Short story about homelessness: The Passage of Time

March 4, 2021

Collage created by Finn Souter with images by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

Ananya Badithe imagines a life, past and future, for a man and his mattress

I head home every day from Finchley Road. I get off at the 02 bus stop and walk through the subway to cross the road.

One particularly cold day, in my usual journey mode, music in my ears, head in the clouds, I stumbled over the corner of a thick mattress poking out across my path. Without much thought, I regained my footing and continued on my way.

It wasn’t until the next day when I saw that the mattress had sheets on it, and was littered with food, papers and a broken clock, that I started to feel uneasy. This feeling continued, as I became hyperaware of the mattress and the space it inhabited.

Sometimes I could see a person sleeping on it, sometimes I couldn’t and it was empty. I could never see the person’s face fully. I’m pretty sure they were male but how they came to be there was impossible to know.

It came into my mind a few times to give the guy something, like to eat or drink. But I didn’t; I could see a lot of stuff already there. What could I contribute to this person’s life that I knew nothing about?

Day by day, the man’s space seemed to gain more life, more identity. An old crate was now serving as a table covered in cartons, wrappers and old books.

Time passed and I rarely saw the man on the mattress. I knew he must go somewhere every day at the time I passed or perhaps for the whole day. I wondered where he went and what he did. Did he have a secret identity? Did he go to work and conceal that he was sleeping rough? But that felt quite unrealistic.

We are all prey to our ignorance and quickly choose to forget

I could kind of imagine how he might feel. What it’s like to hide yourself? But I knew I could never truly understand it, with these thoughts and feelings fading as I reached the end of the underpass.

We are all prey to our ignorance and quickly choose to forget, as Carol Ann Duffy poet and playwright put it so perfectly. “The reader’s eyeballs prick with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers” in her poem War Photographer.

I tried to empathise with this man dwelling in the damp, bleak subway. How had it come to this? It made me appreciate how strong and resilient humans can be.

There were days when I would pass wearing thick layers and thermals yet still shivering. How did he feel on those days?

On the days when I would get annoyed at how rainy it was and how drenched I got. How would that be to never get completely dry?

I barely feel at home somedays even with a roof over my head. I wondered how he felt having so little to protect him.

This guy’s home was something I saw every day over months, a year maybe. Sometimes I felt it was too painful and too private to even look. But I did. I watched it grow. At one point, his home had sprawled out and occupied half the walking space.

I would often want to look at the different things he had, trying to piece together his story. It never felt easy to look for long; afraid that other passers-by would think I was somehow judging. I did wonder about the safety of this guy’s situation. How long can someone survive before these harsh conditions kill them?

This gradual growth; mattress to home had disappeared in a snap

One day, I got off the bus, same as usual, about to walk through the underpass, expecting to see the same makings of a home. Maybe a little bigger, maybe with a little more character.

It was gone.
Empty space.
The hollow body of a tunnel.

This gradual growth from mattress to home had disappeared in a snap. It takes so little to break something.

Ignorance is bliss they say. It sure is, but not for the ones we overlook. A single unfelt judgement causing the abrupt disruption of a whole damn life.

There is no way of telling if it was an unhappy ending for the man. He may have been given a better place to live. He may be in a better state. Something that felt like an end, for me, may simply be a new beginning, for him.

There is no way of knowing. In my book, that was it. He was there. Then he was gone!
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Rising homelessness is yet another symptom of the coronavirus pandemic, making us painfully aware of this issue.

We are so reluctant to take that extra step; we take our comfort for granted.

Please go beyond giving away a few leftovers on your way home or the loose change from your pockets.

You could volunteer at your local soup kitchen or donate to a food bank. You can find organisations here that tackle homelessness in London and rely on volunteers.

If you or someone you know is facing homelessness contact Depaul UK. It’s one of the UK’s largest youth homelessness charities. It provides emergency accommodation, coaching and activity programmes to manage mental health and educational training.

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