Every time winter comes around, there’s always a single moment when I grab my heat-wheat out from storage and I’m suddenly struck by a memory so vivid, I have to sit down. I sit there, clutching at my wheat-filled bag of material, with a sad little porcupine embroidered on it, and relive a very cold night in London.
It’s coming up ten years ago, now. I’d just moved to London and I was dirt poor. I was renting a drafty lounge room from some schmuck, and I’d borrowed a doonah and some bed linen from my Aunt and Uncle. Other than my laptop and the suitcase worth of clothes that I’d dragged from Australia, I had nothing else to really speak of. It was my first ever UK winter, and I was cold. Frozen. I would scurry home after work, put on my aging tracksuit pants, and climb under my doonah in my small little sanctuary in London. I couldn’t afford to buy a heater, so I just wore two pairs of socks, and wrapped myself up against the drafts as best as I could.
That was, until one night a homeless guy with nicotine stained teeth knocked on the front door.
Behind the slightly ajar door, I held the only weapon I could think of at the time. I gripped my leather belt with white knuckles, preying I didn’t have to try and use it.
“Evenin’ Ma’am. I’m sorry fo’ bovvering you at such a la’e ‘our.” He was thin, and wiry. He looked like he needed a shave and a feed.
“I’m not beggin’, see, but I’d like t’ sell you sumfin so I can ‘ave a good feed.” Without pausing, he showed me his wares.
“I ‘ave a badge for one quid, or a pen, see? Or a notepad wiv flowers? It’s all from Homeless Action, see?” He wasn’t selling fleeced goods, he was selling honest to goodness fund-raising products.
“Wot abou’ a sticker, or a ruler?” I began to apologise, when he rummaged at the bottom of his bag.
“I ‘ave one rubishy old heat sack fing somewhere, but they’re a bit of a bovver and nobody wants ’em.” He scratched at his overgrown chin, and wore an expression of practiced disappointment.
“A heat sack?”
“Yeah, y’know, you heat them up and stuff?”
A Heat Wheat! Oh lordy, a warm-it-up-in-the-microwave-blessing-from-god…..
“How much?” I tried not to sound too hopeful.
“Eight quid, I fink. Lemme check.”
Damn, Damn, Damn, Fuck and Damn. I knew I had ₤5.50 in my wallet to last me til the end of the week.
Perhaps I could find some change at the bottom of my work bag?
“I’d really like the heat pack from you, because I’m freezing my arse off, but I’m not sure I have the money, either. Can you let me go check?” He nodded, then watched me walk back down the hall, with my double-layer socks, baggy-arsed track pants, wrapped in a huge doonah. It took me about 10 minutes to rummage through every bag, every nook and every secret little stash I had. It took me a few goes, and I ended up making the last pound from 0.05p pieces scratched out of the bottom of my laptop bag.
The shaggy faced homeless man with his fingerless gloves gave me the Heat Wheat, and I almost kissed him. He smiled at me, so very genuinely.
“Fank you so much. I’ve been ou’ ‘ere tryin’ to earn mi dinner for free ‘ours.”
“Thank you so much. I’ve been freezing my arse off for the last three weeks waiting for you to get here!”
We smiled at each other, and I closed the door.
The heat-wheat smelled like old cigarettes and had a crummy embroidered porcupine on one side.
Every year, I remember that cold winter. It always makes me smile.