I watched the old man shuffle about through the detritus of market day. His shoes – basically a series of holes held together by strips of leather – were so worn out, I wondered how they could possibly keep his feet dry, let alone warm. His long grey beard was dirty and matted, and his eyes peered out from beneath bush grey brows, as if hiding from a world he cared not to know. A dirty old coat hung about his shoulders, looking as if it was wearing him rather than the other way round. As I watched, he shuffled his way through the old newspapers, cabbage leaves, polystyrene cups that had once held hot tea, sweet wrappers and brown paper bags, over to one of the bins. I squirmed slightly as he began to rummage through it, searching for something to eat.
I was twelve at this point in time. The old man was known simply as “the homeless guy”, and not a day would go by when you didn’t see him, when most of the people had gone home to their families and warm firesides, searching through their leftovers for some kind of nourishment. I had never known him to ask for, or to accept help. My friend and I once asked him if we could buy him a cup of tea, but he simply shook his head and walked away. Maybe if I were the age I am now, I would have bought the tea anyway and ran after him with it, insisting that he take it. I didn’t have that much gumption when I was twelve though, I guess.
One day, we didn’t see him. We didn’t see him the day after either, or the day after that. No one seemed bothered. A couple of people mooted that he would “turn up”, as if he were some kind of lost property. No one ever saw him again, and I doubt anyone gave him a second thought. Except me. I still think of him occasionally, still wish I’d run after him with that cup of tea. Oh well.
The sad fact is that these scenes are repeated all the time. Back then, and still now, Britain – and the US to an even greater extent – is split into two uneven countries; countries which barely even acknowledge each other. In one country, new millionaires are minted every day, and are hoisted, gleaming and new onto temporary pedestals. In the other, human beings no longer necessary to society are devalued and destroyed.
So many gods, so many creeds
So many paths that wind and wind,
When just the art of being kind
Is all this sad world needs.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox – 1883