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The Sweeper

by stephanieE 

Posted: 10 June 2003
Word Count: 752
Summary: A short story inspired by a 'street-cleansing operative' that I used to pass every morning on my way to work.

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He didn't really want the job, but it suited his current demand for invisibility.
Small, flat-footed and nervous, he swept the pavement apologetically, shuffling around in his regulation overalls, holding his broom protectively across his narrow chest, clenched with both hands, withdrawing to the railings whenever anyone passed by, not quite meeting their eye, conveying the sense that he wasn't important, wasn't even there.
He pushed his barrow into the shade of the plane tree on the corner, its leaves already fading to an anaemic yellow in the harsh polluted atmosphere of summer in the city, and carefully lit a cigarette. He was slowly becoming accustomed to the oppressive noise and heat, but he still couldn't come to terms with the overpowering presence of the city. He breathed in the alien fumes and thought forcefully "I hate this city, I really do loathe it." He glanced upwards, "I hate the way the buildings only allow a glimpse of the sky, so I can't see the weather coming", and then, as his gaze fell on a group waiting at the corner, "and the way the street plan forces people to move across the streets in herds, rather than as individuals; but most of all I hate the way nature is shoehorned into box-like parks, instead of being allowed to run wild as nature should."
He leaned back against the comfortingly rough trunk, and watched idly as the thin strands of smoke wound upwards to be lost in the mass of shifting, fluttering shadows above him. He closed his eyes, and remembered the last time he'd seen her.

It was at a family christening, back home in the village, everyone had turned out to welcome the infant into the closely-knit community, and she was expected to be there. She'd been late, thanks to her mother's complete inability to be anywhere on time, and had been ushered into the back of the church halfway through the first hymn. But he'd seen her. Each time was still so much like the first, the moment of frozen shock followed by the thump in his chest that told him his heart was racing again, the constriction in the throat, and the complete sense of awe that something so wonderful, so precious, should have been entrusted to him. She'd been dressed in white that day, in a long plain smock, no doubt chosen for its rustic simplicity at some enormous cost by her fashion conscious parent, with her fair hair, newly washed and brushed, pulled back into a black velvet Alice band. She'd looked up carefully, perhaps slightly intimidated by the ancient and cavernous interior that smelled, to him, unmistakeably of religion; her eyes had searched the faces around the pews until she found him, and then she'd smiled; such an innocent, guileless smile that his heart had skipped again, as he winked back in response. After that, he couldn't remember much of the service, always aware that she was there, not so very far away, but dutifully clamped to her mother's side, and brusquely reprimanded when she ventured to turn and smile at him again.
He'd been allowed to hold her, briefly, afterwards, as the village congregated in the churchyard to gossip about the newly christened baby, about the prospects for the harvest, about the vicar's encroaching deafness, about him, and her, and hadn't they always said it would never work out.... He'd looked into her solemn little face, cocked inquisitively to one side, and under the scrutiny of those trusting blue eyes he'd made a vow to be there for her, always. Suddenly he realised all the things he wanted to share with her: her hopes and her fears; the beauties of life; the joys and wonders of the countryside. "I won't let her believe that the country is somewhere that you come for Sunday lunch occasionally, it's a place where there is life - burgeoning, meaningful, real life, not the empty mechanised replica that she knows being brought up in the city. It should be a life filled with fresh air and long walks and the natural cycle of the seasons, and people who didn't care if your shoes were scuffed, or your trousers dirty, or how much your father earned." Of course, he couldn't voice these thoughts, because her mother was listening, but that's when the seed of the idea was sown, to come to the wretched city, and rescue his daughter from the sterile cossetted environment in which she'd been imprisoned for too long.

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Comments by other Members

Becca at 17:13 on 10 June 2003  Report this post
This was poingnant and beautiful, there was one glitch for me, maybe it's just me, but when you talk about meeting the child at a family christening back in the village, I'd read on thinking she lived there and her father had returned there from the city and saw her. Later when you write '... not the empty mechanised replica that she knows being bought up in the city.', I thought eh? and only at the very end realised they had all met at the village but that they all lived in the city. Am I being pedantic, I ask myself? I think I needed the information about her being a city child earlier so that his thoughts about the country life would have been in a context. Sorry to be so long winded, but do you get me?

bluesky3d at 18:15 on 10 June 2003  Report this post
I liked the ideas in this.. especially the contrast between the city and the country

.. the motivation for him rescuing his daughter to kidnap her and return her to the countryside is very strong and could feel that

Becca has a point with regard to the clarity .. there is a certain confusion .. how old is she? ..who is the baby? picking her up in his hands? the baby?? allowed to hold her? is that his daughter or the baby?

Is it just me, but wouldnt it work better if there were just one child, then he could attended her christening that of his own child and the whole thing would be clearer, or did I miss something obvious?

Perhaps the story should end by him actually taking her?

Hope I am making sense?

(PS Interested in seeing you are ex construction industry)

stephanieE at 10:19 on 11 June 2003  Report this post
Thanks Becca and Andrew for your comments. Yes, I can see that it isn't entirely clear who she is, how old she is etc, and the piece would benefit from a 'tightening up' to focus on the central theme of considered kidnap. I might re-write this (wrote it initially about 10 years ago!)

poemsgalore at 19:03 on 11 June 2003  Report this post
At first I thought it was the beginning of a longer piece, maybe a short novel, it would be nice to have some kind of conclusion and using it as an introduction could lead to this. Apart from that, it was a damn good read.

Jubbly at 21:06 on 11 June 2003  Report this post
When I began reading this I was immediately reminded of so many of the street sweepers I pass on a daily basis. I thought about my attitude to them and wondered what they feel as they work. It was very interesting to then be taken somewhere else with your sweeper and see him as a real being with a history and life. For me, I'd like to see him come back to the city in the end, just a symetry thing I guess, perhaps it's just me, but I really liked your writing. Good luck.


stephanieE at 09:07 on 12 June 2003  Report this post
Thanks for your comments - I did write a sequel to this at some point, so if I can find it and dust it off I will post that up here too...

It's great having considered feedback oin your work, rather than having these stories continuing to sit unloved and unread in a box of erstwhile treasures.


Sarah at 13:13 on 16 June 2003  Report this post

I won't repeat what everyone has said but I too had clarity problems... but you know that's a problem so I won't continue on that vein!

I liked this as one little piece. The idea of going into the head of someone we pass every day and take for granted as 'street cleaner', ignoring the fact that this person cleans the streets from 6am to 5pm (or whatever) but like the rest of us, has a life entirely exclusive from that, void of that generic label. That is definately the strength here, and a good dramatic contrast.

I think also, that because this is built around his thoughts, it would be a good idea for you to try some stream-of-conciousness writing. I worked a menial job to get myself through Uni, and was alone in the forest for eight hours a day planting trees; I used to think up some VERY weird stuff to conquor the boredom. The way you word his thoughts isn't very convincing to me. It's almost too clean and prosaic... I think it would be better reading if his thoughts were more muddled and struck through with what he's doing at the moment... just an idea. And a fun practice too.

Thanks for posting this!

loz at 04:28 on 18 June 2003  Report this post
Hi Stephanie,

First of all, I loved this; Faceless, sheep-herded city shoppers bit in particular.

I agree with Sarah about his thoughts and the stream of consciousness ideas, that bit i felt, didn't give him a believable enough voice within the text. But, personally i 'liked' the lack of clarity (intentional or not) i thought it mirrored his confusing position at the start of the piece.

Great anyway,


stephanieE at 16:09 on 23 June 2003  Report this post
Thanks Sarah and Loz for your constructive comments - I like the idea of trying to write it as a 'stream of consciousness' piece - although I think that could be quite challenging too...

If you're interested, this chap is still sweeping streets ten years on, and has recently been honoured for his contribution to the city!

Newmark at 13:46 on 26 June 2003  Report this post

I like this. I'm not sure if it's the impression you wanted to give, but I get an image of a man close to insanity. He wants his kid back, and almost seems to blame the city for taking her.

I like this paragraph especially.

"I hate the way the buildings only allow a glimpse of the sky, so I can't see the weather coming", and then, as his gaze fell on a group waiting at the corner, "and the way the street plan forces people to move across the streets in herds, rather than as individuals; but most of all I hate the way nature is shoehorned into box-like parks, instead of being allowed to run wild as nature should."

He's a man with strong opinions, and ready to take action in support of them.

Just one idea - might be nice to know what the woman's view on this is?

Please upload more.


Hilary Custance at 22:08 on 01 July 2003  Report this post
Stephanie, this seemed to me, not so much a short story, as a section from, or even a synopsis of, a much longer piece. Like several of your readers, I especially liked the slow zoom. I liked the way 'he' started as something that turns up in the edge of a photo and we get closer and closer, then into his head and finally tangle with his possibly unstable emotions.

I was mildly confused for a while about whether the girl was a child or a young woman, but it didn't distract me much.

I too like the section ben picked out. I'd just like more of it, all the parts filled out. Cheers, Hilary

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