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13 October 2021

A confrontation with a pipsqueak leaves me feeling my age

I like to think of myself as someone who is happy in his own skin. But I'm unnerved after being taken for a homeless person by a stranger.

By Nicholas Lezard

“Is there not an appointed time to man upon Earth? Are not his days also like the days of an hireling?” (Job, 7:1)

It is my occasional habit, of an evening, say around midnight, to go for a stroll down the road to the late night shop, which goes by the name Wine Me Up, on the Western Road. It is usually my purpose there to buy sweeties, and crisps, and maybe a Mars Duo, for that is the time when my appetite for these things becomes unignorable.

Sometimes, more rarely, it is to buy a bottle of Scotch, for the brand I like has the price pre-printed on the cap and they can’t mark it up. But I always feel that the guy behind the till is a bit disappointed in me, and I can understand that. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” he asked me about a year ago, not long after I moved in, and I said, “Not really, no,” but I had, I had. I just wanted that last sip to send me off to sleep, and to know that there would be something to drink the next evening.

Last night was fine as far as Scotch went, in that I didn’t want any. But before I went into the shop I was stopped by a young man, walking along the road with a young lady friend.

“Hello? Excuse me? Yes, you,” he said, as I paused and turned in the doorway. He pointed at my neckerchief/bandana.

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“I like your… thing.” He had strange, pale eyes, like a husky’s, and what looked like a widow’s peak, but he also looked no older than his early twenties. An interesting face; and, I suspect, he knew it.

“Are you going in there?” he said. His voice was posh, so I raised mine to a similar pitch. Maybe even a notch above, just to let him know that he was not going to intimidate me socially.

“I am indeed.”

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“Why?”

Well, I thought, it’s not really your business, but I said, in tones of which Lady Bracknell would have approved, “I am going in there to buy some sweeties, and maybe a Mars Duo.”

“Would you like me to buy them for you?” he asked.

“No thank you, I’m fine,” I said.

Again, the voice in my head spoke silently: you can buy me a bottle of Famous Grouse if you’re that keen on helping me out, but I always have to remember that I am an ambassador for this magazine; certain standards are imposed on me – of restraint, of common decency and of not punching people in the face (cf last week’s Russian Nazi).

He asked me my name. I told him. I asked him his, and I instantly forgot it. I remember his girlfriend’s, though, Holly, because she had walked further down the road and he was calling her back to look at this amusing encounter with…

“Are you homeless? I mean I assume you are.” This got a sharp bark of laughter from me, and he asked: “Have you been drinking?”

“More,” I said, “than you could possibly imagine.” But I thought: do I look homeless? I have a week-old haircut which I have been told takes years off me, and only a day’s stubble. But, then, I am wearing my old Primark coat, bought in 2006 for £15, although, unlike Job, it still retains its integrity. (“Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die.” Job 2:9)

I always give to the homeless. I pay over the odds to the Big Issue seller who is smart enough to stand outside Waitrose, but has an air of genial simplicity.

I laughed again. “Thank you,” I said, “this will go in next week’s column.” This threw him a bit, as it was meant to. I thought of saying he could also look at my Wikipedia entry, which last time I looked had been edited by someone with a weird interest in my ancient family history, but then thought: no, he could edit it, and make it even weirder.

I like to think of myself as someone who is more or less happy in his own skin. I have been friends with Nobel Prize winners (well, one); I have been on television; Cerys Matthews follows me on Twitter. But there is something about the arrogance of youth that unnerves and ages, even when it is stupid. Job comes to mind again: “When I lie down, I say, when shall I arise, and the night be gone?… My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken, and become loathsome… My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and are spent without hope.” I have been thinking of these lines because earlier that day they had been quoted by Reverend Richard Coles. “Man in his late fifties,” he commented, when we discussed authorship, “I’d bet the farm.” “Yup,” I replied.

The pipsqueak offers me a bite of his half-eaten sandwich. Or maybe the rest of it. “I thought you’d never ask,” I snarl, and turn my back on him, and buy some sweeties.

[See also: One dodgy kebab and I miss out on a memorable restaurant experience]

This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm