Ronald sits in the dark and watches the river. Tonight, the water looks grey and sluggish. His shoulders heave and he sighs deeply. He’s standing out on the office balcony trying very hard not to cry. The security guard wanders out to join him on the balcony. He has a torch in his hand.
’What are you doing out here at this time of night?’
Ronald doesn’t answer, just shrugs and goes back to his desk to fill a cardboard box with pens, pencils, a calculator, an old smart phone, a pair of Prada sunglasses and a diary. He picks up some credit cards carelessly slung in a drawer.
He walks out of the office, down the elevator and through the revolving doors of the building that has been his life for the last 11 years. He looks up at the night sky, heaves another sigh and thinks the high-rise banking structures all around him, seem to be mocking him. This night is to be the start of Ronald’s journey into homelessness.
For a while Ronald told friends from his old world that he was now based around Russell Square. What he didn’t tell them was that home now consisted of a sleeping bag and his rucksack left over from his corporate days when all he needed to carry around was his lap-top. Ronald lives around Russell Square now with some like minded individuals who blend in with the stream of students and tourists. He likes to watch them sitting on the grass chatting, playing football or practising their Tai Chi moves. Sometimes he sits outside the station at Russell Square and begs. He was advised to do this by his new friend the Rastafarian gardener who is kind enough to share his lunchtime spliff with him. Who said there was no life after the bank crashed? He has told his new friend about how the banking world came crashing down and Ronald became one of the early casualties. Instant redundancy from the bank, possessions packed into a small cardboard box and then an escort from the building. He feels, if anybody had ever bothered to ask him, as if he has suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was such a high-flyer, head-hunted from university, straight into the corporate mega-paced banking world. He had only ever known success.
In the first few weeks of redundancy he dossed around in his pent-house flat not really knowing what to do with himself. That decision was made for him. His landlord evicted him after he failed to pay the rent for the very first time. No amount of chat about there being ‘something in the offing, soon be sorted out’ worked. Two heavies arrived with the landlord and he was given 30 minutes to pack and leave. The leased car was next to go, collected by the bailiffs, even though he was living in it. He still remembers his painful ejection from it. Ronald has now had time to reflect on the fact that he never really owned anything. It was all credit, credit, credit.
After being ejected from the car he walked around a bit and eventually found himself in Russell Square. It seemed green and tranquil. The tall trees provided a canopy that protected you from both the sun and the rain. He liked to sit and watch the fountain playing. Children ran in and out of the spray and he found it all strangely peaceful.
Ronald did worry about money. A while ago all he had ever needed were cards. He couldn’t believe he’d never saved anything, and so he had to ‘sign on’ and he felt his humiliation was complete. Having a place to sleep was not a huge worry. He would just curl up on benches or in doorways, or sometimes just lay down on the grass. But eating, now that was a different matter. He was always hungry. A man of six feet two weighing 14 stone needed to be fed. So gradually he learnt how to be ‘homeless’. Look in bins, hang around the coffee houses and supermarkets for when they threw out the food that had reached its ‘sell by’ date. The amount of waste was astounding. Every night cakes, sandwiches, cookies, wraps and baguettes were hurled into the bins.
‘Manna from heaven’ to the hungry.
Washing himself was an ‘art’ form. He learned that you could wash your face and hands in any public toilets. You could wash your feet if no one was around. That was about it. He knew he stank. He was often tempted to strip off and run naked into the fountain in Russell Square but he didn’t dare.
He had been living like this for about two months when one night just sitting in the square, he heard a voice say hesitantly, ‘Ron…Ronald? What are you doing out here at this time of night?’ He looked up. It was Benjy, one of his old friends from university. Ronald was beyond embarrassed. God only knows how he must look. He had been so careful to hide his redundancy from all his friends. That was easy to do. He had no money for a phone now.
‘Hi Benjy. How’re you doing?’
‘Never mind me, what the hell’s happened to you? What are you doing here?’
Ronald didn’t answer. He was just too weary.
Thankfully Benjy, who had always been supremely practical, glanced around and said, ‘Come on Ron, let’s go over to the café, have a coffee and something to eat’. He was looking very closely at Ronald all the time he was speaking.
‘They won’t let me in’ said Ronald, ‘look at me for God’s sake’.
But still Ronald shambled after Benjy almost too weary to walk.
They sat down outside the café. Benjy bought two coffees and a plate of pastries.
‘Tell me’ said Benjy.
Ronald told him.
‘Christ’ was all Benjy could manage, ‘you poor, poor sod’.
Then Ronald broke down and Benjy sat and waited for it to be over, all the time sipping his coffee and still watching Ronald carefully.
‘Come on’ he said, ‘let’s get you home. Shower, shave, sleep and then some more to eat. It’s too late for you to be just hanging around at this time of night. Look at the state you’re in’.
Ronald looked at Benjy and knew that it was just possible that he was saved.