Jack sat in his car. His warm car. His warm, dry car, he corrected himself. Sainsbury’s carpark was the usual assortment of badly parked vehicles, but even more so now it was near the terminal end of the Christmas shopping madness. The scene through his windscreen was of hurriedly scampering shoppers clad in the regalia of winter in Wales, collars pulled tightly against gusting, rain-laden wind, shopping bags clutched possessively to their breasts, scarves knotted, beanies pulled skin-stretchingly tight against raddled cheeks and tingling ears.
He could hear the wind slapping ferociously across the undulant car-park, whipping up lake-like puddles into leg soaking spray and the intermittent huffs and puffs of passers-by as they gasped expletively at the blessing of living in the Western part of this island of ours.
Not for the first time, he doubted his rationality for returning. London would be dry now he assured himself, but as always he doubted and sought i-Confirmation from his constant companion. He examined the screen, touched an icon and there it was: five degrees, clear sky. It didn’t say “warm duvet, warmer girlfriend, hot coffee bubbling away in the kitchen”, but he thought it. The thought reminded him regretfully: “warmer girlfriend” was now a thing of the past. Instead he was living in a parent’s house, camp bed, careful with the language, no Xbox, lights out at ten, sherry trifle world, but at least it was only until Boxing Day. Then it was back to London and the emptiness of an apartment for one.
He smiled ruefully at the turn of his thoughts and added, “Damn you, Jesus. Why not July 25th?” Then prepared himself for the fray.
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.
Many years ago, when I was about fifteen years of age, I was holidaying in a small West Wales village called Rhossili. Situated some twenty miles south-west of Swansea, on the tip of the Gower Peninsula, Rhossili bay is said to be a place of magic and fable.
A few miles inland from Rhossili, on the old road that traverses the length of Cefn Bryn from Cilibion to Reynoldston is a Neolithic monument that according to those who know these things, dates back to 2500 B.C.
The rock has been known for many centuries simply as “Arthur’s Stone” or as it is called by the locals, many of whom are small, pale and furry and pronounce everything with an excess of spittle: “Maen Ceti”.
From Maen Ceti, you can see for miles across land and sea. Indeed, it is said there once stood a famous wizard who – despite being born in the nearby village of Rhossili and so lacking in physical stature – could see the shores of Ireland on a fine day. The wizard was reputedly named “Merfyn”. This grated with him a little bit, because at the same time there was a famous wizard from Wales known as “Merlyn” or as the English – who were renowned for their inability to spell anything correctly, called him – “Merlin”.
Now Merfyn was every bit as good a wizard as Merlyn, but unlike his more famous counterpart he was not tall and elegant: he was short and stumpy. Moreover, he lacked Merlyn’s long, flowing, white beard. Instead, like most of the inbred villagers, he had thick, black tufts sticking out at seemingly random angles from his face (and indeed most of his body). And unlike Merlyn, he was not blessed with a clear, ringing voice, which echoed resonantly across the valleys all the way to Camelot itself. No, Merfyn the Wizard had a speech impediment which meant every time he used a word with an “S” in it, he would dribble all over his tufty beard and pronounce it “schhs”. So “Hello sexy” became a rather less inviting, “Hello schhsexthy”.