Printed from WriteWords -

The Sweeper

by  stephanieE

Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 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.

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.