The conversation piece

John sat on his square of cloth and newspaper outside the Whitechapel Art Gallery. You could find him there most days, with his big, square shoulders, knobbly nose and scruffy growth of ginger beard. I remember his coat more than anything. Brown herringbone with wide lapels; two of the four buttons missing and the other two held on with electrical wire forced through the eyes and fastened with a tail of knots that disappeared into the folds of his coat. What you could see of his eyes beneath his heavy forehead and thick, spikey eyebrows, were pale blue and as watery as his career in the merchant navy.
He sat there, hunched over his possessions in a collection of worn plastic carryalls and a naval kit bag that may have seen better days, you couldn’t tell any more. His hand extended as each passer-by passed by, mumbled words of gratitude at the chink of a coin, muttered invective at those who chose to just pass by.
I was making my way to college from East Ham, where I was living in those days, in a place called the Flying Angel – a former seaman’s mission, which had been converted into a student hall of residence. I use “converted” in the loosest possible sense, because it was little more than a lick of government issue paint and a few imported Formica topped tables type of conversion. The beds were of the same prison-type issue: metal sprung torture devices barely covered by pencil thin mattresses, adorning tiny rooms with doors that clanged shut. The Angel was not built for permanent residence; especially for John.
He was resident in his spot in Whitechapel almost every day, but I first spoke to him one spring morning right at the beginning of term. To this day I’m not sure why, but it was probably a sense of guilt, borne of a naturally charitable nature.
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