Saturday, 22 March 2008

Village People

Yesterday, Good Friday, I didn't leave the flat until nearly 6pm. If someone asked me what I'd done all day I would have said I'd done nothing. By that I don't mean I pottered about the place, did a bit of housework or caught up with some paperwork. I mean I did as close to nothing as it's possible to do for an able bodied person in a flat in the western world. It was a crap day.

So, I left the flat at six. I needed milk to put in my tea. I find tea and lethargy go hand in hand - Hmm, what shall I do? Shall I do something? I'll just have a cup of tea and a fag while I think about it. It was bitterly cold outside and the road, which was still wet from the hail and sleet storms we'd had earlier, reflected the low sun's harsh light into my eyes. I was glad I was wearing some some extra layers and wrapped my scarf higher about my face.

As I turned the corner I noticed a man standing by the road. Actually, he was standing in the road, only stepping back onto the path when a car approached. As he did so he held an item of clothing out to display to the passing drivers, a blue shirt. Once the car had passed he stepped into the road again and held the shirt out until another car passed and forced him back onto the path again. As I got closer I saw a familiar tag hanging from the neck of the shirt. I don't know which particular shop it was from but it would definitely have been one of the charity shops that thrive in the local town centre. This man was attempting to sell a single item of second-hand clothing by the roadside. In the freezing cold, as the light was fading. In 21st century suburban England.

He wore ill-fitting jeans and a denim jacket that would have provided little protection from the elements. His greying hair and beard made him look older than I guessed he was. He was probably not much older than me. I prepared to give him a smile as I walked past but he kept his eyes on the approaching cars. I carried on towards the village convenience store, wondering what kind of life he thought he might have in England before he left Poland or Bosnia or wherever it was he arrived from. He might have planned owning his own business or maybe he had a trade that he wanted to apply here. Or he might have just assumed that the streets here were paved with gold.

I went to the shop and bought milk and a newspaper and left, hoping that the man would have moved on by the time I walked back past his pitch. I heard a noise to my right and looked over to see a man leaving the pub. He shut the door behind him and tried to walk off but couldn't. His legs wouldn't work. He held on to a lamppost for a second or two before setting off again. His first step was solid enough but this must have used up all of his powers of concentration since on his second his foot just gave way as if it had been planted on ice. He tried to grab on to a wall but missed and succeeded only in making himself look even more ridiculous. His elbow made a loud thud as it hit the concrete and he would have been in a lot of pain had he not been anaesthetised with alcohol.

I'm not good in these situations. I want to help but also know that some people in some situations don't want to be helped. I would probably want to be left alone. My next move was easy then - I crossed the road and went towards him since it was almost the direction I was going anyway and I could just walk on past if he seemed hostile. Yes, I'm pathetic. He saw me approaching and I started to ask him whether he was alright. I only got a word or two out before he started shouting at me and waving a fist. I walked on past. I'd barely gone a few yards before wondering whether his hostility was actually that. Maybe he'd tried to say, "Hi, I'm in need of assistance. Would you please take my hand and help me up?", and with his motor skills seriously impaired it had just come out wrong. I kept on walking. He's be okay.

The man selling the shirt was still there. There was little natural light and it was barely possible to see what he was holding out in front of the cars that, by now, all had their headlights on. How long would he stay there? Had he actually sold anything? Maybe he'd go hungry until he sold the shirt. For a split-second I considered buying it from him. Then I reverted to type and walked on past him and went home and had a cup of tea and a fag.

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