A short story with a twist which will hopefully inspire some thoughts.
“Out!” Greg shouted, bringing his Porsche to a screeching stop. He reached across, grabbed the door handle and yanked the passenger door open.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m already out,” I mumbled, trying to unclip the seatbelt. The moment it gave way, he gave me a mighty shove, which sent me flying out of the car. He revved the potent engine, flipped me the finger, shouted :”Have fun” and drove off, burning rubber.
“Jesus,” I sighed, “that wasn’t necessary, mate.”
The momentum of Greg’s shove had caused me to lose my balance and I landed in the gutter on all fours. As luck would have it, it was pissing down and the gutter was, as usual in a downpour, filled with dead leaves, debris and…dog shit. Trust my luck to have landedin a lump, which could only have been produced by a Dobberman or some such. Clumsily I scrambled to my feet, contemplating my soaked trousers, left hand dripping with dog pooh. I fumbled in my pocket and discovered a folded handkerchief, remnant of my former life. I pulled it out and cleaned up as best I could, throwing it into the gutter afterwards.
Night was falling and I was hungry, wet and homeless. Of course, I did only have myself to blame for being in such a situation. How could I have been so foolish?
I looked at my surroundings. Greg had dropped me at one of the busiest sections of London, Hyde Park Corner. The entrance to one of the numerous underpasses opened up on my left. Only days ago had I hurried along here, smart business suit in place, clutching my briefcase, head down, deeply in thought about the next transaction. Like everybody else who had to use the underpass, I had rushed past the homeless residing there and ignored their: “Have some spare change, Guv?” paying little attention to them, trying not to breeze in too deeply the stink which rose from the damp floor, the cardboard boxes and tatty blankets which formed their temporary dwellings.
The twinkling lights of the luxury hotels nearby could well have been as far away as the moon. They wouldn’t provide me any shelter tonight! I took a deep breath. First things first. I needed to get out of the rain and had to cope with the situation I found myself in. Self pity was not an option. I did after all, have my pride.
I entered the nearest entrance. A few paces along, I saw a true cardboard castle. Someone had definitely set up shelter for the duration or at least as long until a policeman moved them. A mangy dog lay by what I assumed was the foot end. I had noticed, that the homeless were often accompanied by dogs and that the animals looked unkempt, to match their owners, but never under-nourished. I had no choice but to try and get help from a “professional” and the inhabitant of the cardboard castle, of whom only an outstretched arm and a boot-clad foot was visible, appeared to be just that.
I approached, the dog lifted its head and a blanket, which had so far covered its owner’s face, lifted in synch. A bearded face turned towards me as I stopped next to him and the inevitable “Got some spare change, gov?” was uttered.
I squatted down and cleared my throat: “Ahmm, actually, no, I haven’t, but I could do with some myself.”
That brought the man up to a sitting position. He squinted at me suspiciously: “What? What did you say? Are you taking the piss out of me?”
Oh hell, careful here, I thought to myself. What did I know about the inclination towards violence of the homeless and about homeless etiquette. Wouldn’t do to antagonize the man, I wanted his help after all.
“No,” I hastened to add. “It’s just as I say. I’m homeless myself, I have no money, nowhere to go and, well, I’m starving.” There! I had said it.
The guy eyed me up and down. It was extremely difficult to estimate his age as most of his face was covered by a wild black beard. As far as the dim light allowed, I could make out blue eyes and he seemed to be lucid, certainly not dead drunk. A gallon of plonk however peeked out from under his blanket, but apparently he hadn’t yet made a major dent in its content.
“How long?” he wanted to know next.
“How long what?” I asked.
“You been homeless, man,” he clarified in a tone as if addressing a particularly thick five year old.
“Oh,” I nodded my head. “Today, few hours ago.” I noted with dismay that I already adapted to his form of speech. No elaborate sentences or three syllable words. Why do we assume the homeless are stupid and uneducated, I thought fleetingly, but only very fleetingly.
“Ah,” was all he said. “Sit,” he patted the uninviting blanket, moving over a little to make room for me.
I followed his invitation and plunked down. Even the dog moved away a little and didn’t seem hostile to his owner’s new best friend.
“Have a swig,” he then invited, lifting the big bottle by the neck and extending it to me. Inwardly, I shuddered. Thoughts of AIDS, syphilis and any other illness crossed my mind, but I didn’t dare to refuse or even wipe the bottle’s neck with my hand. I closed my eyes and swallowed. I might as well have drunk pure vinegar, the stuff was instantly puckering my mouth. But, going down, it gave a hint of warmth to my stomach, which immediately responded by growling loudly.
My host laughed. “Denis,” he said, proffering his hand.
I took and shook. “David,” I replied. Introductions were made, now what?
“Talk,” Denis ordered, taking a healthy slug himself.
“Well,” I began, “as I said, I’ve become homeless practically over night. I somehow need to get through it, survive, you know, get my footing until..”
“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted somewhat rudely, “same old story. Wife ran off, costly divorce, lost your job, couldn’t pay the mortgage, home repossessed, no savings as wifey made off with them, so called friends don’t want to know, I know, I know…
“Well, actually, it wasn’t quite like that,” I cut in, for some inexplicable reason ready to come clean.
“ First rule, mate,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard me and a little out of breath after his litany, fortifying himself with another swig, “don’t tell your sob story and don’t ask anyone theirs.”
“Why did you ask me, then?” I wanted to know.
“Because I wanted to see if you’re for real, man.”
“And, am I?”
“Maybe, don`t know, don’t really care, but somehow I like you and I’m in the mood for company today.”
That suited me just fine. Hopefully he would get me through the night and could show me how to put some food into my aching stomach. As if reading my thoughts, he continued: “Hungry?”
“Very,” I admitted, straight to the point.
“Ok,” he started to get up. “Help me close down,” he ordered.
The dog moved out of the way, as we began to painstakingly dissemble the cardboard castle. Everything was carefully folded and loaded into a shopping cart which had been concealed behind him. Once everything was safely stowed, Denis pronounced :”Let’s go.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Who?” I asked horrified. “Blades? As in knifes? Who’s that?”
“Friend,” came the laconic reply. “Great food provider.”
“Where does Blades, ahhmmm, live?”
“WaterlooBridge,” Denis replied as if he had mentioned BuckinghamPalace. To be homeless at WaterlooBridge seemed to be the upper echelon. What did I know?
Pushing the card, clipping a leash on the –still nameless-dog, we trudged along on our way to WaterlooBridge and the dwelling of the mysterious Blades.
Shortly before we got there, Denis stopped, turned to me and said. “We need to bring a present.”
“A present?” I echoed. “What of?”
“Something nice,” Denis replied, eyeing me up and down. “Blades likes to dress nice.”
Before I could utter another word, his hand alighted on my belt buckle. My belt was a reminder of better times, Gucci, snakeskin with a logo buckle.
“That’ll do,” Denis declared. “Take it off.”
Without further question and objection, I did as I was told. My trousers would hold up without it and if it served the purpose to placate Blades and get him to feed me, I was more than willing to part with it.
A tunnel or rather a small alley opened on our left, leading into the depth of the mighty WaterlooBridge structure. Denis stretched out a hand and stopped me in my tracks.
“Blades,” he called into the darkness. “You home? I’ve brought company.”
A sort of bellow came back from the darkness. Then a rather blinding flashlight was directly pointed at us. The bellow turned into a deep rumble:
“Denis, that you?”
“Yes, and a friend,” Denis replied in a rather referential voice. I didn’t need to be told that we were obviously dealing with homeless royalty here. The flashlightwas followed by a mountain of a black man. As far as I could make out, his dark skin was covered by even darker tattoos, his head was bald and he was shirtless despite the low temperature. This particular part of the bridge seemed to be his permanent home, as his feet were clad in carpet slippers and he gave the impression of having got up from an easy chair in his living room to open the door to late and unexpected guests.
“Brought you a present,” Denis continued, extending his hand with my precious Gucci belt dangling from it. The flashlight focused on the logo buckle.
“Real thing?” the man who must be Blades, grumbled.
“Sure,” Denis confirmed. Despite my dishevelled appearance after the shove out of the car, and the dip in the gutter, Denis must have realised that I had, until very recently, seen better times which allowed the acquisition of designer clothes which were not fake.
“Nice,” Blades exclaimed, snatching the belt from Denis’ hand and starting to thread it through the loops of his oversized jeans. His waist was such, that the belt was just about long enough to circle it.
The gift must have worked its magic, because Blades broke into a broad grin, exposing a few yellow teeth and making a sweeping gesture with his paw, invited: “Come in.”
He stepped aside to reveal a huge array of broken furniture, supplemented by cardboard boxes, blankets, orange crates which served as tables and storage bins and a stove with a gas bottle underneath. Hell, I hope he doesn’t blow this place up, I thought, eyeing the gas bottle suspiciously.
“That’s David,” Denis introduced me. “He’s new to the game and doesn’t know a thing. We’ll take care of him if that’s all right with you. Got any spare food, man?”
“Hi David,” Blades said, obviously satisfied with the introduction. “Take a seat. Friend of Denis ‘s a friend of me. Got some great leftovers from McDonalds today. Take a seat and have at it.”
“Thanks,” I murmured and gratefully sat down. Blades produced a great array of broken hamburgers, slightly wilted salads, chips edged with cold grease, the inevitable gallon of plonk, coke cans and a tub of melted chocolate fudge ice cream.
“You wouldn’t believe what they throw out,” Denis explained.” Blades here is the absolute best in finding the most tasty stuff. A second past the sell by date and the food goes in the dumpster. Such a waste, but it feeds us.”
Dumpster? I thought. Never mind, I could cope with diarrhoea, if it came to that, all I wanted now was something to sink my teeth into and I enjoyed the feast.
Even the cheap wine started tasting good after a while; it was, I thought, an acquired taste. The dog got the left overs from the left overs and later, we all hunkered down between the blankets and cardboard boxes and I felt cosy, protected and warm. I didn’t stop to think why Blades had this particular nick name and it never crossed my mind that I might wake up with my throat cut.
I stayed three days and nights with Denis and Blades. Never did a policeman venture into the depth of Blade’s cave. It was clear that this was his kingdom and the occasional visitors who showed up, treated him with the same respect as Denis had done.
No questions were asked about my background and nothing was revealed about theirs. It became clear however, that Denis was an educated man and that Blades must have had a colourful past. Interactions between the homeless people I met were based on the moment and on trust. Strict rules of behaviour applied and who didn’t abide by them was pushed away in no uncertain terms. I had an inkling that Denis had freely chosen this “lifestyle”, but the reason why was never revealed. They took me in on face value, I had shown respect and that was all that counted.
On the morning of the third day, I made my excuses, telling them that I needed to sort out income support etc. and made my way back to the same corner where I had been pushed out of the Porsche. I felt like a traitor, exactly like the impostor I was.
The Porsche screeched to a stop. The passenger door was flung open and Greg’s grinning face appeared: “Mate, you’ve done it. Hop in!”
I entered the car slowly. “Congrats,” Greg shouted. “You’ve won the bet.” He fumbled in the pocket of his expensive Armani coat and threw a handful of bills at me. “Who would have thought. How was it? How did you manage?”
“I feel like shit,” I replied. “The whole thing was so frivolous.”
“How could we have been so condescending, assuming that bums are just bums, outcasts who don’t deserve any better, the lowest of the low and betting on whether or not we could survive a single day living like them.”
“Well, it was your bet. You said, you could and, obviously, you have. No calls for help or rescue from you. What’s your problem?”
“Nothing, really,” I replied moodily.
I remembered the evening which had lead to this bet. Greg, Francis and myself, a banker, broker and solicitor respectively had celebrated Greg’s successful deal which had netted him a huge bonus. Champagne was flowing freely and somehow the conversation had turned to losers in general and London’s homeless in particular.
“Not in a million years will I find myself in such a situation,” Greg had boasted.
I had taken him up. “You never know, “ I said, “but if so, I’m sure you couldn’t survive even for three days.”
Greg wasn’t to be outdone. “But you could, hey? Spoilt guy that you are?” he challenged. And so the bet came into existence. I bet L3000, that I would be able to survive as a homeless person for three days and nights. The other two laughed their heads off and didn’t believe me.
“You wouldn’t even know where to find a cardboard box big enough to sleep in, leave alone where to put it. One night and you will come running back,” Greg retorted.
No way was I backing down now. Admittedly, it was a drunken bet, and I would never have dreamed of it had I been sober. But so were none of the others. So, the rules were set and they were strict. No contact with either of them, no money, no resources, just me and the mean streets of London.
“It’s just that they have a generosity none of us shows and a discretion and appreciation of other people. They don’t make judgments, least of all based on appearances.”
“You born again now, man?” Greg joked.
“No,” I sighed. He would never understand. “Just take me home, will you?”
Once home, I showered and changed. Then I went in search of one of the vendors for the homeless’ particular magazine, the proceeds of which went towards building shelters. When I found one, I shoved the money I had won in his hand and before he could recover from his surprise, I walked off as fast as I could.