Tuesday, 25 February 2014


Some of this happened.  Some of it didn't.

The other day I went to the sorting office in Lewisham.  We’d had one of those missed delivery cards that the postman seems to drop through the door automatically assuming we’ll be out mid-morning, mid-week.  This time we were both at work, but my fiancé often works from home and they still land on the mat.  Maybe the door bell doesn’t always work; maybe it’s just more efficient to decide that anything bigger than a bank statement isn’t going to fit anyway, so they might as well leave them back at base for lazy Amazon buyers to come and collect.

The card said there were two parcels waiting for us and it quoted both our names.  When I got there, however, it turned out there was one parcel each and because I wasn’t my fiancé and my driver’s licence, obviously, didn’t name her I couldn’t take her stuff too.  Irritated at having to make the same trip and endure the same queue on another morning, I took a more meandering walk home to calm down.

I started to follow a path I’d not noticed before, down by the side of the boarded up office complex.  The one with the seating area outside, right on the dual carriageway, which looks like it was trying to encourage lunchtime team eating together.  That’s probably why the business went under; people never like being encouraged to be chummy.  The path led down to the Ravensbourne River as it scuttles off under the station and towards the Thames.  I thought there might be a point where I could scramble up to the footbridge and then home, so followed it further, but rather than continuing along the water the path abruptly ran out.  

There, at the end, was a tent.  More than a tent, a whole campsite.  Someone was living under canvas just outside Lewisham town centre.  There was an upturned steel drum acting as a rainwater butte.  The white brushed ash demarking a fire.  Some clothes hanging from a bush, presumably drying in the morning sun and a rolled up tarp to the side suggesting some more extensive waterproofing had been in use recently.

My immediate thought was that the occupant was an Eastern European migrant worker, down on his luck.  I don’t know why I assumed that.  Possibly because, years before, I’d read something about some Estonian guys camping out in Suffolk waiting for casual labour or agricultural work to be offered.  Not enough money to afford anything else, not even to go home.

I turned to leave, not wanting to intrude when I heard the sound of the tent’s zipper being undone.

‘Hello,’ said a distinctly English voice, ‘fancy seeing you here.’

‘Crikey,’ I replied, ‘hello, George.’

I hadn’t seen George in about five years.  He’d been a regular in one of the pubs I’d worked in while doing my Masters.  He’d always seemed a well to-do chap, one of the ones who came in wearing a suit and tie on the way home from work, two pints of lager and then off to the wife, I assumed.  He wasn’t one of those who seemed more interested in self-destruction than dinner.  He didn’t drink himself stupid every night only to come back in the next day and complain that he just wasn’t appreciated at work, that he was long over-due a promotion, that it wasn’t fair when he couldn’t get on in life and yes, damn it, he would have another tequila chaser with his beer.  Of all the people to be sleeping rough by the Ravensbourne, I hadn’t expected it to be George.

‘Cup of tea?’ he offered.

I nodded and squatted down next to some nettles while he set up a small camping gas cooker.

The flame roared while we sat in silence.  It was surprisingly tranquil down by the river; the roar of the main road drowned out by the gentle flow of the water and the rustling of who knew what through the undergrowth. 

‘No milk,’ he apologised.

‘Thanks,’ I said.  The tea was hot and wet in that uniquely satisfying way.  ‘Black’s fine.  George, I, I don’t know what to say.’

‘You can ask, you know?  You can ask me why I’m living in a tent.’

‘Okay, why are you?’

‘When did we last see each other?  2008?’

‘Something like that.’

‘I lost my job.  The firm weren’t directly hit by the financial crisis, but we kind of got caught up in the ripple.  Everyone did, I guess, but we couldn’t keep our head above the water.  Ten years I’d been there just for statutory redundancy.  And then, well you know what it was like?  The money didn’t last.  I couldn’t find work.  I’m not that young anymore.’  He paused and slurped his tea.  ‘Madeline, well, she didn’t cope so well.  Seemed to think we had some sort of right to paid employment.  I tried to tell her, but you can guess how that conversation went.  I never expected her to leave, though.  That was something of a shock.’

I looked at George.  He didn’t, aside from the tent, look homeless.  He was clean shaven.  His clothes looked recently laundered.  In the porch of his tent there was a sealed, transparent plastic crate. Inside was at least a week’s worth of food: tins of tomatoes and tuna, bags of pasta, rice, a can coconut milk for God’s sake.

‘Strangely, the week after she’d scarpered I got an interview and then a job offer.  Less well paid than before.  A small accountancy firm in Lee, but better than nothing.  Nice people.  She should have waited.  Should have trusted me.  Still,’ he smiled, cheerfully, ‘that was her call.  The whole thing made me think hard about life, mind.  The decisions we make and how we’ve got to where we are.  And I realised that I’ve been going through it all, just letting things happen to me.  I’m not proactive enough.  I mean, I never intended to stay in London.  It just seemed like a bit of fun.  Something to do when you’re young.  I always wanted to move to the countryside, do something with the land.  I never wanted to work in an office at a computer all day, every day.’ 

He leaned back on the grassy bank and looked up to the sky.  The sun was surprisingly strong after the recent downpours.  George looked like he’d been missing it.  His skin wasn’t yet leathery like folks who’ve toiled outside all their days, but it did have a certain robustness to the edges.  He closed his eyes, as though concentrating on absorbing the rays.

‘But now, who’s going to risk moving to the country?  It took me over a year to get a job in London.  How long would it take in the middle of nowhere?  So I came up with a compromise.  About a year ago, I put the house on the market, sold it and moved here.  I kept my job, but I also get to be, I don’t know, more back to nature.’

‘That’s, that’s,’ I floundered.

‘Crazy?’  He looked at me, almost disappointed as though that’s what everyone says.

‘Brave,’ I countered, knowing full well it could mean the same thing.

‘Not really.  No-one knows I’m here.  The winter has been mild, if somewhat wet.  I guess that’s helped.’

‘What do you do about being paid?  Do you have a bank account?  I mean, there’s so many things that you need an address for.’

‘Sure, all that stuff’s registered with at my cousin’s place.  She lives in Charlton.  And when the rain got a bit too much over New Year, when the office was closed, I stayed with her a couple of days.  It was okay.  Like a short holiday.  But I was pleased to back here.’

‘Right,’ I said.  It was all I could think of.

‘Right,’ George agreed, looking into his empty mug.  ‘Time to go and catch the bus.’

‘Oh, okay,’ I handed him back my mug.  ‘Thanks for the tea.’

‘You’re welcome.  Pop round anytime.’

We both walked back to the street, he turning left, I right. 

A couple of days later I thought about going to see if he was still there, but part of me doesn’t want to know either way.

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