This week’s post is another vintage story from my archive…
I was shocked. I thought it was my Hilda, kneeling there, her head all sort of bent over, her neck stalk thin with her hair hanging down the side of her face; the same as my Hilda, only it couldn’t be, could it? Because Hilda passed away three years ago.
I’d been minding my own business, doing my walk like I always do, like Hilda said I had to.
“Mind you keep fit, Arthur,” she said, so I go out every day, mornings mostly because its light and I’m not too tired. It’s always the same route – along the top, down the path, back along the promenade and up by the café. That’s the tricky part, the climb back up. I stop for a rest before I start uphill. That’s when I saw her, when I went to sit down; a woman, kneeling down by a big suitcase, still, like a statue.
When I calmed down, I realised of course it wasn’t Hilda. This woman wasn’t clean and smart. She was unkempt. Her hair was straggly, greasy looking. I couldn’t see what she was doing there on the promenade, kneeling beside a suitcase.
I’ve kept myself to myself since Hilda went. I do my bit of shopping, read the paper, keep the place tidy, watch the telly. But I couldn’t walk past this woman. I thought she must be in trouble so I asked her. I said “Are you alright?”
I could see the glints of her eyes through her hair, looking up and sideways. I knew she heard me.
“Do you need help?” I said.
This time her head moved a fraction and she spoke, not very loud. I had to lean forwards to catch the words.
“Get lost. I don’t like men”.
When she said ‘men’ she made it sound dirty, like it was a swear word.
I was taken aback. I know I’m not the most wonderful specimen of manhood that ever was, but I’ve done my best in life. Hilda never complained, not even when I had to do everything for her, at the end.
She couldn’t be comfortable, knees on the hard concrete with the wind whipping round and making dust blow all over her. I know I should have carried on with my walk but it made me feel awkward, as if a parasite had got inside my head. I’m from a generation when you were supposed to take care of women, hold doors open, take their coats, be a knight in shining armour. I thought I’d give it one more go then I’d carry on home and make a pot of tea.
“Oh, I’m not all that much of a man,” I told her, because I’m not, these days. “Are you looking for somewhere to stay? There are a number of guest houses along the cliff top. I haven’t stayed in any myself, but I’m sure they are clean and comfortable; better than here, at any rate.”
I could tell she was building up to speak again from the way the strands of hair blew away from her head. She didn’t so much speak as spit and the words came out like they’d been shot from an air rifle. “Piss off!” she spat, and her head dropped again.
By now I was beginning to feel the cold. I decided to call it a day. I said goodbye and trudged up the path towards home, where a pair of slippers, a cuppa and that programme about clearing out the attic beckoned.
The next time I saw her was at the bank. It was my club night and I had to nip into the lobby to get some money for a pint. I go out once a week on a Friday to the club same as always; Hilda’s instructions again. I follow all her advice. I nearly decided to stay in though, because it was one of those nights when it’s so cold it feels like someone’s stabbing you. Anyway I went in and she was there, kneeling on the carpet this time, which is an improvement on the concrete in the promenade shelter, at least.
There was no-one else in the lobby but I know the bank has one of those camera things so they can keep an eye on what goes on. They must have known she was there.
“We meet again,” I said. I make it a rule to carry on being polite to people however they are to you. She did that little head movement thing that showed she heard.
I walked to the machine, put my numbers in and waited for it to present me with the notes. I like to tuck them away before I leave the lobby. You don’t know who’s watching when you get into the street. It came to me then. I knew from the Evening Echo there was a homeless shelter on the other side of town, a place run by volunteers from a church, I thought. I went over to her.
“Listen, I’m sorry I don’t know your name, did you realise there’s a place where you can sleep the night, all clean and warm? You’d be safe there. Anyone could walk in here and I know its inside but it’s still blooming freezing! If you like I’ll get you a taxi. The driver will know where it is.” I had a tenner in my hand, one of the notes I’d just withdrawn and I waved it at her.
Well that caught her attention, that ten pound note. It was the first time I’d really seen her face. It was leathery, weather-beaten skin; like it was painted with all life’s tough experiences; but there was something else on that face- a sly little gleam in her eye.
“I don’t want to go to no shelter. There’s men there.”
I shrugged. I couldn’t argue. Without doubt there would be men there, although there must also be people in charge, making sure no harm was done.
Something made me persist. Perhaps it was that she reminded me of Hilda, or just that I couldn’t go against the old-fashioned manners I was brought up with. I pulled out another tenner, thinking I’d have to forgo the second pint, but I’d put up with that. I held up both the notes.
“I’ll get you a taxi and you can have a proper meal and a bed for the night.”
She was interested. She didn’t look at me but couldn’t take her eyes off the money in my hand. “I don’t like people bossing me about.”
This was getting to be hard work. “I’m not bossing. I’m trying to help you. Look, there’s a cab rank across the road. I’ll get one over.”
It seemed like she was going to agree because she started zipping up the suitcase so I opened the door and waved at the first cabbie in the line. When he pulled in I leaned in and explained what I wanted him to do. Give him his due, he was willing, considering she wasn’t the cleanest passenger he could take, and he knew where the shelter was. He even stepped out to help with the case; but when he bent to pick up the handle she jumped up and flew at it.
“Don’t fucking touch that, it’s my stuff. Nobody touches my things, right?”
We looked at each other, the cabbie and me. It was like we were two RSPCA men off ‘Animal Rescue’ trying to save an injured cat. He held his hands up to show he meant no harm. “Alright love,” he said, “but this gentleman” he looked at me “has made a very kind offer. You won’t do any better tonight.”
So between us we got her into the taxi, and she did allow the bloke to lift her case into the boot. I gave her one of the notes and handed the other to the driver. “And keep the change, mate” I told him. She reached inside her coat to tuck the money away, looking furtive like a squirrel burying a nut, and I saw a glossy card hanging around her neck on a purple ribbon; a bus pass.
I felt like I’d been had. I’d assumed she’d got no money for transport. I wanted to ask her why she couldn’t just go to the homeless shelter on the bus but I realised it was too late now. I closed the door. The cabbie gave me a ‘thumbs up’. “You’re a good man” he said before he swung the cab round the mini roundabout and set off down the high street. I stayed watching, although it didn’t get very far.
When it drew level with the Co-op I saw it pull into the parking bay. The driver got out, went to the back, pulled out the case, opened the passenger door. She climbed out. For a moment I felt like I was watching one of those sketches on the telly they used to do without words. Ronnie Barker did some.
As the car drove away I sort of shrivelled into the nearest shop doorway. I forgot to feel cold, I was so curious to see what she’d do. She started trundling the case back towards me; head down facing the ground like she’d dropped some change, and right on past my doorway to the bank. She lifted one hand off the handle of the case and pushed the lobby door open then she went back inside, pulling the case behind her.
I must have stood there for a few minutes staring at the closed door of the lobby, trying to get my head round what I’d seen and what a mug I am. If Hilda had still been alive she’d have had something to say about it. I can imagine her now, telling me what a silly old fool I am; but it was done.
Stan was already on his second pint, standing in his customary position at the bar when I got to the club.
“You’re late” he said.
I ordered my beer and drank most of it before I told him what had happened. Stan and I have been mates for years; since we started together as apprentice sparkies –so long ago it seems like a history book now. He’s a good listener though, and he didn’t interrupt. When I finished he just laughed. He said I should put it down to experience; then he told me a funny story about a boy scout who got told off for coming home late for his tea. The boy told his mum he was late because he was helping an old lady across the road. The mother said, “Why would that make you late?” and the scout replied “She didn’t want to go.”
He’s got that knack of cheering people up, Stan has, which is why we’ve been mates for so long.
I had plenty of time to think about it all over the next few days. I even saw her on the bus a couple of times, fiddling with the strap on her case and muttering, although I steered clear and sat as far away as possible. In the end I rang the number for the homeless shelter, thinking they might be able to shed some light on what she was up to. The lady I spoke to, Polly, laughed when I described ‘Suitcase Sally’ to her. That’s what I’d started calling her, in my head; Suitcase Sally.
“Oh, so you’ve met our Elsie, have you?” she said. “Yes, she is a crafty old bird; uses every trick, that one. She does sleep here occasionally but she has to be desperate because she can’t stand anyone of the male gender. No-one knows why. Some ghastly experience in the past I suppose.”
She told me some more about the shelter, this Polly. She sounded a pleasant person. I pictured her, plump, motherly, red-cheeked and cheerful, like that Lorraine Kelly who does a talk show. When I told her how I’d only wanted to help Elsie she made me feel less of an idiot.
“Don’t worry. You did all you could, Arthur.”
Then she said if I was concerned about the homeless in my area, why didn’t I visit the shelter, meet some of the volunteers, see what they do and think about giving them a hand? She said I needn’t decide right then, I could think about it and call her again. There were different jobs to do, not all dealing directly with the down-and-outs; driving, cleaning up, a bit of maintenance.
I went out for my walk, following my same old route, stuck in the old, familiar rut. I thought about how Hilda had needed me in the last months before she passed away but afterwards I became useless, a spare part.
I walked quicker than usual, not stopping for a sit down, either. I was keen to get home and ring Polly. I’m going to be a volunteer at the homeless shelter. I don’t know what Hilda would say if she knew but I hope she’d understand and perhaps even be just a little bit proud.