I feel tired, irritable and I’m dreading work today. I’m at the bus stop and the bus isn’t due for ten minutes, so I sit and take out my kindle. I had been reading I bed last night but I was half-asleep so I have to skip back several pages to where I actually remember having read. I’m just about to get stuck into the story again when an old man walks up to the bus stop and stares up at the digital display.
“The next one’s due in eight minutes”, he says to me. I nod politely but hope he gets the hint I’m not in the mood to talk. He sits next to me. “I can’t get the hang of this new timetable”, he says to me with a chuckle. “Me neither”, I say whilst raising my kindle up to make sure he sees it. He’s oblivious to it though. “I gotta go into town to get the fast train to Oxford. Can’t be doing with the slow train. I go every Friday, to take food to my nephew…” I nod. “…he’s an alcoholic you see”. I fold up my kindle.
I turn towards this man now. I realise this is a big deal to him and here I am, more concerned about reading a story that, so far, hasn’t even been that good.
“I can’t give him money”, he continues, “he’d only spend it on drink. So every week I take him food. If you met him you’d think butter wouldn’t melt, but he’s lost everything to drink and now he’s just in a horrible little flat. He’s been evicted three times and I’ve pleaded with the council to let him stay where he was but it’s the drink, it makes him so angry, so violent”. I feel a bit stunned that this man is telling me all this but ask “Has he done rehab”? The man smiles sadly, “We’re trying to get him a place, but we’ve been trying a long time. Comes down to money in the end”. I nod again, not sure what to say anymore. “I’m all he has now, he’s got no-one else but me. My sons have a go at me for helping him, they think I should leave him well alone. See, his mum – my sister – she asked me to look after him for three weeks because she couldn’t cope…”.
Then he looks me in the eye with a sad smile. “…that was twenty four years ago. I’m eighty one, he’s fourty five. He should be looking after me”!
We both sit in silence for a while. I’m thinking about how I’ve begrudged having to give for other people lately, how selfish I’ve been in comparison – even trying to avoid giving this guy some of my time. And twenty four years! Twenty four years of being let down – cos that’s what happens again and again with addicts. After a long pause he looks at me with that sad grin again and says:
“Everyone needs someone to look after them”.
The bus is coming, we both stand up. I signal for him to get on first. As he goes through the doors, he turns and says, “have a good day anyway, young’un”!
Then he goes straight up the stairs, despite the fact several of the usual ‘pensioner’ seats are free downstairs.