When he told me, later, that he felt invisible, I believed him. I had nearly walked past him too.
I don’t recall him asking me for money, like all the others beggars did that day. But maybe I was too far away, on the far side of that wide pavement. Maybe my stride was too purposeful.
It’s true, I was walking with purpose. Not to catch a train, although this was the ramp leading up into Birmingham’s New Street station. My purpose was to find solitary men on the street, to hear their stories. So it was strange that I almost walked right by exactly what I was looking for. But something stopped me. My story radar maybe. I turned, looked back and saw him standing there. He looked out of place, ill at ease. I went over.
I wasn’t alone. I was working as part of an Arts Council funded project and the other artist, Anne Brierley, was with me. Anne was working like a war artist that day, drawing and painting portraits of men while I engaged them in conversation, encouraging them to share something of their life story.
Why were we doing this? Simply because I believe humans have a profound need to be listened to. When someone listens to your story, they witness your life. They do not need to offer sympathy or encouragement. To listen is enough. The twin gift of our time and our full attention is specially precious in these busy, device-driven days.
I wanted to know how John came to be homeless. He told me he had been living with his mum, just the two of them. He was her full-time carer. One night she had fallen ill and been taken to hospital in an ambulance. It was bronchial pneumonia. He said he remembered them taking her into a side ward and drawing a curtain across in front of him. That was the last time he saw her. The police came to the house the next morning to tell him she was dead.
John was no stranger to loss: his oldest brother had committed suicide some years before. But this hit him hard. Then his remaining brothers sold the house from under him and split the money between them.
Homeless now, he lives in a hostel. He said he had no possessions, not even anything that had belonged to his mum. Only memories.
‘What is your favourite memory of her?’ I asked.
‘I have so many. Mum was my best friend,’ he said, his eyes turning silver with tears. ‘I was the baby of the family.’
John hadn’t been homeless long and it showed. He was like a fledgling fallen from a nest, a little bruised, somewhat bewildered. Unsure, lacking the bravado of the other beggars. I spoke to a woman later that day who had been on the street for twenty years, on and off. She wanted me to buy her a coffee and, as we walked to Greggs together, she greeted other beggars like we were heading for a Friday night party.
John was still coming to terms with being spat at, kicked and abused for no good reason. He appreciated that not everyone had money to give, but he yearned for kindness. A warm smile, a friendly conversation. He clearly enjoyed talking to me.
The previous man we had spoken to, Liam, had also enjoyed sharing his story, and had felt moved to pay us. We had refused his money, but he had pulled a handful of change out of pocket and urged me to take it. Seeing he truly needed to make the gesture, I took it and slipped it into my own back pocket.
As my conversation with John drew to a close, I remembered it.
‘The last man gave me some money,’ I told him. ‘I said I’d buy a cup of tea with it. But now I feel he gave it to me so I could pass it on to you.’
It wasn’t much. £4 perhaps. But John accepted it with a wide smile and a little bow. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’ll get something to eat.’
He hurried away then, in search of food. But he still had time to turn and give us one last wave as he went.
For more on this Arts Council project, A Feather In My Wallet, find us on FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/245328723889671