I watch him slip a long, strong fingernail down the succulent crevice between two mandarin segments and pull them apart.
It’s dark. 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. He turns to me. His teeth are off-white and an incisor is broken.
“Why?” he says unhappily.
“I just want to know.”
He looks into my right eye – the one nearest to him – then at what I wish weren’t expensive clothes. They never used to be. I don’t care that the suit will get dirty, or that my hands are stone cold on the floor. I think about his life, his route here, about cleanliness, food, warmth, about people who might want to use him, I think about drugs – and I wonder what he was like as a young boy.
“I’m only human,” he whispers. Somewhere, there’s a wry smile. He turns from me and I feel bad for staring at him. I wonder how much of a fake I must seem to him.
We sit together, but far apart, on the concrete floor outside the multi-million-pound revamped theatre, looking across the pavement at different shoes passing. Leather uppers, trainers, heels, boots, colourful socks, patterned tights. Patent shoes on fire in street lights. Pronated walks, walks that bowl or lean to the right. Walks that are leisurely; others that are quick, like drug-trial mice. One in a hundred slow their pace, fiddle in a wallet or purse and reach out to let a tiny fraction of what they own drop like a single glittering snowflake into the simple tin beside his small dog.
“I still get a rush whenever it’s bronze.”
“A quid. Pound coin.” He smiles. “Rare, mind.”
“I used to get excited about bronze when I waitressed over there,” I tell him, pointing at a cafe that shuts after five.
He widens tired, restless blue eyes. “I get my street sense from my older brother. You’ll see him on the corner of the crossroads, over there.”
We both look.
“I used to love this city,” I tell him. “Until recently. Until the attacks. It’s not right what they’re doing. Everyone deserves a chance.”
“It’s fucked up,” he says angrily.
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 everyone’s getting less money now you’re here? You’re in a suit, a well-dressed woman, and we’re fucking homeless.”
“I sat down here because I can’t just walk past you another night. I must have seen you and your dog two hundred times just this year.”
He almost laughs. “I wouldn’t know you from Adam.”
“I don’t expect you to. But 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’m sorry. I’m going now. I hope you get more money.”
He seems to think hard as he glares at the half-empty tin ahead of him, as he strokes his dog, and then he whispers, “Don’t hope for me. I don’t want hope. I don’t want anything.”
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, laps it up with six well-timed crunches.
I’m not sure what to do, whether to walk away, to say something or to offer something. I check my purse and all that’s left from a day at work buying train tickets and packet sandwiches is
I smile to myself, take it out of the purse and lower it into the tin between the dog’s front paws.
The man doesn’t look up, but he does whisper, “Thanks.”
When I walk away, I don’t know that he lifts his head and watches Katherine, the girl he liked at school, walk away.
When I’m on the train, I think about him. I don’t think he recognised me, but I know who he is: he’s Mark, a friendly boy I used to speak to at school now and then. One new term, he didn’t come back and rumour spread. His home-life had splintered apart 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. He must have seen all sorts, and dealt with it.
He’s got to be the strongest snowflake I know.