You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
I spotted him playing a ukulele under Batchworth bridge, wearing plastic Tesco bags over his feet, hugged by a thick wool jumper encrusted with dirt, and sporting a beard of which an eighteenth-century sailor would have been fiercely proud. He was singing to himself softly over the noise of his strumming. Either the singing or the strumming seemed somehow out of tune, I couldn’t tell which.
We spoke rarely at first: I would stride straight past, wrapped in the urgency of my morning walk to the station. But one day, behind a strangled melody I thought I recognised ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ – an eclectic influence for someone apparently destitute, and I paused on a whim to compliment his taste.
He thanked me, then spun me some guff about having once been Radiohead’s roadie before being sacked when fame beckoned them; I ended up fumbling apologies, and into his hands a spare fiver, as I excused myself and abandoned him.
Thereafter, the cumulative effect of daily God Bless Yous was unbearable: I fell into a reluctant and dubiously-principled strategy of preparing a twenty-pence piece for the mornings and cheerfully enquiring as to his day’s takings on my homeward return.
An inclination towards politeness is a poisoned chalice: before long I had absorbed most of his life story – at least in so far as it was autobiographical. He seemed to have mastered a remarkable number of trades (carpenter? osteopath? architect? acrobat?) and traveled a great deal internationally for someone who was now jobless, homeless and unable to scratch together more than his clothes, a ukulele and a few snatched silvers each day as his belongings. His conversation was surprisingly lucid; and laced, I soon realised, with the gnomic wisdom of a Zen master. It was through the latter that he wormed his way into my thoughts after each of our partings.
You can’t put out a faraway fire, he said one day, striking at the heart of my dilemma. Always wash your cutlery with care, he insisted on another, which was of course a metaphor, and I pondered it with dedication. How could this destitute ukulele player speak with more incisiveness on the intrigues of my private life than all number of hypnotists, reiki healers and clairvoyants I’d enlisted during the past seven years of struggle?
Through these turns in our conversations I began to speculate how the beggar had acquired his wisdom. I spent longer and longer with him in the dark evenings before returning to my canal boat, quizzing him on the origins of his insights and hoping self-interestedly to cure the gnawing despair that cowered in the crannies of my life.
Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned under this bridge, he kept insisting between songs, like snagged vinyl. The days went on; his mantra persisted. The truth of the matter was inescapable: he was a perfect prize lunatic, a star pupil at the asylum; either that, or the travails of his present situation had provided the path towards a Buddha-like self-mastery. Could the second proposition be real? It was such a fine line, as with all geniuses.
I pleaded with him, desperate to glean his secret. I finally clinched the terms of the exchange and settled into position under the bridge, hugging myself in his stinking wool jumper, and slipping his plastic bags over my bare soles. I strummed incompetently on the ukulele for the first time. He was civil in parting, as always; my shoes, clothes, wallet, keys apparently as meaningless to him as they were now to me.