This homeless bloke walks into a bar...

Friday, 28 October 2011

I finished at the gym and stepped out into one of those dark Scarborough nights that smells like frost and dry leaves.
I walked through the empty high street and up towards the bus stop. A man was slumped, surrounded by bags stuffed with his belongings, in the doorway of the bank. He noticed me looking at him.
“You couldn't spare a quid for a coffee could ya?”

His bony face sharpened into a rueful, closed-mouthed smile.
“I don't usually give money out on the streets, but I think I've got an apple in my bag if you want it?”
The last time I told somebody that was on Hyde Street in San Francisco. They had turned away and blanked me in disgust.
“Yeah, a bit of food would be alright, like.”
I fished the apple out of my bag. It had been there for two days, and was starting to look like an angry mob had mistaken it for a paedophile and lynched it.
“Sorry, it's a bit battered.”
“It's better than nowt, innit. I've been sat here 2 hours and I've got 40p.”
“You got somewhere to sleep tonight”
“Yeah, I usually go round the side of Marks & Spencers, it's not so bad there, like.”
“It's getting cold out.”
“I know, it's freezin' at night now. I've got a cardboard box to flatten underneath me and a few quilts to wrap around me. What's yer name, fella?”
I shook his outstretched hand.
“Sam. What's yours?”
“Chris. Nice to meet ya.”
“Yeah. Look after yourself, mate.”

I walked a few metres away to check the night timetable. Over the road, in the light the Lord Roseberry pub, a man in an orange high-vis vest fished a plastic cup out of a bin, threw it on the floor, stamped on it and then walked away, leaving it to slowly reform on the pavement.
A cold wind blew. The young mothers inside the bus shelter tucked their jeans inside their Ugg Boots and rocked their prams back and forth, as if trying to create some heat.
I walked back towards the man.
“Ay – I've got half an hour before my bus comes - wanna go over the road and get something to eat?”
He grabbed his bags, stood up stiffly and started limping towards me.
“Aye, that sounds smashing.”

He ordered an 8oz rump steak, which came with chips, salad, and a pint of lager.
“I know I shouldn't drink but it helps me sleep at night.”
Whilst he was waiting for the food, he arranged three packets of black pepper in a row on the table, and then 3 sachets of English mustard symmetrically above them.
He then took out three silver coins which amounted to 40 pence, and added a top row to create a square of items.
“I were in the army for 4 years, they look after you there. Then I worked with the trawlers until they brought in the fishing quotas and the whole industry in Scarborough fell through. I lost my job and my house, cuz I used to sleep under the deck at nights. I lost my girlfriend about that time, too, she wasn't interested anymore.”
He stared into the distance, his eyes clouding over.
“When was the last time you slept indoors?”
“I slept in a Bed & Breakfast about 2 weeks ago – they did a lovely breakfast as well. It were a Christian woman who gave me the money for that. They do help, when they can, the Christians.”
“Isn't there a shelter in Scarborough?”
“No, there's nothin'. That's why I'm thinking of going to York, they've got a hostel there. All there is in Scarborough is Rainbow Centre, where you can get a cup of tea and a good breakfast for £2.”
He picked up the coins and arranged them into a pile, before lining them up on the table again.
“What's your plan, then?”
“I've been to Hull looking for work; there was nowt goin'. I was thinking of going down to Peterborough to work on the trawlers down there, but I think the hostel in York is the next step, hopefully it'll give me some time to get sorted. I don't even have a phone at the moment, and I've never owned a bank account in my life. I tried cashing unemployment giro into a friend's account once, but he kept nicking it. Can't trust 'em.”
He slipped his hands out from the sleeves of his fleece and rubbed them together, his shoulders still hunched with cold.
“Do you have an email address? They give you 30 minutes of free internet at the library every day if you get a library card, then people have got a place to contact you if they want to arrange an interview or something.”
“I never thought of that.” He smiled, baring his slimy, blackened teeth. I wondered whether it was from drug abuse, not owning a toothbrush, or a combination of the two destructive life choices. “I'll definitely look into that tomorrow.”
“What did you do last winter - there was about 4 weeks of snow, wasn't there?”
“Yeah it was horrible. I slept in the shelters on South Bay for some of it, found as many blankets as I could and just wrapped them all round me.”
I pictured the cliffs of Scarborough's South Bay – the dark, grimy shelters with their open window frames – the freezing wind rolling in from across the North Sea.
“I slept at a mate's house for about a week and a half, but I could tell he wasn't keen on 'avin me there because it's a small house and he's got a wife and kids, do you know what I mean?”
A woman brought the food to our table.
“I ended up in hospital with pneumonia twice last year. They look after you there as well, mind. Sometimes you think about shoplifting or smashing a supermarket window just so they'll put you inside and you'll get free room and board for a bit, but I like my freedom, even if it means being on't streets. I don't want convictions, I just want to get sorted and have a quiet life.”
“If you need any condiments or sauces they're just over there by the bar. Enjoy your meal.”
The bargirl walked away, frowning, and he placed aside the cup of Diane sauce that had come with the steak, before carefully covering the steak with the contents of the 3 mustard tubes.
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“Yeah, three times for vagrancy and begging and that. The police understand though, they don't blame ya for it. I don't sleep near St Nicholas Street anymore cuz lads come out pissed and give you a kicking. I've had my ribs broken four times in 2 years now. And what they don't realise is that it could happen to anyone, being 'omeless, it could happen to them tomorrow with the way this country's going, but I wouldn't wish it on no-one.”
He cut into his steak and began to devour it, fast. He looked up, grinning.
“You lose your appetite when you haven't eaten for a while, but I can still shovel it down because I love it so much.”
I heard the growl and hiss of a large engine, and saw my bus arrive over the road.
“I've got to go, mate, but best of luck getting sorted.”
He pushed his dinner aside, shook my hand one last time and then stood with his hands clasped in front of him like a Victorian street urchin.
“Cheers lad. Life is what you make of it anyway. Once you hit rock bottom you can only work your way back up.”


Stefano Cavallaro said...

Awesome story! Its very nice from you to help a homeless.