Sunday, 9 November 2008
In a London back alley there was a mound of dirty old blankets piled high with scabby soup-run sandwiches and a smattering of scavenging pigeons thrown in. Buried beneath was Johnny. A 78 year old man with the kindest steel blue eyes and bushiest eye brows I’d ever seen. I was a street outreach worker, it was 6am and bloody freezing!
Word on the streets was that Johnny had just appeared one night, sat down by the air duct at the back of the multi storey car park and had not moved for seven years.
City workers would pass by and toss the odd coin, soup runs would add to the growing pile of scabby uneaten sandwiches. Johnny’s street neighbour Len would get him his beer and rollies everyday.
We’d come by on our rounds and he’d always have a plastic bag ready for me to sit on “your throne madam” he’d announce. Over the following few weeks we tried everything to get him off the street; the police (couldn’t assist), the mental health teams (couldn’t assist) he wouldn’t be fooled by bribery….we were flummoxed as to what we could do.
He’d talk of days gone by; of his sister how he’d raised her since they were orphaned, how he’d taught her to drive in an army truck and how he’d not seen her since she set sail for Canada years ago. His army days, his days as a door man at a gentleman’s club…but never why he was where he was.
One morning we arrived to find Johnny wasn’t sitting upright with plastic bag in hand. I lifted the blankets to find his face caked in blood, he’d been badly beaten by some “glue-heads” and robbed. He yelled in anger as he was forcibly lifted into the ambulance and told us all to “fuck off and mind our own business”.
He had to have part of a blanket surgically removed from the skin on his legs as it had meshed during his seven years of sitting underneath it. He was discharged after six weeks into a care home. I visited almost daily and lived for those moments. He had my throne-the plastic bag always at the ready for me.
Three days before he died he told me his story. How his wife of 24 years had died of breast cancer, how he’d cared for her until the very end. How after she died the walls of his house started to draw in and he had to escape. How he’d ended up walking the streets of London for hours, found a warm spot sat down and hadn’t moved since.
I miss his stories and his sparkling eyes.
He had the kindest most sensitive of souls did Johnny. I will always carry him in my heart and a plastic bag in my pocket.