I see him every day, just sitting there, knees bent and shoulders hunched, obviously trying to keep warm. Today, to add to his discomfort, it’s raining but his position has hardly changed, he just sits and watches. I feel I should do something but I have no idea what, he has no begging cup, no hat on the ground. He isn’t calling out or trying to attract attention to himself and he studiously avoids eye contact. I can’t even remember when I first became aware of him; after all it’s not as if one doesn’t see homeless people all the time, so why notice him particularly? I continued on to the tube station, following the same route as countless others, all of us rushing home, wrapped up in our own lives. For me it’s the pain of going home to an empty flat, empty and bereft of love.
I still remember the day we moved in, we were so excited! After nearly three years of hard saving, rarely going out and no holidays, we finally had enough for the deposit. My parents were horrified when I showed them the pictures on the internet.
“It’s so small!” My Mother wailed, “What about when you want to start a family?” Obsessed as ever with the prospect of grandchildren.
“Are you sure about the location?” Dad, more practical, “Maybe somewhere further south of the river would be a better buy?” Always ready to consider an investment he clearly felt we had failed in this respect.
Difficult to explain then that we were buying this particular flat because it felt right, never mind the “South-facing windows” or the “Unusual aspect of the bedroom” this was just the Agents blurb. Lloyd and I just knew this was to be our place. We had both shared the same tingle, the raising of hairs, the slightly dry throat as we were shown around. Later, when we went back to measure for curtains and carpets, we discovered that we had chosen the same colour schemes for each room, it was if we were destined to live here.
Of course, this was all before. Now I didn’t really care about the pastel blue curtains that matched the bedspread in the guest room. I barely noticed the geometric shapes we had hand-painted in the bathroom and I almost loathed the two abstract painting we had chosen for the small hallway.
The automated voice announced my station and I pushed my way off past the wet raincoats and damp umbrellas. Riding up the escalator I looked absently at the posters on the walls,
“The Lion King – Now in its 15th Year. Book to see this spectacular show!”
“Pregnant? Don’t where to turn? Contact Brook Street Clinic – we’re here to help.”
So much mindless advertising that eventually it numbs your brain and it barely registers anymore. A little bit like the homeless people I suppose, as I said, so many you hardly notice them.
As I trudged along the puddle-strewn pavement towards the flat (I no longer think of it as ours or mine – just the flat) the homeless man’s face is clear in my mind – the bright eyes, the thick, black hair and beard. I find myself thinking about where he came from and why he’s homeless. Maybe he’s an ex-Serviceman; I read about that somewhere, soldiers who leave the army and then have no-where to go.
I unlock the front door still considering his plight, the rain persists but as it’s only September it’s not so cold. Maybe he will find a shop doorway to shelter in, I vaguely recall seeing someone huddled into the jewellers near the tube station once. Of course, this was before and I wouldn’t have taken much notice then, I would have been rushing home, keen to get in and start cooking dinner in the tiny kitchen we had fitted last summer.
As I hang up my dripping coat and stow my umbrella I think about dinner. Not particularly hungry I know I need to eat something – my doctor had warned me about my severe weight-loss, he’d said that it was understandable but that I must eat if I didn’t want to become ill. I remember thinking at the time that I wouldn’t have minded getting ill really, it would have given me something else to think about.
There was a time when I would have described a microwave dinner as abhorrent, now I practically live on them. I would never admit this to my clients; a sports physiotherapist should be advocating healthy eating, lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, good protein and the like. Obviously I know all about this, in fact it was how Lloyd and I had met, indirectly.
I remember that day so vividly, it replayed in my head sometimes like an old film clip that repeats itself over and over. Nothing remarkable you have to understand, the local market of all places, both of us had reached for the last punnet of strawberries, our hands touching and retracting quickly. Typically British, reserved and nervous, we had both said in unison “No, please, you have them!” Then we had laughed as the stall holder had brought out another box full of punnets.
“No need for a bloody riot! I’ve got plenty!” he’d rubbed his large tummy and guffawed. “’Ere, Margie, these two kids are fighting over a bleeding punnet of strawberries, what d’ya think of that?”
“Maybe the start of something beautiful!” Margie had winked at me and I had blushed furiously, uncomfortable at being the centre of so much attention. I had paid the man, stuffed my purse back into my handbag and, keen to get away as quick as possible, had strode off towards my bus stop. A hand had grabbed my elbow and I remember panicking, suspecting a mugging – so common nowadays that one always feels it must happen to you sooner or later – I had pulled my arm away and turned sharply to see him stood there all apologetic.
“So sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” his upper class accent had seemed oddly out of place in East London but I had eyed him up and down anyway. “You, er, you went without your strawberries,” he’d stammered the words out and my heart had gone out to him. Someone else who found it hard to communicate with strangers, such a relief! My friends had almost convinced me I was a freak in this respect!
Suddenly the microwave pinged, jarring me out of my reverie. I took the plastic tray out and plonked it on a tray. No need to dirty a plate, just eat straight from the container; such elegant dining, Lloyd would have been horrified, if he’d been here to see it.
Sometime later I realise that the ‘food’ has gone cold and looked about as appetising as a pile of leftovers scraped into a bin which is, of course, what it became. Past caring about food (again) I ran a hot bath, added various essential oils designed to calm and soothe, and soaked for an hour.
Like so many things these days the oils failed to deliver, I was neither calmed nor soothed as I lay in my lonely bed waiting for sleep to come. As I drifted in and out of memories, fantasies and half dreams I was confused and alarmed to find that Lloyd’s face was becoming mixed up with that of the homeless man. No idea why but I knew that my psychologist would have an absolute field day with this, after all this is the kind of stuff they long for isn’t it?
Refusing to look at the relentless red digits on my clock radio I still knew it was around 5:45 – no bird song here to stir you from your slumber; no, sounds to waken you here were far more grounded, the screech of a wheelie bin being hoisted to the back of the cart, the jingle-jangle of milk bottles – unbelievable in this day of internet shopping – on the milkman’s float. Real noises, the sounds of people going about their business, somehow strangely comforting in a way I never found bird song to be.
The tube was packed as always, I stood near the door, conscious of a briefcase scratching against my legs, wondering if it would ladder my tights. No matter, I always carried a spare pair in my handbag, a throwback to my childhood when my Mother always insisted I carried a spare pair of pants “in case of accidents!” I never worked out what accidents she might be referring to.
I walked up the stairs, foregoing the escalator and it’s never ending advertising to emerge into the dank, gloomy morning. I made my way to the pedestrian crossing trying not to search for him, futile of course, I had been thinking about him half the night for goodness sake. When I did see him, seemingly unmoved from last night, I found I couldn’t take my eyes of him. It suddenly occurred to me who he reminded me of; my mind whisked me back to that Sunday school class when I was about nine. Mother always insisted I attend even though neither she nor Daddy ever went to Church. I didn’t mind, I quite liked the stories and the quizzes that involved you searching through the Bible to find phrases which we then discussed, quite openly, with the two ladies who took the classes.
My homeless man, as he had suddenly become in my head, looked just like the picture of Jesus in my illustrated Bible. The likeness was so unbelievable in fact that I was almost compelled to return home and dig the darn thing out.
“Excuse me Miss, but are you crossing?” The man in the ridiculous bowler hat was staring at me staring at Jesus. “It’s just that you seem rather, um er, preoccupied and I was wondering if everything was OK?” He indicated the crossing and the flashing Green Man and I nodded and darted across before he could say anything more.
Work was a waste of time; I really was about as much use as an Oyster card in Cambridge. At around three o’clock I told my boss that I felt a migraine coming on and needed to get home as soon as possible. I hurried towards the tube station, not really sure of my intentions. As I rounded the corner I found myself peering through the gloom. I wondered if he was still going to be there and how anyone could stay in one place for such a length of time.
I saw him, convinced he hadn’t moved all day. My heart was dancing around in my chest as if it had disengaged from all its arterial restraints. I walked over to him, he stared steadfastly at the sky. I was standing directly in front of him but still he refused to meet my eye.
Feeling ridiculously self-conscious I knelt down, “Hello!” Never had the word seemed more ludicrous! “Can I get you a coffee or something?”
“Why?” I was surprised at the accent, soft, cultured not at all what I had expected.
“Because I’m a lonely widow and right now I could do with a coffee and you look as if you could use one too, so why not?” I held out my hand and he took it with only a moment’s hesitation.
His smile was radiant, I felt as if I was bathing in sunlight despite the grey clouds and the constant London drizzle. For the first time in almost two years, ever since Lloyd had left the flat never to return, I felt alive.
As we sat in silence, sipping coffee, I felt Lloyd looking down on us approvingly. Life is, after all, for the living.