I am not sure if you were there when we arrived, or if you came along after us. But as we sat and waited for our drinks to arrive I noticed you further up the street, just over Mr B’s shoulder. You were washing your neck, using a cloth being dipped in a bucket, standing in the gutter in your socks, and shorts. I thought you were the crappest busker I had ever seen.
How was that entertainment? You seemingly having a shower in the street at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. It was no wonder nobody was really paying you any attention, or even paying you any money. As the Prince Edward theatre tipped out the matinee audience for Aladdin everybody filed past you and ignored you. I started to feel sorry for you.
And then think fleetingly that maybe you would bring your act down nearer to us and our fellow diners on the pavement outside an Italian restaurant. Surely with our flashy cameras and bottle of wine we would spare you a quid so it stood to reason you would make your way down to us.
As our main course came and went though you didn’t. You carried on. Until your socks came off and got dumped on the pavement. Then another bloke arrived and joined in with the ritual of having a wash. If one person doing this act wasn’t going to earn you any money I couldn’t work out how the two of you would. Then as the crowd disappeared and I got a clearer view of the pavement I saw a pile duvets. And clothes.
And the penny dropped.
This wasn’t an act.
This was your life.
I couldn’t take my eyes off you as I realised this really was your life. You were having a shower the only way you could, as was your mate. After he had finished you then started washing your clothes. Holding them between yourselves and wringing them out before hanging them over the brackets supporting the awning above your heads.
Mr B realised I was suddenly very moved by what had unfolded behind him and that as he knows me so well realised I couldn’t go home without coming over to say hello. And to give you some money. He handed me £20 and said “go on, go and talk to them”.
We had a discussion about the fact that perceived wisdom says we shouldn’t give the homeless cash as it may fund a habit. That we should give you Tesco vouchers or waterproof trousers or warm socks. But funnily enough on our afternoon in London we hadn’t brought any of those things with us.
As I approached you and asked if I could give you twenty quid for a couple of coffees and dinner you asked if I was sure. Twice. Your voice cracked as you told me that this meant a lot to you as you were dying from cancer. You lifted your shirt to show me the scars, assuming I wouldn’t believe you. You only have three months to live. And you have lived on the street for twenty years.
In that doorway, that you call home. You keep it clean, so clean you had a mop and bucket. You have offered to paint the wall behind.
You also introduced me to your brother who you look after. Your brother who was in the army but after being punched in the face and blinded by a man holding a bunch of keys, got medically discharged. He then lost his income, his home, his girlfriend (who he was defending the night he got blinded). All you wanted was to know your brother would be safe after you died.
Your story floored me, Sam. I am rarely lost for words but standing there chatting to you I wanted to scoop you both up and make it all right. You were sharing with me how hard life has been for those 20 years, how everybody on that road knows you and looks out for you and your brothers. You have somebody trying to get you a room in a landlord’s house so that your brother can be safe when you die and I wish I could wave a wand and make that happen.
I sat back at the table to finish my drink and burst into tears. In public. In a restaurant. I joked with Mr B that the crowd outside Ronnie Scott’s across the road would think he had just dumped me if they looked over at me at that second and hadn’t seen me walking back to the table.
I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, Sam. I am sorry that as a society we have guys like you and your brother have nowhere else to go but a pavement. I am sorry that in the two hours we were there not one other person stopped and talked to you. Not one acknowledged or smiled at you. Let alone gave you a quid for a coffee.
But most of all I am sorry I thought your act was crap.
That it might have even been an act
Rather than your life.