I watch him slip a long, strong fingernail down the succulent crevice between two mandarin segments and pull them apart. “Reminds me of when my wife left me.”
It’s dark. I wait for him to place the orangey crescent into his mouth and I imagine its sharp taste on his tongue as he crushes it, chews the pith and swallows the remains when the liquid is gone. He turns to me. His teeth are off-white; an incisor is broken. “Why?”
“I just want to know.”
He looks darkly into my right eye – the one nearest to him – then slowly follows my body downwards and stares at my expensive clothes. I don’t care that the trouser suit will get dirty, or that my hands are stone cold. I don’t think about myself for once. I think about his life, his route here, about drugs, cleanliness, food, warmth, people who might want to hurt him, people who’d rather help him, if he knows the difference – and I wonder what he might have been like as a boy.
He whispers, “No, I did well at school.”
“Anyone can lose their job.”
He shakes his head. There’s a wry smile in control of his top lip. He turns from me and I worry how much of a wanker I must seem to him. But he stays. And we sit together on the concrete floor outside the multi-million-pound revamped theatre, looking up from beneath our eyelids at different shoes passing, at ankle shapes, odd details. Some legs are encased in sock material; some in patterned tights. Some people wear jeans – blue, black or white. Some have pronated walks; others bowl or lean to the right. Some move leisurely, but some walk by quickly like their shoes are on fire. One in a hundred slow their pace, fiddle in a wallet or purse and reach down to let a tiny fraction of what they own drop like a bronze snowflake into the simple tin beside Mark’s small dog.
I tell him my name is Kat.
“Short for anything?” he asks.
“Katerina. My mother was a Russian ballerina. My father, an alcoholic. He used to beat her.”
He widens his tired, restless grey eyes and murmurs, “Same as my dad. He was a nut-job. I get my street sense from my older brother.” He points. “You’ll see him on the corner of the crossroads.”
“I used to love this city,” I tell him gently. “Until recently. It’s not right, what they’re doing. It’s fucked up.”
He eyes me closely, like a nervous scientist. His next words feel cruel, but his intentions are non-malicious. “Why did you sit down here, Kat? Don’t you realise me and my friends are getting less money? You’re in a suit, you’re a well-dressed woman, and we’re homeless. Never the Twain shall fucking meet. Indiscreet.”
I decide to own up to my truth. “I sat down here because I just can’t deal with the guilt of walking past you anymore. I must have seen you and your dog two hundred times since Christmas. That was the first day.” At that, he lowers his head. I know that day was the start of it all. “You’re no different to me,” I carry on. “Yet you’re down here on the floor, unable to get enough food to eat and I’m always up there, rushing past pretending I’ve got important things to fix.”
“No different,” he smirks. “Couldn’t be more different if we tried.”
I’m saddened. Because he’s right. He seems to think hard as he glares at the half-empty tin ahead of him, as he strokes his dog. The animal turns his sleepy head and blinks at his protector, who rifles pockets for a biscuit treat.
I don’t want to ruin his chances, so I get up, brush the dirt off, and donate. I feel bad for reinforcing our distance, and I’d feel bad for not giving something. He doesn’t look up.
In the end, I have to just walk away.