There’s a wooden hut at a busy junction near us. It’s about the size of a bus shelter with a back and two sides. The missing flank means it’s open to the street.
Set back from the pavement and about 10 meters from a bus stop. a wooden bench runs along its length. In the past we’ve taken refuge there ourselves. To dodge a rain shower or wait for a lift. It’s occupied now. Since early last year. I don’t really know “John’s” story. I know the bits I’ve heard. We pass him at least a couple of times a day. He looks like a bloke waiting for a bus. Only his ride never comes. So he sits next to his neat rug sack. Some afternoons, this doubles as a clothes horse and supports a damp towel or jumper. They say he has an arrangement with the local pool and does his ablutions there. Daily it seems. From 8 til 3 the shack holds no trace of him. Not so much as a cigarette stub (he smokes). Or a book. (He’s a voracious reader).
Where he goes in those hours is his own business. Truth being it’s all his own business but when he plays his life out in an open fronted structure (a stage) it’s difficult not to take note. He walks as far as seven hours will take and back. I’ve passed him on the street and you’d mistake him for a backpacker. Someone breaking their journey to Heathrow. Though he’s a little older than most intrepid travellers. He could be in his forties or he’s recently hit 50. He walks with purpose (where?). Big strides with his gaze fixed ahead.
I was in a meeting room in the library one day when he excused himself and set about charging his phone. His voice is firm and clear.
When we have visiting children in our car my two love to point him out. Like he’s ours. See, that’s John, they’ll whisper. He lives in that shelter. Don’t stare.
Often he’ll have company. A local who’ll dismount from their bike and have a chat. Rarely will someone sit beside him on the bench. Mostly they stand and talk to him ‘in passing’. I guess he doesn’t invite them to sit though he seems to tolerate these constant visitations. I’d heard that a few of the churches are keeping an eye on him. It could be they see his soul is up for grabs. Women with buggies stop for a natter. As much as they appear to offer him friendship, they seem to be looking for something too. A cause, maybe. Or just an ear.
In the fine weather when our windows are down and we wait at the traffic lights the wind will carry some of the conversation. Congenial. There was talk of a broken marriage and children and redundancy. John has spoken about a possible job offer from his old employer. We heard the pool had offered him work and he turned them down.
A child passenger told us that her mother’s friend had proffered their summer house at the back of their garden but he didn’t want it. There’s been at least another offer of accommodation. Declined. At an over-catered party, rather than throw good food away, someone suggested it be given to John. It ended up in the skip. He’d already eaten his supper, thank you all the same.
With winter approaching, someone left him a duvet, neatly folded in a striped shopping bag. For three days it sat where it was deposited untouched until the well meaning benefactor withdrew the offering.
These cold days he wears a Down jacket with a fur trim. He wears it with the hood up most of the time so he looks like someone from an Arctic expedition. Still on a stopover from Heathrow. During summer nights he stretched out on the bench. Now he sleeps huddled in the corner, shoulders hunched, head down, with a rain sheet tucked under his chin. I drive pass him on late nights home.
My friend gave him a book but he’d already read it and didn’t rate it. She said his look seemed to say “what do you take me for, a Philistine?”
He works hard not to be taken for a charity case. But there is something uncomfortable about his presence amongst us. Despite his bearing and house-keeping, his proud posture and neat appearance he can’t be well. Who in their right mind would do as he does. Then who am I to judge.
I have fantasised that he’s a method actor or an author (all those books) and “The man in the Shed” will hit our screens this autumn. And we’ll all be incredulous at the lengths he went to for his art.