Hailed by a homeless guy, I should have kept my distance and hurried on – but I couldn’t

Instead of asking for money he asked me if I had a phone he could make a call from. 

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I have always idly wondered, for many years now, about what would happen, how soon I would be rescued – if ever – if I had a stroke, or a heart attack, or a seizure, or a fit, or a haemorrhage, or an aneurysm, or a collapse,  or a fall, or an accident, or a faint, or a slip, or some other disaster, while living on my own. And now everyone’s feeling even more alone than ever.

I also wonder how I’d be taking this if I was still living in the Hovel. Central London was already getting pretty hollowed out by the time I left; now I imagine it looks and feels like something from a  disaster movie. “It’s like The Day of the Triffids,” said a friend, “only with idiocy instead of blindness.”

And it’s all worse because of the weather. Before the lockdown it was raining so much the basement flat I’m in felt like it was underwater. The fuse governing all the plug sockets, and the spark that lights the boiler, kept tripping, and not in a fun way, during the heaviest downpours; but now it is spring, the taunting sun. Now is the time to be sitting outside in the pub garden, not sticking my head out of the window just to see what fresh air – and it is much fresher these days, there is at least that – smells like. 

Yesterday a woman passing by paused and looked at me while I was doing this. She paused for quite a long time, long enough to suggest mental imbalance,  and the possibility that she might run down the steps into the area and… and then what? I shuddered to think. Also: was she posh bohemian or homeless?  There can be an overlap in personal style, I find. Finally, she spoke.

“I have a terrible fear of sash windows,” she said. “I’m always terrified they’ll come crashing down on my head when I’m looking out of them.” Why, thank you madam, for adding another terror to the list above.

But now, the chief terror is dying alone of this nasty disease. I don’t like the idea of gasping for my last breaths alone in a basement flat in Brighton. Then again, I don’t like the idea of doing it in company either. I don’t think I’ve got it, touch wood (there is a suggestion that living in a multi-occupancy household increases the risk, and I don’t even have Mousie for company any more).

The other day, however, I had a dilemma: walking to the shops, a homeless guy hailed me. (They always do.) That is, he looked homeless, even at a distance, but he didn’t have any stuff with him.

He just looked like a bit of a wreck – but not a complete wreck. Probably about 30 years old. I’m thinking how right now I can’t spare any money, but instead of asking for money he asked me if I had a phone he could make a call from. I couldn’t say, “No”, because that would have been an implausible lie, or, “It’s out of battery”, because that would have been more plausible and therefore, in a way, more wicked.

I also wondered what urgent need was driving him to say this. There were scabs on his face, not too many but enough to indicate long and unhappy hard-drug use.

I said, “OK, but I’ll have  to make the call, because,  you know.” He said, “Put it  on speaker then.” Not an unintelligent suggestion.  But we’re in a place where the wind is blowing fiercely,  so we have to go round a corner to escape it. Still blowy; enough, presumably, to disperse his exhalations before they reached me. I dialled the number he recited, and listened while it rang. I’m trying to keep my distance,  but as I look at him, holding the phone at arm’s length so he can hear the ringing, the thought occurs to me that I’m as likely to catch the plague from him as coronavirus.  The number rings for ages,  and he says, “Try it again”,  but the, “This number is unavailable” message comes from the speaker and I put the phone away. I back off, and he says, “Thanks.”

Returning from the butcher’s, I pass him again. A few other people walk past, but he doesn’t ask anyone else, even though he’s clearly sizing them up. When I get back I clean the phone with lighter fluid. And of course wash my hands like Lady Macbeth (but with soap and water).

Of course I should have kept my distance and hurried on with my head down; but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. I’m certain he was calling a dealer, and I think: what a wretched time to be a junkie.

Which reminds me. A  couple of weeks back I said I was going to give advice on what to do when you’ve finally got out of bed. Come on, you don’t really need me to tell you, do you? And you know what I’m going to say anyway: drink. If you don’t drink, sorry, I’ve got nothing. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb

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