Land of the Giants
by Martin James Hunter
Covertly emerging from vegetation I see the horizon marked with grim overcast. A monotonous display of colour and tone. With tired hands I brush dirt and leaves from my blanket and pack it away. A main road intercepts ahead. Vehicles and pedestrians passing as though on moving walkways. Slinging my bedding over my shoulder I move to join the rush.
Heading towards the city centre I pass a young man from the east. White mask obscuring his nostrils and mouth. A glimpse of a separate society, wearily carried across our borders.
Droplets on my head and shoulders, developing into a fine drizzle. Then the sky bursts with rain and I feel for the first time a desperate urge to locate shelter. I often forget that the Big Jacket offers no protection from water and I do not savour the idea of having to sleep in wet clothes. Darting under a shop awning, I decide to wait the elements out. Then, as though the downpour were only a brief lesson from God, it has already ceased and I am afforded a little sun.
In a bar in the centre of town I am served by an attractive girl who at first seems pleasant. Her eyes go to my dirty clothes, then the sleeping arrangements over my shoulder. A frown is born. Which develops when I ask only for water. In the beer garden I drink thirstily. The ice clinking together in luxurious notes. Within moments she has come to check on me. I leave disconcerted as though scalded by my mother.
Crossing the congested north bridge I spot a European beggar who as I pass grants me an expressionless nod. I signal back and continue on. Accepted, it seems, into their ranks.
Fishing for Change
Amid busy streets and in the middle of the road a trembling paper cup lies sideways. Under the gaze of tourism and perhaps their cameras too I scamper amongst traffic after the thing. A cab driver observes in silence as I pass the hood of his vehicle examining my prize.
Yesterday it was difficult to build the nerve to sit down and beg. Today I have starved myself to make it easier. I tear a few inches from the top of my cup so that passers-by can see what little cash I have. The pennies I drop in are also to weigh the base down.
Using my bedding as a cushion I pitch by a wall with the cup on the ground to my right. Knees in front of my chest, arms clasped around them. Across from me, a bar whose clientele indulge in expensive ales and designer cigarettes. Some of them watch as I get comfortable but turn when I look in their direction. As though at first they observed me as one would an animal. Then our eyes met and it dawned I were conscious.
I watch the pavement because it is easier than dealing with the shame eye contact brings. Instead they smear past in my peripheral vision, the relentless torrent of legs dead set on their objectives. Quickening as they near me as though desperate to pass. Or perhaps it is just my imagination.
The river thins out into individual citizens and I am again able to differentiate between genders. It then strikes me that I can make something else out about each person. Loose change. The sound of coins clinking together like music. Passers-by accompanied by their own melodic passage. At first I am simply aware of who has money and in what pocket it lies. Then I am aware of the general quantity they carry. A few in his, more in hers. The approximate value still a mystery, though perhaps this ability sharpens in time.
Out of nowhere someone veers towards me then is gone. For a moment I thought they were giving me change, their proximity evoking a throb of excitement. Close, though not yet close enough. As though at the last minute deemed unfit for charity.
I have been here for some time and accumulated nothing. Is the trick in patience? Or by properly interacting with the strange race above? The Keepers of Generosity, giants towering by. I hope to eat soon but they offer no sympathy.
Vagrancy Act 1824
In 1824 begging and sleeping in the street became punishable crimes in England and Wales. This was partly in response to the influx of soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars without work or home. The poor abandoned once the rich had finished sending them to battle – a social issue still lingering today. Their reward: to be turned into criminals despite their service to government.
This Act was repealed in Scotland in 1982 so up north the homeless are not punished for their situation and generally have better support. In England and Wales and often through no fault of their own they still face the risk of a criminal record for something as unthinkable as sleeping in a doorway. All this does is make the transition back to society even more difficult for them.
1478 people were found guilty under the Vagrancy Act in 1990. By 2000 that number had rose to 2776, and three years later it stood at more than 3200. In April this year a man in Nottinghamshire was jailed for four weeks for sleeping in a bin.
Just before evening I locate a branch of Shelter and upon entering almost knock over a clothes rack with the Big Jacket. A girl sporting an interesting haircut is filling up a shelf with books. When I ask her for the address to the homeless centre she gives me a card with a number to call. I thank her and before I leave she offers me some unripe bananas.
Exiting the place with five in my pocket I am left with a dilemma on whether to wait a few days before eating them. After my fruitless attempts at begging I am still left hungry. As I tear at one the peel comes off awkwardly and in segments. The fruit is firm and tastes less pleasant than a banana should. When I am done I lick my fingers and start east. Five minutes later I think fuck it and eat the rest.