Saturday, 18 December 2010

A white duvet

As the train passes the nature reserve, I can't tell whether the huddled ducks are floating on water or held fast in the ice by their legs. The train's speed doesn't give me a moment to work out whether the ducks are living or, as I briefly fear, a pattern of compact corpses against the white-grey landscape. The cold has returned.

I wasn't quite housebound in the first winter freeze. The cold tore at my throat when I left home and my calves felt weak after the morning and evening expeditions to work. The walk to the station, which I can usually do in five minutes if I must, needed twenty as I balanced on the ridged ice and compacted snow which formed the new surface of our suburban streets and pavements.

Like many people, I developed a cold and fierce, hacking cough but I was lucky. Services and deliveries halted but I had food in store and my son was prepared to venture to the corner shop – and further – in temperatures ten degrees below zero. The cold sapped my appetite but there was food and drink when I needed it. I missed one Russian class and two evenings of fencing but reached work on time every day.

The Russian tutor, from Novosibirsk, found the winter mild and flourished in the cold. Our shivering must have amused her but she smiled sympathetically. My desire to visit Russia – or anywhere – diminished. But walking back from the class, teeth chattering despite the layers of warmth in which I'd swathed myself, I caught sight of a duvet in a doorway.

It seemed to be a clean duvet, without a cover. I was struck by its whiteness compared to the grubby pavement-surface of trodden ice and frost. Heaped snow quickly acquires the colour and texture of charcoal when it's near a busy road.

I wondered if I should inspect the duvet. There were a couple of bags close by which suggested that this was someone's night-time home. The temperature was minus seven, and falling. I didn't want to take a step more than necessary in case I fell. I was a couple of yards from the doorway and did my best to inspect the duvet from a distance. I was almost sure there was no-one huddled inside it. I walked on down the hill, my feet searching for secure footholds, wondering if I should have done more.

If I had seen the resident of the doorway, I would have had to stop. At least, I think I would. No-one should sleep in a doorway on such a night. If I couldn't find a hostel place – and I wouldn't know where to start – surely at least I could buy a rough sleeper a cup of coffee, a meal or a night in a hotel. But there's nothing to be done about an empty duvet, whose owner was, I hope, warm somewhere else.

Days later, I mentioned my dilemma. “No-one will be sleeping out in this,” one friend declared. I knew, because I'd checked, that there were emergency hostel places and was briefly reassured. But then another friend spoke of going out with the soup run. In the English midlands, in the twenty-first century, human beings are finding what shelter they can in doorways, cardboard boxes and caves. They are queuing for soup in the coldest winter for more than forty years, just as cuts and economic anxiety leads charities to plead for more donations.

The latest snowfall hasn't been so bad here. From a distance it looks like a thick scatter of icing sugar on earth, grass, leaves and cars. Close to, it's evident that the snow is hard and sharp as tempered steel.

Next year our local council is cutting 200 hostel places for homeless people. I'm saving for loft insulation and double glazing. On my few daytime expeditions, I see beggars crouching in doorways. None of them haunts me as much as the memory of that white duvet next to the blackened snow and white-grey ice.

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