Spare some change for a cuppa tea, mate?
How often had he heard such pleas? Hundreds. And how often had he done as he was asked? Never. So why was he hesitating now?
Robert (never Bob) Trevelyan had been striding down the pedestrianised St Martin's Court near Leicester Square tube station in central London. He had just come out of the one bookshop in the court, "Unworths", where he had at last managed to buy a suitable birthday gift for his sister: an antiquarian work on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
He would never normally have given a second glance to the homeless vagrant sheltering in a fire exit doorway of Wyndhams Theatre. It might have been the narrowness and intimacy of the court itself; it was hard to avoid the man. It might have been the lack of urgency in his personal timetable; today he was not in his usual urban rush. It might have been the recent dramatic change in his professional circumstances; losing one's job and being unemployed made one more aware of the fragility of life.
Robert Trevelyan had enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing: public school, good university, some international travel, career in banking, fair bit of sex, some drugs, but no wife and certainly no children. He had chosen the finance sector for his profession because he believed that making a difference could come later; for now he wanted to make some money, some serious money.
Somehow he had migrated to the exotic and esoteric world of derivatives. He was at a dinner party once when this rather attractive young thing asked him what he did and her face had simply crumpled when he had attempted to explain forwards, futures, options and swaps. Never again. But what he had loved about derivatives as a financial instrument was how they focused on aspects of risk. He had always been something of a risk taker.
Moving to the American-based Lehman Brothers early in 2008 had been a risk, but he had never expected the economic recession of that year to hit so fast and so hard. In mid September the firm filed for Chapter 11 protection in the largest bankruptcy in US history. Like hundreds of others, Robert had lost his job in the City of London in a matter of days and walked from the brilliant glass building holding a cardboard box that seemed to contain his whole life.
Of course, it was far from his whole life. He had made a lot of money in his decade in the City and he had saved enough of it to cushion him against the worst of the recession before inevitably the good days rolled once more. A life in a container was what the man at his feet possessed.
"Well, what about it? The price of a cuppa?"
Robert paused. Why did he never respond to such urgent requests for some spare change? It was partly embarrassment; it was simply so much easier to look away and keep walking, rather than engage with someone, if only for seconds, from a such a different and frankly rather disgusting world. It was partly doubt that this pathetic-looking object was worthy of his generosity; what was he doing here and why did he not get off his arse and find a job? It was partly uncertainty about the genuineness of the request; did this man really intend to buy a cup of tea or was he accumulating odd coins to blow on cheap alcohol or not so cheap drugs?
This time he stopped. He stared into the beggar's eyes which were hopeful yet oddly vacant. He thought about what he could offer this flotsam of life.
"Do you really want a cup of tea?" he asked.
"Of course and anything else you can manage, mate" came the hopeful reply.
"OK, replied Robert. I'll tell what I'll do. I won't give you any money but I'll take you somewhere for whatever you want to eat and drink. Fair enough?"
They had no distance at all to go. Robert knew a place literally around the corner: "Gaby's" was a deli-come-diner on Charing Cross Road that served Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food and he would often stop there for a cappuccino and something light before or after attending the cinema in the Leicester Square area. It was low style but high taste. Before any of the staff had an opportunity to object to such dubious custom, they swept inside and hid in a corner at the back. For Robert, the immediate sense was one of smell from across the small Formica table: stinking breath, stale sweat, pungent body odour, and urine. For a moment, he thought this was a terrible mistake: he should just apologise and leave. But that would be cowardly and bad manners.
His unexpected and unorthodox companion seemed to be having trouble reading the menu and it was not clear whether this was a case of illiteracy or unfamiliar foods: falafel with salad, bagel with smoked salmon, pastrami on rye, meatballs with pilau rice, hummus and pitta bread. Fortunately, however, there was a plastic-laminated version of the menu with photographs of the main dishes and his guest soon stabbed a filthy forefinger at the chosen course. He went for juicy kebabs: chunks of chicken and pork interleaved with onion and peppers.
As one man ate ravenously and the other man observed curiously, a story emerged. At first, bits spilled out like an overflowing bowl but soon the whole thing flooded like a bursting dam. To Robert, somehow the story seemed all the more poignant for being delivered in a pronounced, working-class Northern accent.
Bill (never William) Walker had clearly not done much walking for a while. He was seriously overweight and it was not surprising to learn that he had been a long-distance lorry driver based in the north-west of the country. His life seemed to be unexceptional, even mundane, until one fateful, wet winter night when he had smashed into the back of a broken-down car that had not been able to make the hard shoulder of the motorway and whose occupants had not managed to signal any warning because of electrical failure. It was an Indian family and the parents had survived the collision with some broken bones, but the two children in the back girls of eight and ten had been killed outright.
The police had investigated the accident but there was no question of a prosecution it was a genuine, if appalling, accident. It was clear that Bill had been deeply traumatised by the incident because, as he explained, he suffered serious depression which eventually resulted in his being laid off. Spending all his time at home, he had soon discovered that, while he had been on the road, his wife had been on the pull and, when they argued about the situation, he frequently hit her and on occasions the police had been called. His relationship with his son and daughter was not much better. He had spent so much time away from home that he found that he hardly knew them and, in his self-loathing, he had little wish to do so.
When another driver at his old firm offered him a couch for a few nights, he walked out and had never spoken to his family since. He had hitched to London thinking he could find work in the capital but he had few skills and less confidence while the city had plenty of immigrant labour and a deep recession. He had been sleeping rough for months now and it showed. A combination of begging and shoplifting had so far ensured his survival, but he was crap at both not enough practice, not enough will power.
Robert listened to Bill's story patiently but with a degree of incomprehension and discomfort. He didn't have a wife but he could not imagine striking her. He didn't have children but he could not contemplate the notion of walking out on them. The only night he had slept outdoors was when he did the Duke of Edinburgh's Bronze Award as a teenager and he had decided that this was an experience never to be repeated.
Bill had finished eating and he was aware of Robert observing him with a mixture of pity and contempt. He quickly decided he had said enough more than enough about his miserable life and changed the subject totally.
"What kind of a place is this?" he asked as he looked around at the food on other tables and some of the pictures on the wall.
Robert explained: "I know the food's different but it's quite a popular spot. They even have actors coming in from the local theatres."
"What sort of actors?"
"Well, Matt Damon was here once - you can see his picture on the wall."
"And who's Matt Damon?
"He's a Hollywood actor. He played Jason Bourne in those three films."
Robert caught himself and stopped. What on earth was he doing here having a conversation with someone about Jason sodding Bourne? Time to move on.
"Do you want anything else?" he asked.
"What is there?"
"Well, I love the baklava here I reckon it's the best in London. If you like sweet things, you'll love it."
"Never heard of it, but OK I'll try it."
Robert ordered pieces for them both. When Bill had licked the last of the sticky syrup from his chapped lips and the final bits of flakey pastry had fallen from his unshaven face, Robert inquired: "So, what did you think of the baklava?"
"Bloody brilliant. Thanks, mate."
Robert paid and led Bill back onto the street. This had been one of the strangest encounters in his life and he had no idea how to end it. He was genuinely moved by Bill's story but he did not know how he was supposed to respond. Throughout his career, he had been more at home with pounds than people, more comfortable with figures on a screen than figures in his life. He slipped a £20 note into Bill's hand and muttered "Take care - mate."
Three weeks, later, Robert was on his way from Leicester Square to the tube station, having just viewed the latest Russell Crowe movie. It was good but nothing was going to beat "Gladiator". He had barely thought about Bill in the interim. Now, though, he could see "Gaby's" across the road and he could not help wondering what had happened to the guy. Had he blown that £20 on drink or drugs? Was he still harboured in that corner of the theatre? Had he managed to find a job? Or had he gone back to his family up north? And had a meal and a bit of money from a stranger meant anything at all or made any difference whatsoever? Conversely had the strange encounter made any difference to Robert himself?
He crossed the road and strolled into St Martin's Court. There was no sign of Bill. He was strangely disappointed. He was about to make for the tube station when he decided to check out "Gaby's". He asked the Middle Eastern manager: "Do you remember that guy I brought here a few weeks ago? I'd found him begging round the corner but he's not there any more. Has he been here again since? Do you know what happened to him?"
The manager's words were as sobering as his complexion was sallow: "He only came back once about a week ago. I'm sorry but, as he was crossing the road after he left here, he was hit by a fire engine."
Robert's mind spun. He knew that there was a fire station near by. It was opposite the Curzon Soho cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue that he attended from time to time. He had seen fire engines storming out and racing down the street to attend an emergency. But an accident?
Quietly he asked the cafe manger: "Is he OK?"
"Afraid not. He was killed. A terrible accident."
For Robert, it was like being punched in the stomach. He had only known Bill for perhaps thirty minutes but, almost against his will, there had been some sort of connection. And the manner of his death seemed so wasteful, so ironic. The fire service was supposed to save life, not take it. He edged slowly to the door.
A Lithuanian waitress sidled up to him and whispered: "Whenever I see him begging for money, he look so sad. The day he come here alone, he seem close to tears. Maybe he mean to step into the road."
Robert struggled to take in the news and the possible implications. In something of a daze, he stepped out onto the pavement and looked at the space in the road where it must have happened. He turned towards the tube station and then halted. He swivelled round slowly and retraced his steps.
He spoke again to the owner: "Why did he come here again? Did he want a meal?"
"No, he didn't come for a meal. I don't think he could afford a meal. He seemed to be down to his last few coins. He only had one thing."
"And what was that?"
"A piece of baklava."
Published on 24 July 2009
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