This is a short story I wrote after falling in love with Dublin in 2009. It’s about a day in the life of a homeless man.
The Delicate Art of Forgetting by Soraya Auer
Sean was used to not seeing and not being seen. If asked what he saw, he could probably describe no more than what was a blur of grey, black and navy uniforms. Some days were clearer than others, and on weekends the colours just changed to denim and every other colour of the rainbow. A young woman turned the corner sharply where he was sitting and bumped his knees in their cross-legged position. She muttered a surprised apology without looking at him a moment longer than she had to, with her path intent on the ticket barriers ahead. Sean watched her, as she fumbled to find her ticket in her green jacket pockets. She carried a large ring binder, which she accidentally tapped a passer-by with while swapping hands. He smirked as the passer-by said something indignantly to the woman.
“See something interesting?” said a familiar voice behind him.
He dropped his gaze to his feet. “I ain’t seen nothin’ at all,” he muttered while collecting his worn out MacDonald’s cup and blanket.
“It’s the third time this week man,” sighed the young Guard. “I shouldn’t have to be telling ye again.” Sean didn’t reply to this and the young uniformed patrol officer wrinkled his ginger brow, taking the silence as his cue to keep speaking. “Need I be telling ye again?” He asked, tapping Sean’s shoulder.
Sean flinched under his touch. “Ye haven’t said nothin’ to us,” said Sean genuinely.
“ ‘Course not.” The Guard rolled his eyes. “Got a friend today then?”
“She ain’t me mot”, snapped Sean without meaning to. “She does what she likes.”
“Alright. Don’t worry, I’m not here to give out to yer,” he said, offering his hand to help him off the floor.
Sean didn’t take it and stood up with a small moan from the pins and needles that seized his left leg. He averted his eye from the Guard and made to leave around the corner. “Do ye need help getting to where yer going?” said the Guard, even though he didn’t know how he’d help a man who’d never wanted or accepted his help before.
“Remindin’ of ye’s da, do I? Need to help the old man,” Sean scoffed at the man. He paused a moment as his eyes glazed over, the thought of where to go next hazy in his mind. He refused to betray his uncertainty. “Not like I am headin’ anywhere important anyways.” He mumbled. He moved against the bustle of the crowd that had just crossed the road to enter the station.
The Guard hesitated for a moment before calling out to him. “I won’t be seeing yis here again now, yeah?” Sean waved behind him dismissively and the Guard let him be for once.
He walked slowly and kept his head down. “Damn Garda and their mitching.” Sean’s eloquent words on the authoritarian institutions of the state had previously been heard by his only friend, Sallie. She let Sean get carried away with his words, fantasise about a special place just for the two of them, or when it was a bad day, she’d watch over him while he had a good cry. But Sallie was a free spirit, and had gone her own way, so Sean had to get used to the silence of his own footsteps. Still hopeful, every night he’d been alone, he’d stayed in the alleyway where he’d found and lost her.
It had been years since he’d stumbled across her, slumped against a bin in a big duffle coat, her dirty blonde hair covering her gaunt face. Her legs were bare with bruises the size of fists. She reminded him of all the women that he’d ignored throughout his life, but most of all, of himself at his worst moments. Not again, Sean had sworn to himself. From that day on, he felt more responsible for her than he did for himself. He’d created a shelter behind the bins he’d found her by and spent what little he’d saved up to feed her better than he’d fed himself in a decade. She was broken, he could tell, but she needed him just as much as he needed her, though he was surprised to realise this. Her greatest accomplishment occurred once. She’d managed the impossible and had persuaded Sean to attend an afternoon free clinic for a check up with her.
“You really should make an appointment at the hospital,” said the young doctor to Sallie as she wrote on the chart.
“Serious, eh?” Sean asked concerned Sallie would have to leave him.
“Well, we have very limited resources here. Prognosis will be hard to assess without further tests. I recommend a neuropsychological examination at least,” explained the doctor.
“What’ll all that be for?” asked Sean suspiciously; the thought of having to leave Sallie among white coats distressed him.
“It is a common degenerative disease.” Sean remained silent. “You do know where I’m going with this, don’t you?” The Doctor probed gently. The pity in her voice set Sean off.
“There is no problem.” He snapped irritably. “She’s fine!” He shouted as he dragged Sallie out with him.
He was not naïve enough to hope to see her again if he’d left her to the State and the white coats. They swallow ye whole, he thought. He didn’t care if it had been a bad boyfriend, an abusive father or a drunken husband, Sallie was his to look after and he’d pummel the skanger who’d try to take her. It was all just bittersweet because in the end, Sallie had left of her own accord, in the middle of the night, while Sean’s mind was adrift in dreams. His sole reason to stay sane and give a crap had slipped away from him.
As with his usual routine, Sean picked up some brew and bread with the money he’d collected that day from the local supermarket. The cashier girl’s heart sank as she saw him join her aisle as he did every evening. He wasn’t difficult but his “here”, “how much?” and “stealing from me ye are” were uncomfortable enough on the best of days.
“Five euros and sixty five cents,” she said this time.
“Yer havin’ a laugh!”
“I am really not.”
Sean grumbled into his hands as he picked out several bronze coins. The cashier would’ve hurried him if there had been a queue to speak up for, but it seemed this particular evening, they’d thoughtfully relieved her of that excuse by standing by all the other tills. Sean looked at his purchases and then his hand and then up at the girl.
“What?” she said.
“Nothin’,” he said quickly as he dropped all the coins into her out reached hand. She began to count; Two, Three, Three-fifty, Four, Five euros… that’s fine, she thought. Twenty, Thirty, Fifty, Fifty-five, Sixty, Sixty-one.
“You’re short,” said the girl as Sean tried to pick up his last pack of brew.
“Count it again,” he said moving away. She looked to signal at the security guard at the door but she saw he was already moving this way.
“I know you’re short.”
“Le do thoil, Please,” said Sean surprising the girl with his soft pronunciation. “I’ll have the extra pennies tomorrow.” He looked her straight in the face for the first time and she saw his sparkling green eyes that no one spent time to appreciate. The girl was taken aback with how close he’d leaned forward to her to whisper his plea but more surprised she wasn’t as put off as she thought she’d be. The security guard in his navy uniform grabbed Sean’s arm.
“Everythin’ alright ‘ere?” he said roughly.
“Just a second.” Smiling at the guard she said, “lemme count properly.”
Sean didn’t resist the guard’s hold as she sifted the coins in her hand. Her fingers handled his judgment slowly. Never quite in control, he thought about himself. He let his mind wander to Sallie, or whatever her real name was, who would be smiling at him. She’d reached out her hand to stroke his cheek. Her face changed to that of his mother’s warm gaze. Her green eyes laughed as she called him in for his tea. Those were the days, he thought. When he played outside all day till food was the only reason to be confined in a space. He’d feast on delicious mashed potatoes and baked fish. How he’d love to go fishing again, he thought.
“I was wrong,” a voice broke Sean’s sensuous thoughts.
“Eh?” said the guard, betraying his disappointment. “Ye sure?”
“I am. Let him go!” She signalled Sean to get on his way. He lingered only a moment to look at her in thanks. She probably expected him to say something but he’d just keep his word about paying her back. Or at least he thought he’d try.
Sean made his way to his shelter in the alley. Maybe Sallie will be there, he deluded himself. He turned into the narrow alleyway without looking and bumped straight into someone. He fell back slightly and looked up annoyed.
“Watch where yer going, eejit!” spat the man turning away from him. Sean paused to take in the sight of the man. His jet-black hair with symmetrical streaks of grey was slicked back. He wore a large leather jacket like a Mafia henchman and had a burning cigarette dangling from his pursed lips. His bad diet was sure to account for that belly protruding out of his trousers and Sean thought by the look of it, even he had better skin than this skanger.
“Wha’cha looking at?” said the man as he leaned back against the wall. Sean just stared at him. “Want some yokes, old man?”
“Go find a gurrier to sell yer crap to,” snapped Sean as he walked past and installed himself in his shelter.
“Ah so you do speak!” he mocked.
“Please get going. I be the only one in this part of the road.”
“Now yer a polite old man?” said the man, as he followed Sean round the bins. Sean’s heart raced, wondering whether this was the day. The thug bent down to face Sean while his cigarette flared up as he sucked in a puff. Sean watched the man as he slowly took the cigarette from his mouth with his chubby fingers and flicked it at his face. The burning butt scorched Sean’s cheek and he cried out as he raised his hands to protect his singed skin.
“Please,” Sean begged. “I’m sick.”
“What am I supposed to do ‘bout it – take ye to a doctor?” The skanger sneered.
“I already ‘ave,” sobbed Sean quietly. “Please just leave me be.” Sallie, he prayed, give me peace again. He’d never wanted to be alone as much as he did at that moment.
The man tilted his head threateningly. “But I likes ye, what if I don’t want to go?”
“Then ye won’t go?”
“That’s right old man!” The man laughed as he reached for a broken pipe from the dump pile behind him.
Sean closed his eyes as he curled up. He felt a pang of guilt as he thought of the pennies he owed but it didn’t stop him from hoping that when he woke the next day, he’d remember less and feel nothing. There had to be some justice to Sallie Alzheimer. Confusion, irritability, mood swings, next was forgetting who he was. As he felt the first crunch against his ribs, he hoped for more than to forget. He hoped to be forgotten. He prayed for the end.