Sunday. A crisp winter morning. Hoar frost on railings and garden hedges. From a cloudless sky the sun, low on the horizon, shines directly into the eyes and sends the landscape into sudden darkness. We opt for an early walk in the local park.
A park bench just inside the entrance gate is a favourite of people down on their luck, especially homeless men of a certain age. They are usually dishevelled, often with long, untended hair and matted beards, and clothes that bear the stains of long use and infrequent cleaning. They are generally affable, as ready to engage in conversation as to accept a donation. We were not surprised, therefore, to see a man sitting on that bench. He was staring into space and paid no attention to us.
We walked on through an avenue of horse-chestnuts, at the end of which stands an ancient English oak, its trunk leaning to one side like a gigantic toadstool. My companion describes it as heroic; it gives the impression of having weathered centuries of storms, defied the venal temptations of men to cut it up for furniture, withstood countless assaults from pests and disease. I like to imagine Shakespeare knew that oak - and maybe even sought shelter from the rain beneath its youthful wings.
Beyond the oak, the park opens out to meadow where owners exercise their pets, youngsters play football, and people of all shapes, sizes and years walk or jog round the perimeter. We did likewise at our own pace and then headed back the way we had come.
The man on the park bench was still there. He wore a shabby anorak and thin, grey sweatpants - redolent enough of poverty; but his short hair and the stubble on his chin suggested he had not long been on the street. I judged him to be around thirty-five. Lodged on the seat between his legs was an open bottle of sherry, and beside him a rolled-up sleeping bag.
We asked if he was okay and if he needed help. He responded by asking directions to the nearest station. At first we took this to be the railway station, until it became clear that he meant the police station. He said wanted to be arrested so that he could get a bed for the night. He’d been in jail before and it was the best place to get warm. When we told him the local police station had closed several years ago and the nearest one was a couple of miles away, he repeated the question, listened again to the answer and then dropped the subject. Instead he launched into an account of what had brought him to his present pass - his words pouring out in an almost unbroken a stream of consciousness.
He told us his name was Chris, that he had spent seven years with the Royal Fusiliers and had done several tours of duty in Afghanistan. The scar on his forehead was from a bullet-wound. “Soldiers who’d fought for Queen and Country shouldn’t be on the streets like him, should they?” He and his wife had six children - “yeah I’ve enjoyed myself in my time”; but when he finally got back home for good he found his wife had taken up with another man. She was with the kids, so he had left her everything - the house, the money in the bank - and walked away. There was a pub - a family inheritance - but his relatives had taken it while he was in Afghanistan and refused to give him his share. He’d had a brawl with his cousin over the matter and as a result was nursing a broken hand.
He held up his right hand which was badly swollen. “I’m in pain too, in my chest,” he said. “It’s terrible that pain, ’specially when I cough.”
One of London’s largest hospital runs alongside the park but he wouldn’t hear of going there. “They’ll take away my bottle. I can’t live without the bottle any more. I’m an alcoholic.” And then he added, “I’m gonna die soon anyway.”
We asked if he was hungry and he nodded, so we went to the hospital cafeteria and brought back some hot sandwiches and a large tea. Each sandwich was individually wrapped in thin cardboard. He seized one but - unable to use his right hand - struggled to open the package. Before we could help him, the package had burst and the sandwich lay on the ground.
“Don’t matter,” he said, “I’ll eat it.”
I picked it up, most of the contents had survived, and handed it to him. He tore at the food with his teeth and chewed rapidly, wincing with pain each time he swallowed. Then without touching the tea or the other sandwiches he lay down on the bench with his head on the sleeping bag and closed his eyes.
We discussed what further we could do for him, decided he needed medical attention, and opted to try the hospital. At the main entrance they told us it was nothing to do with them, but we could try “Emergency” round the corner. There they advised us to get one of the ambulance crews to pick him up; several ambulances were parked outside. Unsurprisingly the crew we approached refused to help because they weren’t allowed to pick up people on the street.
Back at the Emergency reception desk - it was not in the least busy - I showed my press card and suggested that ‘pass the buck’ was not a suitable game for dealing with someone who was in pain, very cold, devoid of personal resources and probably quite ill. It worked. The reception nurse called the police and asked them to collect Chris and bring him to Emergency. When we finally left it was with the hope and belief - for the nurse thanked us with a show of what seemed to be genuine warmth - that this young ex-soldier is now receiving the medical attention he needs and surely deserves.
What if he wasn’t an ex-soldier? What if the story he had told us about the Royal Fusiliers and Afghanistan and so on was no more than a drunken fantasy? We found nothing in what he said that seemed to us self-contradictory or at variance with his obvious state of distress. But in the end what does it matter? Isn’t it enough that he is one of us and in need? Through the madness of his own distress, that is what Shakespeare’s King Lear discovers as the storm rages round him on the heath:
“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’ere
That bide the pelting of this pitliess storm.
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!”
If we could but spread out our arms like the oak tree….
And if he is an ex-soldier back from the war, where is the army? Does it not care for its own?
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