10th May 2014

It’s a strange thing, watching someone ignore something.

It’s 7:15 on Saturday and I’m meeting some friends for dinner. We’re going to a nice place down in Borough Market. I’m early, so I get off the tube at Bank and wander across London Bridge. I take the stairs down past Southwark Cathedral and follow the narrow path round. I push through the tourists and pick over a homeless guy to get to the market, now closed.

I park myself on a post and take out my phone.

I’m facing the way I came, watching the people coming towards me. It takes me a while to notice what’s going on. It’s a tight space and people are milling through. They turn the corner, clock the man sitting in their path, and act as if there’s nothing there.

I watch for a while but everyone does the same thing. I stop looking at my phone.

The man is on the ground with his back to me. He’s sitting strangely - kind of sprawled with his left foot near his right knee. His legs look weird and flat - the angle’s twisted and looks uncomfortable. There’s a big wet stain on the back of his coat.

Person after person does the same thing; they do what I did. They see the figure in front of them and wish they hadn’t. Some look down, with pity or distaste, but most don’t. They get really interested in their wife or their phone instead.

Now I’m practically obsessed. I’m waiting for a single person to look at this man for more than a second. No one does. Three, five, ten minutes pass.

He starts moving his right hand around, padding the ground. His left hand is curled up into a little fist, he’s pushing it into the ground at his side. He’s trying to stand up. He shifts his weight and tries again. The passing faces do nothing.

I’m sitting directly behind him, just watching this happen. I’m watching a grown man try to stand up. Can he? His legs look sore. Is he disabled somehow? Is he drunk? My mind flashes through the organisations I could call - Street Link, an outreach team, or maybe the police.

I put my phone away. My face feels hot because I know inside what I have to do.

I walk over, crouch down close and say quietly

- do you need help?

He looks at me blankly. Both of his hands are on the ground still. He’s wearing a big green overcoat and a nice knitted scarf. Now people are looking.

- can I help you stand up?

I hold my hands out a little because I’m not sure he’s understood.

He looks confused. Slowly he holds his right hand straight up, as if he’s showing me a cut on his wrist or something. It’s dirty and a bit distended.

I take it.

I put my left hand under his arm and hold him until he’s up.

- are you okay? do you need anything?

He’s a bit wobbly. I don’t let go of his arm.

- lady

- shall we find somewhere better for you to sit?

A woman tugs her child past. He starts pulling at the bottom of his coat, trying to get to his trousers.

I freeze. I’m nervous about what’s going to happen next. My prejudices buzz around my head and I feel dizzy.

His hand goes in his pocket and comes out with a little blue carrier bag. He’s concentrating really hard. I can see some coins in there. Now I’m worried that he’s going to try and give me some money.

- no, really! that’s -

- lady

He brings out a broken metal chain with a tiny locket on it and holds it towards me. There’s a little knotted flower on the front and I can see a piece of paper curled up inside. My heart is hurting, but I smile and say -

- no, no! you need that. you keep that. it’s special, you need it, please.

I push his hand away.

- what’s your name?

- Czech

- you’re Czech?

I move towards the market where I’m hoping there’ll be somewhere he can sit down properly. I turn back to see him fumbling at his backpack. He sways and holds out this pathetic, grubby happy-meal toy. It’s a little giraffe that he’s attached to his bag using paper clips.

- no please, that’s yours. you keep it, i really don’t want anything.

I look around again for seats, walking out into the middle of the empty market. When I turn back he’s sloping away along the side of the cathedral. Something tells me to leave it now, but I follow him until he stops, propped up in an alcove under London Bridge.

I know that outreach teams don’t usually take referrals unless you give them the sleeping location of a homeless person, but I try anyway. I wish I could do more.

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