Having gone to work at the wrong time, having found when I get there that I’m not needed till the evening, I’m going home, again.
The man who gets on the bus after me is wearing the same outfit I am: charcoal denims, black leather jacket, white pumps. We acknowledge this then look away. Later, when the person sat between us leaves, we glance up and find ourselves looking at each other again. I’m reading a music magazine. He’s listening to music through a shiny red iPod. I make a point of not smiling and then I look out the window.
When I get off the bus I see a man passed out on the floor, mountain bike lying next to him. No wounds are visible – probably drunk. At midday, midweek, with a bike? It seems strange. I’m still staring when a newcomer kicks him in the shin. “You still in this world, bruv?” No response. God, is he dead? It’s always a possibility. The newcomer kicks the man harder, hard enough to bruise: head rolls, eyes still closed, but there’s a drowsy smile. The kicker turns to me, grinning. “He’s alive!” he says. “Well, that’s good,” I say. My voice is flat and full of doubt. Kicker laughs, walks on at speed.
I’m reminded of a story I have which isn’t the one I was going to tell you. Late at night, outside my house, I found a purse. Usually I hand things in. But. In the purse was ten pounds, a clothes voucher and a JB Sports card. No ID. I was low on cash at the time – needed more hours at work – and this may have influenced my decision. Also, I didn’t know where the nearest police station was. I was going to the 24-hour shop, quite a walk, after work (finished late). There was no food in the house.
I crossed the street. There was a homeless guy. He said, “Spare any change?” I’m not very good with faces. I’d talked to a guy sat there two days before who’d said his brother had died and he was suicidal. After a long chat I’d given him some money towards getting to the funeral. I’d believed him. This guy, sitting in the same place, looks really happy, so I now find myself feeling cheated: if this is the same guy, he doesn’t look like someone whose brother has recently died.
I am now a block down the street – I mean I was then, when this happened – because thinking these things took time and I’ve already said, “No, sorry,” and he’s said, “Have a good night, love.” I feel bad. I have ten pounds that isn’t mine and I’m not handing it in or giving it to a homeless person. Once I’d been cross with a friend who’d found forty pounds in the gutter next to a homeless man and hadn’t given him any.
I travel another block. This tall boy comes towards me with his eyes flashing and his chest puffed out. He says aggressively, “Can I have 20p to make a phone call? Please.” And I know this game because it’s happened before. I’ll take out my purse to find the money and then he’ll grab it, and move on. “No,” I say emphatically (the emphatic bit is important), “I don’t have any change.” As I walk by he freezes and watches me go like this exchange might not yet be over. Now I’m paranoid because I’m thinking this is some sort of joke: I found some money and now everyone in the world wants to get it off me.
The next bit is not crucial to the story but I include it anyway. The 24-hour shop is reached. The lights are gratuitously bright. I keep my head down. I avoid the drunks, leave with purchases – eggs, bread – and walk back the way I came.
I reach a big junction outside a derelict pub. It’s dark and deserted but it’s here that I get the purse out and start to go through its contents again because I’ve reached a decision. I will give the tenner to the homeless guy and keep the voucher (which is also worth ten pounds), and everyone will get to share my good luck. I’ve decided that even if the homeless guy lied about his brother, or if he didn’t, or if he’s going to spend it on booze or whatever, it’d still be nice for him to be given ten quid unexpectedly and it would be the good thing to do and stop my poor abused brain from having to go over it all again. The lights change, I step into the road. This guy walks towards me in a diagonal from the other side. He walks very straight, with square shoulders in a shabby trench coat. His eyes are huge and black with great round whites around them. He has a stick, like a staff, in his hand, that he uses to tap the ground like someone who can’t see, except that he strides forward fast with big steps on long legs and looks me straight in the eyes the whole time. His voice rumbles loudly: “Keep it. Don’t lost it.” He passes me then turns to face me again, now walking backwards, his voice filled with authoritative urgency: “Don’t lost it.” And that’s that. The money is mine. God told me so. God on the Old Kent Road in a shabby beige trench coat.
I hurry home, towards television and an omelette I will find myself too tired to make. I will pay off the homeless man with my change from shopping. That is still generous. But he is not there. Is that him waiting at the traffic lights? I don’t know – I can’t recognise anybody.
My street is well lit. My flat is quiet; it smells stale. Later that week I buy myself a hairdryer with the voucher, which can also be used in chemists. It is the first hairdryer
I have ever owned. This may also be superfluous information.
Another time, I found a different unconscious man lying in the same place outside my house that I found the purse. I called an ambulance. He was drunk but they took him away anyway and did not say that I had wasted their time, even though he did not go quietly. Once, also, I found a baby rat that I rescued from the unfussy cruelty of schoolchildren. Today when I return home there is a long garden worm that has been severed in two in that same spot. When I left earlier in the day it was alive. I hadn’t moved it onto the grass. These are just some of the adventures I have had outside my house. One night I saw a straggly fox around the back. I left him a peanut butter sandwich. Recently my boyfriend drowned a snail that he had not realised was inside the watering can. It’s all the tip of the iceberg. I keep my head down, try not to smile at strangers.