He stank like people stink when they either can’t wash or just don’t wash. He sat on the step like he didn’t know the difference between tundra and Tahiti. He was Michael.
“Can I sit here, mate?” Going for the friendly known-you-since-forever approach.
He looked at me like I didn’t exist.
I’d seem him just about every day for the last few years, sitting on that step like he owned it. Maybe he thought he did. But I’d never spoke to him before. Never smiled his way. Never flicked a coin towards him. Never cared. Until now. Now that I was a writer, he emerged from the background noise of my warm, comfortable life. He became something real: a character.
I squatted. Settled with my against to the wall. Almost comfy.
“Listen, I want to give you something to help you. So that you don’t have to beg. So that you’re not getting something for nothing, you know?”
My eyes skipped around his face. Hair that would have been in in the nineties; now bacon fat greasy over one eye. Tight lips. Holding in. Holding on. Skin on bone. Raw. A quick dip of the chin. Could have been a shiver. I took it for assent.
“I want to write a book about the plight of the homeless, made up of interviews; potted bios of individual homeless people, where they tell their side of the story. They don’t even have to be true but I hope they will be. To give you something, y’know, to give back. Instead of taking.”
Nothing on his face. A tremor passed through his body. March still biting hard.
“I’ll record it.” I held up my phone; already recording. “I’ll write it, polish it up and make copies. Just need your words. That’s all. Simples!”
“All I want is the copyright. For the book. You get free copies of your bit. Booklets to sell. And you get to be famous! Get your message out. Tell people what’s eating you.”
With these last words, he straightened. His eyes opened wide and focused on mine. He tried to speak. Like dust through rusty iron; words sticking in his throat, choking him. He tried again.
As if the effort had exhausted him, he slumped again. But it didn’t matter. I had him. Got his interest and consent; bingo. Right, get on with it then. I dived my hand into a pocket and came up with the folded paper I’d printed earlier. Character Creation Map.
Unfolding it with fingers slowed by the cold I scanned the first entries as they came into view: Name; Nicknames, if any; Date of birth and …
What had seemed important on the computer screen now looked trite. A wreck of a man, trembling in clothing meant for June on the dark side steps of a mass of church in the centre of this popular tourist destination with one of the most photographed landmarks in England watching on, as I squatted and tried to ask myself what was real. For him.
“Tell me about your mother,” I said.