Let’s start the night by meeting with an old friend. It’s been two years since we’ve hung out and he’s changed somewhat. But we vibe, it’s chill, no worries. Some of the others are…not my sort. But I don’t stay long. Halfway through the second pint the alcohol starts to fizz in my blood like it hasn’t done in a while and I long to be back home with her. She is my safety; my star to every wandering bark.
As I leave the Watering Hole, I notice a figure crouched, black in the cold, beneath the bottom step on the pavement. I put my head down and move forward, over the crossing to the girl I know will give me comfort, but something pulls me back. Maybe it’s the courage they slipped in my golden pint or maybe it’s the surprise of a bitter wind this early into September, but I turn and move toward the man.
His head hangs low against his knees and a large, green backpack sits in front of him. I crouch to meet his eyes and ask if he needs anything. “Some food? A blanket?”. “I’ve loads of food. A blanket would be nice though.” Oddly, food seems to be the only thing he doesn’t need. Perhaps it makes sense; we would never let our own kind starve on the street. We would never let them starve.
I head back, following the warm glow of my home. I arrive, more drunk than I realised I had become and rummage amongst my old clothes to find something to give to the man. A scarf, two pairs of socks, a hat knitted by my mum and a big green coat that I never really liked anyway. I head back out clutching the goods, only to find the man is gone. Two bouncers have taken his place outside the pub and I ask them if they know where he went, “Yeah, that’s George. He’s probably on the rounds. He’ll be back.” Disappointed, I head in the direction they point me in, still holding tightly to my wears. I check down dark alleyways and outside neighbouring alehouses, but he is nowhere to be found.
I start to head home when I remember a man I glanced at, outside the shopping centre, settling down for the night. When I find him, he is fast asleep, wrapped in a thin layer of blue plastic with small childish shapes printed across it. I lay the coat on the top of him and the scarf around his neck. He doesn’t stir. I give him the hat and the socks and he starts to wake. He speaks, “Do one thing for me. Never let me go back there”. “Back where?” He names a nearby town and I agree that he should stay where he is for now. I notice the cuts on his left arm and ask where he got them. He can’t remember exactly where. He strings together a story about getting into a scrap with another homeless man, but it is clear from the precision and frequency of the scars that they are self-inflicted. It is hard to tell whether he is too ashamed to admit it, or whether he genuinely can’t remember, either way my stomach drops to hear it. I ask and he tells me his name is Bonito. At least that’s what he goes by; Italian heritage, he says. He is fifty and has three daughters – married twice – alone now. The teeth he has left look sticky with age and tobacco. I haven’t got any cigarettes, I say. “Not to worry”.
By now he looks more comfortable and tells me he was on his way back to a friends’ flat where he sleeps sometimes. It was a two-mile walk and he couldn’t make it back all the way. His friend’s called John. “My best mate” he says “but he’s a twat”. I offer to drive him up to the flat but he is worried how John might react to the scars on his arm and tells me that he can be unpredictable and has a loose temper. A genuine fear seems the only explicable reason he might choose to stay on the street on a night as cold as this one. “I’d rather sleep here. I’d rather be lost” he tells me with a sad smile. He reports that his left shoulder is dislocated and he reshuffles often, inflicting a good deal of pain on the injury. It’s clear that the lack of a warm bed is far from the only problem facing Bonito. I can’t help but think that even with a place to stay, the chances of this man getting back on his feet are very slim. He recalls how he used to be an engineer. “It was a hard job” he says, “I’m very clever”. I don’t doubt him, and I picture a much younger man in uniform, clean shaven and well fed. He is together, confident, sound. Where did he go?
Bonito mentions his abstinence from any alcohol since he started taking medication two weeks ago. He moves and I see a can of lager between himself and the wall. I wonder whether his grasp on the truth is as blurred as he is making out, or if I am being fooled in some way. But I can’t be. He grasps my hand. “You’re a diamond. You really are”. I tuck the coat around his side and move the scarf over his neck. He has already donned the home-knitted hat for himself. It suits him. I tell him I’ll let him sleep now, but I give him my phone number in case he gets too cold. “I was having a dream before you came, of a wonderful thing”. “What’s that?”. “Telly.” We laugh. His hand is clasped in mine as I stand and I cup his cheek with my other. He holds his tears in his eyes. He is a soldier in a pit of quiet desperation. “Be strong.” I tell him. “Do if for your kids, if nothing else, do it for your kids”. He tells me he will. “I’ll write a song about you one day”, he tells me. “I used to write a lot of songs.” I ask and he boasts he plays the violin and guitar. I think of my Solid Spruce acoustic back home and wonder what it would mean to him to hold it. I start to leave and he thanks me again for taking the time. I know it is no problem, and the guilt from knowing my warm bed is waiting starts to rise in the back of my mind.
How can I help him? I ask myself as I walk briskly away down the street. I think of my own situation and wonder if I am financially qualified to help someone as in need as Bonito is. Then I remember something else he said, “It means everything that a young man like you would take the time to speak to me”. Maybe it isn’t money he really needs. Or even a bed or even a big green coat and a knitted hat. Perhaps what this man needs is a friend – a real friend. He probably needed a real friend a long time before I met him and I wonder if there is anyone out there capable of giving him what he needs. Maybe it is me. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be. Should my age, class and other commitments to loved ones make me exempt from helping those who need it? Can anyone really be exempt from helping their fellow brother? We are all struggling; some more than others. But nonetheless, it seems none of this was made to be particularly easy, so we may as well try and help a friend who has fallen down. I hope that one day I will hear Bonitos song. In the meantime, this is my song for Bonito, and I hope he hears it too.