The acrid stench of the homeless man arrived moments before he did.
I’d been absent-mindedly shoving my phone back in my pocket when it hit me like a wall of stale piss.
I tasted it in the back of my throat and involuntarily stopped breathing for a second as he came into view parting commuters in his wake.
He was a man of probably forty years, with piercing green eyes and skin so layered with dirt it was in places the colour of light charcoal. His dense black beard hung well below his chin and his long dreaded mane of hair draped lumpily over his long coat, ending squarely between the small of his back. His weathered hands swung back and forth as he walked purposefully by, his eyes meeting mine for just a second.
I’ve no idea why I followed him. Maybe I needed to walk off the phone conversation I’d just had with Sarah. We’d been screaming at each other for the past twenty minutes and my brain was ringing with the sound of my own annoying, argumentative voice. I needed to zone out, and whether it was even a conscious decision or not I found myself trailing him as he marched headstrong through the crowded London streets, protected only it seemed by his appearance and overpowering smell. His unswerving gait suggested a man used to others making way, and I watched fascinated as he marched on, pausing at each rubbish bin to scan its contents. He made no contact unless something in one caught his eye, and after each inspection he would continue his meaningful stride, hanging his head forward for just a second before whipping it back, forcing the thick matted hair out of his face and eyes.
He walked with such direction and purpose that at times I found myself falling behind. In fact it wasn’t until several streets later, having watched him finish off a discarded fizzy drink and some cold mashed chips before turning into a small side alley that I came to my senses and stopped myself following any further.
I’d been so fixated on the man that I hadn’t been paying attention to where we’d been walking, and it was as I was getting my bearings that I first heard his voice.
I spun around to see him standing right behind me.
“It is you isn’t it? Steve Foster?”
He spoke with a voice so gentle it was almost a whisper. Our eyes met once more and I realised how wrong I’d been about his age. He was a good ten years younger than I first suspected, and as I looked at his frail thirty-something face I felt a sudden pang of recognition.
As my mind attempted to remove the layers of filthy disguise and my nostrils tried their best to filter air he spoke again.
“It’s Johnny. Johnny Briggs.”
A tiny smile appeared at the corner of his mouth. “ You don’t recognise me?”
My stomach flopped and began itching inside. Johnny Briggs? Johnny Briggs from woodwork class? ‘Bum-hole Briggs’? The guy I’d bullied more times in one term than most kids could handle their whole school career?
I smiled awkwardly back at him, suddenly wondering why on earth I’d put myself in this position. What was I thinking, following someone at random halfway across London? Idiot.
“Johnny, wow, how are you”.
“Oh you know.” Johnny replied, looking over my shoulder to the horizon. “Could be worse.”
“Really?” I replied, feeling the words ‘insensitive prick’ appear in the centre of my forehead. I wondered if he could sense my guilty discomfort as I stood there maintaining my dry grin and nervous stare.
“And you?” He asked.
“Oh God yeah you know just working and the baby and – “
“- You followed me” He said calmly. “Why did you do that? I mean I knew it was you as soon as I saw you but did you know who I was? Is that why you followed?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe. I know I felt…something. Listen can I buy you a drink, a coffee or something?”
I’d made this kids life hell at school, I figured the least I could offer was a venti mocha latte with extra whip.
“I’d love a glass of milk, Steve. That would be really nice.”
“- And a muffin, maybe.”
Our eye contact suggested a conversation all of its own. I was expecting him to launch into his accusations any second, blaming me for the state his life was clearly in, and what would I say if he did? Could I deny it? Pretend I wasn’t at least partly responsible for this frail hairy fuck-up standing in front of me?
We looked at each other a moment longer.
“Milk and a muffin. You got it.”
I looked around for a café and immediately saw several in a row on the other side of the street. We walked across the road in silence, Johnny once again taking up his proud, purposeful walk and me following a few paces behind. I’d been trying to disguise my breathing while we’d been talking, opting for short snatched breaths in a bid to keep from gagging. I was sure he hadn’t noticed, and was now grateful for a few decent intakes of fresh air.
He waited outside as I went in to order and when I came back onto the street he was nowhere to be seen.
I felt a huge sense of relief and was about to throw the bag in the bin when his gentle voice startled me once again.
“Over here Steve.”
He was sat on a low wall outside an old church. Behind him gravestones sprouted from the ground like rotten stone molars. A fluorescent poster with a drawing of an open-armed Jesus and the words ‘He’s Listening’ sat at the bottom of some old weed-riddled steps leading up to the front door.
I sat on the wall and handed him the bag from the café. He paused before opening it and looked at me once again with those piercing green eyes that I simply couldn’t decipher.
“Thank you Steve.”
I watched him open the bag and empty it onto the wall next to him. He placed the large cup of milk down first, gently prying off the plastic lid and laying it next to the cup before taking the doughnut out and laying it down on a napkin. He licked the sugar off his fingers, closing his eyes as he did so before folding the paper bag into a tiny neat square and putting it in his coat pocket. A white transit van drove past at speed, breaking the silence. We watched it tear down the road until it was out of sight and the street was quiet again.
“Is it a boy or a girl, Steve?”
I hadn’t heard the question because random incidents from the past had been playing over and over in my mind like short intrusive film clips. Incidents like the time myself and three other pupils dragged a terrified Johnny Briggs up a steep grass slope, each grabbing an arm and a leg and swinging him high before releasing him into the air, watching him fly for just a second before he slammed down into a screaming heap at the bottom.
He broke his wrist and two ribs that day.
We were still laughing about it a week later.
Or the day I had instigated spitting at Johnny whilst sat behind him during a bus ride home. Several of us had begun taking aim, spitting on his back and laughing as he sat frozen to the spot, no doubt hoping that if he just sat still and didn’t react we’d get bored and stop. His apparent inability to move had simply made the situation all the more hilarious to us however and by the time he finally leapt up and ran crying from the bus his blazer and the back of his head were so covered with shiny yellow-green phlegm and white foamy spittle he looked like a human slug. In fact, that’s exactly what we would call him for days to come.
“Is it a boy or a girl? You mentioned you had a baby.”
I snapped out of my daydream and tried to ignore my headspace.
“Oh. Um, a boy. Adam.”
“Like in the bible?”
“I guess so. I mean, that’s not why we -”
“Not a religious man?” He smiled and looked directly at me now. His eyes locked onto mine once again as I offered up my stock answer to this type of question.
“Um, not religious exactly but I do consider myself quite spiritual…?”
He smiled as if he’d heard that one a thousand times and took a sip of his milk.
“I had a bible. Someone stole it” he said as he let out a long contented sigh and wiped the creamy white residue from his moustache.
“Oh. Sorry. You a Christian then?” I asked, pretending to be interested.
He smiled that smile again. “Oh I’ve read most of them. I think it’s bigger than that don’t you? Faith, I mean. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew. Just variations on a theme, cover versions of the same song. If you dare to look at it as something bigger than we could ever contain with language and translation what are you left with?”
I really hoped that last question was rhetorical because I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I let the silence grow as I nodded and pretended to ponder his wisdom.
He took a large sip of milk. Wiped his moustache.
I was starting to feel like I should really say something. I was about to tell him how I’d never been christened in the hope that it might relate to whatever tangent he was on but as I opened my mouth to speak he began again.
“It’s got to be bigger, right?” He said.
I looked at him, still nodding my big fake nod.
He studied me as he continued. “Bigger than us and our egos or our fears I mean. Bigger than our friends, our enemies, our societies, bigger than all the towns that make up all the cities that make up all the countries of this world, bigger than the planets, the solar system, the universe…”
He trailed off and stared ahead into the street. I really felt obliged now to offer something, some intelligent opinion, an observation, anything.
“Yeah. The Cosmos is… crazy.”
‘Crazy‘? Here he was trying to share something profound and the best I could offer was ‘The cosmos is crazy’? I clenched my jaw and tried to think of something relevant to offer. I had nothing.
I mean, I could have talked more about Adam, and how since his birth all Sarah and I had done was argue and that despite my best efforts to conceal it the main source of my frustration was that I was scared, – scared of this little baby and what he represented, and how I didn’t think I was ready and I’d only just realised that and how stupid that made me feel and now I was terrified I was going to fail as a father and he’d grow up to resent me because that’s what kids do when you’re a shit parent. I could have talked about my recent obsession with running away, of just leaving Sarah to it,- something that had scared me even further but something that nonetheless had recently felt like a real possibility. I could have talked about all these things, and the truth was despite the absurdity of the situation there was something about Johnny that made me feel it might have been okay to open up, but I hadn’t shared any of this with my wife of four years and I certainly wasn’t going to share it now with the guy whose childhood I’d laughingly smashed to pieces.
I was still fighting off the images of my time with Johnny as a child, and in each one he was either crying, bleeding or simply looking pathetic and picked on. I felt bad in my stomach. I wanted to approach the subject but the truth was I didn’t have the nerve. I mean, maybe he’d put it all behind him, and if so who was I to drag up the past on his behalf? Maybe he wouldn’t want to talk about it even if I did raise the issue. Maybe things weren’t actually as bad as I’m remembering them, I thought. Anyway he’s probably forgotten all about it and moved on with his life. Some things are better left forgotten I decided, and I let the silence linger.
“I don’t mean to get all philosophical” Johnny said after a while. “You just have a lot of time to think when you’re…you know. It’s nice to have someone to share it with.”
“Sure.” I said. “Sure.”
“You think I sound like a crazy man don’t you.” He smiled.
“No. No, not at all. Carry on.” I said.
“Well I just think if we really choose to bother with faith, and by faith I mean faith in the very reason, the very purpose of everything, then the last thing we need to do is look upwards to a heaven for the promise of a happy ending, or downwards into hell for the threat of punishment. We don’t need to look anywhere ‘outwards’ at all. All religions agree on one thing Steve when you really get down to it, – they’re all pointing us to one place, and that place is right here.” He placed one hand on my chest and the other on his own and I felt myself blush.
“This is where they all talk about Steve, every one of them. This is where everything takes place!”
I could feel the warmth of his hand through my jacket as he gently patted my chest.
“I think that’s why we’re all here on this planet Steve, in all our different shapes and colours, to continue evolving and making mistakes as a species until we finally learn to embrace the fact, because that fact might be the answer to it all. And it’s an answer so simple and pure our only failing is that we’re intimidated by it’s potential. That’s why we argue and go to war over differing religions, because our egos won’t allow us to embrace the fact that they, and we, are all one. One universal, ‘cosmic’ truth, yet to be truly discovered, and it begins and ends right here. Don’t you think?.”
He patted my chest again and smiled at me. I found myself grinning back at him and I couldn’t decide if he was talking complete drivel or making perfect sense.
He reached for his doughnut and I watched him eat as I pondered his words. He savoured every mouthful as he looked out across the street lost in his own world.
“I’m sorry.” I blurted out as he took his last bite. He looked directly at me.
“They were completely out of muffins so um, I thought a doughnut would be the next best thing”.
“The doughnut’s perfect, thank you”.
“Yeah.” I paused.
“And look I’m really sorry about the bullying and all that. You know, when we were young-”
He stopped chewing, took a deep breath, and smiled. He seemed relieved but not entirely surprised that the subject had been touched upon. As he slowly finished his mouthful and turned to face me I couldn’t help feeling that I had in some way said exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment.
“Thank you, Steve Foster.” That smile again.
“So…how old is your Adam?” He said, washing down the last of the doughnut with a large, conclusive gulp of his milk.
“Adam is three months, yeah. I’ve um, got a photo if you want to see?”
“I’d love to”.
I pulled out my wallet and removed one of several pictures I had. “Wow. Look at that! Oh wow, that’s great.” Johnny smiled, gently touching the picture with his dark stained finger.
He studied Adam’s face for a long time, until his smile eventually faded and his expression turned to one of complete concentration. I watched him stare into that photo, watched his eyes glaze over and his body become motionless. I swear it’s as if he’d stopped breathing altogether. I suddenly wondered if maybe he was an addict and he’d lapsed into some kind of withdrawal. I shook off my mounting discomfort and was about to ask for the photo back when he turned and fixed me with a stare so intense it stole the air from my lungs.
“Don’t be scared Steve. Of this. Of what it means and what it asks of you.”
My stomach flipped,- a sharp piercing feeling, as if someone had just looked straight into my very core.
I stared back at Johnny, silent as he leaned closer and once again put his hand on my chest.
“Lean into this. Embrace it. You have great power. Adam and Sarah need you for all that you are, and all that you’ll become.”
He fixed me again with those eyes that now burned with authority.
“Don’t run, Steve.”
My heart pounded as I struggled to comprehend. ‘How could…?’
I stared silent and trance-like, a hundred questions firing at the front of my mind but sticking in the back of my throat until Johnny suddenly released his hand and sat motionless, staring into the road in front of us. I took a breath and tried to shake off the adrenaline, reminding myself that there was no such thing as mind-readers or fortune-tellers and that anything I thought I’d just heard was a culmination of a guilty conscience and too much imagination and nothing more. I stared ahead also, allowing myself to become distracted as passing cars painted streaks of colour on the landscape.
Minutes passed. Slowly, my heart ceased thumping in my chest to the point where I felt an overwhelming calm throughout my body. I looked at Johnny and saw only the small pitiful-looking man I’d first noticed several hours ago. Slowly, everything felt normal.
Even my feelings of guilt had begun to resurface. “I have to go. Look, it’s not much but will you take this?” I said, as I pulled out a few notes.
“No no that’s okay. You’ve given me enough” Johnny gestured toward his empty milk cup.
“Are you sure? I just… I feel like I want to give you something”.
“You’ve given me enough”.
He looked at me and I understood.
“Johnny, I don’t know what today’s been about or how this happened but…I want you to know I’m glad it did.”
“Me too Steve. Everything for a reason, eh?”
“Absolutely. Listen, Johnny, maybe we -? “
“We won’t see each other again Steve” He smiled.
“No? No, I guess you’re right, London’s a big place eh?” I stood and made my way to the curb.
“Well, look after yourself yeah? Out here I mean”.
He nodded as I turned to cross the road. I had only taken a couple of steps when it hit me
– why didn’t I ask Johnny over to our place? There was absolutely no reason he shouldn’t come over, have a decent meal, a hot bath and a warm bed for the night. It had been such a strange couple of hours but I felt like I didn’t want it to end just yet. Sarah would understand, and I knew she’d do the same if it were someone she knew. It was decided then. I was glad to have had the idea, and as I turned to share it with Johnny I felt a sudden lurch in my stomach and my entire body went cold.
I’d been so engrossed in my thoughts I’d completely failed to notice the car.
I hadn’t heard the horn at all, and only as I instinctively spun around to see it did the loud screech of tires fill my ears. Everything became slow and my legs turned to lead and I wondered why I was frozen to the spot and not leaping out of harms way like they do in movies.
I closed my eyes and felt my body tense and shrink in an effort to protect itself.
The impact caught me from the side and forced all the air from my body as I was thrown to the ground. The impact was soft however and it was only as I opened my eyes that I saw Johnny standing in my place taking the full force of the car.
The sickening sound came a second after the impact itself. Johnny flew straight up in the air like a doll. The car continued to skid right past me and foul smelling smoke filled the air as Johnny’s body smashed down onto the ground. I heard myself scream. The screeching finally stopped and for just a second or two there was complete silence. Shock took over my body as I curled up on the ground shaking uncontrollably and I was vaguely aware of people all around. Sounds were muffled and my vision was blurred and I knew I was near to passing out. I could see shapes and became aware of voices asking me if I was okay. My head spun as I looked through the sea of legs around me and I saw Johnny’s broken body lying alone and bleeding in the middle of the road.
I tried to speak but no words came. I pointed towards Johnny. No one ran to help him. I tried screaming but now shock and adrenaline had raped me of sound and it was all I could do to slowly pull myself up and rest on one trembling elbow as I told myself to breathe.
Somewhere in the distance a siren sounded but I knew it was too late. I looked up again in the hope that Johnny was being attended to or better still showing signs of movement, but this time through the sea of legs and movement I saw nothing but the still smoking car.
I searched around, straining my eyes to see what couldn’t be true. The door of the car was open and amongst the gathered crowd an ashen-faced man I took to be the driver stood leaning on the bonnet rubbing his chin, staring at the road.
The ground where Johnny’s body had landed not twenty seconds ago was empty and clean. No blood. No marks. Nausea still had its grip on me as I stared ahead trying to comprehend what I was failing to see. Where was he? I had seen him, had watched his face contort and wince as he felt the death blow from that car. And yet…
Sounds became more crisp and my senses began to return as if re-surfacing from deep water into bright noisy daylight.
I felt myself breathing, felt my chest rising and falling, felt my heart beating strong in my chest and blood returning to my face and limbs as my mind began to focus on something. A tiny, stinging needlepoint of truth that I had known all along but had completely failed to remember until this very second.
Johnny Briggs committed suicide ten years ago.
It wasn’t possible that I had forgotten. The whole town had known about it. And yet…? I felt heavy, couldn’t move. I sat with my arms around my knees, unable to think, the sirens in the background getting louder, nearer.
In the distance, far atop the hill beyond the church I had been sitting at not minutes ago, I caught sight of someone walking purposefully away from the scene. A loud sob escaped me as I watched the distant figure pause at a rubbish bin and scan its contents before continuing on with an unmistakably meaningful stride, hanging his head forward for just a second before whipping it back, forcing the thick matted hair out of his face and eyes.
I cried freely now as I watched him walk away from me for the last time, and as the tears came and my body finally began to relax, I felt a now familiar warmth in my chest and an overwhelming need to be home. Home with my son. Home with my family.