by Alex Townley
HIS name was Paul, or at least, I guess he always answered to Paul, so that’s what he was called by people around here.
No-one remembers his arriving. It was like that game with the tray of objects when you have to guess what’s disappeared and even though it’s all really familiar it’s dead hard.
That was the High Street; Peacocks, Wilkinsons, Poundland, the phone shop, and one summer Paul.
We used to get a bus into town early, before the shops had opened, and then it was a short walk out again to get to college, and sometimes a sneaky morning doughnut from Greggs on the way. That was how I met Paul. I think he’d been there all summer, but we’d just started back after the break.
He was sitting in the doorway to the florists. It had one of those old-fashioned doors that’s set back into the front window display with a little tiled floor all to itself. Usually it was a danger zone for Saturday night drunks looking for somewhere to piss or throw up, but that morning it had Paul, sitting on a foil matt, bike off to one side in the bike rack, although I didn’t know it then.
My mate dared me to say hello to him, the homeless guy sitting where the drunks vomit. He had this scraggly beard and thick eyebrows and I laughed, but I did it, and he said hello back, which made all of us laugh. That was college, laughing at nothing, laughing all the time. I don’t know if he was offended.
I thought I wanted to be a journalist back then, and I was taking classes in shorthand, as well as something in great literature, Austen and Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy. I got this slot doing work experience at the local paper. They had me going out on the High Street interviewing people for these pieces they called voxpops. You got a hot topic in the news, local or national; should we leave the EU? Should they cut local maternity services? Should butchers be serving halal meat? And they would send whoever was the lowest of the low out to gather polarised opinions from members of the public.
I’d forgotten about Paul to be honest. He didn’t make much of an impression on me that first time, but the florist had taken a shine to him, glad of him getting in the way of the nightly effluence deposit on her doorstep. She’d started giving him a floral button hole every morning and a cup of tea in one of her dainty china cups.
So I’m out on the High Street, trying to make eye contact with people who don’t want to make eye contact with me, and I spotted him sitting on a bench on his foil matt, with his button hole, and his teacup and saucer.
He didn’t make eye contact either, but he was more polite than most when I walked over to him, and he gave me a really good answer to my question, lowering business rates to attract small businesses to the empty shop fronts.
I asked him if I could take his photo, and he said if I must.
That was how it started.
I can’t remember if I asked him for his name or he volunteered it, but I remember it was just Paul, no surname, which was against the paper’s policy, so I thought he’d get cut from the final piece.
The editor liked it though, kept him in, and we had three phone calls about the piece, two saying how nice it was to hear from diverse corners of society, and one saying we shouldn’t encourage him. The editor leaned toward the first two. He told me to try again the next week, see what Paul said.
After that I found out from the florist that people started saying hello to Paul as they went past. They’d seen him in the paper, had something to call him, they knew he wasn’t mental I guess.
I included him in a few voxpops, and he always had something interesting to say, something informed.
The florist started experimenting on him, using him as an advert for her services, so he’d be wearing these different elaborate floral button holes every day. Then the barber on the high street offered him a haircut, trimmed his beard while he sat outside in the sunshine on his foil mat, and people started talking to him more and more.
I wrote an article on the way he was a living advertising billboard for local businesses and he started getting free cakes and sandwiches from one of the High Street cafes, so his bench became a kind of temple altar surrounded by these offerings and people sitting down next to him for a chat.
I started reading King Lear for my literature course, and we read up on the background of Shakespeare’s fools.
I found this one book that said “Although considered something of a social outcast, Shakespeare’s fools were frequently given freedom to comment on society and the actions of their social betters, so some demonstrate a subversive potential, or a radically different worldview than those held by the majority of a play’s characters. They could be thought of as disrupting the traditional order of society.”
Paul was a Shakespearean fool and he didn’t even know it, or they didn’t know it, everyone else.
My editor had turned me into the Paul correspondent by then. The Paul specialist on the paper, and he wanted more. He wanted background on Paul, and I was growing tired of journalism, the way I was prodding and poking into people’s lives, but I was happy to try and get, if not confident he’d actually give it.
I bought him a coffee from the posh place at the end of the High Street. He’d graduated above Greggs level by then, although he still had his morning tea with the florist.
We chatted for a while. He was shy, Paul, he never volunteered anything, but he was unfalteringly polite, and he answered most questions put to him. It made me feel like I was intruding on his personal bubble, like he deserved more of my respect.
I wanted to ask him how he came to be living in a florist’s doorway, but I didn’t know how to put it to him. I felt like he was so polite, I needed to be polite with him. In the end I asked him where he was from, and he told me here and there, he cycled he said and gestured to his bike chained up in the bike stand. He’d cycled to Wales and back a few times, he liked to travel. He smiled when he talked about the bike, about the freedom of the open road. I nearly felt jealous of him.
I asked him what he thought of his new celebrity status, and he said he wasn’t sure about all the attention, it wasn’t really him, but people had been very kind, he’d like to say thank you to them.
I should have seen then that it was a goodbye, but I didn’t really know him well enough.
He was gone the following week when I went out to do my voxpops. His bike was gone too. The florist said she thought he’d gone to Oxford. You don’t think of homeless people moving, but I guess that was his way. And I thought that was the end of it. I even wrote a story about him leaving. We had a lot of letters in response to that one. People who’d wanted to thank him for advice given, or small acts of kindness he’d done for them, helped to carry their shopping, shared his sandwiches, picked them up after a nasty trip and waited while a relative came. There was even one from a man whose wife had died the year before, who said he just used to sit with Paul, not talking, but somehow helping him through it all the same. Paul it turned out, belonged to everyone.
I wish I could tell him some of that. It went up on the paper’s website, as did a small piece when people started writing graffiti on his bench, little things he’d said that they’d liked, but I doubt he has the internet where he is, I just hope they’re treating him well. I hope they see him as a person like we did.
Sometimes though, I wonder whether that was what made him move on, whether the beard and the clothes and the sleeping in doorways were all part of a disguise and the fact that we managed to see through it, was too much for him to take.
© Alex Townley 2016