On every trip I make to London something small usually happens to me which sticks in my mind, always to do with a stranger.
The time before last I was just checking my phone at a street corner and an old man made a beeline for me - uh oh - and then started to sing. Directly to me. I really didn’t know where to look. He was serenading, “Everyone is beautiful… in their own way” which I wasn’t sure whether or not to take as a compliment, but he looked a little manic so I just said, “Thank you!” (?!) and then hurried off, my pace quickening as I turned my back on him. His vocals continued in my direction and I found myself diving into the nearest shop - it could have been a funeral parlour for all I cared at that moment, as long as it got me out of his range.
Last week my brief moment of connection with a stranger was with a young guy who was homeless. It's something I always find difficult to witness. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with walking past human-shaped mounds under blankets in shop doorways or studiously avoiding eye contact with swaying, swarthy street men whose hopelessness is hard to contemplate; sadly it’s something you expect when you visit any large town or city, isn’t it? This boy, though – he was like someone I might have known. He reminded me of the young lads I used to work with in an office several years ago. Like the sort of fresh-faced trainee with whom I’d have shared some banter, or had a chat with at the coffee machine about the previous night’s episode of a sitcom. Only... his face was no longer that fresh. But I could tell he was intelligent and personable, and I wondered how come his life had got so messed up. I realise that when he first approached me I must have automatically given him that defensive “PLEASE DON'T BOTHER ME!” expression - I just know it would have been all over my face, a kind of reflex, and I can’t imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of that type of response over and over again. Anyway he asked me so politely if I had some change to help him pay for his hostel that night, but I knew I only had a handful of coppers in my purse. “Oh I’ve only got a few coins – I’m a bit embarrassed!” I said as I scooped up the two-pence pieces. “You’re embarrassed?” he replied, gesturing towards himself as if to say, “Hello-oh! Don't you realise who you're saying that to?!” My tactlessness hit me as he went on, not harshly at all, but very genuinely, “How embarrassed do you think I feel, asking you?” Stupidly, I just hadn’t thought of it like that. I apologised (and explained that I’d just wanted to give him a more useful amount), and then we chatted briefly and said friendly goodbyes. On the train back I found it hard to get him out of my mind, more so than I ever have in that kind of situation before. There was something about him. I was going home to a safe, warm house on this chilly October night, and he was going… where? And I’m obviously still thinking about him now, aren't I? I find it hard to get my head around how relentlessly tough life must be if you're homeless, especially in an English winter.
Mind you, I once knew of a man who actively chose to live outside in all weathers for most of his adult life. He had a little camp in a copse by the side of a main road in a village not far from my home town. He'd amassed all sorts of random objects that he’d presumably either found or been given – toys, bags, old clothes, etc. and decorated his makeshift home amongst the trees with them, the more brightly coloured and shiny the better. It was a cheery sight - and site. Somehow he managed to keep himself, and his little dog whom he pushed around in an old pram, alive and well for years. His hair never went grey and his skin looked like bark. He walked for miles every day, complete with dog and pram, and always waved to each car that passed him (including mine – it was a pleasure to wave back). Every Christmas Day he would accept the invitation from one of the locals to join them for a full, festive dinner. This was the one and only day of the year on which he’d take a bath too, thanks to the loan of their bathroom and some sweet-smelling unguents. Well into his seventies when he died, he was liked and respected by all who lived in the area, his long life out in the cold no doubt made a little warmer by the kindness of strangers.