Nochebuena

The advantage of having a garage without a car is that you find yourself with an enormous amount of storage space — somewhere to keep things that are not important enough to be part of your life, but not useless enough to be discarded. Boxes of products you might one day want to sell. Spare duvets and pillows, in case you have an unexpected guest. Christmas decorations too, of course. You might put them up in November, if you’re that kind of person, and leave them up until the end of January, if you’re as lazy as I am. Still, at some point you need to find a space where they can stay quiet, unnoticed, forgotten.

The disadvantage of having a garage without a car is that it becomes a blind spot in your life. After a while, I got used to looking at it without seeing it. It was part of my house, but unless I had a reason to fetch or store something in there, I could spend months without remembering its existence.

I might not have entered my garage until the end of the year if I hadn’t noticed, one Saturday morning, that its door was slightly open. Maybe I had forgotten to lock it and it had stayed like that for months. Maybe someone’s car or bike had hit the door and broken the lock. I was late for something unimportant, though, so I carried on with my day. I would have a look at the garage lock later. I knew there was nothing of value in there.

Throughout the rest of the morning and afternoon, questions about the garage kept popping into my head. How long had it been that way? How many times did I pass in front of that slightly open door without noticing it? Like I said, I had gotten used to looking at it without seeing it. Even at that moment, when I had the garage door in my mind, it still managed to be a blind spot. My thoughts never went beyond the door and its lock. I had noticed a half-open door, but didn’t wonder what was inside it

When I returned home, I nearly forgot about the garage again. I almost went into the house as usual before remembering that there was something unusual about that day. The door was still ajar, just the way I had left it in the morning. There was no sign of how long it had been like that. The paint was slightly damaged, but I could not remember whether or not it had always been that way.

I pulled the handle and felt something loose in the mechanism. The lock was, indeed, broken. I thought I would have to call the landlord and get it fixed. I thought of how much it would cost, of when they could come and do the repairs, of whether or not I would have to be there. But even then, with my hand on the door, I did not think of what could be inside. I lifted the handle not out of worry or curiosity, but simply to assess the damage to the lock and test if the door could still be fully opened. I took a peek inside and noticed that the damage was not that bad and that all my belongings were still in there. I was unsurprised. There was nothing of value in that garage.

I had already closed the door when I felt the need to open it again and check inside — this time to actually see what was in there, instead of just looking at it. All my belongings were in there, yes, but there was something odd about the way in which they were arranged. I could not remember leaving them like that. The boxes were stacked to form some sort of wall. Behind it, the duvets and pillows were out of their storage bags, forming a soft bed on the concrete floor. The Christmas box was also open. A big glitter snowflake served as decoration to the cardboard wall. To the right of the pillow was a vase of artificial nochebuenas — traditional Mexican flowers named after the Spanish word for Christmas Eve. The Good Night.

On the phone, the police said it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. The British weather at night can be unwelcomingly cold, even in the Spring. Rough sleepers often break into empty garages for shelter. They enter late in the night and disappear before the sunrise. If our visitor had been more careful, he could have stayed invisible for weeks, maybe months.

The policewoman proceeded to politely explain that it was not her problem. My garage, my lock. I should get it fixed. Besides, nothing was stolen.

“It’s Saturday. We are understaffed. There is a lot of crime going on. This is a person looking for shelter. If the person returns and it inconveniences you, give us another call. But it still won’t be a priority.”

Instinct tells you to defend your property from any threat. Even if the threat is a homeless person in a cardboard fortress, sleeping between a flower and a snowflake. Even if your property is just a garage filled with unimportant junk.

I spent a few minutes devising a plan to catch the intruder. I would wait at night until someone opened the garage door again, go there and confront whoever was invading my property — then call the police for support.

The plan was obviously shortsighted. I could lose a night of sleep in vain — there was no guarantee that the visitor would return. I would potentially be putting myself in danger. The confrontation could lead to unnecessary violence. And if I did confront the stranger, what would I say? What is the nice, human way to tell someone that those walls and roof are there to guard my collection of insignificant belongings — the duvets and pillows, the snowflakes, the nochebuena — but not to provide shelter to a stranger in a rainy night?

The fear of that verbal clash, more than anything else, was what made me give up on confronting the invader. Like many other people born in big cities, I had grown used to pretending poverty did not exist, rather than facing it. Homeless people on the streets were on my blind spot, just like the broken garage door.

The alternative would be to continue ignoring what I had always ignored. Calling it an act of charity would be misunderstanding the motivation behind it. First, because it was a non-action. Second, because I knew it was more out of apathy and fear, rather than empathy, that I decided to do nothing.

The landlord would fix the garage lock eventually. In the meantime, I would continue to ignore the unexpected guest, much like I ignored the garage. The duvets and pillows would stay where they were, in between the snowflakes and the nochebuena. And whenever I found myself thinking of Christmas, I would calm down by remembering it was still May.


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