End of story

TRYING TO cross a busy road in the shopping district of Mombasa, and not having much success, I felt a tug on my left trouser leg, just below the knee. I didn't see him at first, because he was so close to the ground, but when I checked again, I saw this legless hunchback on a skateboard looking up at me. He was perspiring freely with the effort it had cost him to reach me, and he was stretching up to show me his empty palm. I think I may have started with surprise and done a sort of double take, for I'd never seen a legless hunchback on a skateboard before, let alone been touched by one.

But when I looked down into this face, I had an even greater surprise. He was a young man, 19 or 20 perhaps, handsome, and in spite of his hideous deformities, in the prime of his life. And he was smiling. He wasn't smiling in a sad, obsequious, beggarly fashion either. His face simply shone with gladness. I'm not joking. He had the most transparently joyful face I'd ever seen.

I don't know whether you have ever resorted to begging in the street. I haven't yet. But I like the idea of it. I think it would do me good. I have always suspected that the frankness involved and the continual knock-backs received give a street beggar an understanding of human nature that a trained professional would give his right arm for.

The art of begging, I always feel, is a nice one, requiring telepathic skills. Whatever the verbal line of patter might be, the subliminal message is a simple but powerful one. "This is me," it says. "Take a good look if you like. Essentially I am like you. I need help." Some generous hearts, I'm sure, can sense a genuine plea for help and respond every time. Others never.

I was walking along the waterfront in Benidorm once, with Sid, my old man, when we passed a blind man playing a fiddle. He was playing a very sad, very beautiful piece of music and his old and unseeing face had a transported, almost ecstatic look on it. As Sid and I passed him, Sid, who really is an out and out dickhead at times, casually flicked a lump of ice-cream in the old man's face. It was vanilla. The gob of ice-cream stuck to the old man's forehead for a lingering second and then dropped off. He stopped playing and wiped his head with the sleeve of his right hand. I was speechless. I couldn't believe that even Sid could do something so crass. But he thought it was so excruciatingly funny that he was helpless with laughter all the way along the waterfront (about a ten-minute walk), and still collapses in hysterics if you mention it today.

Later, I returned to the waterfront and tried to apologise to the old fiddler, but failed to make myself understood. He got it into his head that I was telling him to move on and he became aggressive. Passers-by glared at me for harassing a blind man. Even when I put some money into his hand as evidence of my good intentions, he thought I was bribing him to go away.

I dread to think what Sid would have done if he had been confronted by my man on the skateboard. At first I was so surprised to see a handsome smile on one so deformed that I laughed at him. He immediately laughed with me. He too could see the joke, and thought it a good one. In fact, any joke that I could see, he'd seen a long time ago. His eyes held mine. The moment was passing. Why did I hesitate? he said with his eyes. This is a simple request, man to man. Aren't these stumps, and this back, enough to make you act?

His gladness was faltering. He was losing faith in me, but decided to give me a few moments more of his valuable time. He would make allowances for my stupidity. He jerked his face backwards slightly and raised his eyebrows a bit more, as if to say, "Well?"

I looked down into his clear eyes and felt that of the two of us, it was me who needed helping. Then my peripheral vision and hearing told me there was a gap in the traffic. I turned away and ran across the road. I didn't look back. And that legless hunchback has been smiling at me, without malice, ever since.