Wednesday, February 12, 2014

London 'Down and Out'

I first saw him as I hurried along the Strand in London on the way to the theatre.  In the gathering dusk he appeared to be slumped on the ground in a half sitting, half lying position.  Vagrants sheltering in city street doorways are a common sight and I gave no thought to the dishevelled looking man as I passed by.  He was still there as I returned almost three hours later.  This time my attention was drawn to the strange trance like pose which caused him to stand out against the glass enclosed background of the shop entrance. 

I had walked passed him before I stopped and re-traced my steps while searching my pockets for a few coins.  As I moved towards him with my hand outstretched to give him some money he looked up at me for the first time.  Reaching out to take the money he muttered “thanks for your help”.  The accent was familiar.  It was not that of an English man down on his luck, it was, or so it seemed to me, a soft Irish midland accent.

“How are you”, I asked, standing in front of the man whom I guessed was probably in his sixties.  Almost the same age as myself but his unpampered face bore the full brunt of the ravages of time.  He said nothing but turned his head to the side as if to avoid my gaze.  “You’re from Ireland” I said, this time pressing my inquiry on him as if to confirm what I already felt I knew.  He seemed reluctant to respond but after a slight pause I heard him say in no more than a whisper “I am”. 

By now my interest was sufficiently aroused to prompt me to squat down facing the doorway, all the easier to continue the conversation with a fellow Irishman.  I spoke for a few minutes about matters of little consequence until I felt it opportune to ask the questions I wanted to put to him.  It’s not easy in such circumstances to enquire from where somebody comes or to ask how they ended up as they had.  Even a man lying in a London doorway has his dignity and his pride and so the questions I wanted to ask had to wait.  Eventually the opportunity came and to my surprise when the question was put, “Joe” , for that I discovered was his name, seemed more than eager to unburden himself of his story which was forty years in the making. 

An Irish emigrant at eighteen years of age he came to London with little or no money, headed for Camden town and Arlington House where he lodged for a few months.  Up at 5.30 each morning he stood in line outside a pub in Camden as the contractors picked their crews for the days work.  The pay was good, the work was rough.  The contractors worked you hard on pick and shovel, so hard that when you arrived back at Camden in the evening time you felt the need for a drink or two. 

“I was young then and didn’t mind the work but of course I didn’t mind myself either”.  By now Joe was quite animated.  The novelty of a conversation with a fellow Irishman may have been the cause.  I never went back home, I have often wondered whatever happened there.”  He paused, as if to clear his mind, but in the glimmering shadow of the street lamp I saw his face wither in sadness.  “I have often wondered what happened there”, he repeated, this time glancing at me as if to measure my reaction.

I said nothing, and as if to fill the silence which developed, he continued to talk of his early days in London.  “The dances were great”, he said, “although I wasn’t a great dancer I enjoyed going to the Galtymore.  It was great craic - ah but life now is not the same, I can’t get work now and even if I did, I don’t know if I’d be able for it.  I haven’t worked for years”.  The words were spoken without bitterness, but as he lay slumped on the cold tiles of the doorway I could see that even in the gathering folds of approaching old age he still retained the physique, even if not the strength or stamina, of a younger man.

“Did you ever think of going back to Ireland?” I asked, but with a shrug of his shoulders he seemed to dismiss the notion.  Clearly re-tracing ones steps in life is more difficult than making the initial journey.  There is no going back for many of us.  For the man lying in the doorway on the Strand that December evening Ireland was part of an irretrievable past. 

I got up to take my leave, shook Joe’s hand and turned to walk away.  As I did I heard him say, “I remember your father” , I continued walking.  This time it was my face which was crumbling with sadness as tears welled up in my eyes.  For I had known Joe when as young lads we both attended the same primary school in Athy.  I hadn’t recognised the man lying in the doorway and even as we talked recognition was slow to come.  It was only as I shook his hand and he looked me full in the face for the first time that I feel a sense of recognition.  He too recognised a face from the past.

The next day I returned to look for Joe but he was gone.  Our paths have not crossed since.  When December arrives I think of Joe and a chance meeting on the Strand in London.  Christmas is a time of celebration for most of us, but for Joe and the thousands of now elderly Irish emigrants of the 1950’s and 1960’s Christmas can be a time of lonely memories.

Frank Taaffe extends a happy Christmas to the readers of Eye on the Past.

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