Dark figures cluttered the playhouse’s stone steps.
Men and women in elegant gowns and coats, backs stiff against the wind, surged forward, eager to escape the flakes, the flurries, the white confetti, while gusts twirled left-over leaves around high heels and Oxford shoes.
Fall had plunged the early evening into premature night, each lamppost, each light, had become a lighthouse in a sea of white.
He stood to the side, outside the circles of light, collar turned up high, hands cupped, flipping a lighter, drawing hard on the unlit cigarette. He growled and tried again. When it lit, he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
Just as well Clara didn’t come tonight.
His sister would have taken him to task for smoking in public, for smoking on the steps of a theatre house for God’s sake, for smoking in the first place. She had taken it as her life’s mission to cure him of his horrible habit. Self-appointed, Clara, had devoted her last years to save him from himself, had taken over from Margaret, her sister-in-law.
Sweet Margaret. I miss you, darling.
A cough racked his wilted frame, making him grope after the cigarette as it slipped from his lips. He shielded his face against the flurries, pulling his hat lower over his eyes. He’d better hurry — the doors had opened, and the gaggle of theatregoers was shoving their way inside — not much different from the wildebeest during their annual migration on the Serengeti plains.
Movement behind him made Martin spin on his heels, losing his balance. He narrowed his eyes to make out the hunched-forward figure who had addressed him, the words stolen by the wind. Martin took a final puff and crushed the remains under his polished shoe. He hated the downtown area for that reason — all these unsavory characters. He could feel the hair on end in his neck.
Go inside Martin.
Clara had warned him about these low-lives.
The man took a tentative step closer. Martin made two steps in the direction of the theater steps. The man took another step. “Sir . . .?”
“What do you want?” Martin duck-walked backward.
The poor sod was inappropriately dressed for the weather.
“Do you have a smoke to spare?”
Clara had warned: Don’t speak to these people.
Martin had reached the first of the steps when he took out two cigarettes.
The man made a prayer sign. “Thank you, sir. You don’t perhaps have a light?”
“I have to go inside.”
‘Please, sir.” The man had stepped into the halo of light. His unkempt beard hid a formidable face.
Martin leaned in, cupping his hand over the lighter.
The man stepped back when it lit. “Thank you . . .” He scratched his beard. “You don’t perhaps have a spare dime — ”
“I’m not giving you money for booze.”
The man shook his head, pointing with an arm across the street. “Food, sir . . . I haven’t had anything to eat today. There’s a diner . . .”
Martin’s gaze shifted between his wrist, the theatre doors, the man, and the diner.
Shit. Margaret held a different opinion from Clara.
“Come. We’d better hurry.”
The man led the way across the multi-lane street with Martin short on his heels. Inside the fast-food restaurant, Martin assisted the man in picking the best value-for-money combo. The man opted for milk instead of a soda drink. Shaking his head, Martin paid the cashier, turning to leave.
“Please stay, sir.” The man’s hand rested on Martin’s sleeve. “I want to thank you proper — ”
“I have to run. The orchestra — ”
“Won’t start before 8:00 p.m. We have time.”
Martin hesitated, then followed the man. “What makes you an expert on all things symphonic orchestra?”
The man took his first bite, his eyes crinkling. “I’ve been homeless for ten months.” He smacked his lips, wiping it with a napkin. “I had a life before. A house, a wife, a car — everything.” He wiped over his eyes. “I even played the clarinet.”
The man took another bite and closed his eyes, savoring each morsel. When his eyes opened, he reached across the table. “The name is Mike. I am grateful for your kindness . . .”
“It was nothing.” Martin introduced himself and tucked on his black bowtie.
The man shook his head, chewing. “Please don’t say that. It’s a big deal. My full name is Michael Henry Moffat Jr. I inherited my father’s business, overplayed my hand, made poor business decisions, and later had to file for bankruptcy — soon drowning my sorrow in drink. My wife divorced me when I refused to find help. That was a year ago.”
“Where did you live?”
“Here in the city.”
“How do you survive?”
“I do the odd job. The Shelter is a Godsend in winter.”
The two men sat in silence as the one finished his meal.
“Any future plans?” Martin chastised himself as soon as the words slipped out.
The homeless man grinned. “Funny that you ask. After not speaking to my baby brother for three years, I made contact again. We agreed to a ceasefire. I’m heading for Vancouver.”
Martin got to his feet. “Well, take care . . . I have to go.”
Michael Henry Moffat Jr. wiped his mouth and followed Martin out the door.
Outside, the flurries and gusts had died down, but the chill still took one’s breath away.
Martin turned away to cross the street when he stopped and called, “I have two tickets . . . Why don’t you join — ”
“Oh no, sir!” the other man cried. “It’s a fancy black tie event. I smell sour — ”
“Nonsense.” Martin took the man’s elbow and steered him across the street. “Clarinet, you say?”
“Clarinet and oboe, sir.”
Martin quickened his step, unclipping his bowtie, turning his collar up higher. “No black tie tonight. Let’s hurry to be in time for the air instruments.”