I watch him slip a long, strong fingernail down the succulent crevice between two mandarin segments and pull them apart. I didn’t give him the fruit. I wait for him to place the orangey crescent into his mouth and imagine its sharp taste as he crushes it, chews the pith and swallows the remains when the liquid is gone. His teeth are white but an incisor is broken.
“Why?” he says.
“I just want to know.”
It’s dark and cold tonight. He looks into my right eye – the one nearest to him – and at what I wish weren’t obviously expensive clothes. They never used to be. I don’t care that the suit will get dirty or that my hands are cold on the stone floor. I think about his life, his route here, about cleanliness, food, warmth, about people who might want to use him, lose him, especially at this time of year. I think about drugs – and I wonder what he was like as a young boy. I feel guilty for staring and lower my gaze.
“I’m still human,” he reminds me. Somewhere, there’s a wry smile. I wonder how much of a fake I must seem to him.
We sit together yet apart on the ground outside the multi-million-pound revamped theatre and look across the pavement at different shoes passing. Leather uppers, trainers, heels, boots, colourful socks, patterned tights. Patent shoes on fire in street lights. We see pronated walks, walks that bowl or lean to the right, walks that are leisurely; others are quick, like drug-trial mice. Everyone carries a beautiful bag filled with gifts. One in a hundred people slow their pace, lower their shopping bags, fiddle in a wallet or purse and reach out to let a tiny fraction of what they didn’t spend drop like a single glittering snowflake into the simple tin beside his small dog.
“I still get a rush whenever it’s bronze.”
“Bronze?” I say with a smile.
“A quid. Pound coin.” He smiles, too. “Bronze snowflakes.”
“I used to get excited about those when I waitressed over there,” I tell him, pointing at a cafe that stays open after five.
He widens tired, restless blue eyes. “ Don’t look like you waitress now.”
“Not anymore. I sit at a desk now, putting big numbers into little boxes.”
As if I asked, he says, “I get my street sense from my older brother. You’ll see him on the corner of the crossroads, over there.”
“I’ll look out for him.”
“We look similar.”
I hesitate. “I used to love this city, until recently. Until the attacks. It’s not right what they’re doing. Everyone deserves a chance.”
“It’s fucked up,” he says angrily and he shifts his weight to take the pressure off the trapped ankle. “What’s the world coming to?”
I look at him.
He eyes me closely and his next words feel cruel, but I sense his intentions are not malicious. “Why did you sit down here, next to me of all people? Don’t you realise we’re all getting less money now you’re here? You’re in a suit, a well-dressed woman, and we’re fucking homeless.” He hisses the last word.
“I sat down here because I can’t just walk past you another night. I’ve seen you and your dog too many times just this year.”
He almost laughs. “I wouldn’t know you from Adam.”
“It doesn’t matter. I think about you when I’m on the train, going home to central heating and food in the fridge.”
“Don’t think about me, ok? I don’t want you to.”
“Ok, I won’t. I’m sorry.”
He looks away, along the street. “It’s a Friday. We have to make enough for now and morning.”
“I understand. I’m going, ok?”
He seems to think hard as he glares at the half-empty tin ahead of him, as he strokes his dog. “Don’t hope for me, either. I don’t want hope.”
The animal turns his sleepy head and blinks at his protector, who rifles pockets for a biscuit treat and hands it over. The dog, just a puppy really, eats it with six well-timed crunches. I’m not sure what to do, whether to just walk away, to say something else or to offer whatever I’ve got. I check my purse and I can’t believe it: all that’s left from a full day at work, buying train tickets and packet sandwiches, is
I take it out of the purse and lower it gently into the tin.
He doesn’t look up, but he does say, “Thanks.”
When I go, I don’t know that he lifts his head and watches Katherine, the girl he liked at school, walk away, because I don’t turn around. But when I’m on the train, I think about him. I don’t know that he recognised me. I only know who he is: Mark, a friendly boy I remember from secondary. Last term, he didn’t come back and rumour spread. His home-life had splintered in two and he’d run away. Just fifteen then. Now, he’s been living on the streets more than a decade. He had nothing, yet he survived. Everything I think is wrong in my own life feels like nothing anymore. As the train stutters out of the station and weaves its way through inner city streets I catch a glimpse of a young boy down a side street holding out a piece of black card to catch a falling snowflake before it melts.