The Antique Dealer and The Beggar Boy
Simon slept, curled up on the couch with his head resting lightly on Ezra’s lap. He looked as peaceful as a child. In many ways he was a child. Not in years or intelligence, but because he had needs that were linked to the child part of his psyche. Residual needs that had not been met in childhood, so they were still there lurking within the adult persona, merging and evolving into behaviour patterns that could often be damaging to the man. Ezra smiled, lightly tracing his finger along the faint milky moustache that still adorned Simon’s upper lip from drinking the hot chocolate. They had spent the evening quietly together, playing chess and watching television.
His thoughts turned unbidden to Monday morning, dwelling on the possibilities that it contained and thinking about...he shut the emotion down, forcing a sudden rise of tears to stay where they were, behind his eyes. To shed them would be to give credence to his fear, to give it power and he would not do that. Everything, he stated firmly to himself, was going to be just fine. He would accept no less. He frogmarched his thoughts to different territory…back to the first time he’d set eyes on Simon.
Winter in London: beneath the pomp and circumstance it was dirty, squalid, much the same as it was in summer really, only colder. Ezra made the trip once, sometimes twice a month on business. He hated it and couldn’t wait to get away from the traffic, the noise, the pollution and the crowds. It hadn’t always been like that. Once upon a time Ezra had been in love with the Capital. He had a successful business in Camden Passage, granted it was not the top antiques sector of the Capital, but respected enough for him. For six, almost seven years he had lived the life that people in a busy city live and he had enjoyed it, or thought he had. Then, one wet November day he suddenly realised that the famous sights of London no longer charmed him. The galleries and museums had lost the power to entrance him, and even the exalted British Library had become simply a place for research purposes instead of pleasure. He was a man who had lost faith in city life. It was time to leave. He brought in a manager for the business and left the stifling atmosphere of London behind him with a sigh of relief.
He opened up another shop, a hobby shop, as his father called it, in a quiet, charmingly dilapidated Victorian seaside town in the North. It was closer to his roots. Sometimes a man needed to get back to his roots. It suited him, but still from time to time he tackled the city. He had to check over the business, do business and attend antique and book fairs, meet clients. Such was his life, such was he: a successful dealer in bygone articles, a self-made man. The archetypal working class boy made good.
Beggars were commonplace in London, as they are in most cities, but especially London. Tales of exciting opportunities, which of course were largely legend, drew them there…the wannabe’s for the most part stayed nobodies. To survive London one had to be strong, hard, determined…and partially inhuman. It was not for the weak and the fragile and yet it drew them like moths to the proverbial flame and destroyed them the same way.
Like most people who lay claim to basic feelings of pity and charity, Ezra dropped the odd coin into the beggar’s blankets, exchanged the odd word, moved on and forgot about them. Some of the faces became familiar and he tended to give them more, a false sense of trust and distant friendship arising from this familiarity. Some of the faces changed from month to month. Some were old, some young, and some hostile, others vacant. Some liked to exchange brief conversation with their benefactors, it helped them believe they still existed in the real world.
Simon was a new face. He was sitting on the cold ground outside Kings Cross with a grubby blue blanket draped across his lap. He was there one frosty morning when Ezra, who never drove to London, got off the early train. Dropping a few coins onto the blanket Ezra made to move on, but for some reason hesitated and looked more closely at the figure, which was shaking and shivering with cold, a harsh cough wracking its body. He looked appallingly young. Ezra almost asked how old he was, but caught himself. He knew that had the waif been younger than sixteen the police would have picked him up in one of their regular trawls for underage runaways.
There were no etiquette courses on how to strike up an appropriate conversation with a homeless person who had taken up begging as a living, so Ezra stuck to the crass, but kindly meant. He asked the figure if it was alright, which it very obviously wasn’t. It played the game and nodded. He asked if he could get it something, a hot drink? The figure had looked up at him eagerly from blue-green eyes framed with dense brown lashes. It asked for hot chocolate in a surprisingly cultured voice, pointing a shaky hand at a machine near the newsstand.
Ezra bought a cardboard cup of hot chocolate and as an afterthought also purchased a Cadbury’s chocolate flake from the newsvendor, who advised him not to bother as it only encouraged the idle, unwashed little buggers to go on begging. “ He’s probably got more money than you have, mate,” he snapped, banging Ezra’s change down on top of a pile of Financial Times. Somehow Ezra doubted it.
He squatted down to hand over the drink and chocolate, noting the feverish glow on the thin cheeks. Smiling slightly, he’d said, “I find it rather nice to stir the flake into the hot chocolate.” The figure had said nothing, gulping greedily at the hot sweet drink. Ezra was conscious of the beggar’s eyes following him as he walked towards the taxi that would take him to his hotel. He looked back as the taxi drove off and saw that the figure had unwrapped the chocolate bar and was engrossed in stirring it around the contents of the cardboard cup.
For some reason the boy came to his mind more than once over that weekend. He was there, a thought passenger, as he went about his business and small pleasures, at the theatre, in a small restaurant where he dined with an old friend, and laying awake in the hotel room with his old friend snoring gently beside him in the impersonal hotel bed.
The figure with the pretty eyes, and even the black circles beneath them could not spoil their beauty, was still there when Ezra returned to Kings Cross to catch his train home. He was shrouded in the blanket and huddled close to a wall seeking warmth as the afternoon temperature dropped. As Ezra approached the figure, it dragged itself upright, putting out a dirty hand to grab at his coat sleeve, croaking, “you’re the same as me. You like me, I could tell. Take me with you. I’m cheap. You can do whatever you want to me I won’t complain and I won’t charge much.”
Before a shocked Ezra could react, the boy had broken into tears, making babbled apologies and retracting his sordid offer. He slid back down to huddle on the ground, weeping and coughing. The man who ran the newsstand had called over and offered to call the police in order to remove the bothersome, scrounging scumbag. Declining the kind offer and abandoning all sanity, Ezra had gone to the ticket office and bought another ticket, an open return, and taken Simon, for so the figure was called, home with him.
The eyes were certainly pretty, but the body that housed them was not. It became heartbreakingly clear that Simon was not adept at life on the streets. He had not worked out how to survive it with any real ability. He didn’t know the best places to sleep or where to find regular food and places to wash. He didn’t seem to have been able to utilise the agencies that existed for people like him. He was not streetwise or clued up. He was covered with infected fleabites from the places he slept in and he was crawling with hair and body lice. He was also emaciated and on the brink of pneumonia. He would not have survived the winter without Ezra.
It wasn’t easy. Simon was not easy, but then neither was Ezra. They seemed to suit each other though, right from the start, in some ground level way. The return part of the train ticket lay unused until finally it expired. Then, one storm heavy night, a slender figure crept into bed beside Ezra, lifting his arm it had placed it carefully over itself, cuddling up against him. Ezra’s heart soared. The orchestra had been tuning up for weeks and this was its first clear note. The storm raged all night, playing a symphony that echoed their passionate lovemaking. In its wake came a calm and beautiful spring day. He and Simon were partners in the dance of life.
The coals in the grate shifted bringing Ezra’s thoughts back to the present. He glanced down at Simon, experiencing a surge of affection. As an antique dealer it was his job to spot treasure amongst rubbish. The beggar boy was the most valuable treasure he had ever found.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed eleven and Ezra got carefully to his feet, moving around the room, tidying up, making the fire safe, turning off the lamps. Then he lifted the still slumbering Simon into his arms and carried him upstairs to bed, tenderly tucking the sheets around him.
Copyright Cat/Fabian Black 2010