Sunday 10 March 2019

The Stranger

by David Gower

strong black coffee  

The task was to write about someone unknown to the writer. Easy peasy or after some thought perhaps not quite as easy as it seemed.

Who to pick from the population of the globe? Some celebrity whose antics related to their life’s mission to ascend from Z to A celeb status? Spoilt for choice and with the associated problems that this writer recalls fondly the remarks of the judge who had to ask ‘Who are The Beatles?’ and was told they were a ‘jazz combo’. I seem to have reached a similar stage in life.

If not a celeb – whatever happened to the other part of the world and on what merit is such status granted?

Perhaps the subject could be a person with whom the writer could claim a tenuous link as in the fabled ‘six degrees of separation’. This is the theory that a connection can be made with anyone in the world through no more than six steps. As an example, I know someone who is a local political party member (step 1) They know the local Member of Parliament (step 2). The MP will have met their esteemed leader (step 3) who in turn will have met some foreign dignitary (step 4). Said Big Wig will doubtless have met their own national leader (step 5) and so I can claim a connection –albeit loose – with the leaders of the world.  I am sure they will be gratified at such closeness to me.  I have shorter examples linking me to Bill Gates (three steps) and H.M Queen (two steps) though to save embarrassment they are kept for later stories.

Perhaps a random picture of a person in a crowd seen in the newspaper? Here could be gold? Any talent or quality – good or bad – might be attributed to this image. What if by some chance they read the words and recognized themselves, worse if they felt libeled? Can one gamble on the experience of one’s tutor who says no one ever recognizes themselves in print? As Clint might say “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you?’ Perhaps not.

Time and tide move relentlessly towards the next session where one’s peers will read their prose, bring laughter or tears to the ears of their listeners. Something needs to be pulled out of the bag….now.

Pulled out of the bag! The phrase was a gift. The street had bags aplenty. Bags in doorways sheltering people. Anonymous people all of whom had lives unknown and each story an account of a journey from some unknown point to cardboard mattress. An earthly image of a fall from grace? A life where resilience had finally been punched senseless by life events as dull eyed pedestrians continued blindly with their shopping.

Who was the Man in the Bag? What does he tell me without words being exchanged? Not more than mid 30s, a thin rolled cigarette between stained fingers, worn shoes, body art including the teardrop tattooed at the corner of the eye. In prison the teardrop carried meaning but it could also be worn by those not realizing its significance. One teardrop means one person killed.

Thin, thinner than someone of his age should be – what is sometimes described as heroin chic.  Not so chic when one crosses the Rubicon from the desire for pleasure or dulling pain to a pressing and relentless need.

On the exposed wrist a military tattoo. That in itself tells a story.  Over the years a significant element of street homeless has been ex servicemen. We now encompass the group as suffering post traumatic stress disorder. Next time you ask somehow ‘How are you?’ Ask yourself have you time for their real feelings or are you simply looking for ‘Fine, thanks for asking.’

We train such young men to go into harm’s way on our behalf (though many might not want them to be involved). They see their mates killed or injured. They kill or injure others but the only people they can really talk to are those who understand…their peers. Civvy Street is too busy getting on with life to listen. Servicemen train to live in harsh conditions, they will look out for each other but when that network is lost the dreams remain. In the absence of mates who can take away the memories comes self medication.

So Man in the Bag medicates his day away as a shadow of his former self. Somewhere is a passing out parade photo, good mates and tough times shared.  The Man in the Bag has told us much without speaking but how can we tell him and his ilk the way ahead?

I walk on pondering the Man in the Bag.

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