I almost walked past. You do, don’t you? But I said, ‘Is that you, James? James Simcox?’
He lifted his head, like a weight was attached. There was something in his eyes – or maybe something missing – that made me think he wasn’t James after all.
Then he nodded. ‘Greg Passmore.’
I said, ‘I thought you were in Manchester?’
‘I was. Long story. How are you?’
‘Great.’ I shook my head. ‘We all say that, don’t we? No, I mean it’s ok. Commuting’s a chore but, yes, it’s fine. You?’
‘I thought you said you’d never live in London.’
‘Did I? Probably, but that was in a different life. We’ve all moved on, haven’t we? How long has it been? Four, five years? Sally and Warren’s wedding?’
‘Three. Last month. You were with a Chinese girl, weren’t you?’
‘South Korean. Sui-Yen. Married with one out and one on the way. She’s a computer boffin. Makes me… well, yes, I’ve bitten the same bullet as the rest of the world and settled down. What about Claudia?’
‘Computers? Good work in this day and age. So, what do you have? Boy? Girl?’
‘Boy. Harrison. Right bundle. They’re exhausting, aren’t they? Wait, I’ve a picture. Is this your train?’
‘No rush. Show me.’
‘Look, if you have time, what say you I buy you a beer?’
‘Coffee would be good.’
‘Off the sauce, eh? Sue’s always telling me to cut down. Tyrant that woman. So, coffee it is. There’s a café just outside.’
‘I know it well.’
‘Do you live around here?’ I remember thinking he was doing ok if he lived in this neck of the woods.
‘Not exactly, but I visit often.’
He had these bags, which he picked up. I thought they were shopping but one fell open. It was full of old clothes.
‘You off to Oxfam? We give to the RSPCA. Not true about Koreans and pets. You know, last Christmas she even had us going to Battersea.’
We didn’t say much until we entered the café. He didn’t stop at the counter but headed for a seat at the back. ‘What’s your tipple, James?’ It was a joke, but I caught the barista’s eye and he looked really angry. I assumed it wasn’t to do with me, but when I approached the counter he still seemed pissed, even if he said nothing as he poured the two lattes.
‘That barista needs some client service training. He’s got a real attitude problem.’
‘He’s ok. Had a rough time, though. Lost his brother in a knife attack last year.’
‘You’re a good man, James.’
He looked at me oddly. ‘Why’d you say that?’
‘I’ve just remembered, at uni. That girl sitting on the pavement? The faculty dinner?’
He looked confused.
‘Come on. No false modesty. She was drunk, swearing, but you stayed with her. Just as well if I recall because she passed out and you stopped her choking. Puke all down—’
‘Oh yes. Long time ago.’
‘The dean wrote you a letter. About putting you up for an award. Hey, you ok?’
He was crying. He shook his head and dabbed his eyes with his sleeve. He said, ‘I was a different person. Very different.’ He sniffed and added, ‘Weren’t you hankering to go and volunteer overseas?’
‘No. No, things didn’t work out. Did you hear about my divorce?’
‘Divorce? But you said you were married. Sue, wasn’t it?’
‘Before that.’ I hadn’t spoken to anyone about this, bottled it right up. For some reason seeing James, remembering his easy way with listening to people’s problems, even at university when you’re wrapped up in yourself mostly – something made me talk. ‘After we graduated, I moved in with my girlfriend at the time. You remember her? She—’
‘Amanda. I remember. Amazing legs.’ That was the first time he smiled. The only time. We both smiled. Everyone, well every heterosexual male, knew about her legs. Thank heavens for tight jeans.
‘She dumped me soon after uni. Can’t say I blame her. She’d got a super job with ICI or some such and I didn’t want to work. She’d go off to her office in a suit while I’d smoke as much weed as I could get hold of. I don’t smoke any these days. Not around the kid.’ I didn’t need to say that, but for some reason I felt I had to. I needed him on my side. Or that’s the way it felt. ‘Finally, she threw me out. I don’t remember who suggested there was a job for a geography graduate with a crappy third in Hull, but I got work at a textile finishing shop, trainee in the accounts which meant invoices, payroll and debts. Utterly mind numbing.’
He started fidgeting. Like a kid, squirming in his seat. He said, ‘Can we sit outside? Would you mind? I like the fresh air.’
We took a table and he waved me on. I remember thinking it odd the way he collected the sugar sachets and pocketed then, but just then I wanted to complete my story because it would have been so easy to stop. ‘There was this girl. Pauline. Worked in the shop itself but used to bring in the time sheets so we could sort the wages. She was so confident. I thought she was eighteen or nineteen but turned out she was just sixteen. Within three months we’d had a few dates and she was pregnant. Funny thing, my mum told me to walk away. Said I’d regret it, but something told me I had to marry her. You know what I found out? She was selling tricks throughout our relationship. I caught her when I took ill one day and came home early. She was having a threesome with two lads from the club, with the baby in its cot in the corner of the room. I played football with them. Made me a laughing stock. I left that day.’ It felt like I was back there again, hearing the voices, just knowing what was going on.
‘Probably well out of it.’
I’d almost forgotten he was there. I held his gaze. His eyes still seemed red and I realised I’d not really asked him why he’d got upset. ‘I told her I didn’t believe the kid was mine. He was as cute as anything, and he could have been. Right colour of skin and hair. Just told her that if she tried it on for maintenance I’d tell the world. Three months later he was dead.’
‘Shit.’ He started chewing his lip; I felt bad dumping all this on him.
‘I haven’t even told Sue. Just Mum – Dad’s gone – and now you. That’s why I came south to get away from the mess. Best move really. Especially meeting Sue.’ It was then I remembered something about his mum, something that happened in our third year. ‘Wasn’t you mum ill? Is she ok?’
The chewing stopped, and the tears really flowed, dripping off his chin, snot dribbling from his nose. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so upset yet so still. He barely twitched.
‘MS. She died in March.’
‘I’m sorry. Do you have kids? They can be a compensation, can’t they? At times like that?’
I was sure he nodded. At least the tears stopped. ‘Look, sorry for going on about me. Tell me about you. How many kids? How’s Claudia? Everyone knew you two would stay together and be our role model. And hadn’t you just got a partnership or something? Going places.’
Even as I said all of this I think I already knew. I should have stopped. Just backed off, but something made me press on. ‘We always said you’d be the first millionaire amongst us.’
He stood, collected his stuff, then paused. He was going to say something. I know he was. But he didn’t. Instead he took the sugar sachets from his pocket, dropped them on the table and turned away. I watched him disappear, back towards the station.
A minute later the surly barista emerged with a tray and cloth to wipe the table. As he tidied up I said, ‘The guy I was with. Do you know him?’
‘Sure. He comes in for a free cup every morning. Lovely fellow.’
‘You know. People buy an extra cup so if someone’s homeless they—’
‘He’s homeless? Are you sure?’
‘Yeah. I mean look at him. He’s got all his life in those bags. And he hates being inside. But he never makes a fuss. Really kind.’ He went to leave and turned back. ‘Sorry about earlier. I didn’t know you were with him. When you said about the tipple I thought you were taking the piss. See, he had a drink problem when he first came in, but the boss told him he’d have to stop or stay away, and he’s got himself clean. But it’s been a struggle and he’s very fragile. He’s had a few problems recently.’
‘I didn’t know. We were at university together. House mates. Really close, but I had some issues after and we drifted apart. Do you know what happened?’
‘A lesson for us all. He never says but… Did you know he was married?’
‘Claudia. Yes, I know her.’
‘I don’t know her name. She came in. Last week. She’s worried about him. He’s got two kids. According to her, a year ago everything was peachy. Then in close order his mum died, he was made redundant and she left him for another guy. He takes to drink, can’t keep up with the bills and before you know it he’s out of his house, bankrupt, with nowhere to live and on the streets. Because he’s never been so low he doesn’t know how to cope, and he gets rolled, the drink doesn’t help. Not sure seeing his wife helped much. Since she came by he’s been in a funny mood. He—’
It was then we heard it. The café is right above the platforms. There was a scream, a squeal of brakes. The barista and I exchanged a look. I think we both knew.
I wrote this story as part of a challenge a few years ago and it now appears in my anthology Life In A Grain Of Sand. Having discussed issues around homelessness recently I thought this bore a second viewing. It is based, at least the opening on a true story I heard at Crisis For Christmas in 2015.