Excuse Me Was That An Angel?
Excuse Me Was That An Angel?
As a child I had to don a coat and wellies to use the toilet, unless of course it was bedtime or through the night and then I was allowed to use the chamber pot that went beneath my bed. We always lived in cramped, crumbling terraced accommodation and the outside lavatory was opposite the kitchen door in the yard. I was ten when I got my own bedroom and up until then the ‘potty’ wasn’t something I even thought of. Even when we moved to a larger house that my parents rented, the one toilet upstairs was strictly for the ‘lodgers’ and out of bounds. We could only afford the house by letting out all the upstairs rooms. A visit to the toilet meant a walk down the garden to an old shed come rain, hail, snow or frost. Bath time for me was kettles of hot water in an old galvanised tin tub. So, when we finally got a council house on the other side of Chelmsford, I thought I was ‘going posh’ if you get my drift. Sure, the small 3 bed terrace had an actual bath, but still no inside toilet. It came with the same outside lav and with a simple latch no security from accidental intruders. ‘Just going to the lav’ was something all of use simply said without really thinking about. It was natural and was our way of saying ‘occupied’.
Despite the paucity of my surroundings my mother always made sure my sister and I were clothed and fed, despite my father’s bouts of drunken rages and occasional violence towards my mum. I used to look on with envy towards some of my friends. They and their families all seemed to be living the same 3 bed semi-detached luxury with all the trappings. I didn’t resent them, but life for me would have been Utopian if I had their lifestyles.
Sixteen saw me head off to East London to work as an engine cleaner at Stratford Depot (that was the line of promotion to train driver in those days) and I spent months washing, cleaning and oiling the locomotives of the day. So you can imagine how proud I was when I was finally promoted to fireman (steam had gone three years before, but the old job titles persisted for some time) and I got my own uniform. I was so proud I even wore it one evening at a gathering of friends. It gave me status in my mind and riding in the cabs of many a train was fulfilling a childhood dream and deep down I was living the dream, a childhood dream held since I was three.
So in 1972 one Sunday morning and just heading home to that same old cramped council house after a nightshift on a cross-London freight I decided to treat myself to breakfast at the Buffet located at the East end of Liverpool St Station. Heck! I could afford it and as the silver buttons of my pristine uniform still shone in my mind I had made it so to speak.
Liverpool St was the same old dingy, occasionally grimy Victorian monolith that had been created many years before. Even the lights in the buffet seemed to make the place even darker and dingy. I was interrupted by an old tramp (rolled copy of the News Of The World sticking out of his matted, filthy overcoat. Engaging me in conversation he questioned me as anyone would in mild curiosity, not to pry but out of interest about me and my life.
Was I married? Yes, I said. Did I have children? Yes I said ( that first union of the flesh was in fact some way off at that moment) and the lies continued to pour from my lips until I have built that fantasy world I secretly envied. He seemed genuinely pleased for me and looking back I never once felt threatened or unsafe by his intrusion. For me it was a chance to create that world I craved. I think I even went home believing it true. He seemed a gentle kind sort of soul and my lies were greeted with real happiness; not for him, but for me.
Fast forward to 2011 and I made a determined effort to visit the Whitechapel Mission he had mentioned as being his ‘home’ all those years ago. I met with the person who ran the hostel/drop-in centre to research this tramp as part of the writing I as doing at the time. It turned out his name was Michael and his background such as Tony (the hostel manager) could remember is for another piece of writing entirely. I walked out that day with a mixture of shame and humility. You see, Michael had died in the mid-90s. All the lies I fed him were now true. I had a lovely wife, two beautiful children, a detached house and was now a teacher with I suppose, some sort of elevated status. I cried inside as I headed to that Eutopia that was now a reality. For some powerful reason I needed to say ‘sorry’ and confess to Michael, begging his forgiveness.
Then it hit me. I had met what was to all intents and purposes an Angel. My conversations with the Hostel manager revealed a truly lovely man. Michael’s smiles came flooding back from my long-forgotten memories. Could this dirty old tramp really have been, nae still is as ‘rich’ as me? Yes, he masqueraded as a lowly tramp, but in truth he was a wealthy man. His riches were not of this material world. His treasures could not be spent or stolen. Yet that day in 1972 without me even realising it he had passed on a priceless gift; the truly priceless gift of love. I mean LOVE in its most heavenly form. This ‘common man’ walked this Earth knowing the real value of life.
Yes, I believe in the afterlife and when I shuffle this mortal coil I shall be SPRINTING to his side, eager to listen and hungry to devour his humble words of wisdom.
To Michael, an angel masquerading as a tramp.