was waiting. It had been dark since quarter-past four. He stood very still, flimsy blue plastic bag in hand. He had chosen a carton of orange juice.
Perhaps they hoped he would not come.
The chill and damp permeated his being. His fingertips were numb. He tried wriggling his toes, unsure whether he could feel foot against shoe. The persistent fine rain darkened and flattened his hair, and formed a whitened tiny-bubbled film on the shoulders of his best coat. He hunched his shoulders, head down, straining to keep his eyes looking ahead.
He broke wind silently and enjoyed the momentary warmth and sweetness.
A car drew up. He stepped back further into the shadows. He recognized her at once: the nice lady who unfailingly said hello, asked how he was and listened to his halting reply. Unlike the others, she waited until he had stopped speaking or until his sentence petered out. Last week, she had received his card graciously, opened it there and then, and read aloud to him the nice rhyme and his carefully written greeting. "How lovely!" she had said. "And the New Year will be a chance for new beginnings, Georgie."
He repeated her words to himself now as he watched her glide out of the car. She had a large be-ribboned box clasped to her breast and a Harrods’ bag, weighted by clanking bottles, dangled from her wrist.
Perhaps she would invite him to dance with her. He would refuse at first, saying he didn't dance, but she would insist and they would become a couple, moving together, as one to the music.
He might have moved into the pool of light and offered to carry her things, but as he stepped forward, he saw the other man emerge from the far side of the car, and stepped back.
With an easy movement of her hip, she nudged the door closed to a quiet click, locking it.
How easy life can be!
He watched the pair stroll to the entrance. She was chatting. As they walked, the man took the bag from her with a playful flourish, she laughed, put her free arm in his and for a moment placed her head on his shoulder. They made a real couple, he in his open, flapping belted trench coat, she with her shawl thrown over her shoulders, Wranglers tucked into tall clunking high-heeled boots.
Georgie looked down to his own feet where a white salty crust was establishing itself in a ragged curve above the welt on his cheap shoes. The crease had fallen from his dampened trousers. He had cradled them in his open arms the night before and placed them carefully under the mattress.
A cat rubbed itself against his leg, first with its neck, then, tail raised, with a deliberate sweep of its side and rump. It turned and looking up at Georgie’s eyes, raised itself on its hind legs to draw its chin against his knee. He looked down at the face, white with a black moustache, off-centre. He pushed her away, sideways with the very leg she had been nuzzling. She came back to rub herself against his leg again. He ignored her. In time, she tired of her efforts and slid under the fence behind the holly tree.
When the last of the others had gone in, he would be free to leave, unseen. No one would know he had been there, outside. He was used to waiting.
Abruptly, the weather turned. It started to rain more deliberately. Large icy drops fell onto his skull. Sudden gusts of wind drove the rain in swift, misty waves across the shining asphalt towards him. His nose began to run. He needed to pee.
He turned away, into the night. He passed under the bright glare of festive reindeer jerking their incessant, impossible prancing, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, going nowhere, mocking, contemptuous. Georgie scurried towards the bus stop, to home and an old beginning.
Despite the promise of rebirth and loose talk of resolution, nothing changed. Georgie had tried.