I met Will in the shop doorway we shared one winter. He turned up one night with his bundle and stood there, staring down at me. I’d seen off plenty of pretenders to my minimally sheltered spot, but there was something about him that I warmed to, if “warmed” is really the right expression, given that nights regularly dipped below zero that year.
We’d spend our days begging at the city’s best location, the docks; tourists going back on their cruise ships would get rid of the coins they wouldn’t be able to use at the next stop. We wouldn’t share the money we got, but the smack we scored was split right down the middle. When we thought we had enough cash, we’d make for our favourite dealers; he preferred an old hippy out on the coast road, while I was loyal to my man in the centre. But we’d always meet later and cook up together, giving the other a dose if one of us had had a bad day with the begging bowl.
What did I like about him?
I suppose it was the easy way he had, never getting agitated, even if a fix was late. It was that self-control which gave me some sense of security in a world that was falling apart. And he had a melancholic air about him that generated … not pity, really, but rather deep empathy in me.
He was a private person, though; in rare moments of mutual lucidity we’d have interesting conversations about the world, but whenever it got around to our pasts, it was one-way traffic. I’d describe episodes of my childhood and my adolescent years when I’d gone off the rails, and how this had had nothing to do with my dear parents but everything to do with me and my immaturity and irresponsibility. He wouldn’t comment but would go glassy-eyed and stare into the distance.
In the spring of the following year, my parents caught up with me and convinced me to go into rehab. I was keen, I must admit; I was perfectly aware that the smack would destroy me if I did nothing, and sooner rather than later. I was loath to leave Will behind and tried to convince him to join me, but he was having none of it. He’d been on the street longer than me; it was in his veins as surely as the smack itself.
With my parents’ support, and that of an ex of mine, Maria, I turned the corner. Maria had kept in touch with my parents while I was “lost”; they liked her, and she wanted to stay close to get news of me if and when it came. I began to go with her again, her caring presence an important factor in my salvation.
Turning the corner was easier than I’d imagined. I was soon well round it and in gainful employment, working as a helper at the city’s addict support centre. I wangled it so that I could be assigned to the dock area, linking up with Will again. In the time I’d been away, he—or rather the sorry bag of bones he’d become—was much further down the road to oblivion. I gave him all the help I could: blankets, food, a little money when he was too weak to do any begging. And company, which I think he appreciated; I know I did.
I hadn’t been working his area more than a month or so when I turned up at “our” doorway one evening to find it occupied by a couple I’d never seen before. I asked them where Will was and they told me he’d been found unconscious that morning and taken to hospital.
Out of the context in which I’d always known him, he looked terribly frail—they’d shaved him, and the bright white pillows threw his craggy features into stark, pitiful relief. He smiled weakly when he saw me and raised his hand to take mine. We didn’t talk, but I kept hold of his hand, feeling useless.
After a while I nodded off, my head resting on the bed. I was awoken some time later by Will’s hand squeezing mine. There was a scared, slightly wild look on his face. I realised he was whispering something; I put my ear near his mouth.
“Fresh start. Fresh start.”
He repeated this maybe half a dozen times before falling silent. When I looked again, he had a gentle smile on his lips and tears in his eyes. And he was at peace.
In all of our conversations, Will had never mentioned that he was a believer, so I doubted that this final utterance had anything to do with a life hereafter. I figured, rather, that he thought he might recover and be able to make a new life for himself.
Although I’d known him relatively briefly, and hadn’t spent so much time with him since I left the streets, Will’s death hit me hard. I’d lost a friendship grounded on common adversity and unquestioning mutual support; he would have my eternal gratitude for being there with me when I hit the bottom. I might have returned there had it not been for Maria, who ushered me tenderly through those painful days.
There were just three mourners at Will’s funeral: Maria and I, and a white-haired old lady in the front pew of the small chapel. After the short service, she approached us.
“Thank you so much for coming, dears. We’ve never met, have we? I’m William’s gran.”
She had a familiar, easy quality about her and I warmed to her instantly, just as I had to Will.
“You must come back to my house,” she said, a pleading look in her moist eyes. “We can have tea.”
I exchanged a glance with Maria, and we nodded simultaneously.
Mrs. Taylor had an idyllic little cottage on the outskirts of the city. We sat in the cosy living room that had large French windows looking out onto a long back garden, awash with colour from the well-tended bushes and flower beds, bright green hills rolling beyond. Mrs. Taylor excused herself to go to the kitchen; she called through as she busied herself making the tea.
“William used to come here a lot when he was a child. Because his parents weren’t … you know.”
Maria and I looked at each other. I shrugged my shoulders; Will had never spoken about his parents.
Mrs. Taylor came back in carrying a tray laden with cups of tea and something else.
“Apple and blackberry tart, dears?” she asked, smiling sadly as she laid the tray down on a coffee table. “I made it fresh this morning. William’s favourite, it was.”