When I was about six, this man turned up at our house quite late one wintry evening. His name was Thomas, and he only wanted a cup of tea before walking the remaining however many miles to a Buddhist monastery near Chichester that same night, or maybe kipping in a hedge or a bus shelter in a village along the way. My parents, being what they are, invited him, gave him a cup of tea, and then gave him the sofa bed, and then went to bed themselves – one on the floor of my room, one in my sister’s room, locked in with what few carryable valuables they then possessed – you have to be cautious, you never know. Thomas was a lovely man, softly spoken, calm; his wife had left him and he was hoping to be allowed to become a lay brother in the Buddhist monastery (having once been married, and not being a vegetarian at the time,l full monkhood was barred to him). He left after breakfast the next morning and I sometimes wonder if he made it to his monastery and if he was allowed to stay.
A similar kind of thing happened to me today. I met Stuart outside the library, on my way to the doctor’s surgery (my leg is falling apart and I’m trying to see a podiatrist before I become unable to walk…). He was begging in the street and all I had on me was a box of cigarettes so I gave him one and, while he borrowed my lighter, we got chatting. It turned out that his mother is in hospital in a city about an hour away and is terminally ill – they say she only has a couple of days. She tried to take her life but failed and it’s only made her weaker, of course. He was distraught – all I knew at that point was taht she was dying in hospital and as he said that his face just crumpled, so I said, OK, I’ll go to the doctor’s and make my appointment and I’ll be back here in ten minutes. Wait here. He told me the police had already been onto him and were threatening to arrest him if they saw him there again, so I said, make them wait here with you until I get back if they don’t believe that I will. I went away, and came back, and he was still there. The police had been by but had seen me on CCTV talking to him and were satisfied he was only waiting for me.
I took him back to my flat to give him a cup of tea and find my purse so I could get some cash out and on our walk the rest of his story came out. He was from a military family, and had gone to military boarding school – he told me the name but I forgot it – and then on to an army college before being sent out to Afghanistan, a young husband, with two small children, and a wife who, while he was away, started drinking to cope. I Afghanistan, he was injured – half his face got shattered by shrapnel and his wrist was damaged too and he had to have extensive plastic surgery and a metal plate put into his skull, as well as false teeth. So he came back and became a mature student, doing Archeology, until his wife died in his final year of hepatitis, and he had a nervous breakdown and had to drop out. They say he can come back and redo his final year at some point and he’s hoping to do that soon. Currently he lives in a military disabled flat on an army pension with no-one in his world but his cat, his mother, and his Church; and the army pension doesn’t do him for much more than food.
So I took him home and gave him tea, and he did a bit of clearing up around the kitchen, and I walked him down to his bus stop, and he thanked me and I waved him goodbye, bought some milk and went home. I know I was too trusting in letting him in – my housemates made no bones about telling me, and they were right, but I would have felt so awkward about asking him to wait downstairs.
He gave me, meanwhile, a scarf that he’d bought in Afghanistan – one of those red and white jobs that Isn’t Called A Keffiyeh But Is Called Something Else Instead Which I Have Already Forgotten. He’s also promised me one of his paintings that he does in his spare time – he showed me, they’re good – and invited me and A, my flatmate, out for a meal with his Church sometime. I may well go. He gave me the email addresses of himself and a couple of friends who work at the university so I can check out who he is, and he left his address and phone number but refused to take any of my details so that I knew I could trust him.
And if I can’t trust him, well, I just lost twenty quid and some stranger knows my address, in a flat with insane amounts of security, a key and keycard system, and an alarm bell that will bring many hench men in scary black uniforms sprinting up our stairs. Not a big deal.