The tables outside the station are packed with people eating and smoking and killing time while they wait for their trains, doing their best to enjoy the early spring sunshine despite the bitter, unseasonal wind. Being out there beats standing in the cavernous gloom of the terminus hall, staring at departure boards, so I find a seat and eat my sandwich, squint my eyes against the sun and watch what’s going on.
It doesn’t take long to notice the couple working the crowd. They’re little more than children. Young, thin, and cowed, they have the air of people who learned early on in life that their best chance of safety – and it would only ever be a best chance, nothing more – came through being unremarkable, through not giving offence, through being all but invisible. Draw attention to yourself, and they know no good will come of it. So they work the crowd of people luckier than them, people who are texting their loved ones to say they’ll be home soon, people eating, and smoking, and killing time, people who choose to sit outside in the late afternoon sunshine while they wait for their trains. People who don’t notice them as they sidle from table to table to table, who don’t see them till the moment they’re standing at their shoulder, his patter well-rehearsed and wheedling.
’Scuse me fella, madam, missus, we just need another pound – or maybe two – for the bus so we can get back home and if you could help, god bless you, thank you, sorry to disturb, enjoy your day.
The girl never speaks. She just holds tight to his arm and half-hides behind him, as if he’s her only barrier against a beating or a blow. Sometimes their wheedling works, sometimes it doesn’t. If someone gives them money, it slips quickly into their pockets. If someone shakes their head or ignores them, they move on. There’s always another person to sidle up to, always the prospect that the woman at the next table will be more receptive, the bloke reading his paper will have some cash to spare. Stay out of trouble, keep walking. Fade into the background and just stay on the move.
The story they tell may well be true, but I doubt they’ll ever get home. Whatever they ran away from is something they won’t want to return to, and the city gives them spaces they can hide, places where no-one knows them. It gives them crowds where there will always be people with kind hearts who’ll give them money, and others who’ll part with shrapnel just to make them go away. If there’s a difference between the two of those, it doesn’t really matter. Coin is all that counts, they tell themselves. Coin will buy them food.
The tables are always busy, but there’s an ebb and a flow to the crowd as people leave to board their trains and new arrivals take their place, so when the begging couple have snaked through the multitudes to the last of the tables, they slope back to the beginning, and start again. And that’s when things go wrong. They’re making their pass through the crowd for the third or the fourth time when they try to tap the couple who are leaning against a railing, smoking. Some couples fit together as if they belong, easy in each other’s company. Some hold fast to each other out of need, like the couple doing the begging. This pair are just odd. He’s old enough to be her father, lean and trim where she is soft and round, carrying puppy-fat weight she’s not yet had time to lose, and whether she leans her head into his chest, or plants kisses on his shirt above where his heart should be, the affection she shows him is never returned. He scans the crowd constantly – never once looking at her – and his eyes are cold and watchful, his gaze as hard as flint. Not a man you’d want to cross, or ever place your trust in, I think.
Once upon a time I’d have noticed the man the moment he came into view. There was a time in my past where it was important to see where the trouble might come from, know who to watch out for, and who to avoid. Getting that right meant all the world, meant the difference between safety and… not safety, and I like to tell myself it’s an awareness that – even all these years on – is just as keen as ever. But the truth is that I’ve got comfortable, soft, slow, and old. The truth is that – nowadays – I rarely notice people like this man, in the same way as most people don’t notice the beggars. Because I no longer have to. Because people like this man only happen to other people. People who are not me.
The truth is I only noticed the man because of the girl, the contrast between her gentleness and the ferocity that waits, coiled and eager, just below his skin. Now, I can’t take my eyes off the two of them. I watch them from behind my shades out of the corner of my eye, and I make sure not to look in their direction. This man’s attention is not something you would wish to invite upon yourself. Like the couple doing the begging, he hides in plain sight, seems to belong here, to be just another face in the crowd. Move along, there’s nothing to see. Look closely, though, and your instinct – that primitive part of the brain which deals with fear and flight and threat and danger – will tell you he has a facility for inflicting pain, a calm, unhurried familiarity with violence.
I wonder what the girl is doing with someone like him. Maybe, like the beggar girl, she’s looking for protection, and is young enough to believe that if she loves him he’s bound to love her back and use his strength to watch over her, for ever and ever. She doesn’t understand there’s more chance of hell freezing over than this man deciding to love her. Love isn’t in his vocabulary. He’s all about control. She doesn’t know yet that bad things can happen to good people, and that she’s more in common with the young beggar girl than she’d ever dare to dream. Watching her as she lays her head – again – on the man’s chest, I think it’s possible she’s going to find out all too soon.
From where I sit I watch the lad sidle up to them and begin his patter, ’Scuse me, fella – He never gets further than that. The man doesn’t even look at him, and whatever it is that he snarls, as he flicks the ash from his cigarette and stares into the distance, it’s something I’m too far away to hear. But I see the lad and his girl both jump in shock at the same moment, then quickly turn on their heels and walk away. And then, as they leave, the lad looks back over his shoulder and spits a reply. He still has enough pride for answering back to matter, enough pride not to walk away with the slap of an insult unreturned. This is the moment the man’s been waiting for, the opportunity for a violent altercation to brighten up the day, something other than the boredom of waiting and inaction, something that isn’t the girl pawing at him and murmuring she loves him. This is what he lives for. In one move he flicks away the cigarette, squares his shoulders, and is striding toward the lad who has broken his cardinal rule, drawn attention to himself when he should have kept on walking.
It’s the girl with the puppy-fat who saves him from whatever her man has planned. She’s so quick to move I know she must have seen this play out before. Even as her man strides forward, she’s round between them, leaning her head into the man’s chest just where his heart should be, blocking his path, calling over her shoulder to the lad and the girl, telling them to go. Go quickly. Go now. They don’t run, they don’t do anything that draws attention, they just melt away, gliding through the crowds, fading into the background and staying on the move, the girl holding tight to the lad’s arm and never letting go. The man watches them as they leave, daring them to turn round and challenge him again. There’s no emotion in him. None at all. Just that readiness for violence. Once they’re out of sight, he leans back against the railing, takes another cigarette from the pack, lights it, and stares at nothing in particular. It’s impossible to tell what’s going on behind his dark, empty eyes, but I’m sure it’s nothing good. I wonder if the girl is going to pay, later, for getting in his way.
And then there’s another girl with long straggly hair and bad teeth, a wire-thin ghost of a girl, standing at the end of our table, her breathless patter washing over us like water. Love your coat, mister, do you mind if I ask a question? Thanks, I’m on the streets, won’t lie, that’s how it is, but I’m on my own and it can be scary, and I’m trying to get fifteen quid together for a bed in a hostel. If you’ve any change that you can spare, I’d be very grateful, I do love your coat where you going to?
The big fella sitting next to me reaches into his pocket and parts with a handful of change, tells her he’s back off to the Lakes. Is it nice there? she asks. He tells her it is. She says she reckons anywhere is better than here, and laughs, and her laughter is a thin brittle sound with no joy in it, no joy at all. And she pockets the money he offers, and thanks him, and moves on. Staying out of trouble, not drawing attention, knowing no good can come of that at all.
At the far end of the concourse, I see another figure doing the rounds, backlit in the evening light, moving from table to table to table. The sun is low in the sky now, and the air is growing cold. I zip up my fleece, check my phone, and offer a silent prayer for all the beggars. And then I pick up my bags, walk into the maw of the terminus building, and go to get my train.
In June 2016 I went into the studio at Radio Brum and recorded love, and coats. They added a few sound effects, and it was broadcast as part of their Tall Tales series that month. You can listen to it on this link here.