The wind picked up & the air became wet & in-between trying to light the cigarette, the boy, turning this way & that, trying to catch the flame, started on some convoluted tale about how he had lost his girlfriend, got thrown out of his flat, & about how someone had stolen his hair clippers. “I like to keep my head shaved, see.” He lifted the cap a little above his head. The unlit cigarette remained between his lips as he spoke & now looked quite sorry for itself.
“I like to look sharp.” He unzipped the jacket & flashed the garish lining as some sort of proof. A half bottle of vodka sat in the inside pocket. “Hundred pounds, this. It’s from Liam Gallagher’s label. Reduced to seventy-five. The cap, too. I might be homeless, but I like to look sharp. You know Liam Gallagher?”
He reached for the vodka, decided against it & zipped the jacket back up to his chin. He did a little shuffle, saying, “he’s fuckin’ great, like.”
“The last great rock and roll star,” I say. But I hear my voice & my heart’s really not in it.
He returns to trying to light the cigarette. It lasts an eternity & all the while I look up & down the dark river & wonder if this is real life. The street lights on the far side of the water light up all at once. A string of orange on ultramarine.
At last he says, “got it.” He draws heavily on the smoke as if his life depends on it, pockets the lighter & starts again on the hair clipper story, but I don’t need to hear anymore & just walk away, saying, “you can keep the lighter.”
A couple of mornings later I’m out for a run. As I pass the Merchant Seaman statue there are two men sat on the concrete at his feet. One is drinking lustily from a grubby plastic bottle. The other, skinnier, younger, has a rucksack in his lap, his face up toward the early sun. The drinker, a large, bearded man, nudges the sun worshipper as I pass.
“Got a smoke?”
The question, stupidly, stops me in my tracks.
“I’m running,” I say.
“Spare change?” This is the younger one.
I am wearing shorts, trainers & a tee shirt. I laugh & hold up my palms.
Later that day I see the same couple sat on a bench in the market place. The larger one is now asleep on the shoulder of the slighter one, who stares out into space. The grubby bottle, or another, and the rucksack lay at their feet. It occurs to me, quite suddenly, that Laurel & Hardy were tramps. I don’t think that I’d ever really considered this before.
The Alderman Coffee Shop is particularly busy & they have sold out of cheese scones. I buy a date & walnut one instead & I sit at the window table. At the next table a man is saying, “T’waals wiz bleck wit greez.” He sounds like Chaucer to me. I spot Oliver Hardy, bent double, fishing through an ashtray outside The Tavern On The Market. Stan Laurel is nowhere to be seen. Liam Gallagher appears from the pub doorway with a rolled up sleeping bag and a cigarette in his mouth. They exchange a few words & head off toward King Street. That’s show-biz, I guess.