The draper's doorway was shaped like a fifty-pence coin cut in half, with the shop door situated in the shortest stretch. That's probably why I didn't notice the poor soul huddled in the dark recess. The March wind was as cutting as a sculptor's chisel the morning I cut into the doorway to wait for the city bus. Five years ago in March. I know the date exactly. It was Jimmy Brain's fiftieth birthday. He was the office manager where I worked and he'd detailed me to get cakes for the staff. Fresh cream cakes, he'd asked for, but I'd cheated and bought them the night before; kept them in the fridge in an airtight box. Jimmy was too busy lamenting his age to worry about the freshness of cream cakes.
But it's not the birthday I'm telling you about, it's the encounter with the bag-lady. To this day I remember her peculiar stench, a stink like fetid drains wafting from her meagre person whenever she moved. The skin on her cheeks was so stretched I almost expected it to split, and I reckoned it had been some time since she'd had a proper meal. I gave her two chocolate eclairs. They were both mine, so it didn't matter. I should've only had one, but Jimmy wasn't one for keeping tabs on his purse strings. The woman's eyes shone when she saw the cakes. You'd think I'd dished up a three-course meal.
By the April, she got round to trusting me. Every day, after she'd sorted the contents of her plastic bag into prioritised order, she devoured my offerings of corned beef sandwiches and a beaker of soup. Even at weekends I took her something. I couldn't bear the concept of her starving while I gorged on bacon and egg.
Her name was Eleanor. Eleanor Nobody, she grumbled on one of her bad days. Arthritis plagued her when it was damp and that April was wetter than most. I couldn't conceive how someone with such a genteel name ended up sleeping rough. And why she chose the one by the bus stop was an utter mystery. I suppose it was interesting in a freakish sort of way. Something to look at. Same could be said for the commuters: it gave them something to blether over. Eleanor's outfit would be the talk of the town.
I always imagined vagrants as a grey race: grey underclothes, grey outer clothes, grey skin. Not so with Eleanor: she wore a coat the colour of winter berries, a midnight-blue skirt, off-white tee-shirt, green cardie, thick black stockings, and brown zip boots. All stained and tattered, in keeping with her current status. She had a yellow silk rose that had seen better days. Wore it like a medal on her chest. If she accidentally knocked it off, she'd scrub around until she located it and pin it back on. I took her one of those pins with a safety catch when I got to know her better and that put an end to her disquiet when the rose slipped off. I knew she was grateful by the cheerful grunt. Mostly, if I touched on a topic she didn't like, the grunts were harsh and unfriendly. Not that I took any notice. I'd got used to the fluctuating moods. I figured if I was in her boots I'd have entered the raving loony stage within a week.
Some days she was really informative. She had a son somewhere. Hadn't seen him since he was a teenager. Bastard, she called him. Born one and behaved like one. Ostensibly, she was ostracised by relations for begetting an illegitimate son. That was in Worcestershire. She couldn't remember precisely where; or else she didn't want to. It was May when she told me that. We were eating the ham rolls I'd saved from the night before. I considered it a great coincidence, her mentioning her son the day after my Jason's birthday. Jason was thirteen and I'd done a Sunday spread for a few of his cronies. Pizzas and quiche, that sort of thing. I should have known by their indelicate speech they wouldn't appreciate such fine savouries. Right lot of agitators, they were, complaining about the lack of chips. Perishing cheek, when they were eating for free, but, not wanting to upset Jason on his birthday, I pacified them with portions of french fries. My old man, Gerry, remarked that Eleanor would have been glad of a few slices of quiche. He's got a kind heart. Certainly, Eleanor didn't find fault with cold pizza next morning.
We left the area in the September. Gerry changed his job, see. He was still with the same hook and rivet company, but he was transferring to another branch near Cannock. It meant moving house. Gerry was more than happy to leave Newtown, but our Jason was a bit down-in-the-mouth about ditching his ruffian mates.
I told Eleanor at the end of August. She looked quite presentable that day, dressed in my old lilac coat and plaid skirt. She'd discarded the red coat as soon as I took it from the carrier. You should have seen her elation. It was an absolute joy. Anyway, to get back to the tale. Not for one minute expecting her to take it badly, I broached the subject of the move. Straight up, it was a good couple of weeks before she could converse properly, but at length she softened and began taking an interest in our plans. I'd left work by that time, so I could lengthen my visits to the doorway. Without considering the consequences, I plotted a going-away do. A big breakfast, with tablecloth and camping stools, regardless of the inquisitive eyes of the straphangers on the bus. Gerry thought it was a bit foolhardy, but I carried on. Trouble was, I inadvertently leaked the idea when I asked if Eleanor liked black pudding fried. She had a look of disbelief about her, treating me to wary glances when I surveyed the inlet for the best spot to lay a cloth, then checked the shop's opening times. I needn't have bothered. Three days before the event Eleanor Nobody disappeared.
The new house was terrific, but I couldn't settle. I made it nice for Gerry and our Jason, but not having a job gave me too much time to brood. You'll think it daft, but I was worried to death about Eleanor. What if she hadn't found a shelter as convenient as the last? Eventually, contemplating the possibility that she might have returned to Newtown, I resolved to investigate. With Gerry's blessing, on Christmas Eve, I went to check it out. Gerry was as guilt-ridden as me over deserting Eleanor, though I pointed out that in the end it was she who deserted us, in a manner of speaking. Gerry said, if I found her, I should bring her for home for Christmas. Naturally, Jason shouted his mouth off. He said he didn't intend sharing the house with a smelly down-and-out. Not that he was the most sweet-smelling individual himself, but I guess he was entitled to a view.
The weather was as cold as that other day in March, especially at six o'clock in the morning. Calculating the journey would take three-parts of an hour, I worked out that if I left at six I'd be there well before the draper opened up. If Eleanor had resumed occupancy, she was certain to be there when I arrived.
I found, not Eleanor, but her treasured, ragged, yellow rose. It was on the floor, partially covered by newspaper, in the dark recess where Eleanor would have slept. I picked up the paper, a week-old edition of the Evening Mail folded so that the middle page was uppermost. Funny that, I never knew if she could read. As I leaned despondently against the shop window, it occurred to me that in nine months I'd learned very little.
The city bus drew up, on time as usual, its occupants on a final spree before the Christmas shut-down. I studied the faces as if I would find Eleanor there. Automatically, I rearranged the news-sheets in numerical order. Where on earth could Eleanor be? It was Christmas for goodness sake. She shouldn't be roaming the streets at Christmas. Pathos swelled inside me and, yes, the mournfulness that accompanies a graveside vigil. Folding the paper neatly, I bent to lay it beside the rose. Laying it to rest, I thought, shuddering at the implication. It was then I spotted an article ringed in red. Festive cheer for the Homeless. I read on. I was curious to know how people who had been abandoned by society could find festive cheer anywhere.
According to the feature, St John's crypt was the place for the homeless to be that Christmas. Several volunteers would forego their own festive repast to serve turkey dinners and plum pudding to those less fortunate. ... Santa Claus would bestow appropriate gifts. Why is it that patronage often comes across as charitable condescension? At that time, the phrase foregoing their own festive repast smacked of pure pretension. I know better now.
Gerry took me to the crypt the next day. And Jason. Gerry'd won Jason over with the promise of a computer. Second hand, admittedly, but Jason deemed it better than nothing. Clutching Eleanor's rose, I searched the queue outside the church, but Eleanor wasn't there. Neither was she in the crypt. The helpers didn't recall having seen a woman of her description.
I never saw her again, but the lessons she unwittingly taught me: the importance of independence and the value of respect, have lingered on. Every Christmas since Gerry and I have helped at the crypt. And Jason, bless him, on the strength of the episode with Eleanor, is currently training to do social work.
~~SEQUEL TO FOLLOW NEXT WEEK~~