Mark lived on the street. The only human contact that he had was from strangers that would offer the occasional, ‘Take care of yourself’, or ‘Take it easy, buddy’, as they threw a few coins into his black, woollen hat. Other than those momentary meetings, no-one spoke to him. His existence was barely acknowledged. He sometimes thought of the more familiar faces as friends, but they weren’t really. He only knew a couple of their names and, as far as he was aware, only one person knew his. A regular. A pound a day guy who passed at the same time every morning. There were others on the street like him, of course, and they sometimes huddled together to bemoan their miserable existences or share a bit of weed or spice. But they weren’t really like him and Mark couldn’t bring himself to be a part of them. So, most of his days were solitary, sometimes not speaking at all except from mumbling that mantra that he hated almost as much as those walking past: ‘Can you spare some change?’ For most people that existence would be a bad day every day. But not really for Mark; he was mostly able to provide himself with enough to eat and drink by begging on the streets and he never tired of his own company and his own thoughts. It was quite possible for him to enjoy what most of us would find unendurable. He would find hope in the unlikeliest of places: a kind word; a smile; a shared joke; the light reflecting off a building in a particular way. The lack of money and a roof over his head was just stuff to deal with. For Mark, that was normal. It was what it was. Not in his overall plan but then… what was it that John Lennon said?
He knew that most people, the people that walk by each day, people going to work or college or University or just shopping or meeting friends, would not be able to understand his state of mind. He was like them once: Not homeless. And he knew how terrifying it is to have your support mechanism taken away. He remembered exactly how he felt going through that process. He remembered it as though it was yesterday. He remembered how he felt as fear became reality. But, as humans, we adapt quickly.
Mark had been homeless for three years now. He was firmly of the opinion, on most days, that it was a temporary situation. He had to believe that things would eventually work out. To not believe that would lead to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair.
Today was one of those days when he didn’t believe that it was temporary.
He’d spent the morning (as he did most mornings) sitting on the path that led down to the railway station. His back pressed against the expensive Italian-stone wall that surrounded the decorative water feature, a folded copy of Metro beneath his damp, filthy jeans. He’d spent the night there, too, his tatty and torn sleeping bag was stuffed into a tatty and torn plastic bag at his side.
Since he’d woken, a few hours ago, he’d known something wasn’t right. His head was in the wrong place. Always a bad sign. He hoped the anger that sometimes spilled out, the anger that sometimes got him arrested or beaten or worse, would stay where it was. Wherever that was. Though he didn’t hold out much hope. He’d tried his daily trick of repeating the first two lines of the, mostly ignored, second part of the serenity prayer: ‘Living one day at a time. Enjoying one moment at a time.’ Existentialism at its most hopeful. But it hadn’t worked. Not for this day or for this moment.
And now the weather had turned on him as well.
Dark clouds had blown over, blotting out what little light there had been. Thin rain became cruel, cold needles as the wind lashed it against every hard surface and every soft face.
Mark zipped the front of his anorak and pulled up the hood. His nose filled with the stink of his own sweat and that of its previous owner. People hurried past, eager to get beneath the atrium of the railway station. A river of freezing water gushed in the channel between the pavement and the wall on which he leaned. He looked down to see his free cushion darken as its pages swelled. His black beanie hat, placed before him like a woolly, custom collection plate in the church of forgotten folk, glistened with bright beads of water, illuminated by the blazing, LED lights that had now flared into life behind him. Two solitary coins nestled there. Both copper. Not even enough for a cup of tea. It was cold, so cold. He would be shivering soon if he didn’t act quickly. His hands needed protecting from the sudden change in temperature. Even as a child, his fingers got too cold, too quickly. He never enjoyed the snow like the other kids. He’d always be the first to rush back inside, usually crying, to then endure ‘hot-aches’ as he held his numb digits before the three-bar electric fire. Perhaps he had a circulation problem? He could add that to all his others.
He began to pull the taggy ends of the anorak sleeves over his trembling, black-nailed fingers… but then stopped.
He held them out before his face.
Fingers splayed and pointing inwards.
For a moment they mesmerised him. He stared at the backs of them, the veins less prominent now, sunken inside his body in search of some warmth. He moved them towards each other, slowly, so the fingers of his right hand half-covered those of his left.
Knuckles and lines and veins. Like old friends. It was hard to believe that, despite the grime, they were the same hands that had always been there. Hands from when his life meant something. He turned them over, looked at the palms - his future? Or maybe his past. Those hands had typed. Those hands had wrapped around a wine glass. Those hands had caressed the skin of a woman he once loved. Still loved. Those hands had held a new-born child. He couldn’t stop looking at them. A tear escaped from his right eye and ran down his grubby cheek. It made its way like the ball-bearing on a bagatelle board, left then right through the stubble towards his chin. Another followed quickly in its path. Then his left eye gave up hope, too. As the two sad rivers joined at the lowest point, a single drop fell from a single whisker to land on the pale, stone pavement between his knees. No-one would notice. It was raining too hard.
How had it come to this?
A stinking anorak, a soggy newspaper, a crap hat and no future.
Two feet stopped in front of him. A voice. Vaguely familiar.
‘Hi! Here you go. It’s all I’ve got. I’m sorry.’
Mark couldn’t bring himself to respond. Couldn’t even look up.
‘You must be fucking freezing, mate.’
Half a dozen coins tumbled into his hat. The feet moved away. Towards the station. He’d lost everything. Even his manners.
Who would have thought that it would be his own hands that would undo him? After all the crap that he dealt with, day in and day out. All the hardship, the illness, the guilt, the depression. All those things that could destroy anyone. And yet it was his hands. His own hands that made the whole sorry, disastrous mess suddenly so very real.
A thought pushed its way to the surface. A thought that was never really very far away, never really that well buried. A thought that mocked him from its badly-hidden hiding place.
None of this is worth the bother.
The thought took many forms, used many different words, but was always essentially the same. Why go on? What is the point? Who cares? What purpose does he serve even existing? He knew that you didn’t have to be homeless, wet and cold to think this. But it didn’t help.
In the past, the recent past, he’d been unwell while living on the street. Seriously unwell. Poorly enough to think he might not get over it. Delirious through high temperature. The worry of seizures. Mark had thought maybe this was a solution. Fate taking over and removing him from the world. It was understandable to think that way when ill. But he wasn’t ill now. He was just pissed off. Pissed off enough, however, to make him stand, with purpose, and walk away from his soggy cushion and pathetic daily earnings.
Mark walked down to the railway station and then through the automatic, double glass doors. They parted slowly and silently as though embracing his intention. He stepped inside. The sudden warmth and dryness and compressed noise of the crowd closed in on him from all sides. He was an alien in this world of normality but he wouldn’t be challenged. The people who worked there were encouraged to remove the homeless or the insane or the drunk or high on drugs; characters that were his street colleagues. But Mark knew no-one would bother him. He was almost welcomed within the atrium. He’d been around so long. He’d been given free coffee and sweet buns by Sheila who worked on the snack bar. He would be engaged in conversation by the resident volunteer police community support officer who appeared to be the only person standing between the city and a terrorist attack. Even familiar passengers would nod ‘hello’ to him.
But there was no Sheila, no PCSO and no friendly faces. The movement of people was a blur, their sound distant and unreal. Mark headed for the stairs that led to the covered walkway that led to the other platforms.
Platform six was the busiest.
He passed large posters inside locked glass cases advertising the latest blockbuster novels, then windows looking down onto the tracks. More posters in locked cases advertising new albums of bands he vaguely recognised, then windows looking down onto the tracks again. He looked away from the posters advertising the upcoming Panto season and took a sharp right down to Platform six. The steps were old, cold and hard. Embossed metal edges to avoid slips and accidents. Victorian-looking handrails, curled cast-iron supports. People walked towards him from the front and people rushed past him from behind. Mark took his time and stepped carefully off the last step and onto the concrete platform. There, he stopped.
He mustn’t think. To think would be to fail.
He turned to his left and then right and took hurried steps towards platform 8a. This was the farthest platform and something told him it was exactly right. He quickened his pace, aware of his breath coming and going in raspy gasps. There were no people on the platform but there was a train in the distance. It was coming at some speed, clearly not stopping. He glanced behind him and realised he was still quite close to the stairs and the café. He needed to get farther away. He started to jog, feeling the fresh air rush towards him from the south. He kept his eyes firmly on the train, blocking any thoughts of the driver sitting in the front. He kept going, the weight of everything slipping from his shoulders with every step. He would do it. He knew he would. It was right. The right day, the right time, the right decision.
But he was running too fast. He’d messed up the timing. He would reach the end of the platform, out in the open, free from the shelter of the station roof before the train got to him. He stopped and leaned forwards with his hands on his knees, getting his breath back and then took tiny steps towards the edge of the platform. He glanced right again. The train was about a hundred yards away. He had to do it. It was almost upon him. But he had to leave it until the very last moment. It had to hit him before he hit the floor. An image of himself, fully conscious, lying across the tracks filled his head. He pushed it away. That would be no good. It was impact he wanted. Immediate and catastrophic impact. The messy business would inevitably follow. But he wanted a sudden blow and then oblivion.
Fifty yards. He could smell the engine as the fumes pushed towards him on a column of moving air. He took two more steps, toes over the concrete edge. He put his hand to the piece of bone that hung on his chest from a piece of old leather cord and swore a sort of allegiance. It was almost time. Almost there. He tensed, ready to make his move. Just another second…