By Cathy Eden
I smell him before I see him: feral, dank, his scuffed denims exuding the mustiness of last night’s inhospitable subway.
He’s at the till beside me. He’s about my son’s age, good looking under the thick black beard. How many months has it been since he’s shaved? Perhaps five or six. His hair curls and knots in his neck, like a ragged pelt. If he were a dog you’d say he needed a good brushing. His voice, when he speaks to the teller, is well-modulated and suburban. Where has he come from? He has coffee in a paper cup and something small in a bakery packet that is already stained with grease. Not a sandwich then; a pie or a pastry. I wonder when he last had vegetables. There’s a tremble in his hands as he counts out coins.
My purchases are all about comfort: fire starters for the blaze I intend to enjoy later, while I watch the movie I’ve just collected from the DVD store; fresh coriander to add to the green curry simmering on the stove; a slim chocolate bar for afters. It’s ridiculous to feel embarrassed when there are countless other indications of my privilege – my dry jacket, my scarf, my car keys dangling from my hand – and yet I wish I were buying rice or potatoes; anything but chi-chi coriander.
He knows I’ve noticed him. As he brushes past me, our eyes meet briefly. Has he marked me as a potential donor? Will he wait for me outside the store as I hurry past, head down against the rain, and ask for change? I don’t want to know his story and yet, as I look down at his red, chapped feet in open sandals, I feel myself slipping.
The jeans that hang from his narrow hips date from a time when he had more flesh on his bones. The canvas bag slung over his shoulder looks as if it once held books or lecture notes. I fret – it’s probably drugs that have reduced him to this state – but is there no-one to help? I want to shake him, berate him for his choices, tell him to go home before he slips into the zone from which no-one on the street returns. But perhaps it’s home that drove him out.
‘I want to shake him, berate him for his choices, tell him to go home before he slips into the zone from which no-one on the street returns.’
Spar doesn’t have cat litter crystals, so I’m going to have to stop at Checkers on my way home. I leave the store, notice that he’s not there as I run to my car. I drive round the back of the building, turn into Park Road, and stop at the traffic lights. As I crest the bridge, I see him, striding into Rondebosch. He’s shabby, sleeping rough, but he’s still young and strong.
I park underground so that I don’t get wet. In the supermarket I find what I’m looking for: Deluxe, super absorbent, odour-free crystals. My cat’s toilet arrangements are more comfortable than his. As I come out of the supermarket, there he is again, ahead of me on the escalator. He goes to the ATM, pulls out a battered wallet and inserts a card. I don’t see any notes appear. So there is still some hope of funds coming from somewhere; perhaps he will have better luck tomorrow.
The security guard is watching him. He’s on the wrong side of shabby, so he can’t stay here in the brightly-lit centre; he needs to keep moving. He pauses at the automatic doors, pulls a fleece hood over his matted hair and steps out into the rain, heading who knows where.
I catch a glimpse of him from time to time during the next few months. He’s survived a harsh winter; his hair is longer, his beard more straggly, his clothes more mud-coloured. He is always alone, always heading somewhere with a sense of purpose.
And then one day I have to slow down on the bridge to allow a vagrant to stagger across the road. He carries a shapeless bundle on his thin back. His mismatched shoes flap as he shuffles onto the pavement. He’s just one of the faceless number from whom I avert my eyes. But then I notice the black hair and with a jolt I recognise him, know him to be a man of no more than 40, with 40 years of weathering on him since we last met.
The callousness of our system says that it’s fine for him to disintegrate on our streets. I support that sentiment, each time I look away in discomfort. He and all the others worry me: the silent man in the black beanie who picks twigs off the tarmac; the one with the high-pitched whine who fouls the subway; the old man with the empty supermarket trolley; the wild young one who desperately wants to engage. I can’t fix them; I can’t save them. Sometimes I leave food beside the dustbins they frequent, but beyond that, my offering is to acknowledge that they exist and to note their absence when they disappear. Energetic Hendrick who swept leaves on Newlands Avenue has gone; crazed Callum, tied up in nit-infested rags, is no more. But they were. I saw them.
If the opportunity arises, I’ll buy coffee and a pie for the man I met in Spar, because he will never be allowed in now, looking as he does. Why him? Because I want to repay the gift of that brief connection: a reminder that life is about chance, but also about choice. That there is a point of no return for everything and that carelessness might bring you to it, unexpectedly.