AAh yes. We are a strange breed, we are. Have you noticed not one of us ever start conversations? But once the ice is broken, well, we can simply talk you daft! That’s our fears of invading your privacy, not aloofness as you Americans always claim. We know you think we’re snobs, but it is a desperately difficult thing to explain. Especially to Yanks, you know? They simply did not want to say something that would be upsetting. Did they speak when you said something to them?.
“Didn’t talk to one of them. Why should I? None of them did a damn thing for her..
“But they did help her husband, didn’t they?. Ansell admitted that was possible since Fred was dressed in his best, and acting unreal as almost everyone does while the shock is still firmly in place. Perhaps Fred was afraid of breaking down in front of strangers trying to be so helpful and friendly, and maintaining that glacial calm which shields everyone from sharing their grief.
“So what really has you so wrought is how the others acted..
Ansell thought about the next morning and the fellow who had relieved him at mouth to mouth until the fireman arrived. He was limping about, using a cane, complaining that his back was acting up from his efforts. He kept repeating that all he was doing was walking his dog between the storms when Fred rushed up and started yelling for him to call the Hospital.
As if there’s a hospital at every junction in Scotland. Scotland, no less! And went on complaining how Fred raved in his ear once he did get on the telephone. Screaming how he needed blankets and dry clothes! Even a tent! For God’s sake! Where in the hell was I to get one of those? You watch. I’ll be on the flat of me back and the National Health Inspectors will snoop to see if I’m cheating. You can make book on that!
“What an outrageous son of a bitch!” Sounds like he acted as if Grace died on purpose..The bum’s outburst proved that he was listening intently. Joseph was unable to dispel the idea that this vagrant at one time or the other had some sort of religious training. It seemed the longer the man sat the better his appearance became.
“There are all kinds of blokes out there if you take the time to investigate. We have them just like you. There are simply lots of people who get very disturbed when the world just suddenly demands they become engaged..”
“That’s damn silly, isn’t it? Nobody can honestly think they can get through their entire life and not be bothered by something, can they? . “
“No, but they can give it a damned good try now, can’t they? And we can’t really fault them for trying; only for not responding once caught up. Or do you?” The bum smiled wistfully, and let out a long sigh like a university Don perplexed by a student’s shallow insights.
“I really do … It isn’t normal … Not to me at least..”
“Are you glad you stopped? Would you be here now if you managed to get around that curve before she fell over? “
Silently Ansell admitted that he would be much happier if he had not been called , but he would never excuse the other fellow for being such a snot. Especially when Fred was sitting right next to him, wringing his hands and from time to time muttering words which had no relationship to what was transpiring. Reconstructing the scene now, he could see that Fred believed his wife had let him down dying before him. That Grace dropped dead just so she didn’t have to do all the laundry when they got back from their holiday. That she was sick and tired of preparing three meals every day of her life.
He also noticed he was assuming British inflections in his silent speech. He could not deny that he was beginning to sound just like the bum. Somehow it seemed to make things more civilized and more acceptable. He shook his head like a bull deciding the enemy was really not the red cloth, but the small bull that held it so enticingly.
"We simply aren’t very demonstrative. We keep our emotions carefully in check because we are so desperately afraid that others will be affected because of them. Not fair, you understand? You can’t always tell what is inside us just because we are all wrapped in nice piece of plain brown paper, now can you?.
Ansell grew tired of defenses and changed the subject. “Would you care to make a few pounds posing for some photographs? You’re a very good study, you know? I’m sure somewhere down the line I can sell them, or at least use them in some future slide show..
The man smiled. ”Look, if you wish, you can give me a few pounds. I’ll be only too happy to take them. Then I can get something to eat at a pub. I accept charity. I am very adroit at soliciting, but I don’t see any reason to really go out of my way, you know? Why go through the motions of work for the sake of your personal prejudices.”
“You can damn well go straight to hell! I’m offering you a job, not charity!”
“I’d say you were offering penance. How much do you think they’re charging this week for sins of omission, old man?” Although the smile still remained fixed and perfectly formed, the tone was still respectful over the slightest edge of scorn and mockery. All of this crept in like the unfiltered light sneaking through the cracks and tiny holes in the stain glass.
The bum’s accusations carried Ansell right back to Scotland, giving mouth to mouth, and there was no one but him and Grace. He was bent over her the cold rain dripping into Grace’s face, and thinking that all the foxes had gone to sleep and the only things watching were the dirty, little unripe green berries hanging in clusters like deformed and neglected fingers. He had been so alone! Kissing her soggy flesh like they were lovers! He shuddered remembering the tableau.
“I have always hated people touching me since I reached puberty..He blurted this out when he could no longer tolerate his thoughts I” wasn’t like that when I was a child. I remember sitting on grown up laps as they read to me. It was great sitting there creating worlds. I could sit for hours. I was affectionate then and later I liked to kiss more than I ever liked sex. Just kiss and kiss until my lips were sore and chapped. But now … . He caught himself and hastily returned to the dead Grace.
“He hadn’t felt a thing. She was just a bag of laundry, a pile of leaves, or some old piece of furniture. Something … Not a person … Just an object to be discarded. She was just another interruption in just another day. I can’t understand it..”
“What is that?.
“That I kept giving her mouth to mouth even after I knew she was dead. No one was there. No one watching. I could have stopped and started again when he came back. Jesus, I can tell when someone is dead! I was even wishing she was dead, damn it. When they came back, I didn’t let anyone spell me. Just wanted someone to tell me she was dead, and I could stop wasting my time! That’s what a young ranger told me about the old baker. This kid touched my shoulder and whispered he’d been dead for some time and give it up.
"But you did not?.
“No! Jesus no! I just kept on going until I almost hyperventilated. Then I did exactly what he said. Just sat back and never looked at the old man again. He was dead, been dead an hour. But I convinced myself that was only because I had stopped..
“You are a very kind person, sir..
“I’m a damn fool! I’ve gone through surf so high it could break backs! I did it after idiots who wouldn’t admit they had to be an expert swimmer just to survive in that kind of surf. I went right after them every time. Went right in there knowing if I got to them and they did not have enough strength to help, we were both going to drown. I knew my limitations! There’s something drastically wrong with anyone who refuses to accept their limitations. Who the hell ever gets through life without running out of effort?.
“It sounds like you’re the fellow with the bad back, now..
“Look, I’m not trying to give you money to listen. You really are a good study, and I've been thinking about what you could have done before you gave it up for this. I’ve had some wild inspirations. Were you ever a priest? Maybe a professor?.
The bum’s smile was almost one of embarrassment. He lifted his head and stretched his neck until Ansell saw the ingrained dirt had no interruptions. “ Sometimes I think it’s desperation on the part of fellows like you who gives me some success in life. The women are convinced I was once something. They all guess I was a lecturer. You are the first one to ordain me..”
“But you got such compassion and you’re involved.”He didn’t add his inner cries about clairvoyant talents.
“No one simply accepts the fact that there are some of us meant to be disengaged. No one wants to face the facts. There’s some who never had an instant of achievement, nor a smidgen of success. They hate it that we are not concerned. When I think some of the blokes I’ve listened to hoping for a pound or so, or whatever they gave me, it didn’t improve or decrease either their tranquility or the quality of their whining and bitching.”The bum gave a snort which was the signal for Joseph to go on the offensive.
“Tell me, what would you have done if you had been behind the wheel and come around that curve and seen Grace and Fred there in the ditch?”
“Men like me only come into a place like this when we are dead desperate. Churches are always the last place you want to go for charity. If they give us anything at all it’s always bad food and always after long bad boring sermons. Here the food’s so bad, there’re some who claim the dogs turned it down first. And for that, they want you to sit through an hour of crap which never holds out even the slightest glimmer of hope. No real cures offered. Not one thought for your future other than dying and meeting the latest Christ sin free. It’s always your sinful past. You think such ilk demand they serve up something special..”
“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. I did a cut on my daughter’s chin after she fell on a coffee table’s edge. The gash was right on the point of her chin, right to the bone. Used butterfly stitches I cut from Band-Aids. The doctors told us to just leave them alone. Said they could not have done any better, and she only has a little white line there. You got to search to see it. Of course that was just minor league, wasn’t it?.”
“Mother tossed me out when I was fourteen. Told me find a job and support myself. Said she was tired of supporting men. That was the last I ever saw of her. ‘Been on the road since before I had to shave. It was easier then. A young fellow can get by on just his looks, at least for a time. Know what I’m saying? Good looking people get anything they got the balls to ask for. Total strangers will give a pretty thing almost anything just so they can be with them..
“You are not listening to me! I am not interested in your life! You’ve already said it was a god damn failure! I mistook your accent and your softness for something you aren’t.” Then Ansell bent forward till his forehead almost touched the man’s filthy cheek. The bum lurched away.
“Here,” Joseph reached into his pocket and took four one pound coins out. “You can get a good dinner and a pint or two. Just listen to me!
.”I have. You got nothing new to say. Grace died. The baker died and probably all the people you tried to save in the ocean or whatever died too..The bum stood up towering above Ansell like some enraged prophet.“Keep your lousy four quid. The Verger is over in the apse waving for me to come over to dinner.Suck in a good breath and take a good whiff of the swill they’re going to serve us tonight! It stinks more than I do.
Ansell lowered his head to the pew, holding out the four pounds as he felt blindly about, trying to make contact so he could relieve himself of the unwanted weight.
Finally he raised his face and tried to smile then opened his eyes looking for the bum. The aisles were empty. Even the mice were in bed. The bum motioned to a door on his right when he announced the Verger’s calling. Ansell could not detect any food odors, foul or otherwise.
After he got to his feet and made certain there was no one in the church except the invisible organist who kept repeating a tricky run in sixteenths, he started to leave. Suddenly he ran back to the pew and carefully felt the wooden seat where the bum had held court. There was no trace of residual body heat. Like it was where he had sat.
Then he was unnaturally cold. He felt the cold seep across the stone floor and begin climbing up under his raincoat. In the late afternoon dimness the cathedral’s interior details were hardly visible. He wondered what time it really was. He felt he some intruder, a selfish student seeking more than he deserved, so he hastily backed through the transept and almost ran head first into a tall thin figure wearing the now familiar Verger’s frock.
“Sorry. So sorry”,. Ansell offered. The man smiled and said it was perfectly all right. He was very bald and the black shoes sticking out below his frock were badly scuffed. Joseph detected a hint of alcohol. It was obvious the man needed a shave.
“I’m very hungry and I got a bad cold from being soaked. I know this is a terrible thing to ask, but can I get something to eat and a place to sleep tonight?” He was barely able to stop from crying out that all of it was a lie, that all he really wanted to know was where were the bums being fed?
“Afraid we stopped doing that years ago … Actually I think it was just before the last war. But there is a Salvation Army, and I believe they still provide meals and shelter. You go out and turn left for a block. That’s Dean Street, and you turn left there and go three blocks … actually it’s a bit more and then ...
The shock of what he had just done did not really sink in until he was outside. “God’ what am I doing?”. he asked the rain puddles as he turned left and started back through the Close for his car. As he moved the cold mist added huge halos below the widely spaced street lights.
Passing a small building propped against the west wall of the cathedral, he thought he heard voices which sounded exactly the way he thought the voices of hungry, desperate men would sound when getting a meal and a place to sleep out of this freezing cold.
As he quietly he approached the small set of double doors as the rain suddenly began to fall in torrents. A fierce wind blew sheets of it in his face, almost blinding him. He raised a fist and pounded on the wood which felt like iron The noise echoed and resounded over and over as though he was beating a drum on the edge of a canyon. The voices, if he had really heard any voices, were no longer there. A huge sheet of ice cold rain fell across his face and neck. He banged until the door opened and the face of an elderly woman peered at him.
“Is this the salvation Army?”
“God, no it is not sir. They folded five years ago and they were two doors down not here.”
“May I step in? It’s really wretched.”
“I’m terribly sorry. Males are not allowed in the convent except during visiting hours, two to five on Wednesdays and Sundays. “
Her expression was one of pity and amusement, the one most Britons assume when confronting non-Brits. He backed out of the waterfall and watched her gently close the portal. For a few more minutes he listened carefully, trying to hear the voices again. All that was discernable was the bitter wind and noise of the rain battering the ancient stone houses along the street.“This is a beastly damned nation!”. he cried as he went back to his car, resisting the urge to back in and touch the pew again, hoping that if he sat and waited, the … the …”Then he was at his car and the need to give any classification or an assignment to all this was washed into the gutter.