The slender man in the donkey jacket and flat cap stamped his feet, the thick soles of his boots grinding and scratching at the frozen pavement beneath. The fingerless gloves on his calloused hands made a dull popping sound as he clapped them together in an effort to keep warm. He’d learned to keep moving between punters when the sharp winter days began to gnaw at his finger tips and anaesthetize his toes. He didn’t mind the cold, it was the wet he hated. No one has their shoes shined in the rain.
Business was brisk; the combination of a hard crust of snow underfoot and the resulting heavy gritting ensured that Larry’s Shoeshine Stand had a steady supply of well-heeled customers looking to put the sparkle back on their footwear.
Merchant Bankers, Solicitors, Accountants and theatre goers were all regular clients at Larry’s, but seldom if ever the young. Why don’t young people clean their shoes anymore? He thought to himself sadly as a youth in a scuffed pair of doctor martens trudged languidly past.
Larry always noticed shoes. He looked at feet at least as much as faces – you can tell a lot about people by their shoes. He always wore good footwear and he always shaved in the morning. Attention to detail, things that really mattered.
From his pitch by the Majestic Theatre entrance Larry was afforded a perspective on town centre life that he shared with a scant few enlightened souls. He belonged to an elite club of observers that included Harry the newspaper vendor who was stationed outside Forrest’s Department Store, and the Middle-Eastern hotdog seller – whose name he had never mastered in the seven years he had known him, and could not now recall – away to his left, by the pelican crossing.
The best spot was Larry’s. Between jobs he would stand on the top step of the theatre entrance facing the park opposite. His elevated position affording him views of the duck pond and the Victorian bandstand beyond. In summer months skateboarders and rollerbladers glided gracefully back and forth on the wide paved area between, and he would marvel at their ability to avoid colliding as they hurtled around in a kind of synchronized chaos.
To the right of the bandstand was a large semi-circle of coniferous trees set in a belt of rich green, now hidden under a layer of snow compacted like a well-worn carpet. In the centre of the semi-circle the council had raised as it did every year an enormous Christmas tree. Strings of multicoloured festoon lamps were draped around its canopy winding up to a golden star at the peak.
Larry could remember when there had been an Angel there, though no-one seemed to know what had happened to it, it just wasn’t there one Christmas and was never seen again. That will be me one day, he thought to himself, gone and forgotten. He spotted a sharp suited young man striding purposefully towards him in a pair of Italian brogues, an expensive looking brown paper bag with rope handles swinging by his side.
“Afternoon sir,” he said as he stepped down to meet the man on ground level – it was bad etiquette to be above a customer when you greeted them.
“Hello Larry,” the gentleman replied, “can you get this blasted salt line off my shoes? I don’t want the leather to stiffen.”
“Absolutely sir, please take a seat.” He gestured to his chair and the gentleman placed the bag on the ground next to it and climbed eagerly up.
The chair was a masterpiece – a fully restored 1927 Koken single seater with button back leather upholstery on a tiger oak body. Its two large steps were topped off in inch-thick white marble slabs shot through with smoke grey ripples. Two elegant polished nickel footrests rose gracefully out of the lower step which accommodated a large, lockable draw where polish, dubbing, brushes and cloths were neatly ordered and stored away. It wasn’t a chair, it was a throne, where for a couple of pounds a time anyone could be King or Queen for five minutes out of their day.
Larry had paid £1600 for it ten years ago from an antique dealer in Brighton and had restored it himself. That very chair had spent thirty years in Grand Central Station in New York City before its owner had retired, selling it to an English musician. The musician had taken it to Broadchalk in Dorset, where it had sat, all but forgotten in a garage for another nine years, a project never started. Larry wondered what famous bottoms must have graced that marvellous seat in the years since it was crafted.
He polished and buffed expertly while his client attended to his mobile phone. Larry tuned out the private conversations of his clients while he worked. Some liked to talk with him, and he had a practiced bedside manner for those who cared to hear, but for most he was invisible, and that suited him fine.
“There you are sir, how is that for you?” he inquired when he was certain it was appropriate.
“Excellent work Larry, as always.” The man grinned admiring the shoes as if seeing them for the first time. His mobile phone rang noisily and he thrust a five pound note into Larry’s hand and walked away rapidly talking in a low voice into the phone.
Larry smiled after him for a moment until a loud bang from the street drew his attention. A taxi driver had stopped to pick up a fare and a green Ford Mondeo had slid – wheels locked in a frantic attempt to stop – straight into his rear end. The taxi driver got out of the cab and was gesturing wildly to the Mondeo driver. Larry watched half interested for a minute until both vehicles moved on, details exchanged, then he turned back to his pitch.
There on the ground next to the Koken was the gentleman’s bag. He sighed to himself and shook his head. The gentleman would no doubt return later to collect the bag and Larry would keep it safe until then.
Eleven customers came and went but the gentleman in the brogues did not return. At five minutes to 7pm Larry fetched his dolly from his store cupboard in the alley next to the theatre and packed away the Koken.
He wandered half a block down to the yellow and green frontage Of McKinley’s Off-license, the bell jangling above his head as he entered. “Evening Larry” said the fat man behind the counter, “what can I get you?”
“Bottle of Jim Beam and an ounce of Golden Virginia please Bob.” replied Larry. He cleared his throat repeatedly to prevent the tickle that was building inside from becoming a cough. Bob took down a bottle from a high shelf behind him. He laid the bottle on its side in front of him then rolled and folded expertly before standing a bottle-shaped brown mummy on the counter next to a packet of tobacco.
Larry lost his fight to resist the cough, his chest rattling to the bottom of his lungs as his face turned purple with the strain. He bent over to support himself on the counter, tiny sparks obscured his vision and his head swam. The shopkeeper watched concerned but silent as he waited for the attack to pass. At least twice a week he saw Larry, the cough was just as regular.
“Larry,” he began gently when the attack had subsided, “I know it’s none of my business…”
“Goodnight Bob, “Larry interrupted, “you take care.” He nodded to the fat man, and slapping a twenty pound note on the counter he turned quickly and left. The wine merchant stared sadly after him, the bell jiggling and bouncing long after Larry was out of sight.
Once outside, Larry wiped his mouth with a pocket hanky then stuffed it in his jacket pocket. He didn’t need to look at it to know there was blood in his sputum; he could taste the iron in his mouth. He crossed the road by the theatre and headed across the park, his purchase clutched in one hand, the brown bag in the other.
Larry’s flat was in the basement of a Victorian terrace that ran unbroken for the full length of the park. There were six flats in his building, but only Larry’s had a private entrance. Tucked away beneath the main door to the house, at the bottom of a set of cracked concrete steps was Larry’s front door.
He turned the key and pushed hard to open the swollen door. The low energy lamp in the middle of the ceiling cast a pathetic yellow glow that brightened slowly as the gasses warmed inside it.
The front door to Larry’s flat opened directly on to a small lounge with just three items of furniture in it. An aging recliner chair faced the window, its navy corduroy fabric faded and worn, flanked on the right side by an equally tired looking brown leather armchair. In front of the window was a pine effect TV stand bearing a modest looking portable television set and a DVD player.
Larry looked around the room. The dirty magnolia walls had not felt the soft wet tickle of a paintbrush for many years. In places the anaglypta wallpaper had begun to curl and detach itself where the joins met the chipped and yellowing skirting boards.
At the back of the room through an archway was a sink unit with a floral curtain strung across its front to hide its unsightly innards in place of the long departed doors. To the right of the sink unit was a small electric stove, a refrigerator and the door to the bedroom and shower room.
Larry didn’t eat much. He ate cereals and toast for breakfast every day except Sunday when he had kippers. Lunch was always cheese and pickle sandwiches, an apple and a chocolate bar, washed down with a small flask of tea. He never took dinner, unless he was visiting somewhere, but he would always have an evening tipple.
He took a smudged upturned tumbler from the draining board next to the sink, and held it up for a moment to inspect it. Satisfied it was clean enough he sat down in the chord recliner with the glass, his bottle of Jim Beam, and the gentleman’s fancy bag.
He poured himself half a glass of whiskey and set it on the grubby beige carpet beside him, then opened the bag to inspect its contents. Inside the bag was a small, heavy box with a navy blue ribbon tied around it and no markings or description. He tugged gently on the bow and the ribbon fell away. Carefully he opened the box, parted the tissue paper inside and lifted out a round glass object. He gently placed the bag and box on the floor, next to the whiskey glass then settled down to study the present.
Larry held a Snow Globe in the palm of both hands. He studied it closely, marveling at the incredible detail and workmanship in the scene before him. A tiny, bustling town square made up of intricately carved shops adorned in colourful decorations made up half the scene inside the globe. Miniature shoppers all coated and & scarved for winter were frozen in mid stride, tiny bags in hand.
In the middle of the globe was a group of fir trees, with one tree in a clearing set apart from the others – a Christmas tree. Four tiny figures stood together facing the Christmas tree, perhaps admiring its decorations and tiny baubles. The whole scene was dusted with a glittering white powder that coated the land, trees and buildings in a festive mantle of snow.
Larry shook the globe and watched mesmerized as the snow sparkled and swirled before gently falling back to earth. Again he shook the globe, filled with an innocent wonder at its beauty, unable to look away until the last twinkling particle had come to rest and the mini blizzard was over.
He picked up his glass and sat sipping his whiskey slowly while he turned and studied the globe thoughtfully. He knew the gentleman would come back for the gift and he would be obliged to return it.
Larry was struck with a sudden pang of sadness at the impending loss of the beautiful treasure in his hands. With a last, regretful look he placed the snow globe back in the box and almost reverently tied the ribbon before returning it to the bag. He drained his glass, switched off the light and went to bed, his heart filled with emotions he couldn’t quite understand.
It was Christmas Eve and Larry had worked steadily all morning. He had planned to pack up around two, but he had done such a good trade he was reluctant to close and throw away the business – he had even had a queue.
It was then that he saw the gentleman and his heart sank. Larry had brought the snow globe with him and had locked it away in the alley cupboard for safety. The gentleman waited patiently for Larry’s customers to be served then spoke to Larry.
“Hello Larry, thank goodness I caught you,” he began hopefully, “I thought you might be gone already.”
“No sir, not me, I’m always here.” Larry said with a forced smile.
“Larry, I had a brown bag with me when I came to see you yesterday, and I seem to have mislaid it, I was rather hoping that perhaps I might have left it here. Have you seen it Larry?”
Larry stood blinking at him for a few seconds, “I’m so sorry sir,” he said, “I’m afraid I haven’t.” He thought for a moment he would choke on the words, the familiar tickle rising in his throat.
The man sagged, visibly crestfallen. “Oh, that’s. a real shame.” He looked at Larry for a long moment, and then Larry began to cough. The attack was worse than ever, his throat burned and his vision blurred as pain ripped through his chest. He clutched at the Koken and staggered backwards, half sitting, half falling on to the theatre steps.
The gentleman forgot the globe for a moment, as he strode over to Larry, his face full of concern. “Larry, good grief let me call you an ambulance, you have blood on your mouth.” He crouched beside Larry, took out a handkerchief which he gave to Larry and reached for his phone.
“No sir, thank you,” said Larry hoarsely “I’ve had this for a while now and I’ve no plans to spend Christmas in hospital.”
The man studied Larry for a moment then reluctantly put the phone back in his jacket pocket. “If you would you be so good as to pass me that flask sir,” Larry smiled weakly, “I’ll be right as rain in a few minutes.”
The gentleman picked up Larry’s flask from the bottom step of the Koken. “Would you like me to call someone for you Larry?” he asked as he poured Larry a steaming cup of tea, “I’m not sure that you should really be on your own.”
“There’s just me sir, but don’t you fret, I’m feeling much better already.” He said, as he sipped the hot tea. When he was quite sure Larry was over the attack the gentleman stood up. “Well, Merry Christmas Larry,” he said awkwardly, and with a nod to the old man he turned and walked away.
“Merry Christmas, sir!” Larry called after him. The Gentleman stopped a few metres away and looked back, “It’s Peter,” he smiled, and then he was gone.
Peter Fielding was troubled. The loss of the snow globe was a blow of course, but he had already picked up something else for his wife Ruth in case it didn’t show up. As he made his way to the coffee shop to meet her it was the old shoe shine man that was uppermost in his thoughts.
He found his wife sitting on a low sofa in front of a coffee table smiling indulgently at their 14 year old daughter Amy, as she talked excitedly to her mother, the two of them surrounded by bulging carrier bags. “Hello ladies,” he said kissing them both on the cheek and squeezing himself on to the sofa between them.
“I have an idea and I would like you to hear me out…”
Larry was miserable as he packed up his stand. Why had he lied? Why didn’t he just give the damn thing back when he had the chance? He picked up the fancy bag and locked the cupboard door, looking around to make sure no one was watching him.
He made his way to a double sided bench in the park that faced both the bandstand and the frozen duck pond and sat with his back to the pond. His hands were shaking as he took out the cardboard box, untied the ribbon and removed the snow globe.
He held up the globe and shook it vigorously, the light from the Victorian lamppost next to the bench reflected on the thousands of particles swimming in the globe and to Larry it looked even more enchanting than when he had first set eyes on it. Larry’s watery gaze pored over every detail. There was something strangely familiar in the scene that tugged at Larry’s memory.
He studied the four figures in the globe standing in front of the tree, his eyes straining to focus on their tiny faces. But as he turned the globe to see them better something terrible happened – the globe slipped from his shaking fingers and fell with a dull thud on to the icy tarmac beneath him.
Larry cried out in shock and dismay and quickly snatched the snow globe from the frozen ground. He wiped it carefully on his sleeve then leaned in to inspect it for damage. To his utter dismay,one of the four tiny figures in front of the Christmas tree had come loose in the impact and now lay on its back in front of the others.
A strangled sob escaped his mouth and he fought hard to prevent the emotions inside of him from boiling over. You stupid, stupid fool. Now you’ve done it, you’ve ruined it forever! he thought, looking around desperately to see who might have witnessed his terrible act. A few people walked this way or that, laughing and talking excitedly while the brass band in the bandstand began to play Good King Wenceslas – all of them oblivious to Larry’s misdemeanour.
He thrust the snow globe into his jacket pocket, turned up his collar against the cold and headed around the pond towards the bright lights of the Christmas tree.
“He’s probably gone home by now,” said Ruth Fielding as the three of them approached Larry’s empty pitch.
“It doesn’t matter if he has,” replied Peter, “he told me before that he only lives across the park; I know the number, we can pop round.” Amy rolled her eyes.
Ruth knew better than to try to change her husband’s mind. Once he had suggested to her that they invite the old man for Christmas dinner she knew he would think about nothing else until it was agreed. “Besides,” he had added, “it will give you a chance to have a quick look at him, I think he’s really quite sick and he doesn’t have anybody to keep an eye on him.”
Ruth Fielding was a G.P. and when her husband had described Larry’s symptoms to her she was immediately concerned. They had set off straight away to find the old man, but he had already left.
They crossed the road and headed towards Larry’s flat on the other side of the park. “Dad, Mum, Look at the Christmas tree,” said Amy as they drew level with the pond, “It’s beautiful.” They looked to the right to take in the display – and then Peter saw him.
“There he is Ruth,” he said pointing at a lone figure in front of the tree. “That’s Larry.”
Larry felt bewildered. For some inexplicable reason he had lied to the gentleman – a regular customer who was always polite and always tipped well – and had stolen his Christmas present. And now here he was, alone on Christmas Eve, in front of the giant tree with a stolen snow globe in his pocket.
He gazed up at the lights and the tinsel wondering what to do. Why did he have to have that damned snow globe? “Larry!” called a familiar voice, “It’s lucky we spotted you.” Larry wheeled in horror to face the gentleman; convinced he had come to reclaim his stolen property. Before he could utter a word a huge spluttering, hacking cough erupted from his lungs. The cold air burned as he inhaled sharply sending him into yet more painful spasms as a hot, metallic wetness filled his mouth.
He felt faint, unable to catch his breath he staggered a few steps as the gentleman ran to help him. Misinterpreting his actions Larry turned in fear to escape, staggered a few more steps, a roaring sound seemed to fill his ears and the light began to fail.
He took one more step then collapsed on to his back beneath the great canopy of the tree. As he lay there, struggling for breath, he fumbled weakly at his jacket pocket.
For a few brief seconds the three of them stood over him, their shocked faces fixed on his. As the first crystal petals of snow began to float gently down around them Larry was filled with a profound understanding. Three figures standing, one lying down. The snow globe was a message – it was time to go – and Larry was ready.
Ruth and Peter crouched down next to Larry to make him comfortable while they waited for the ambulance. Peter checked the old man’s jacket pocket thinking Larry was reaching for a hanky to wipe his mouth. He gazed at Larry sadly as pulled out the snow globe. Larry’s eyes brimmed, the tears trickling down to his ears as his eyes met Peter’s.
“It’s ok Larry,” said Peter gently, “you keep it.” He took Larry’s hand and wrapped his fingers around the snow globe. Larry smiled contentedly and raised his eyes to look up between the branches. High above them at the top of the tree Larry thought he glimpsed a golden figure smiling down on him. He closed his eyes contentedly, it wouldn’t be long now.