There’s something about the early mornings. People seem happier. That’s just my observation. Once they go to work it’s different, and if you’re on the streets, you become invisible, but at 5am they all say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ and it’s just really nice.
Charlie was sat on a park bench at the crossing between Midsummer Common and Jesus Green, shoulder bag in reach, a series of fake DVDs in a pile near him. None looked especially recent. He was wearing some worn worker jeans, tucked roughly into a pair of old Nike sneakers; a non-descript black tee-shirt / jacket combination dotted with stains; and a grey fisherman’s hat. Out of the sides of the hat poked some wispy and somewhat mangled hair. His beard was well-established, clearly, but not thick, and was drenched in whatever liquid he was continually drinking from a plastic carton. It looked like Sunny D, only Sunny D no longer exists.
To Charlie’s left, Midsummer Common, the host to the previous weekend’s ‘Strawberry Fair’; to his right, Jesus Green, the site of last month’s international Beer Festival. On both occasions I’d walked past Charlie and given, in a generous re-telling of the story, 3 seconds worth of thought to him.
I approached Charlie apprehensively. For all of my bluster, all of my supposed confidence, I was painfully aware of the risk of coming across as a voyeur, or a chancer, or a silly boy. And I didn’t want to be accused of interrupting someone’s peaceful day in the interests of a ‘story’. Perhaps my first question was ill-judged.
“Are you homeless?”
A startled Charlie, lost in contemplation, turned sharply to look at me, then shook his head indignantly. “No.”
Sensing my mistake, I softened my introduction. “Maybe you can help me anyway. I’ve always wondered where homeless people get their dogs from. Any idea?”
I could feel Charlie softening too. “Well,” he chomped, his lower teeth evidently missing, “I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t know.” He turned away, looking at the road ahead. I waited for him to continue. “You can take dogs into shelters. Jimmy’s and a couple of the others let you have dogs. So it’s not like you have to give them up if you get a place.”
I sensed that a level of trust had been formed. I sat down, and Charlie told me his story.
Charlie was born in Southampton. After finishing school, he completed an apprenticeship in aircraft maintenance, which he was told would lead to a life of travelling — contracts were typically 26 weeks, or even 13 weeks, and the rest of the time in the year would be yours to do what you wanted with.
“I was good at the aircraft stuff,” he started, slurping on the drink every so often, “but you know, when I came back from Iran — “
“ — Wait. Iran?”
“Yeah, Iran.” Charlie turned to look at me. His eyes lit up and lost the glaze of fatigue they’d had before. “It was a crazy time. The Shah was pro-Western, but when Khomeini came in we all had to leave. I’d been there for three weeks. Just three weeks, and I didn’t even know what had happened, and then we all had to leave the country.
“Well, and then we all went to Hamburg because it was the late ‘70s, and they’d just started working on the Airbus — “
“ — wait, wait. Germany now?” I was pretty incredulous. Here was a guy that I’d seen many times on the street, sipping and spilling a cheap plastic carton of orange fluid, sat talking to me through the light drizzle from his park bench. And he was telling me about Iran, pre-Islamic revolution. I asked him to back up a little bit and explain what it was all like.
“Honestly, food never bothered me. I’m not much of a drinker either. Iran was absolutely different then though, yeah.” He paused, as he would many times, often for a long period of time, and often at what felt like a crucial part in the story. I couldn’t decide whether he was waiting for a question, pondering a response, or simply happy with what he’d already told me. I decided to hedge my bets and prompt him.
“Did you feel threatened at all?”
“As soon as I stepped into the country you could tell that everyone was panicky. It was crazy. Yeah, I felt at risk, definitely. The whole place was on hooks — what’s the… tenterhooks.
“And then we were all kicked out. There was nothing we could do. The Ayatollah wasn’t into foreign service people, and even though I wasn’t in the military, it didn’t matter. I was English and I was in the country. We were lucky though, because we knew the airbus was being made and that we could just go over to Germany and work.
“How long were you in Germany?”
“18 years. Hamburg, 18 years.” Again the pause. Again the confused silence, and again my prompt of a question.
“What were you doing there?”
Charlie leaned back in his seat and looked at me. He’d smack his lips every so often and chew, thoughtfully, on nothing. “Same as Iran. Same as what I trained for. Fixing planes, you know. I’d do 13 week contracts and then I’d have the rest of the time to myself. The pay was enough, I never wanted for…I always liked travelling, and I’d use the money I earned to go about. I went to Thailand, Greece, all over. Even went to Russia before the fall of the wall. That was strange.” He chuckled.
“I had a girlfriend in Hamburg for a good few years. German, she was, but she couldn’t understand what I was about. She didn’t want to travel with me. We managed to make it work at the start, but in the end it finished. That was that.” A nod, a shake of the head, a chug of the juice.
“Getting to work each day was a real journey. I had to get three things: the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn, and a boat.”
“Fuck!” I said. “How long did that take?”
Charlie laughed again and re-adjusted himself. “It was quick actually. German efficiency,” he said, winking. Then he looked back into the distance.
“Hamburg had everything. It was a shame…a shame to go. There were beer machines in the hangars. There was music, people, atmosphere. Great place.”
“So you stayed there 18 years? You must’ve been in your late ‘30s. Why’d you leave?”
“Stupid reason. I failed my medical and couldn’t carry on. It’s silly because I wasn’t flying the planes, I was fixing them. And I didn’t work for the military. But anyway, because of my heart, I failed the medical and I had to come back. What can you do?” he asked, resignedly.
“It was probably ’98 that I came to Cambridge. I stayed with some friends in Soham, but they broke up, and I left. The business I was working at failed, rent was too high…”
I tried to keep his momentum going. “And then you hit some tough times?” But Charlie was speaking in a disjointed way, not seeming to hear me. “It’s not easy to live in Cambridge…the streets are a great community though. Everyone looks after everyone…You can’t stay in the centre, ‘cause you get pissed on and people are beat up all time or whatever…
“I used to love living on the Mill Pond, next to the river with the grass and the cows and stuff. There’s something about the early mornings. People seem happier. That’s just my observation. Once they go to work it’s different, and if you’re on the streets, you become invisible, but at 5am they all say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ and it’s just really nice. I don’t know what it is.”
“Does it hurt you if people don’t say that stuff? If you feel invisible?”
“Nah, don’t bother me. Cambridge is a lovely place, and you always meet lovely people. Apart from the odd exception, it’s a class place, and people are class to you.”
I found myself periodically surprised by his broken eloquence. Charlie’s was a mind that was, is, will be sharp, but one evidently dulled by fading interest from the world around him. It’s not helped by a deteriorating physical condition — at one point Charlie took off his fisherman’s hat and showed me his bare scalp, smattered with open cuts — but it’s hard to shake the feeling that his experience is the result of our rampant focus on the individual. Charlie may say that he doesn’t mind being invisible, but it’s clear that his eyes came alive when he was reeling off a story, or gesticulating about the extent of the danger in Iran, or impressing on me the benefits of waking up in the fresh air. It’s not right to deny somebody those opportunities.
“Cambridge is an interesting place,” Charlie continued. “Take away the university and it’s not a wealthy city. Did you know that lots of people from the outskirts of the city are barred from entering? They have 6 month, 1 year bans, or whatever, for minor offences. And it don’t do nothing. It just creates resentment. That’s no good, you know.” Given that, though, Charlie seemed upbeat. “There’s a real community of people on the streets. It’s so strong that some people would rather leave a flat and stay outside. I’m happy here.”
I asked him also if he was planning on travelling any more. “Not with this heart, no,” he chuckled. “This is the last stop for me.”