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I met a homeless man today.
I had gone into the city to buy a new shirt. When I parked the car, a Salvation Army band was playing outside of the car park. Their presence annoyed me. I could never understand why religious fanatics felt the need to ram their beliefs down the throats of everyone they met, so when the young girl in the strange uniform of the salvationists thrust a tract at me, I brushed past her and muttered, "Piss off."
She smiled back at me and said, "Jesus loves you and so do I."
That did it! I spun on my heels and stared at her. "You love me? You know nothing about me. You don't even know my name. How can you talk about loving me?"
"I know you are lonely and poor in spirit," she replied, softly. "I know you hunger for the truth but you are afraid of it. I know you want to love, but you are not sure how and I know that Jesus died for you because He loves you too."
Her reply shocked me. She could have said those words to a million people and they would have been true but, there was something in the way she said them to me that made them personal. I hid my confusion behind aggression.
"I told you. Piss off!"
I turned away again and heard her say after me:
"God bless you."
As I rushed to get away I collided with the homeless man. We both staggered backwards. He hit his head on a concrete pillar and I sprawled across the hood of a parked car, setting off its strident alarm. When I had dragged myself off of the hood I rushed to help the other man. He was clutching his head in pain and leaning against the pillar. When he took his hand away from his hair, there was blood on it.
"Please. I am sorry. Let me look at it."
"No worries," he said generously. "I've had worse."
I gave him my handkerchief and he dabbed at his head until the blood stopped flowing from the small cut. As he wiped the blood away from his hands I looked him over. He was a pitiful sight. His clothes were filthy and he had not been near clean water and soap for a long time. He smelled musty and stale. I was disgusted, but I was also feeling guilty. I thought about giving him some money but I wondered of he would just spend it on booze. Then I had an idea.
"Come on. Let me buy you some food," I said and I led him away into a nearby café.
He ate two plates of spaghetti Bolognaise, his and mine, and drank four large mugs of coffee.
"This is the first time I have been warm in a week," he told me. "Thanks."
I decided I was going to listen to him. I wanted him to have contact with another human being. 'Maybe it would help him,' I decided. 'Maybe it would cause him to change his way of life if someone like me would just listen to whatever was troubling him?'
"Where was the last time you were warm?" I said.
He didn't answer straight away. He stared at his dirt stained fingers and began picking at the skin on one of them, as if he were trying to remove the faintly brown/yellow staining. His finger nails were chipped, irregular and filthy. The large hands were covered in scars.
Eventually he looked up at me.
"I spent the night in a police cell for being drunk and disorderly."
"I wasn't drunk and I wasn't disorderly."
He sat smiling to himself for a while, not speaking.
"What do you mean?" I said.
"No, I was not drunk," he said.
He sighed before interrupting me. "It's what the police do when they get tired of moving you along. They arrest you for being drunk and disorderly, or for vagrancy, or for... well... anything really. I hate booze!"
The words escaped his mouth so forcefully that people in the café turned to stare at him. I found myself thinking, 'Be careful. Remember you are English.' Then I burst out laughing at the absurdity of my piddling, middle-class thinking. I have no idea what he was thinking but he laughed too.
"What about your family?" I asked. Then instantly regretted it. His face darkened with pain as if I had stabbed him in the heart. A shadow, like despair, briefly fell over him and his whole body slumped down in the seat, almost imperceptibly. Within seconds he had got a grip on it and he forced himself to sit upright and grin. I watched the pain and painful thoughts slide off of him as if his heart were made of Teflon. I was shocked to find that I was admiring him. He had some kind of deep inner strength that he could summon at will to protect himself. Yet, it was obvious to me that the same strength left him isolated, somehow less human than those of us who would have burst into tears at whatever memory had been provoked by my question. Even so, it was more powerfully human than a weeping man would suggest.
"My family are all around me, but too many of them hate me," he said. His voice quiet, but breaking into my thoughts like a rock through glass.
Suddenly I couldn't stand being in the café any longer. I had to get out and get some air. I felt as if the walls were pressing down on me. I stood up and went and paid the bill. When I got back to the table he was already half way to his feet.
"Let's go." I said simply.
He looked at me with an understanding I found disconcerting. He knew I was feeling claustrophic but it was more than just knowing. Somehow, he could feel what I was feeling.
As we walked down the street together, aimlessly wandering, I wondered why I had found his insight into me so disturbing. As the fog of emotion cleared my mind, I realised, with a shock, that it was more social snobbery on my part. I had unconsciouly assumed a superiority over this man because I had a home and a car. I had an income. I was, therefore, the smart one. It was I who should have had the understanding and sharp insight. Of course, this in turn meant that I was a "someone" and he was a "thing."
"I'm sorry," I heard myself mumble.
"Oh nothing. I thought you spoke."
He stopped walking and waited for me to do the same. When I did, he gazed at me and then said, "I did. I just didn't use words."
Once again I was off balance.
'He knew!' I thought to myself. 'He knew I was fighting all my prejudices about him. He understands me but I have no idea who he is.' Then, with the kind of shock you get when someone tells you your dog has just been run over, I realised that I was the pupil in this brief relationship and not him. I had no idea what to say to him. I was being profoundly shaken up in his presence by a truth I had not expected to encounter when I, self righteously, decided to listen to the poor homeless person instead of judging him. Yet, all I had done since I had met this man was judge him.
He veered away from me and began walking rapidly down an alley. It was almost like some invisible and soundless voice had called his name and he was hurrying to obey. I started after him. I found myself running to catch up and, when I caught up, almost running to stay caught up.
At the end of the alley he turned right and headed into a park. The vast swathe of green grass and tall trees slashed the city like a benign invader. Out of place among the concrete, yet infinitely welcome, just for being there. As soon as his feet hit that grass he slowed down and began to stroll, easily.
People were laying on the grass. Dotted here and there like tiny tribes. Wanting to be in other people's company but not wanting to speak to them. So busy being English they did not know they were.
Whenever we approached a couple we would see them look up at us. Each time, they would smile at me, their eyes checking out every inch of me. The way I was dressed. The neat haircut. The clean skin. The polished shoes. Then their gaze would sweep over the man next to me. Their expressions would darken into unspoken disapproval. His shabby clothes. His mismatched footwear. His dirty hands and unshaven face. Then confusion would strike them as they wondered why a nice man like me would walk so closely to a tramp like him. Finally, they would recoil. If their kids were nearby they would hug them closer, as if this tramp might suddenly attack them. Everything about them was hostile, but hostile in a quiet, but no less deadly way. When we walked past them they would relax again and forget about us before we were out of sight. It was a harsh lesson to learn in such beautiful surroundings and I realised, for the first time, the crushing loneliness the homeless carry.
"Don't you want to get a place of your own and a job?" I asked him.
He stopped suddenly and sat down. I joined him on the grass.
"If I did, I would miss all this," he said, pulling at his filthy jacket. The sarcasm cutting me like a knife.
His tone softened. As if he had relented.
"I don't fit," he said, matter of factly. "This world was built by people like you for people like you. I don't see the world the way you do."
He paused to pick a buttercup out of the grass. For a while he gazed down at the small, bright yellow flower. Twirling it in his fingers. The light reflecting from it casting a yellow shadow on the dirty skin of his hands.
"You see this buttercup?" he asked.
"This is who I am. I am a thing of beauty in a field of sameness. Every blade of grass is the same as every other blade of grass. But I am different and I am different from every other buttercup that grows here. I am unique. The sad thing is that so few others in this world realise that they too, are unique. Because of this, they strive to be the same as each other. Working hard to earn the money to dress the same and drive cars that look the same and to live in homes that are all the same."
He paused again and a slow smile crept up on him. "You are like the grass. I am like the buttercup. Everyone sees you but they have to look hard to see me and when they do, they wonder why I am here."
He dropped the flower back into the grass. "I am beautiful, but people still step on me."
He had managed to say every word without a hint of bitterness or self pity. I found myself admiring his strength again. I tried to imagine this man curling up to sleep with other tramps beneath some distant railway bridge or in a cold doorway but somehow, the image seemed wrong.
He looked up suddenly.
"John," I said, simply.
"Look John. It would be so easy for me to live a nice life like you..."
"How do you know I lead a nice life?" I said, tritely.
He stared at me and I felt ashamed. What was it I was comparing my life to?
"Sorry," I said. "Go on."
He sighed. "I just don't fit," he said and went silent.
'Listen to him, you fool,' I told myself. 'Just listen and keep your mouth shut until you have something useful to say.'
"Buying a dinner doesn't buy you my life. It is far more expensive than that," he said, quietly.
I said nothing in reply. I lay back on the grass and waited until he was ready to speak again. It was a long time before he spoke and when he did it was not what I could have expected.
"It's time," he said.
"Time? For what?"
"Time for the buttercup to be picked," he stood up and when I moved to join him, he placed a restraining hand on my shoulder. I looked up and he smiled down at me.
"Take this." He said, pushing a dirty crumpled piece of paper into my hands. "Read it later."
I put the paper into my jacket pocket and watched as he walked away. It took a while to understand where he was going.
Then I saw them.
Three young men in their early twenties were walking towards him, maybe three hundred yards away. Their manner was rough, loud, violent, out of control. My new friend walked straight for them. He neither veered to the right or left. As he got close to them, I saw they noticed him. They began to circle him, jeering. He stood perfectly still. He did not open his mouth once. He just stood as they moved around him like sharks hunting their prey. One of them pushed him in the chest.
I stood and moved towards them. My heart was pounding and I realised I was afraid.
In the distance I saw one of the young men strike him. The punch landed just below his left eye. Still he did not speak. There was a tranquility about him. Something noble and deep. Something profoundly still and magnificent, that contrasted with their brutality.
The bright sunshine glinted on steel, briefly, before it was plunged deeply into his heart and he fell backwards, his head bouncing twice as it struck the ground.
"You bastards!" I screamed. I ran towards the crowd of young men but they heard me and ran faster than I could, off into the distant cityscape and out of the park.
When I arrived at his body I realised he was already dead. I tore my mobile phone out of my pocket and dialled 999. As I sat waiting for the police I watched a single ant crawl into his ear and disappear inside. Nature was already trying to claim him back.
I remembered the piece of paper he had given me.
"Read it later," he had said. I searched my pockets for it but it wasn't there. In a panic I scanned the ground. I could not see it.
When the authorities had come and roped and tented off the body and taken my statement, I left the circle of ambulances and policemen and walked slowly back across the park, deep in thoughts of crushing sorrow and slowly boiling anger. I snapped out of my reverie and looked down. There, at my feet, lay the crumpled piece of paper he had given me. Next to it was a picked buttercup. It must have fallen from my pocket as I leapt up when the young man pushed him.
I sat down on the grass and carefully opened up the paper. There was a picture of a cross and beneath it was written, "Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow. They neither spin nor toil. Yet I tell you that Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these."
Beneath the printed words were other words scrawled in pencil. "I am a buttercup waiting to be picked. When a flower is picked it begins to die."
I turned the page over. On the other side were printed the words, "He died that you might have eternal life."
Beneath those words the pencil had written, "How many times must I die before you will listen to me, John?
I reeled in profound shock. The realisation that whenever he had written this it was before he met me crashed over me like a thunderstorm. Before I knew what was happening I was sobbing like a child and running. I was desparate. I had to find that girl before the Salvation Army left. I had to speak to her. To tell her I was sorry. To beg her forgiveness and ask her to share that love she had been given.
I burst out of the park and along the high street. Suddenly I heard the sound of the band, still playing. When they came into view I ran straight to the girl. I handed her the buttercup and the screwed up tract before falling on my knees and sobbing like a broken, homeless child.
She knelt beside me.
"I really do love you, you know."
I looked up at her and through the fog of my tears I cried out, "I know! Forgive me. I know!"
In the shadows of the car park I caught a glimpse of a dirty looking homeless man, smiling at me.
And then he was gone.
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