Two degrees above zero.
Late one evening I answered the doorbell to a young couple. The woman said they’d been trying all day to find somewhere to stay and asked if there was anywhere they might sleep in our guesthouse. I pointed to the clear notice saying ‘FULL’ and she looked downcast. I could see from the large bulge beneath her blue antique-looking nurse’s uniform that she was heavily pregnant. She was obviously tired too, though she had a nice peaceful quality about her with a gentle smile and quiet eyes.
I like to be helpful so I invited them out of the rain into reception so we could talk. It was foolish really because I knew in advance that I wouldn’t be able to find them anywhere. But I thought perhaps I might be able to give them advice.
I gestured them to be seated on one of the two comfortable sofas we keep by the counter. As they sat down, looking relieved, I regretted building up their hopes. I also wondered if they might mark the sofa as they looked dirty and were both soaked from the rain. The man, whom I presumed was her partner and the unborn child’s father, had long hair and an unkempt beard and seemed a bit out of it, so I spoke mainly to the woman. I explained that all the guest houses in town had been booked up months in advance of the festival, and that I knew there wasn’t an available bed anywhere. She looked desperate then. After a long pause she asked if there was a night shelter for homeless people. I explained that it was almost certainly full, and they would need to demonstrate a connection to the local area in order to stay there. She said they’d never been in the area before. So that ruled that out. Then I remembered that the shelter has a room without furniture that they let people sleep in, on the floor, if the temperature falls below zero. They both nodded at that and I went out the back to look at the thermometer – two degrees above zero. So that ruled that out. When I returned and told them they looked really desolate. I suggested they might take the next train out of town but they explained they didn’t have enough money for a train, and in any case the station had closed for the night.
Then the woman looked at me directly and asked if there was really nowhere they could stay in our guesthouse. They didn’t mind where they went, they weren’t fussy, they didn’t need any bedding or anything. They would leave early and wouldn’t be any trouble.
Briefly I wondered about the stables by our paddock. It’s where we keep our animals. There are a couple of ponies there for my daughters, half a dozen chickens and three whippets I like to race. But it would have been a horrible place to sleep. They’d have had to share it with the animals and it’s covered in straw. And it would surely fail any risk assessment – what if she gave birth in the night – which looked perfectly possible – the place was hardly hygienic and far too cold. No, it didn’t bear thinking about. Besides we don’t have planning permission to use the stables for accommodation. And the neighbours would surely complain.
So, I had to tell them we couldn’t help. I came outside with them though and shook their hands on the driveway. The woman thanked me and I wished them luck. I watched as they walked slowly down our drive. Then, before I went back in, I glanced up at the sky – not a star to be seen
Two degrees above zero.