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.
It wasn’t a particularly chilly day: the winter winds had given way to gusts of not quite so cold, new growth scented air. Whitechapel was feeling alive again: the ever present traffic intermittently roared then ground to a halt in a continuous loop of acceleration and frustration and across the road from John’s station, the bell foundry clanked and clanged with spurious activity, a thumbed nose at the piles of rubbish that still garlanded Whitechapel Road.
“Look… we’re working,” the noise seemed to say. It was an insistent, defiant, capitalist cacophony facing down the Unions that had shredded the chances of Labour winning another term of office. Or so the newspapers would have us believe.
All I could say was, “Hello mate, mind if I sit down?”
I must have looked a sight to John: long, flowing hair, a pair of artfully ripped Levis, white boots and an Afghan coat, all the while clutching my ever-present flask of coffee. Normally I drank my coffee in what was then known as St Mary’s Park, next to the bell foundry: a triangle of green which was the bombed out site of a 14th Century Chapel, jammed between Alder Street, White Church Lane and Whitechapel High Street. Another John rests there: Sir John Cass, a Tory philanthropist merchant who lived on the cusp of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sir John was a far cry from my John, but here they were facing each other: one quite dead and the other… well not far off, if the truth be told.
“Please yersel’” John nodded in my direction, then with the same gaze he swept an empty space on the floor next to him. He never messed about, did John, “You got any change? Jus’ fer a cup o’ coffee.” He said the latter sentence in descending notes, extending the word “coffee” into an almost salacious term of desire.
I didn’t. I was a poor student and the fiver carefully folded into the small pocket of my jeans would have to suffice until next week when my grant came in. I did, however, have a flask of coffee, with more than a single cup. I offered it and he took the flask gently in his big, angular hands.
I must admit, his hands frightened me. I had never seen such massive fists and immediately I doubted the wisdom of my venture, my mind racing ahead to possible violence as John’s mind careered out of his normal passivity at the temerity of this middle class boy offering a moment of friendship.
He unscrewed the top and poured a small trickle of the brown, sweet liquid that passed for coffee in the seventies into the plastic top. Then he stopped and looked up at me with those watery eyes.
“What’s yer name?”
“Martyn,” I nearly added, “with a Y not an I”, but stopped myself. It was too much information for this conversation.
“Look, Martyn. This is very kind of you. Sharing your coffee an’ all, but I’ll be honest wiv ya. I need a proper drink.” That was as honest as John got. “I can’t drink this stuff. So, if you have any coins in that nice coat of yours, it will help me survive another day.”
“What’s your name?” I asked tentatively.
“John Mc…” I lost the rest in the noise of the traffic and didn’t dare ask again.
“John.” I said slowly. “I’m absolutely skint. I don’t get my grant until next week. Until then I have my bus pass and the slop they feed me at the Angel.”
He turned to face me, each move a study in arthritic pain. “The Angel?”
I could smell acetone on his breath as he leaned towards me. “What Angel would that be?”
“The Flying Angel in East Ham; it’s where I live” I replied, while attempting to simultaneously breath through my mouth.
“You in the Merchant?” he looked genuinely surprised and one eyebrow popped comically out of line with the other.
“No, it’s a student hall of residence these days.” I admitted. “It hasn’t been a seaman’s hostel for years and it would have been knocked down for flats if the GLC hadn’t rescued it.”
“I lived there.” He said almost wistfully, “They kicked me out fer fighting. Two-eight-seven Victoria Dock Road, E16. I remember that. Now I got to live with the Salvationists. They don’t allow drink. Smell yer breath when you come in. If they detect a drop, yer out on yer ‘arris.”
I wondered at his logic. If he turned up drunk, then he was sleeping rough. He knew this for fact, but still he hoped for enough change to feed his demon.
“That’s why I have to get a drink in early. I can sleep it off then before they close the doors. They think they know, but they don’t. Old John has their number.” He winked and for the first time a smile crossed his whiskered face. “So you have your coffee and I’ll get on wi’ me work.”
He handed me the cup and small tremor ran down his arm, flicking a few drops of the hot liquid on his hand. He didn’t even flinch.
I drank the too hot coffee faster than I normally dared and rose to my feet. “Nice to meet you, John”
“You too, son,” he replied. “Now clear off.”
I spent much of the day ignoring my lecturers and pondering on my encounter. I had an idea John was in his early sixties, although it was difficult to tell. That would mean he was of working age more than forty years previously, possibly earlier, which put him squarely in the middle of the second war at the height of his working life. This was more than an inquisitive mind could take and I decided to make another visit to John the following day, although I was cautious enough to engage the interest of one of my mates.
The next day, John was at his station, hand held out, his coat clutched tightly against the rain that had invaded the East End: an unwelcome and unseasonal guest interrupting the daily life of the city. This time I was prepared and had laced the coffee with a small amount of Jack Daniels from the bottle my mother had given me for my birthday. I didn’t really like the stuff, so it was no loss.
“You again?” he said gruffly. “Whose yer mate?”
Steve stood behind me, a tall, dark presence.
“John, this is Steve.” I replied with nod in Steve’s direction. Then pulling the flask out: “I’ve brought you something.”
“I can’t drink coffee.” John started.
“Not even with whisky in it?”
“Well that’s different,” he took the flask I offered him and shakily opened the top, sniffing the contents.
“Not exactly drowning in it,” he said as he took a swig directly from the flask. “Blimey, that’s hot.”
He wiped his mouth and took another swig. Then another and another, downing the entire contents of the flask in what couldn’t have been more than a minute.
“That hit the spot.” He said as he handed me the flask. “I expect you want to talk now. You people always want to talk.”
We talked. I gently probed him about his career in the merchant navy. He had been on the Atlantic convoys in his early twenties, torpedoed twice and rescued by the Royal Navy who bravely put themselves between the U-Boats and the vital cargo. He always went back, it was all he knew. I managed about quarter of an hour before being told to clear off that second day. It was to be the longest conversation John and I ever had.
As spring slid into summer his health perversely deteriorated. I contemplated calling social services, but Nina, a social worker who helped out in the refectory said they were overwhelmed with cases like John’s and he wouldn’t thank me for it.
By June we had talked of his family: he had two sons, neither of whom bothered with him after his wife threw him out. He said he had called at one of their houses one night before Christmas and watched as his grandchildren ran excitedly home from school for the last time before the winter break. Knocking the door was on his mind, but his determination broke when he caught sight of himself in a shop window. So he trudged back from Waltham Forest to Whitechapel, only to find the doors to Booth House closed. Sir John and Honest John were bed-mates for that night. He never visited them again.
As college closed and the long summer of seventy-nine began, I took the time to bid farewell to my drinking buddy. He just grunted and swigged the flask for what turned out to be the last time.
It was a poor summer for me. My girlfriend and I split up, this time terminally, my father refused to give me house room, preferring that I stay in a bedsit in Cathays, for which he paid intermittently, I got busted for possession… of a roach in my fireplace and spent the night in a police cell, my leather biker jacket was stolen and my best guitar was pawned to pay for a month’s rent when my father didn’t follow through on his commitment in sufficiently timely fashion.
Consequently, I was happy to board the coach for Victoria in early September to return for my final year. London was wet that autumn and the leaves remained vividly green late into the month. Despite this dash of colour in the City, London wasn’t a happy place. Racial tensions were already starting to rise and parts of London had become no-go areas for white, middle class boys, even those with hippy hair and a liberal conscience.
On my first day back, I visited John’s station. He wasn’t there and I confess; I wasn’t surprised. His deterioration in the early summer had convinced me he wasn’t long for the earth, so finding his spot vacant was expected. Still, I stood there for a moment and thought about our conversations: his ill-remembered stories of bombings and violence, hardship and sacrifice. The rejection of his family and the long, slow humiliation of alcoholism, which had consumed so much of what was actually him that very little was left by time I met him. The only vivid memories he had were two addresses: the Flying Angel and his son’s place in Waltham Forest. He must have repeated both a dozen times, almost as if he were coaching me.
I said goodbye, and turned to walk away. I felt sad, for sure, but happy that I’d met him. I worried that my feeding of his habit had somehow contributed to his eventual demise, but I knew in my heart that the few sips of JD I’d given him barely scratched the surface of his health. The straw that broke the camel’s back? Maybe, but more likely the pints of methylated spirits laced wine would have finished him sooner or later.
As I turned, I nearly ran into a short figure dressed in the familiar black and maroon of the Salvationists.
“Sorry, I ah…” I started.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “Are you Martyn by any chance; John’s friend?”
“Yes, I am.” I answered hesitantly. “Is he okay?”
“He passed on a few weeks ago, I’m afraid,” he bowed his head slightly as he said this. “It was very quick. Ahhh… my name is Captain William Allan, I work at Booth House. He asked me to give you this…”
He handed me a small manila envelope containing something hard. It felt like a cross.
“He said you’d know what to do with it.”
I opened the envelope and inside was the familiar shape of the George Cross.
“Yes, I know what to do with it,” I confirmed. “Thank you. Do I need to sign anything?”
“No, we’re light on formalities in these cases,” Captain Allan said. He gazed at the cross and a slow dawning of comprehension crossed his face. “Dear Lord.”
I missed that day at college as I made my way to the Waltham Forest address John remembered so well. The house was empty when I got there, so I waited. It was the children and their mother who returned first about four-thirty and it wasn’t until six that John junior, as I had christened him, pulled up in his newish Ford Cortina. As he pulled a black plastic briefcase from the back of the car, I approached and called out, “Excuse me…”
He turned and faced me, a surprised expression on his face. He wasn’t a big man like his father, although he had the same pale blue, watery eyes and ginger hair.
“I haven’t got any money…” he gasped, clutching the briefcase to his chest like a breastplate.
“Sorry,” I said, “I’m not…” I stopped and looked at him, every inch the rep for whatever pharmaceutical company employed him: John’s son. I felt the medal in my pocket. “I knew John, your father, and I thought you ought to know he passed away a little while ago.”
“Oh,” he replied, plainly relieved I wasn’t going to prise open his wallet, “I’m sorry.”
It was awkward and just for a moment I was tempted to walk away, duty unfulfilled. Instead, I took a step forward and handed him the envelope. “He was a hero, was your Dad. You ought to know that.”
He looked at the George Cross blankly. “I never knew…”
“You never asked.” I replied, and left him standing there clutching his dinner party conversation piece.
“I…” he called after me, but I kept walking. I wasn’t in the mood for excuses.

© 2010 Martyn Richard Winters – all rights reserved.

4 Thoughts.

  1. What a wonderful story and yet so sad. I sit here crying for this brave lost soul. I’m so glad you took the time to get to know him so that you could teach his son a lesson. Bless you.

  2. There are so many stories in our lives, so many moments we keep for ever but often don’t tell anyone. I am so glad you made me live this experience of yours, feel the emotions, an almost-witness to those conversations, places and smells. Thank you for making my day.

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