The queue is long and the woman at the till is taking her time. She looks at each customer squarely in the eyes, begging them to question her lack of effort and enthusiasm for having to deal with impatient and demanding people all day. As she hands over each receipt and change she gives as fake a smile as she can muster. The customers leave, each one muttering to themselves about ‘bad customer service’ and how they should complain to the manager. None of them complains, only to a poor unfortunate soul waiting for them at home. If there’s no one at home they’ll just let it all stew, resenting a woman they don’t know.
Tony keeps looking out the door to make sure his dog, Socrates, is still there. He called him Socrates not after the Greek philosopher but the Brazilian footballer of 80s fame. The dog is clever, so maybe there is a bit of a philosopher in him. Tony is starting to get nervous, doing anything which is perceived as normal makes him anxious. Going to the shop is especially fear inducing because he has to interact with people and this woman doesn’t look too welcoming. Perhaps he should just leave it, walk out the door and find another shop. She finishes up with the customer in front of him and then stares at him waiting for him to come forward.
He hands the scratch card to her. She takes it to the machine and scans it.
‘You’ve won a fiver. That’s a result isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, nice to have a bit of luck.’
‘You never know, next time it might be a million.’
‘Ha! No chance of that.’
She smiles at him. Not one of the fake smiles she gives the other customers. This one is genuine. The man in front of her is shabby looking, his coat is torn. She’s seen him before on the way to work, sitting outside a shop doorway looking cold and miserable. Who wouldn’t be miserable if they had no home to go to? Contrary to appearance she doesn’t hate people, she just hates entitlement and there’s nothing you come across more working in a shop than entitlement.
‘Make sure you get the dog some food.’
‘I feed him before I feed myself.’
‘Make sure you feed yourself then.’
She smiles again. Tony feels uncomfortable. Years of living outside on the streets has made him used to being treated in a certain way. It’s either with disdain or insincere sympathy. They’ll say ‘Oh look at him, isn’t it terrible he’s living outside.’ One girl took a picture of him. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to take a photo of him but she thanked him profusely saying something to her friend about ‘likes’ and ‘sharing’.
He can feel the security guard’s eyes on him as he walks through the shop, each time he turns away the man is looking in another direction but it’s obvious what he’s doing. Tony holds the note in his hand, making sure it’s visible, having to prove to this man that he is actually going to pay for the things he wants to buy. He picks up a tin of dog food and then looks at the sandwiches. Cheese and ham sounds nice, it’s a long time since he’s had a cheese and ham sandwich. He walks to the till again and pays for his items. He holds up the receipt to the security man who is now standing at the doorway, the security man scowls, disappointed he hasn’t been able to get any action.
Outside Tony finds a doorway for him and Socrates to enjoy their meal. He pours the dog food onto a newspaper, the dog eating it as quick as he can. Tony ruffles his head. He opens his own sandwich and delays eating it. He wants to enjoy it, once it’s gone he doesn’t know when the next time he’ll be able have another one will be. He takes the first bite and holds it in his mouth, as if he were savouring a fine piece of beef.
Sandwich finished he can enjoy the rest of the evening. He picks up the dog’s lead and they head off for a walk. He imagines himself as a normal person. Just home from work, taking the dog for a walk, he’ll be home in an hour where he can sit in front of the television, nice and warm. He’d like a girlfriend too. He tries to conjure up some images in his head of the woman he’d like to be waiting for him at home. Dark hair, blue eyes. He’d cook her dinner, he wouldn’t want her cooking, that would be lazy on his part. He laughs to himself. Some would think he’s crazy but how else do you survive when you’ve got nothing? An imagination is free so it’s best to use it.
The streets are quiet, just how he likes them. The route he’s taken is one he knows, it’s the route he takes at least once a week. He sits down on a bench opposite the house he grew up in. Sometimes people would ask what his story was, how did he end up on the streets? Each day he tries to persuade himself that he didn’t have a bad life and it was his choice to walk away from home. He couldn’t take it anymore though, the kids at school would make fun of him, he couldn’t understand why. The ‘why’ was because he was unfortunate, he was just the one they decided to pick on.
It could have been any one of the kids in their class. A person’s fate determined by the simple act of asking the wrong person a question. He’d asked the girl next to him for a pencil. She decided Tony was poor because he didn’t bring his own. He wasn’t poor, he’d just forgotten to put it in his pencil case. That’s irrelevant to spiteful children, they have their own narratives, popularity rules all in the world of the playground and Tony stood no chance. She was popular, he wasn’t.
He withstood it at first, brushed it off. Then his friends started to abandon him, no rationale. They’d been to his house they knew he wasn’t poor. They didn’t want to be associated with him though lest they too became a victim. Tony ran away. He sat on the edge of his bed, fifteen years old, waiting for the house to become silent before slipping out the door. He has never been able to explain to himself why he never spoke to his parents about it, why in a fit of desperation he just upped and left. A scared boy who made a foolish choice yet one which seemed the only option at the time.
He wants to knock at the door. He’s never seen anyone come in or out of the house since he started sitting outside a year ago. They wouldn’t recognise him now. A beard covers most of his face, his hair long and dirty. If he saw his mum or his dad, he’s not sure if he’d be able to approach them. How would he be able to explain what he did? Would they forgive him?
Socrates was his only companion now. He’d found the dog as a puppy, abandoned in a park. Not only was he his companion, he was his confidante too. Socrates listened and unlike his namesake never asked questions back.
‘What do you think, son? Should I knock on the door? They don’t like dogs mate, that would mean I would have to give you up. I can’t give you up Socrates, you’re my only friend.’
A man walking past looks at Tony, the look someone gives when they think a person is insane, Tony waves at him, the man turns his head, looking straight forward and walks away quickly.
‘They think I’m mad, mate. I bet you that man has a dog and he goes home and talks to it. Doesn’t think he’s mad himself though does he?’
Socrates lets out a soft growl in answer. He doesn’t like the man either.
‘I wonder what would have happened if I never walked out the door? I wouldn’t have you for a start. Do you think they’d ever have stopped? Left me alone? I hate that girl. She was just a kid but she ruined my life. We’ll make it one day, mate. Me and you, we’ll be rich and famous, I’ll buy you the biggest bone I can find. How’d you like that son?’
Socrates moves his head closer to Tony’s knees and rubs it against him. Tony sighs loudly, he picks up the lead and crosses the road. He’s going to go through the same ritual he does each time he comes. He walks as far as the door to the house and puts his hand on it. He can’t knock though, something won’t let him. Not something, he won’t let himself. He looks up at the window where his room had been. A tear runs down his face, he wipes it away, turns and walks back towards his shop door. He’ll do it one day.
As he leaves, a woman walks out of the door. She takes no notice of the homeless man walking his dog. She hasn’t got the time to concern herself with such people. She berates herself for being so selfish and uncaring. She looks back at him, takes a pound coin from her purse and hands it to him. The man says nothing, he’s just stood still, he looks like he wants to say something but it won’t come out. She smiles at him and turns away. He looks vaguely familiar, something about his face. She looks back again but he’s gone. It was Tony, she’s sure it was Tony.
This is a continuation of a short story I started yesterday. You can read the first part here. It’ll continue tomorrow. For all my new readers I’ll be giving away my next novel which is about the lives of people living in London in the late 90s for free for three days from 10 – 13th of January. You can read the first chapter here and another chapter here. Thanks for reading and any likes, follows and shares are much appreciated!