My shameful failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas

Beggars have mothers too. And what did it matter if he didn’t. I had wronged him

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The Independent Online

There should have been snow on the ground and the Salvation Army playing “Silent Night” outside Waterstones. But you’ll have to use your imagination if you want all that. As it was, the evening was mild and the only distinct sound to be heard was that of pedestrians’ bones breaking under the wheels of cyclists running lights and riding pavements. I say the “only” sound, but in fact I’d just learnt Joe Cocker had died, so “With A Little Help from My Friends” was playing in my head. No singer ever sang a song better. Now it was his obituary. And I was just off to the doctor.

We were of the same generation and roughly from the same neck of the woods, Joe Cocker and I, he a wild man from Sheffield, I a wild man from Manchester, though I suspect I read more Charlotte Brontë than he did. Every Saturday night I drove through Sheffield with my father on the way back from Worksop market, and in those days the flames still leapt with hellish allure from the city’s steelworks. What if I left school, got a job as a gas fitter, and followed the smell of sulphur? Didn’t happen. Jane Eyre won over Cocker. And the fires of Sheffield consumed me not.

There I was, anyway, off to the doctor, packing death as Australians say, because my stomach wasn’t feeling right and my father was exactly the age I am now when his stomach did for him. Cocker’s going just made it worse. Me next – another feral Northerner who’d lived too hard. Cocker, I imagined, the victim of late nights, blues and cigarettes, and I overdosing on sourdough bread and vintage cheddar.

The astute reader will have spotted I am pleading extenuating circumstances. For what? Let’s say a failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas. But I had a doctor’s appointment and I was, by my own standards of liking to be running early, running late. So when this person tapped me on the shoulder outside Waterstones and said he hoped I didn’t mind him accosting me in the street, I had to do battle with impatience.

But he had a nice face.  Shy, behind a black beard, self-effacing, untried. I could hardly say: “Yes, I do mind.” I smiled at him. It felt like a smile from my end anyway, and it must have been encouraging because he went on to say, “It’s just that I’m trying to find a Christmas present for my mother.” And that’s when I heard myself reply: “I haven’t got time for this.” In the moment of my brushing him off I saw he was pained. He blurted out an embarrassed apology for troubling me, but I was already down the road before I realised what he’d said, and by the time I began to feel I’d behaved badly he was gone.

I ran in the direction I thought he’d taken but couldn’t find him. Unbidden, sounds of moaning issued from my throat. I had to lean against the window of Waterstones. I think I covered my face. One passer-by was good enough to ask me if I was all right. “I will never be all right again,” I told her, “and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it. But thank you for asking.”

So what had happened between me and the shy man in the black beard? Something like this. I hadn’t initially taken him for a con man or a beggar but the moment he mentioned his mother I saw a sob story coming. Like everyone, I get hoax emails from people purporting to be friends, saying their passport has been stolen in Vladivostock and they won’t be able to get home to visit their dying mother in Limerick unless I send ten thousand pounds immediately. I even fell for such a scam in person many years ago in a Rome railway station. Not for quite so preposterous a sum, it’s true, but I should still have figured out that the hustler – who said he was struggling to continue his studies as a nuclear physicist – was too young to have seven children, each in the terminal stage of every disease I’d ever heard of. Reader, what do these people take me for? Whatever else, I wasn’t going to fall for that one again. And believe me when I say I was late for my appointment with the gastroenterologist.

But what if this hadn’t been a con? I replayed the young man’s words. I saw his hurt expression. And I recalled the good impression he’d originally made on me. I even thought I’d noticed he was carrying a roll of wrapping paper. What if he was genuinely looking for a present for his mother and either thought I was of an age to know what mothers liked receiving or – and here was the agonising part – he knew my work and wanted me to accompany him into Waterstones to sign a book for her. You could read this last concern cynically. I didn’t want a reader of mine to have a bad opinion of me. True, I didn’t. But more than that, I couldn’t forgive the rudeness of my rebuff to what I now decided was a perfectly innocent overture: “Hello, would you be so kind as to sign a book for my mother?” “Fuck off.”

Fuck off, I might be dying, might have sounded a little better. But it was the season of good will, for God’s sake. I might just as well have said: “Fuck off, it’s Christmas.”

Then again, since it was Christmas, would it have been so terrible to have given him the little help he wanted whether or not he was pulling a fast one?

Beggars have mothers too. And what did it matter if he didn’t? Whoever he was – reader or rascal – I had wronged him. Consumed with shame and sorrow, I stumbled into the consulting rooms. The doctor felt my stomach and talked to me at length, but I couldn’t listen. For all I know, I’m dead already.

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