An Unknown Soldier
Lucy and I stepped from the train onto the platform at Victoria station . It was Christmas Eve, and we had travelled up from Southampton to see the lights and do some last minute Christmas shopping. As it was still early, we decided to find a café and grab a cup of coffee before braving the fray of festive consumerism.
As we entered the small coffee shop located in the far corner of the station, he was already shuffling from table to table, begging for loose change. His appearance was wretched. He looked to be in his late twenties, and was wearing a pair of old, beaten up, greasy looking boots. They were missing their laces, the tongues lolling about uselessly over his toes, and it was not entirely clear just how those boots were managing to stay on his feet. He wore a filthy green parka, the lining exposed by a huge L shaped tear on the back, and another smaller L shaped tear on the elbow.
At one of the tables, a young lady took pity on him and gave him a few coins to buy a coffee or sandwich, which he immediately squandered in a nearby fruit machine. He was oblivious to the nervously raised eyebrows, and silently exchanged looks of disbelief on the faces of the cafes small clientele. Having gambled and lost the money, he resumed his rounds as before, eventually arriving at our table. He smelled strongly, I wasn’t sure of what exactly, but can only guess that a combination of stale urine, stale booze, faeces and raw sewage might smell similar. Whatever it may have been, that foul stench remained in our nostrils for quite some time after he had left. “Spare change?” he mumbled. I told him that we had no change, but he could have a cigarette if liked. At the time I kidded myself that I was being charitable, but I didn’t really believe it, and knew in reality that the sooner he was given something, the sooner he might leave. I held my lighter up for him to get a light, As he cupped the flame, drawing deeply on the cigarette to get it alight, I noticed how his puffy hands, grey with grime and god only knows what, trembled uncontrollably.
We saw him again as we left the coffee shop to head into the city. He was standing outside one of the bars in the station, brandishing a can of cheap lager. Despite the cold, the green parka was gone and he was now attired in just a red v-neck sweater with no obvious undershirt. In contrast to his filthy jeans, the sweater looked almost new, and I remember wondering at the time, where exactly he might have got it from, and where he might have left the parka.
Although only an hour or so since we had seen him last, he was clearly already very drunk, and was shouting incoherently at the crowd of customers gathered around the busy bar. He seemed to be fighting a constant battle with gravity in order to remain upstanding. Travellers heading for their trains in one direction, or the stations exit in the other, made sure to give him a wide berth, all the while looking straight ahead as if he were not there. I must admit, we did the same, not wishing for him to recognise us from our earlier encounter.
With our sightseeing and shopping completed, footsore and laden with presents, we returned to Victoria in order to catch the four o’clock train back to Southampton. We entered the station through one of the side gates, which involved walking through a passage of about forty feet in length. Unforgiving fluorescent lighting illuminated every stark nook and cranny. The busy corridor was filled with a constant throng of Christmas shoppers and commuters, moving in both directions as they arrived or left the station.
About half way along the passage, he was flat on his back, in a state of utter oblivion. His arms and legs were lying in an awkward position, as though he had fallen from a great height. He could have been dead, nobody checked, people just stepped over and around him, holding their bags of shopping close, as if somehow the depraved sight before them might taint their own cosy Christmas celebrations. He had soiled his trousers, and urine ran away from his body in a thin stream, collecting in little pools on the lower parts of the cold concrete floor. I’m not really sure what I could have done for him, but it didn’t feel right to leave him there in that condition. Despite this, I’m ashamed to say, that like everyone else, I carried on walking.