Thursday, April 15, 2021

Lord Old Timer by Robin Mortimer

The old beggar sat on two sheets of cardboard outside the One-Stop. He was wrapped in blankets and a torn sleeping bag its filling spilling out like a breaking wave. His beard was white and as unkempt as his hair. He pulled a tobacco tin from his jacket and proceeded to break up some dog-ends onto a cigarette paper. Then he lit the rollie and started a long choking gurgling cough. He stubbed out the cigarette and added the dog-end to his collection. People passed. Some looked the other way; most didn’t even notice him sat there. A woman came out of the shop and dropped some change in his used takeaway coffee cup. Then, glancing around as if she was ashamed, she passed him a chocolate bar. 

She straightened up and hurried away before he sorted out his gratitude. 

‘See you, love.’ 

Time passed, he sat and tried to be grateful when someone dropped some coins. It was awkward from so low down. He got bored. He felt invisible, not connected. His bum was going numb. He stood up and shook out his bedding, then tried to make the pavement more comfortable by padding it with one of the blankets. He looked up at the sky and roared his anger at it, then sat on the blanket, wrapped himself in his rags, and continued begging. 

A youth approached him. He looked clean and as if he had slept between sheets. The old man squinted at him fearfully, then his eyes focussed, and he relaxed. 

‘You again? What do you want this time?’ 

‘Just a chat old-timer. Mind if I join you?’ 

‘It’s a free country.’ 

The young man squatted down beside the old man. 

‘So, how are you doing?’ 

‘Same as usual, sitting on a cold pavement getting a numb arse.’ 

‘Have you thought about what I said?’ 

‘Nope. It’s all a load of gobshite.’ 

‘It’s more comfortable than sitting on a cold pavement.’ 

‘Watching telly all day?’ 

‘You could do other things. You could read like you used to.’ 

‘It’s not a life, is it?’

‘Is this?’ The young man waved his hand indicating the pavement. 

‘It’s what I know.’ 

‘You’ve known more than this. You’ve worked. You’ve traveled.’ 

‘And I’ve minded my own business.’ 

‘You could write about your adventures.’ 

‘Set the record straight before I die, you mean?’ 

‘You’ve lived a life. Now’s the time to take it easy. Make some friends. Have a chat and a laugh.’ 

‘I don’t want friends. I don’t get on with people. They’re all so…’ 

‘You don’t give them a chance.’ 

‘I did. Back in the old days, I did.’

‘Tell me about the old days.’ 

‘Ah. The old days. In those days you could travel by thumb. It made things a lot better. You’d meet like-minded people on the road, and have a great time just waiting for the next lift.’ 

The old man was smiling. 

‘And what about the lifts? Some of them were brilliant too, weren’t they?’ 

‘I got some good ones. I guess that I was lucky. Hardly ever had any bother.’ 

‘You see? People are good.’ 

‘Were good. Back in the day. It’s not the same nowadays. It was Thatcher that spoilt everything.’ He looked angry, waving his fist. 

‘That was a while back. Isn’t it time to move forward? You could finish your degree.’ 

‘At the price of study these days! You must be kidding! You told me yourself that you couldn’t afford to go to university. What makes you think I would be able to?’ 

‘Okay, but you could study without going to university. There are other courses.’ 

‘What’s the point for someone as old as me? I’m hardly about to start a career. Now you, if you choose the right course, why you could get a numb arse sitting on an office chair!’ He broke off laughing. ‘Give us a fag young man and stop squatting there. Sit down.’ 

The young man stretched out his legs in front of him and produced a pouch of rolling tobacco. They sat on the pavement smoking together. 

‘I bet you can’t smoke in this hostel of yours.’ 

‘There’s a group that nips outside regularly. They’re probably the friendliest group there. You’d like them.’ 

‘No, I wouldn’t.’ 

‘How do you know? You haven’t given them a chance. It would be like waiting for a lift.’ 

‘A lift into a coffin most likely. Next, you’ll be telling me they drink together’ 

‘We try to discourage alcohol.’ 

‘Not even a nip in my breakfast tea? And I’m supposed to find this place welcoming.’ 

‘Some of the client group have issues with alcohol and other substances.’ 

‘Substances?’ he roared, ‘If you mean drugs why don’t you say drugs?’ 

‘It covers a lot of stuff that might not be thought of as drugs.’ 

‘You lot these days, you’re so coy. Look, you just don’t like people being happy however they get there, do you?’ The old man shifted his cardboard under him and looked around. A young woman approached the shop apprehensively. ‘Spare us some change love?’ He broke into a gurgling cough and spat some phlegm across the pavement. The young woman ignored him and went into the shop. ‘Youth of today,’ he muttered,’ no generosity, they’d let you die of thirst, all I want is a can of cider. What have I got? A frigging bar of chocolate.’ 

‘If you went into the hostel, we could sort out your benefits, you wouldn’t have to depend on begging.’ 

‘I’m a lost cause mate. Stop wasting your time on me.’ 

‘I’m not going to give up on you. Winter’s coming, and you’re not well. We could look after you.’ 

‘Dying would be a release.’ 

‘You don’t mean that.’ 

‘Don’t you start telling me what I mean and don’t mean.’ 

‘Okay sorry. I just mean that there would be people who’d miss you.’ 

‘Like who?’ 

The door opened and the young woman came out. 

‘Go on miss! Give us something if only a smile.’ 

She looked embarrassed and twisted her face into something that could have been a smile if it had reached her eyes. 

‘Well at least you tried.’ the old man laughed as she hurried away. 

He turned back to the young man beside him. 

‘What if I did come into your hostel? Then what? You’d try and get me to do some voluntary work or something, wouldn’t you? Then you’d put me on a council list and try and find me a proper job. I’m not suited to settled life. I don’t want to be part of fucking society. For fuck’s sake, you’ll have me married with a mortgage before you’ve finished.’ 

‘It’s not like that at all. Just more comfortable than here. You might make friends. There again you might not. It’s up to you. But you ought to see a doctor about that cough, and that’s hard when you have no address. That’s just the way the system works.’ 

The old man gurgled some more and then coughed and spat. 

‘I’m not as frightened of dying as I am of doctors.’ 

More people passed and he managed to hassle a few coins. He looked into his paper cup and removed some of his money. 

‘It’s not good to look as though you’re doing well. People get less generous.’ 

It started to rain. The old guy looked at the sky and raised a fist at it. Then he pulled a piece of plastic out of his bedding and spread it over himself. 

‘Sorry, there’s not enough to share. You’d better get going or you’ll catch your death.’ 

‘I’m alright for now.’ the young man replied, ‘Look. I need to know your name. It’s just for the records. I’m Adam by the way.’ 

‘You think I give a flying fuck about your records?’ said the old man, ‘I’m off what’s it called?’ 

‘Grid.’ 

‘Yeah, that’ll do. Off-grid. Now if you’d lied and said you needed it for your expenses because you’d bought me a drink. Well, then, I’d have made something up, but if it’s just for your records, you can keep calling me Old Timer. Lord Old Timer, Gentleman of the Road, in full.’ he laughed and then some more, ‘Lord Old Timer, I like that.’ then his laughter gave way to a coughing fit. 

Adam looked concerned. ‘That cough of yours is getting worse. You need to get it seen too.’ 

‘Argh. It’s nothing. Just a cough. The rain doesn’t help. Cider does. I call it cough syrup. Why don’t you do something useful and go inside and get me a drink?’ He spat into his hand and then wiped it on his sleeping bag. ‘I’m getting a bit tired now, I think I might go somewhere for a kip.’ He struggled to his feet and picked up his bedding and cardboard. Then he leaned on the wall, wheezing. 

‘I think we’d better take you to hospital.’ said Adam, reaching for his phone. 

‘No thanks, just leave me be now. Please’. He pushed himself upright and started to walk away. People watched as he sank to his knees and then collapsed onto the pavement. A red stain grew on his beard.

© Robin Mortimer

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