Image by Christine Renney
I try to convince myself it is sudden, this want, this need. It has been growing inside of me, unbidden, a well without water.
How can I talk again after so long? Each time it surfaces I suppress it and resist. I could so easily run, abandon the City, and make again for the road, find that other place, the one in between here and there, where I could stand off to one side and, unheard, shout at the sky and down into the earth.
I look up, not because I must, or because I might stumble or have gotten too close to the edge and could fall into the abyss, I look up to see what is happening right here and now. But it is too bright and, squinting into the harsh light, I am hardly able to see. Everyone is moving so quickly and everything is blurred. At last someone slows a little and I focus on him.
I watch him moving in closer and he bends and drops a handful of coins onto the pavement in front of where I am sitting.
‘Thank you,‘ I say, staring down at them but when I raise my head he is gone.
The litter strewn here has faded. I kick through it, the sweet wrappers and crushed cans. At the end of the street the trash has gathered in the entrance way to an abandoned shop. I step under the glass canopy and, crouching down, I start to sift through it.
I pick at the paper and cardboard, old crisp bags and cigarette packets and lots of little shiny sheaves that once contained chocolate bars. I recognise the names on the wrappers of course, although they haven’t been on my radar in a while. But now I remember all sorts of sweets, things I had forgotten; mints and chews and sugary pills.
Moving in a half crouch, I search through the rubbish at my feet for the packaging from these remembered confections and miraculously some of them are here.
I kick aside a newspaper and unearth a tiny cardboard tube. I pick it up. I had forgotten these particular sweets but now I remember. I peer into the cylinder but of course it is empty. I press it against my nose and inhale and I am almost sure I can smell them, that something remains, a residue. I poke my tongue to taste but I still can’t be certain.
If I can find the lid I can make use of this cylinder – stuff it with tobacco. And I begin to search for the little plastic stopper but it isn’t here.
Image by Christine Renney
The homeless have always been prevalent in the City. We pass them on the streets every day, stepping around them on the pavements.
But the Men were different; they simply stood, like sentinels, on the corners or in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, almost anywhere in fact. They didn’t move or at least hardly at all. They certainly didn’t move for us. They didn’t step aside and give us the road.
At first, we didn’t mention the Men. And even as more and more of them began to appear in the City, the place where we come to work, still we tried to ignore them, pretending they weren’t there.
It seemed impossible to me that the Men could stand like they did and for so long and I attempted to steer clear of them and keep my distance but this wasn’t easy. The Men tended to take up position at the most crowded of places. They blocked our way, causing us to slow down and holding us up. It was fleeting, I suppose, but it was an inconvenience nonetheless. And on the busy streets we were jostled and pushed up against them and forced to stand alongside them.
I was unnerved by the Men and this was only compounded by the fact that we didn’t talk about them. All of our questions and the speculation had been stifled and the silence had become an entity in and of itself. Not only in the City but also in our homes, with family and friends and it quickly turned into something sharp and pointed, something dark and foreboding.
The Men, with their arrogance and indifference, were an imposing and intimidating presence. It wasn’t unusual for the homeless to come into the mid-levels; it is easier pickings here, I suppose, for the beggars and the hawkers. But the Men didn’t ask for money and they weren’t trying to sell anything. They hardly seemed to notice us at all. It was as if we weren’t there. And when they talked it was only to each other and those moments of camaraderie were few. It was unusual in fact to see more than two or three of the Men standing together, although I often spotted one of them alone and talking to himself, mumbling incoherently, as if locked in some inner conflict.
The Men were always dressed alike. This again wasn’t unusual. The Salvation Army provides clothes for the homeless but the Men appeared different, they had achieved a uniformity. I suppose it was because we were looking properly at these clothes for the first time, taking in these garments, the heavy overcoats and woollen hats, the crudely cut jeans and working man’s boots.
The Men stood out. They were clearly defined both when it was busy and when it wasn’t. I still tried to avoid them, but not to ignore them as this, of course, would have been impossible. But I was determined to maintain that distance, to keep them away, apart.
I was almost entirely pre-occupied with the Men. I could hardly think about anything else. Even in my office on the fourth floor I couldn’t settle, couldn’t concentrate. I would stand at the window gazing down until I found the Men, located them. I needed to know where they were and if and when one of them moved along I needed to know when another appeared.
Perhaps if my office had been up above, somewhere in the higher levels and I hadn’t been able to see what was happening down there, my work wouldn’t have suffered.
Eventually, however, the Men began to leave. Gradually there were less and less of them. And so the Men became much, much more difficult to pinpoint.
Image by Christine Renney
I have become so adept at it, the getting close and yet retaining a space, a divide. It is flat here, a desperate patch without a roof and no walls apart from the one I have built and that is sturdy enough and tall. But there is the slightest of cracks and I can see through and if I press my ear against it and concentrate I can hear.
They tend to the old woman, bringing her food but mostly drink. Cans of “Super Strength” lager. One of them opens a can and places it in her hand. If she would allow it, he would help her to drink from it, steadying and guiding her hand in order to limit the spillage. But she won’t be helped and motions for him to back away, which he now does and, at a safe distance, he sits and watches her. He watches the can. She is gripping it but her hold is weak and it is cold and the can is slick. Bundled in her dirty woollens and, unsupported on the hard ground, her movements are jerky. The can slips between her fingers and the lager, sloshing, froths at the rim. But somehow, tilting and tipping, she manages to hold on.
I think about those old arcade games, the ones with the claw attached to a tiny winch and I remember standing and staring through the glass, frantically turning the little wheel and trying desperately to grab one of the fluffy toys.
Image by Christine Renney
I am about to settle in yet another doorway, to turn and sit and watch the passers-by. But I hesitate. Others have lingered here. There are empty beer cans at my feet and fast-food wrappers and there is writing on the doors. Somebody has set to work with a black marker, covering them from top to bottom. But I can’t read this text, not from where I am standing. I edge closer and find that it is the work of not one but of many hands. A collection of missives and declarations and these have been added to and added to until lost. Engulfed by this dense and unfathomable block of words, of letters, I move closer still. I want to know what it is and what it was.