The first time I spot him he is crouched under a tree in the park, looking at his phone, an old Nokia, as if waiting for it to ring. A couple of days later he’s walking towards me, and I make a point of saying hello. He looks surprised but after a few days of me persisting, with nothing more than ‘hello’, he begins to nod in acknowledgement. I would put him in his late twenties, though the short, cropped black hair is already receding. The dirty jeans drag along under his heels, the permanent creases even blacker than the rest. A dark jumper comes down over the top of his waist, covering his hips. Smaller in height than me, though not too skinny, his eyes have the look of someone lost, someone used to being loved and the words ‘some mother’s son’ always come to me when I see him. Even in the height of a busy summer I see him somewhere in the park, and a ‘hello’, followed with a ‘how are you?’ is usually answered by a polite ‘ok, thank you’, in a difficult-to-place accent. His skin looks healthy without any tell-tale damage. I never see him drunk, or bothering anyone or even in the company of others, no matter the time of day. If you only see someone once, looking as he does, you might say he was on his way home after a night out, but daily, in the same clothes and around the same spots, can only put him among the numbers of our great modern shame: the homeless.
Towards the end of the summer, I add the riverbank to my route. The walk is well sheltered and is a bit more industrial, with the poured concrete walkway and continuous traffic close by, obvious contrasts with the peaceful surroundings of Tralee Town Park. The man disappears from the park during early August but pops up at times along the riverbank, where we continue our brief exchanges. I wonder if the tourists are too much for him in the park and he’s escaped to the riverbank for some peace?
The man disappears completely in late August. I don’t see him for weeks, until one October evening along the riverbank where he’s sitting on a bench, looking at his phone. There is an immediate look of recognition between us, and he smiles in response to my hello. I see him a few evenings in a row at the same spot, and on a few early-morning walks he’s there too. As the bench is close to some thick bushes, I wonder if that is where he sleeps at night. Seeing him always alone, in the same clothes, just looking straight ahead and always the old phone in his hand, makes me wonder how he ended up on the margins.
For the rest of the autumn and into the early winter, we pass each other regularly. As the weather turns he gets a black jacket that he keeps zipped up. One November morning I’m walking towards the little park by Lidl, when I see him coming out from the store’s carpark ahead of me with a bottle of cheap beer in his hand. As soon as he’s off the road and into the privacy of the park, he pops the bottle into his mouth, flicks the hand holding it and spits out the cap, which he picks up and puts in the bin. Then the bottle is back in the mouth and half drained in one gulp. All of this is done in seconds, while he keeps walking. He doesn’t look at me but walks over the bridge at speed, back to the riverbank, where I pass him a bit later, sitting on his bench.
He disappears again as the weather turns nasty for the winter. I presume, or hope that he is in the homeless shelter in town. Then one day I’m looking at shampoo in a supermarket when I get a slight tap on my shoulder and an ‘excuse me’.
I turn, and it’s him.
“Oh hello,” he says in surprise, followed by “it’s you.”
I say hello and ask how he is; as usual he says ‘ok, thank you.’
In his hand is a bottle of cheap beer and he holds it up to show me.
“Can I borrow 20 cents?” he asks.
“Of course,” I answer and dig in my pocket for change. I have a load of coins and I give him the twenty cents.
“Do you need more?” I ask.
“No, just this for this,” he says, holding the coin and the bottle up to show what he means before adding a ‘thank you’ and heading off for the tills.
As I queue I see him slide into the dark evening. No repeat of the opening of the bottle with his teeth but he does put it inside the black jacket. He looks healthy, and I hope he’s got somewhere to go, somewhere warm where no one will bother him and where his gentle soul will find peace for the night.
It’s all anyone deserves.