Walking past the brick arches from the station to the Midland Hotel
That monument to Victorian engineering and optimism
I saw its antithesis, a ragged human sat on a sheet of cardboard
In front of a rescued festival tent
Reading a book.
I feigned I had not seen him and hurried past
To meet my friends in the Midland for afternoon tea
Poured from a Japanese porcelain pot into near translucent cups
With quartered sandwiches and dainty iced cakes.
Warm and laughing at our easy banter
I watched the rain siling down outside the window
Now vertical, now slanting as it bent to the wind
And thought of the crouched reader sheltered in the gloomy arch.
I stood beside him, in my mind, invisible
He held the book close to his face, a narrow gap between
An upturned collar and wound scarf under a grey hood
His hands in fingerless woollen gloves.
His legs were in a sleeping bag pulled round his waist
The tent floored with cardboard
Inside a small rucksack, bundled clothing, a blanket
A dog lead and bowl but no dog.
His age was hard to tell, but not young
Or, if so, prematurely aged by life in the margins
He rocked as he read, a Quran perhaps or some
I left my companions, tea undrunk,
Sandwiches and cake wrapped in a serviette
Leaning into the wind and rain
I returned to the dark arches.
He was as before, reading, rocking
Engrossed in a world of imagination
Perhaps one with more comfort and hope.
I approached him.
I noticed for the first time, in a corner of the arched niche
A kitchen peddle bin, an incongruous emblem of another world
Of warmth, security and domesticity
Where rubbish and dirt could be discarded, order imposed.
What to say? I found myself wordless
Anything I started to say lapsed to silence
In fear of appearing patronising or patrician
I felt like a stranger, dumb in a foreign land.
“What are you reading?” I heard myself say
He started as if he had been unaware of me
His eyes met mine and looked down at the proffered food.
“I thought you could do with a bite to eat”.
I put it down on the cardboard beside him
“It’s just a couple of sandwiches and a cake”
I clumsily opened my wallet to see what cash I had
Looking for the usual tin or hat to put it in. There was none.
He raised his hand in protest. No. No thanks, no need
I should have put money in with the food.
“I’d like to give you some money” but as I spoke I realised
That’s what this is. “I’d like”. This is about me.
I dropped a ten-pound note at his feet and turned away
Bowed with guilt. Why had he done this to me?
Would thanks and gratitude been easier to bear?
Perhaps, but we both would have been dissembling.
“Metamorphoses” he said to my back. “The greatest poem ever written in Latin”
I faltered in my step and turned, confounded
He held the book up. It was in the original Latin
“I’m reading the section where the God’s punish the Mortals. Do you know it?”
I walked back and sat at his feet.