The Empathy Files. The Angel of Empathy (2)
Reggie Smith was another busy man. Contrary to popular belief, life on the streets is not one of idleness, it is imperative to be constantly on one's guard. True peace was a state Reggie had been unfamiliar with for many years.
Reggie usually had a tight schedule and was due to take up his pitch outside Pain de Paris. Simone would be there now; that sweet girl worked the breakfast shift. Who wouldn’t give a few coins for that dazzling smile? It lifted Reggie’s heart to think of it. Something in the way her eyes would meet yours, like she could really see you. He imagined her weaving between tourists, singing in that bell-like voice, fluttering from table to table like a bird taking crumbs. If Reggie didn’t take over from her there were plenty who would push in. It would be all too easy to break-up their happy tag-team on that hard-won patch. He felt the tug of responsibility when the thought of a larger one welled up and smothered the first. Sometimes you just had to let things go.
Reggie had been up considerably longer than RP, having been rudely woken well before sunrise. A couple of young drunks had insisted on sharing his cosy hideaway at the back of Appleman’s, the uber clean-eating establishment. The management turned a benevolent blind eye to the occasional and select rough sleeper. It was a sweet spot in the heart of hipster territory, and say what you will about them, hipsters are generous. Maybe not with loose change – they are strictly card swipers, but Reggie had feasted that evening on kale couscous and kimchi washed down with a chai latte. Yes, a few more carbohydrates wouldn’t have gone amiss and true, he had lusted over craft beer with a bathtub gin chaser, but he felt relatively safe here, and that was everything. Earlier he’d escorted Simone to a night shelter and assured her he’d catch her the following day, so all was as right with the world as it could be.
The kitchen manager had locked up the yard, giving Reggie a wink as he slipped into the shadows, and gone back into the building to close up.
As the restaurant fell into darkness, Reggie found a cosy nook among the heaps of pulped vegetables and fruit. Sleep was so close; drifting across his mind like an exotic fragrance. A couple of pigeons had given up scratching at the bags of pulp and a scrawny rat was chewing on a cardboard box. Reggie felt at one with nature. He was about to cover his head with his faithful blanket when an eye caught his. A pigeon was observing him from close quarters. It didn’t flinch as Reggie shook the last few grains of couscous from a card container onto the brick paving. The pigeon pecked at the ground as Reggie bathed in the warmth of magnanimity.
He was woken from a rare dreamless sleep with the knowledge that a heavy weight was sprawled across him. As he wriggled to release himself the weight lifted and a voice slurred,
At least it was not someone wanting to inflict harm on him.
Reggie raised himself onto an elbow to find two young men squatting against a heap of black bags.
'How you get here?'
Reggie spoke before assessing the situation, he was tired and his usual strategy of silence evaded him.
A scrawny boy of about twenty jerked his thumb up toward the top of the barbed wired gate. On closer scrutiny Reggie could see shreds of fabric caught in the metal thorns that glinted in the lamplight.
The boys were winded but their landing had been softened by bin bags, alcohol and Reggie.
'Sorry mate,' one of the boys repeated, 'didn’t know there was anyone else in here.'
It transpired that two boys had spent the evening cleaning and washing-up in Appleman’s. The owner, Jasper, had paid them off with a bottle of whisky that had been a gift from a supplier. Kamil and Tony, they had become reasonably friendly and exchanged names, had nowhere else to sleep so had come back to catch a few hours before the grand adventure.
Reggie was transfixed by the grand adventure, the telling of it enhanced by that lucid eloquence which only an exact quantity of whisky can evoke.
Kamil and Tony were members of a collective of activists and were about to take the country by storm.
Reggie wondered how they intended to do this and was soon caught up in their enthusiasm.
Help not Hate, their mantra and the name of their group, would take to the city of Westminster. There were thousands of them lying in wait for the following midmorning, when, on the final chime of eleven, they would spring into action, a flash mob of political positivity.
Reggie was moved, if somewhat sceptical.
'You can’t get near any of that now. There’s cameras and whatnot. They listen in on your phone. They read the social media.'
Kamil smiled and ran a hand through his curls. Tony rubbed his hands and leaned forward.
'This is for you mate, it’s for all of us. We’ve got our ways.'
Reggie caught the sparkle in his eyes and his voice. Well, what else are you supposed to do with your life? Reggie was won over. Nothing ventured.
First light had him scrawling a slogan on cardboard ripped from an old box, ‘Help not Hate!’ If he didn’t join them, nobody might. If he did, those other thousands might too.
The kitchen manager was not best pleased when saw the three of them in the yard that morning, but grudgingly let them out, with a, ‘Yeah, yeah, clear off before Jasper gets here,’ as they muttered their thanks and dashed eagerly onto the street.
A pigeon watched them leave with a blank expression, then took to the air with a throaty, ‘Coo.’
Reggie had followed Kamil and Tony for 15 minutes or so and then, as arranged, the three of them separated. Reggie tramped nonchalantly, so as not to draw attention to himself, and found a spot on the pavement as close as he dared get to the Houses of Parliament. He presumed he’d be moved on pretty quickly, so chained his wrist to a railing and huddled under his blanket with his sign ready for action.
He was not an immediate security risk it would appear. Squad cars did not come screeching to the kerb. He had not been tasered into oblivion. Some kind soul had even placed a sandwich on the pavement for him. He was starving so this was much appreciated. Reggie had been there a whole five minutes. Eleven o’clock was fast approaching, this was going to happen. And then something else happened.
A posh bloke was walking along the pavement in front of him. He was fragrant and preternaturally clean. He appeared deep in thought, until his eyes met Reggie’s and an expression of disgust and then terror passed over his face. This man was too close for comfort. And then he was much too close for comfort. He had trampled on Reggie’s sandwich. The posh man was going to land on him. Just as Reggie fell into the sickly green haze of unconsciousness, he heard a bitter voice whisper,