The Old China Hand, Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell 15th April
What did he really do with the money you gave him? You said he just wanted a kebab. But I thought it was wrong to give him cash – after all where do you draw the line? I guess I’ve become immune to beggars; I’ve worked in London for over 20 years now. My heart has hardened and my head holds sway.
Even so, he made me think of Francis. Francis used to sell me the Big Issue from under the railway arches leading into Cornwall Road, just by Waterloo. He had a thin wise Buddha face and life-worn eyes. I always thought he looked like a down-on-his-luck-jazz-man. I imagined him playing his trumpet on a cold street corner in the dead of night; lit by a solitary halo of light, blowing a sweet mournful tune, Chet Baker style.
I knew this was just a mix of personal fantasy and stereotyping, but I was taken by surprise when he told me that he used to be a military man. Francis was a Captain in the Angolan army before he started drinking. I never asked him why he took to the bottle. I wondered if he’d witnessed something horrific or, even worse, committed something horrific. To be honest, I didn’t want to know.
We got on well, partly because we were both long-suffering Spurs fans. Most weeks, things had gone wrong on the pitch so we put them right on the street. Between us, we could have won the league and returned the club to glory. I don’t doubt this for a minute.
Once, at Christmas, I gave him a tip and he made me an immense horseshoe shaped spicy sausage; for luck he said. I was touched. Here was someone who had fallen on hard times looking out for me. I always felt there was something saintly about him. He had suffered but wasn’t bitter. He had nothing but was generous. He was cold but offered warmth.
Soon after, he left his pitch to start catering full-time. He gave me his card and we agreed to stay in touch… I haven’t seen him for a long time now. I must say I miss him. And perhaps your man really did just want a bite to eat, and I should be kinder and not forget what Francis did for me.