The first time we saw him was in 2009, on Euston Road by King’s Cross station. We walked right past him and then immediately turned to each other to remark on his outré ensemble and delightfully carefree disposition. What a case, we said. Much better than the Elvis impersonator we saw shuffling to a gig on Caledonian Road with full golden costume and burger sweats.
We saw him more than once by King’s Cross. We also caught him on Upper Street, in Camley Gardens, and in other places besides. Sometimes we’d walk past him, sometimes we’d see him from the top deck of a bus. If either Emily or I saw him when we were on our own, we’d ring the other to tell them. “You’ll never guess who I just saw! I’ll give you a clue: he was GLORIOUS!”
He was always wearing the same clothes: a white suit, a white shirt with what could be a light pinstripe and, crucially, a white fur cloak. A pink tie sometimes as well. Oh, and white slippers with a red trim. Slippers outdoors. This guy’s unbelievable, we’d say. Loosely, you might call him a dandy, but there was also something about his intent and his unhurried walk that made him appear more substantial, more technicolor, than anyone else – like he was mounted on a different layer of card to the rest of us. He strutted around the place looking hopeful.
We never thought too hard about where he might be the rest of the time; we simply supposed it was something to do with cocktails, dames and picking out expensive shoes. Perhaps he’d inherited a fortune but, because of his rough upbringing, still chose to move among the mortals. Or maybe, a few years back, he’d dressed up to meet someone special and she’d never turned up, and now he paced the streets of North London ever hopeful that he’d find her and take her for a drink; leaving the house each day, he’d look at the dead rose in the vase on the dresser by the door, and wonder whether this would be the day he’d get to bring her back and show it to her. Maybe we did think too hard about it.
One day last January, I was walking up Holloway Road when I spotted him. It must have been well over six months since either of us had last seen him, not that we’d ever really noted his absence, and this was out of his usual territory. We’d not been plotting a graph or drawing maps or anything – this just wasn’t a place I expected to see him. The winter was, you’ll remember, particularly bitter. The pavement was slippery with ice and the faces of those hurrying into Archway station were masked with condensing breath. He was standing in the corner of the station and didn’t look well at all. Grey faced, with irregular, mottled stubble, he held his fur cloak tightly around him; it wasn’t just draped across his shoulders like before. He looked scared and cold and tired.
Why had it never occurred to us before that it’s not only fashion that makes someone always dress the same? I didn’t ring Emily straight away; I waited until I got home to tell her.
We’ve since moved south of the river, so there’s not much chance of us seeing him at all, let alone seeing him happy and warm and shaven and all those things that homeless people aren’t. And, because of our new location, my saying “Cor, if I saw him today, I’d ask him how he is and maybe get him a cup of tea and see if he’s got somewhere to stay,” sounds even more meaningless. But it would be lovely to think that, this winter, he has somewhere to be that isn’t just the harshly tiled interior of a tube station. So, if you do see the amazing man, just make sure he’s all right, would you?
Drawing by Emily Smith