Once upon a time there was a small hut in a barren wasteland. There was nothing much around it but ice and mud and desolation, and the hut itself was old and starting to rot in places, where the wood supports had been sunk too long in the mud. A weak light shone between the cracks in the shutters, but no traveller would have looked on it as a welcoming bastion of civilisation and warmth, not even in comparison to its bleak surrounds. In fact, anyone with any sense would have passed it by: you don't go into houses where the owner doesn't care to keep them up any longer, not if you expect any good to come of it.
I'd given up expecting much of anything myself, and it was my house, so there wasn't much point not going in it. And anywhere else I'd go would get to looking much the same, given time. They say a healthy diet should have greens, and fruit, and grains and such, but I don't like your chances of growing any of those round these parts. This isn't exactly a cottage with roses round the door and a vegetable patch, cellars bursting with jams and pickles and goodness knows what else. Besides, whisky's made from grain, right? And there are normally some stale bar snacks about the place, so it's not as though I'll starve. Not from lack of food, anyway.
So there I was, having my usual dinner in my usual place, and somewhere outside the wind was howling, the sort of wind that gets into your bones. It didn't get into the hut, but I knew it was out there, and the cracks and gaps were getting bigger every day. Just for the moment, though, there was a dim whisky-coloured fire in the grate, and that was warm enough to get by on. Warm enough not to be found frozen in the morning. I expect it used to be sunny here, sometimes. There must have been heat, and light, and people laughing. I don't really remember it anymore.
I guess I said goodnight, because why give up your manners along with everything else? But there isn't anyone else here to speak to, not real people who really hear me. If you want a conversation, you don't come to a place like this. I don't quite know what sort of place you do go to: a place that doesn't have anyone like me, I should think. Anyway, I made it to bed, and hoped I'd got it right: that pitiful fire had to last the night, and the wind stay outside. Maybe I didn't deserve it when I made no effort to look after the place (who am I kidding? I knew I didn't deserve it), but there was an awful lot of cold and dark out there, and it was the sort of cold that carried knives, all the better to cut you with. It's funny, but you can almost pray even when you've nothing left to pray to. I guess the human animal doesn't care to die any more than any other creature does, even if it's not really worth living. I don't want to be cut, I don't want to bleed: I needed not to remember, or think, or hope. Hope most of all, because that just lets the fear in.
It was the same every night, and every night it was bad, but not too bad, and I was there in the morning, even if the morning was sickly and hung-over. If I couldn't sleep, I'd get my cards out and play against myself. It was a special game of my own devising, where both sides were guaranteed to lose. Mostly I ended up losing track of the score, though, or dropping the cards. It didn't really make any difference. At least it was better than thinking what was outside, which was much too big and too terrible for what was left of me. I cut the deck and turned up the queen of spades, which was just about my luck. (Yeah, I used to read a lot, Pushkin and Lermontov, people like that. And what's a man with my education doing ending up like this? Someday someone's going to come along and ask me to justify everything I've ever wasted.)
I guess one night it won't go so well. You can't keep things outside forever, particularly if you're too scared to try. Particularly if you know you'd have to go outside to fix things up, face up to whatever's waiting before you can patch up your defences.
Same couldn't be said for all the patrons. Some of them were alright, coming in for a little warmth and companionship, chatting to their friends after a long day at work. Or a long day trying to find work: the ones with friends would still come in, and someone would buy them a drink, try to cheer them up. The other ones, though, the ones who drank alone, even in company. Well, it was a shame about them, and he wished he could help, edge them over to join the happier, hopeful ones, but you can't talk to people who won't listen, maybe can't hear you anymore over whatever's going on in their own heads, so mostly he served them their rotgut and took their money and left them in peace. They were there everyday, until you hardly noticed them anymore, what with the way they never changed or tried to get to know you. You only really saw them when they weren't there anymore, which did happen from time to time. Well, maybe things worked out for one of them sometimes, and they came back out of wherever they'd gone, ready to join everyone else, with homes and friends and futures of their own. Mostly not, though. Mostly they fell into the river, drunk, or fell asleep somewhere unheated in the middle of winter, or didn't notice the oncoming car, and maybe it was an accident, maybe not. Bit like a poker machine, really: you could go home with decent winnings, but let's face it, the people who keep playing long enough go home with nothing, if they've got a home to go to. Better to be the one who keeps the takings, not the one of the ones so desperate for a different life they'll give up what little they already have.