My favourite spot is at the end of the Magdalen Bridge, just near Sainsbury's. I rarely go anywhere else. Here I can lean against the wall in a little nook and be sheltered from the wind that funnels up the High Street in the winter months.
Across the road, Magdalen College School still stands in its privileged grounds. It's sealed off from the High Street with its fairy-tale white bridge, sculpted trees and lawns; a microcosm of divine order, at least from the outside. I can watch the boys cross the road in their formal uniforms, chattering in their posh accents, the next generations of the grandiose elite; but underneath they're just snotty-nosed little devils like any state school kid and up to as many spiteful pranks when they can.
I like to watch the people come and go; most of them are students. Quick, quick, they push and laugh, their only worry how to pass the next exam or how to get off with the most recent of their fancies. They are so rooted in their bodies, the flesh firm and solid and real. Not like me. Bits of me are loosening, detaching and falling away. I wouldn't have thought that when I was like them, strutting around in my fresher gown after some event or exam, white carnation in my buttonhole, parading through the crowds of lesser mortals, freshly shaven, my skin plump and shining from good food. No, I wouldn't have thought then that one day I'd slowly dissolve on the pavement.
The gaps are getting wider, stretching out like the holes in my socks, and the draughts blowing through my mind have obliterated any lingering vanity. Now, as I physically diminish, the trees, the lofty Oxford trees of shimmering foliage, and nesting birds fill my empty spaces with their indifferent beauty. And on a good day I even feel a sweet peacefulness. Just let me be overtaken by the air, the river, the sycamore, and I can forget this ragged little self.
The winter is relentless, though. Then the fierce dark side of nature slaps me hard with icy fingers, and freezing fog seeps into my lungs like grey asbestos. Nothing warms my brittle
bones, not even layers of flaking cardboard under my sleeping bag in the entrance to Sainsbury's. The skin on my face is red-brown parchment under a grimy woollen hat, and there is a constant dripping of my nose which I wipe away with the back of my hand. There must be a permanent black streak across my cheek. If I'm lucky enough to have made five quid I can get into a shelter for the night and have a bowl of soup. But sometimes I'm too tired to walk there. So I curl into a ball and wish I still had my dog, Chia, to warm me. She was as scabby as me in the end and only survived a couple of winters. I don't want to make another one suffer what I do. And now there's some plan afoot to fine us for sleeping rough; an ironical 2,500 quid!
But it's April, there's still hope. That's if I can survive the onslaught of memories it always brings. As T. S. Eliot's poem goes: 'April is the cruellest month.' He knew. As the sap rises it stirs everything, good and bad, sweet and bitter. Most of my padding has worn away and the sap stings my thin veins. Life awakening hurts like putting numb fingers into a bowl of warm water.
April nights are softer and more promising. My ear has become attuned to the heavy silence of the dark and to the sound of the murky river flowing under the bridge. I'm a bit bent, but when I can unfurl myself, I cross the road and walk up to the centre of the bridge and look over the side where the school is. I like doing that in the early spring morning when no one is around and I won't horrify the tourists. It's not often I can have a wash, only when I get into the shelter. But at that hour I can watch the morning mist rise from the river and gently enshroud the lawns and buildings. No one exists but me and the creaking boats whispering to each other in the uncanny dawn. The eternal gift of dawn. Then the birds, those callers to prayer, start their chorus, and for five minutes I am in an earthly paradise.
April is the prelude to the one event in the year that keeps me alive: May Morning. On the first of May at 6 a.m. the Magdalen College Choir sings from the top of the college bell tower. They begin with the 'Hymnus Eucharisticus' and continue with madrigals that honour and welcome the merry month of May. The crowds gather along the High Street and the bridge, and I am part of that crowd. There are always students in formal clothes, the overspill from all-night balls. But however drunk they are, no one perturbs the silence as the choir assembles at the top of the tower. The wing of an angel lightly brushes us all.
When the choir sings, we are one harmonious body, pacified by those exquisite voices. Then there are no differences of class, colour and smell. And for a short moment in time reality intensifies. The scale of colours and sound is magnified and our feeble senses become sensitive enough to discover them. It's like being on an LSD trip without the crashing aftermath.
You will be wondering how I know the name of the first hymn in Latin, and why I like to be near the Magdalen College School. Or maybe you have already guessed that I was a chorister; that I was one of those boys chosen for the purity of their voices; that I was one of the elite; that I was there in the front pew of the gothic chapel, brown-eyed and brown-haired, singing to heaven with the ease of a nightingale; that I helped to create the sound that made even the most doubtful believe in the sacred for forty minutes.
When I look at the white wooden bridge I crossed so many times, I remember my childhood there, as unreal and swift as fleeting images on a screen. Did I play in those grounds, fresh and rosy-cheeked? Did I rehearse for hours with the choirmaster, cross the road every day in my miniature academic gown and enter the dark splendour of the Magdalen chapel, laden with solemnity, the works of art hanging heavily in the shadows, the damp air pushed upwards by the purity of our voices?
The schedule was hard: at 7.30 a.m. practice before school and immediately afterwards; choral evensong six nights a week in term, and on Sundays, rehearsal at 9.30 a.m. before the Eucharist. Then afternoon practice followed by evensong at 7 p.m. We were trained like professionals. The master used to say that this training would stay with us for the rest of our lives. He was right. It does. The music is encrusted in my brain and heart. I can remember the hymns, some in Latin, German, French, even Russian. We learnt piano, went on tours, sang in concerts and travelled abroad. From the age of seven this was my life.
My parents didn't take much interest; they were just pleased that as a chorister two-thirds of the school's tuition fees were paid by the college. And they had me out of their way. They were always conspicuously missing from the parents' social group and the services. It was like being at boarding school except that I slept and ate dinner at home. The choir was my surrogate family, not the highly disciplined team it was for the other boys.
I was the eldest and weirdest of their three children, and my father chose me to discharge his violent temper and frustrations on; just my presence was enough to get the drums rolling, and the underside of my bed became the best shelter from his molten rage. To this day I don't understand what it was in me that sparked that hatred, and sometimes in my darkest moments the terrified child still emerges. And what better place to hide than the streets of Oxford, where I've become a voyeur of other people's lives?
And my mother. All she wanted was a quiet life, no confrontation and time away from him and his temper. She concentrated on my younger sisters, who didn't 'get above themselves' singing in elite choirs. She was sceptical of all organised religion and never set foot inside a church 'where all those hypocritical buggers gather and then go home and kick the cat.' Somewhere along the years we lost each other, but first she lost herself, being married to him. She was of Polish, Jewish origin and my father never let her forget her humble beginnings, that he had 'saved her from poverty and given her a comfortable life.'
My voice broke at thirteen but I continued as a choral scholar right up to my undergraduate years. The choir upheld me. I learnt to become still, to listen, to fall into the depths of sound. When I sang I stepped into a parallel world of beauty and love where there were no beatings, no hiding under the bed, no desperate loneliness.
So I am waiting for the May Morning chorus to anoint us one more year. In the meantime, I sit in my corner and wish I could catch a glimpse of the College meadows, filled with green-purple flowers at this time of year, or watch the wandering deer feeding on the lush pastures. Instead, I watch people, especially the girls who wear their beauty like plates of armour, smooth and shiny and bold: 'Look at me, no, not you. You are unworthy to look at me in my splendour.' But as they get older the metal gets tarnished, a little thin in places until a few hairline cracks appear. One day it disintegrates on the field of battle and their poor naked souls quiver. Then they beg for a glance, just like their less beautiful sisters always have done. And even a smile from a homeless guy contents them.
I'm quite well known by the locals. Some give me bits of food, the odd quid, bottles of water. Other passers-by, those supercilious ones, avert their eyes or tut-tut: 'When is the council going to do something about this?' They think I'm on drugs or an alcoholic, but I'm stoned on life, not on the aids to make it bearable.
But there is one guy who always stops to talk to me. Twice a week he gives me five quid so I can go to the shelter. He's tall, thin, with greying black hair, probably in his fifties. At first I thought he was a social worker, except that he isn't like the other ones who are always trying to get you into an institution. No; he's different. He's different because he listens and seems to understand. When we talk it's like we were sitting on a sofa drinking tea and eating chocolate biscuits. It's easy. He sees me, not a grubby homeless guy. Bit by bit I've told him my life story, although sometimes we just joke and talk about the weather. When he's gone I feel as light as air. He's the only one who knows how I ended up on the streets of Oxford; he's the only one worthy of knowing my story. He doesn't judge; he cares from the soul.
And how did a little rich boy end up homeless in the glorious city of Oxford? I told him -- Gabriel -- how I got a degree in philosophy at Magdalen College. It was so hard that the cocaine circled among many of us to get through the exams. In my second year I was a Zen Buddhist and would wander about the streets in a black tunic like some kind of monk waiting for enlightenment. I tried to eliminate the need for all sensory forms, including art, so there were no barriers, not even beautiful ones, between me and the sublime. But I couldn't do without music. By then I was not a welcome figure in the choir and was asked to leave. In the third year the cocaine had me on the verge of madness, my father luckily disowned me and I just managed to pass my finals.
And what do you do with a third-class degree in philosophy? I went from one soul-destroying job to another, got kicked out of them all for my insolence, until I had no money for rent and no girl would put up with me. Contact with my parents finished at the age of twenty-two; what was the point? When I left home, my father could no longer feed on my fear and died of heart failure at fifty-four. So the street gradually became my home, which suited me as a lonely wanderer. I didn't fit anywhere, nor do I want to now. There isn't much time left. All that remains is some fleeting beauty I can grasp at and the memory of the choir.
And what happened to my mother? A couple of months ago Gabriel came with some story about this old woman in a nursing home who his wife looks after, down in Seaford. He said she was called Violet Koski, which was my mother's maiden name, and that she could possibly be my mother as all the details fit. Would I like to go and see her, just to make sure? She didn't have much longer to live, he said. He would drive me down and take care of everything. I looked at him agape. 'Gabriel,' I said, 'can't you see it's too late? Even if she is my mother, the thread was broken years ago. You are more real to me than her. What could I say to her? What could she say to me? She'd probably die of fright anyway. Better to leave things as they are. Thanks anyway, mate. You're the nearest thing to love and affection I've felt in my life.'
In March, Gabriel came back from a visit to Seaford. He told me Violet had passed away on the tenth. He pressed a photo into my hand. It was one of me and my sisters with my mother on Brighton beach. I was about ten and we all looked pinched with cold and miserable. 'Promise me you won't tear it up,' Gabriel said. I can't deny him anything, so I slipped it into my pocket and said nothing.
I was telling myself my story, as I often do, colouring it with new details and most likely muttering, when Gabriel came to see me. He was flustered, in a hurry, unusual for him. He placed five quid in my hand and said:
'Listen, Tim, I want you to go to the shelter tonight and have a shower. I'm coming back tomorrow same time. Make sure you're clean, eh? I have something for you.'
And he was off, rushing along the bridge, long hair whipped off his brow. I wonder what's got into him. I can't be that smelly; I had the last shower at least a week ago. I missed our chat, but we'll have one tomorrow.
Now it's the next day. I've had my shower and am waiting. I hope he's not going to give me a goodbye present, but my intuition is telling me he is. He rarely talks about himself so I don't know much about his life. I'm a self-centred old sod.
Here he is, out of breath and red-faced. He's carrying a large plastic bag. He sits down beside me on the ground and opens the bag. He takes out a beautifully tailored black coat, a Burberry.
'Come on, mate. Get up. I want you to put this on, see how it fits,' he says, and helps me up.
Agape, I shed my ancient duffle coat and pull on the silk-lined Burberry. It fits perfectly.
'I can't wear this. It looks ridiculous on me, much too expensive for a homeless old codger. I'll be a laughing stock.'
'I got it from a charity shop, a bargain! And you're wearing it anyway, so no protesting. You'll need it where we're going. Afterwards you can put on your old coat again if you feel more comfortable, but it's yours to keep,' he says, and gives me a playful shove.
'Where the hell are you taking me?' I'm getting agitated. 'Can't we just have a chat? Look, I've got some chocolate biscuits!'
'You'll see. You need some exercise, always sitting on your lazy arse in this corner. Come on!'
It's Gabriel, so I trust him. No one else would I allow to take my arm and propel me gently over the bridge. We walk at my pace, although I know he'd be running. I can sense the nervous excitement under his silence. When we get to Magdalen College entrance he stops and says:
'It's quarter to six. We're just in time for evensong.'
Before I can open my mouth, he pulls me through to the porter's lodge and says to the two burly guys behind the thick glass screen:
'We're going to the chapel for evensong. Did you know this gentleman used to be a chorister here?'
They look at me, aghast. No Burberry coat can transform my face and hair, but they wave us on. I am trembling with anticipation and shock. Gabriel puts his arm around my shoulder and we walk the well-known path to the chapel. People are waiting in line outside in the dark corridor, but the guy at the chapel door seems to know Gabriel and we are ushered in first. How has he managed that? I'm beginning to suspect that he's a respected figure in Oxford, maybe even someone important.
It's as I remember. The dark wood glistens, the white-grey walls and pillars are just as sombre in their cold magnificence. The candles in the glass holders flicker and beckon along the wooden stalls. 'Come and sit,' they seem to say. 'This is reality; the chaos outside is just a bad dream.'
I shuffle behind Gabriel, who finds the best seats, the best angle to watch and listen. I sit next to him, my head down, my nose dripping. I'm glad I had a shower.
'Tim, you can come here when you want. Just put on your Burberry coat and the guy at the door will let you in, even if I'm not with you,' he says, but he doesn't look me in the eye.
I am speechless. Gabriel gives me a handkerchief to stop me wiping the tears and snot away with the back of my hand. I'd forgotten what it's like to cry. But I must lift my matted head; I must watch. The stalls are filling. The wood creaks under the slow-moving feet. People stare at me and then politely turn their well-groomed heads. I sit closer to Gabriel and look down again. I shouldn't be here; the grotesque ghost of a former chorister can only linger in gloomy corners. I'm thinking of slinking out when the bell rings.
The choir enters, master at the fore. They are wearing the same red cassocks and white surplices. Sixteen young boys, well-scrubbed fake angels, take their places meekly. The twelve choral scholars, bursting with youth and well-directed testosterone, sit further up behind them and survey the audience with a subtle air of superiority. Nothing has changed.
The service begins. The choir sing the first hymn. I lean forward, away from Gabriel's protective bulk. I hear a thud and Gabriel picks up the book of psalms I've knocked onto the floor. I have forgotten who I am, my aching bones and my empty stomach. I have soared to the vault on the sound wave of those voices. I am singing with them; I am there in the front row in my usual place, the purest, highest notes flowing easily from my young throat. All my broken parts are sealed together, like those Japanese vases whose cracks are filled with gold. I am the child, the youth, the philosophy graduate, the homeless beggar; no piece is missing, nothing is lost. This is my place. At least, for forty minutes, this is home.
When it's over and the procession, ethereal in the candlelight, has left the chapel, Gabriel and I wait till everyone has left. I am trembling and must hold onto his arm. He invites me to coffee and cake in a High Street café. But I refuse. You can fill a patched-up vessel once; twice is asking for trouble.
'Come on, mate, you're wearing your new coat! What's up?' he says, but I know he understands.
The truth is that I need to get back to my place by Sainsbury's. I need to feel the pavement under me and the roughness of my old coat. I want the night to come and the stillness before dawn; I want my emptiness and the peace it brings. I wouldn't mind if I died tomorrow. I would float off with the music of the choir resounding in my head, but, above all, I would be buoyed up on my journey by the love of this man, Gabriel.
Article © Heather Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-10-12
Image(s) are public domain.