Monday, November 22, 2010

On Borrowed Time

I first saw him sometime in late October. He wasn’t easy to miss, what with him screaming obscenities and shaking a half empty bottle of beer in the air. I thought he’d be arrested and taken away for sure, but he was still there at the station the next day, and the one after that, always in the same dirty tracksuit pants and jumper, with matted hair and three day's stubble. Just another of those people you see now and again, before you look back at your newspaper and try and push the vision from your mind.

But it got a whole lot harder to push the man away when they started work on the line, and I had to catch the train from his station rather than my usual one further up the track. All of a sudden my mornings were filled with the sound of swearing and coughing as I stood, briefcase in hand, and prayed that the train would come quickly.

He would shout abuse at the carriages as they passed, sometimes waving a hairy fist in the air, sometimes looking as if he might actually hurl his beer-bottle. "Mugs! Losers! Animals!" he would shriek, his curses interspersed with maniacal laughter, high-pitched and grating. But the laughter would end and he would grow quiet, sagging to his knees and running a hand down the side of his face. “It all must end,” he would sob. “It all must end.”

One day, some people were brave enough to approach him; I couldn’t believe it. A man and a woman, both dressed in suits. They looked at each other with expressions of shared resolve, then strode purposefully towards the shouting man. It shamed me. So much easier to let him remain invisible. So much easier to try and block him out.

I couldn’t hear what was said, but the man’s words were angry, and accompanied by the wobbly swing of a fist. The two people walked away, as fast as they could without running, faces flushed and eyes wide. “It all must end,” the man shrieked after them, bristling with anger, until his voice became cracked and weepy and he slid down the poster covered pillar, hitting the ground hard. “It all must end.”

Shame forced my hand. Selfishness, almost certainly, because I wanted to be able to tell myself that I had done something, that I too had the courage of those people in business suits. The next day I packed sandwiches, and grabbed a blanket from the cupboard. Trinkets to assuage the sting of guilt.

I almost prayed the man wouldn’t be on the platform that morning, but he was, lurching and cursing and swinging his bottle, shaking his fist at the trains as they passed. My mouth was as dry as the bubble-gum covered concrete as I went to him, preparing myself for a fast getaway, should he so much as growl at me.

“Good morning.” My voice cracked a little. “Chilly again.”

His heavy eyebrows knitted together as he looked at me, and at the box in my outstretched hand.

“It’s some food.” I gave the box a little shake. “Just a few sandwiches. There’s a blanket too.” I held it out.

The man stretched out a trembling hand and took the blanket, holding it as if his fingers had never touched such material. I smiled with relief, until he cast it down upon the rail-line, forgotten as quickly as he'd picked it up. I braced myself for an attack, but he grabbed the sandwich box, opened it, and began to stuff the sandwiches in his mouth, his hairy cheeks puffing out to the point I thought they might burst. Crumbs fell, and he made grunting noises like an animal, but it warmed my heart to think I had in some small way eased his suffering.

He looked at me, gratitude in his eyes. But his expression changed with the speed of an express train, his eyes filling with tears and his lower lip quivering. “It all must end,” he mumbled through the sandwiches. “It all must end.”

"What must end?" Perhaps I was pushing my luck too far, but curiosity overcame my fear.

The man gulped down the last of his sandwich. He raised a grubby hand and gestured at the station around. "This. And this." He pointed at the half empty six-pack at his feet, and waved the sandwich box. "And this. All of it. All of it must end."

I tried to think of words to say, of some comfort for him. But my train came, and all I could do was walk away and leave him to his sandwiches.


I had more food on Monday, plus a thermos of hot coffee, but the man wasn’t there. I searched for him all over the platform, and asked the mums with prams and the kids on bikes and the business people in their suits and shiny shoes. Nobody had seen him. I tried again the next day, and the one after that. The station seemed strange -- an empty, foreign place without the man and his cursing and stamping. By Friday I had forced myself to accept the truth. He was gone. And I never even knew his name.


I did see him again, though at first I didn’t recognise him. It was a month or so later, and I was in the bank cashing a cheque, standing in the lunchtime queue. I'd already noticed the man and woman who'd approached him serving behind the counter, and that brought him to mind, along with the now familiar worry about his fate.

And then he was there, coming out of one of the back offices. He wore a dark suit, impeccably pressed, and his face was clean shaven, radiating the confidence of a man with much responsibility.

“Mister Bradford, your 12.30 is here,” came the nasal voice of one of the receptionists, and the man waved in cheery acknowledgment.

“You!” The word came out louder than I had intended.

All went silent. As one, the customers turned towards me, and so did the man.

Before I knew it, I was out of the line, standing before him, pointing accusingly at his smiling face. “You’re from the station. I gave you sandwiches.”

He narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin, and I felt suddenly foolish. Of course it couldn't be him. How could I make such a mistake? All I could do now was slink away and not come back for a month. If ever.

Before I could walk off, recognition came over the man’s face. He reached out a hand and patted me hard on the shoulder, then leaned towards me. “It’s like I said, my boy, it all must end, as all good things do.” His grin remained fixed, though regret flashed in his eyes. “Even long service leave.”


  1. What a delightful way to start my morning, Peter! That was lovely. Thank you.