Thursday, February 7, 2013

The tramp (story)

It must have been a Friday in early November when she first noticed the tramp outside the grocery store.
Since Jay had started school in September they had developed the habit of popping into the store on the way home from school to buy a few items of food for home and for dinner and – most importantly, if you asked him – for Jay to choose a small treat for the way home. Chocolate drops were his favourite.

The tramp sat in a sunny spot, almost inside the door, leaning on his battered backpack with an old dog by his side. She virtually had to step around him to get through the door. She felt annoyance rising inside her. How dare he sit there? She felt as if he had somehow tarnished her day with his dirty clothes, his long bedraggled hair and his scruffy dog. She considered complaining to the store manager, but then decided against it.

They made their purchases as usual, although she hurried Jay along when he hovered around the sweets, trying to make his choice. As they walked past the tramp, she could feel Jay turning to look at him and his dog … and she pulled him away impatiently.

The weekend came and she forgot all about him … until the following Monday, when after school outside the store, there he sat again. This time it was drizzling with rain and he sat huddled in an old filthy raincoat. Still, as she hurried past, she thought that she saw him look up at her, smile and nod. She turned her head and pretended that she hadn't seen him.

On the way out, Jay turned to the man and said “What's your dog called?”. “Bungee”, the man said, and with a smile on his face “He used to be more bouncy than this when he was younger, you see?”

Walking home, she scolded Jay for talking to strangers. “But you were with me, mummy”, he replied.

A few days later the man and his dog were back again, sitting by the door and minding their own business. She had noticed that sometimes people stopped to say hello and that occasionally somebody handed him some food or a coffee from the take-away. He received any offerings with a thank you and a smile.

As usual Jay chose chocolate drops. She paid at the till and whilst she was rummaging for the right change in her purse, she noticed that Jay had already moved to the door and was standing next to the man. She paid for her shopping hurriedly and followed Jay. What had she told him about not talking to strangers?!
When she got to Jay, he was just offering some of his chocolate drops to the man, holding out his bag to him with a big happy smile on his face. The man smiled back but shook his head. Had he seen the expression on her face, an expression of horror at the thought of his grubby hand reaching for her son's chocolates?

The following week, the same picture. The man and his dog and people hurrying past.
Inside the shop, Jay stood by the sweets for a long time. “Hurry up, Jay.”
John likes chocolate drops”, he said quietly.
John? Who is John?? She knew before she had spoken out the question …
Do you want to buy him a bag too?”
He nodded, then looked at her. “Can we buy something for Bungee too?”
This time they walked to the man by the door together. Jay handed him the chocolate and the dog treat. He looked up to them and smiled. The dog, lying on it's side, wagged its tail slowly and lazily.
Thank you. How did you remember that chocolate drops are my favourite?”
It was easy. They are my favourite too”, Jay beamed.

Suddenly she felt uncomfortable standing there and looking down at the man. Before she knew it, she had crouched down in front of him. Now they were on the same level. She noticed that he was older than she had thought. He had blue eyes, surrounded by wrinkles in his worn and weathered face.

After that time, they stopped and talked often. Sometimes they brought some food, although John and Bungee always seemed content with what they had and never asked for more.
She found it easy to talk to him.
They talked about life and death, about their hopes and dreams, about God and how everything happens for a reason. They talked about Jay and about Bungee.
Then one day he lowered his eyes and, in a quieter voice than usual, he talked about the death of his wife, about his depression that followed, about him losing his job and his house and finally ending up in the streets, and about how all that he had left from his old life was an old but faithful dog. That time she saw a deep sadness move over his face, like a dark cloud – but more often he smiled and laughed, and the wrinkles danced across his face.

The school holidays came and she and Jay stayed with her parents on the south coast for two weeks. They enjoyed walking by the beach and playing games by the open fire. It even snowed and granddad got the sledge out from the shed.

When they returned in the New Year they saw John and Bungee again.
She noticed that John looked tired and pale. He said that he was fine where he was staying and that he needed nothing – but she was worried.

The following week he mentioned that he and Bungee might head down towards Spain. They sat on a bench in the cold January air and he described the sunny, sandy beaches he used to visit when he was a child; the sun on his back and his toes dug in the warm sand. Jay's eyes grew wide with excitement. Would John write to him when he got to Spain? John said that he might send a postcard.

They did not see John or Bungee again after that.
Some weeks passed and something was missing when they took their walk to the store after school. The weather became colder. More snow and temperatures of minus 10 C at night. She wondered whether they had really headed south and hoped that they had, to avoid the grim weather.

Then, one Wednesday morning she came back from taking Jay to school and found the local paper on the door mat. The headline immediately caught her eye: Fatal attack! In the small wooded area near the bridge over the canal, a man and his old dog had been found dead. The man had been subject to a vicious attack by thugs and had obviously been left for dead. Unable to summon help because of the severity of his injuries, he had eventually frozen to death. It looked as if his dog had tried to defend his owner and had been killed by the same attackers. They had been dead for some time and the man had been identified as 43-year-old John Jackson of no fixed abode, who had been living in the area in recent months. Police were asking for witnesses to come forward, but had little hope due to the secluded location where the attack had taken place.

She cried and cried. She cried about how badly she had thought of John when she first met him, cried for the life he could have had, cried for the cruel and lonely death he had suffered, cried for the friend she and Jay had lost. She cried until it was time to pick up Jay from school. She washed her face, put on some foundation to hide her tell-tale blotches, picked up the paper and threw it in the bin and headed for the school ...

Spring time came.
They never received a postcard from John and occasionally Jay would ask about it. She always made up a light-hearted excuse, although inside her heart was aching.

Sometimes they still talk about him, even now, and imagine him walking along some sunny, sandy beach in Spain, with the sun on his back and Bungee chasing the waves ...

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