A Night in London
-Can I borrow your Mirror? he said, waking me up.
I took my head off my newspaper pillow.
-It’s the Independent, I replied groggily, referring to the wrong London newspaper.
He walked away. I remade my pillow with the magazine Flash Art on top. Half an hour later I woke and peeled my now blue, hand and ear, from the magazine.
It was Euston station, London, in the early hours. He had asked me for a few pence for a cuppa several times. The last time I had been tempted to point out the food bars were closed. Not being quite that arrogant I said no, and I was sorry, yet again. Wearing only bandages on his feet he shuffled off seemingly trying to maintain his balance the whole time.
He had a shoelace tied around his head keeping most of his greasy matted hair off his face. That was how he had been when I arrived in London in the early morning and that was how he was still, sixteen hours later. Still shuffling, balancing, with his hand feebly outstretched as he mumbled requests for a few pence. At 3 in the morning he changed.
Feet apart, trembling with anger he pointed down at some young people.
-This is Babylon. This is Sodom and Gomorrah.
His speech became suddenly coherent. He went on about Good and Bad, Heaven and Hell, boys and girls, repentence and judgment. He wasn’t very persuasive or informative - but he was angry and believable. The young people didn’t seem too concerned about the disruption to their sleep or the implications of his message. Balance no longer was a problem for him and his speech became more and more assertive, and his London accent clear.
From over 70 yards a young man suddenly sprinted toward him and leaped over the young offenders.
-Shut up! Now, just shut up! he roared. Are you going to shut up? Bloody idiot!
The middle-aged man scurried away quickly managing to gesture that he would shut up as instructed. Looking back he waited until the young man had returned to his sleeping space. Then he sang.
Looking every bit like an English Willie Nelson, he sheepishly at first, and then boldly upon reaching the chorus, treated us all to his version of Wake Up Little Susie.
A young man lay down beside me.
-Put your shoes by your head, he told me, somebody will steal them if you leave them there.
I was reading Flash Art and he the Mirror. When he finished he offered it to me. I accepted saying thanks.
-It’s something to do. Stop you getting bored, he told me.
I got the impression that he wanted me to read it beginning right away. I put down “the leading European art magazine” and glanced through the awful British paper. He turned over and slept face down on a supplement. His feet smelt worse than mine. I moved on.
A British Rail employee edged towards me with a brush. I asked him if he wanted me to move but he said I was fine and swept up my leaflets from London’s Tate Gallery.
I walked some more in north London until I was near Kings Cross. A young man, better dressed than I, stopped me.
-Could you give me 20 pence please?
-It isn’t very much.
-You’re right it isn’t very much - why don’t you ask for more?
He didn’t answer.
I made my way on, to a group of London homeless and sat with them. Some had a small plastic carrier bag full of possessions. Most had nothing. One had a very large hearing-aid. He was in his 20s. All had been on the streets long enough for their hair to grow uncomfortably long and matted. Uncomfortable for them or me?
Most of them tried to sleep, except for the few who instead just rested their limbs from a day of walking the streets of London. Everybody stank, including me. A fabulous collection of human smells. This was another place not to read Europe’s leading art magazine.