On my way to the Guardian Science Writing Masterclass last Sunday, I met a man on the train who had such an amazing life story, I had to write as much of it down as I possibly could. After he was gone, I scribbled so furiously on the train that I was nearly travelsick.
God only knows how much of it is true, but these are his tales.
It was 7.45 am on a Sunday at Dover Priory. When I got on the carriage, he was sat in the toilet, with the door open. He gave a cheery hello, which I feebly returned.
I took a seat opposite his belongings: a green bin liner that seemed to be full of clothes, and an old pair of trainers. When he returned to his seat he was complaining about his feet, which he had evidently just been washing. He seemed sort of pleased and ashamed at the same time when he presented them to me, but I was horrified. They looked an absolute state, with discoloured toenails, broken toes, bruising, sores, and blisters the size of cocktail sausages.
What surprised me in particular, was that they seemed completely at odds with the rest of him. A thick-set guy, he was wearing a smart-looking designer jacket, designer-tatty jeans, some sort of medallion, a large CZ earring in one ear. His hair was thin and short, but mostly still present. His face was clean, with bright blue eyes contrasting his designer stubble.
“Well,” he said, “that’s what happens when you’re homeless.”
I was taken aback. He seemed so well presented. It was only later that the smell of him started to pervade the carriage, and it lingered long after he had left.
All I could say at the time was “Oh! You’re homeless! So where are you going?”
He told me he was going to Folkestone, to meet with someone who had some of his belongings. He also told me that that someone also happened to be some sort of Chief Fire Officer somewhere, but I didn’t give it much thought.
He asked me where I was going, and I told him I was going on a journalism course.
“I could tell you my story…”
An alcoholic for most of his life with self-pronounced mental health problems, he was now 51. He’d been kicked out of his house by his 2nd wife, because she caught him with a 17 year old.
He was born and raised in Folkestone, but spent 10 years living in Germany during the last recession in 1991. During his time in Europe, he fathered 17 children, and now has 5 grandchildren.
His first wife was Danish, he got her pregnant at the age of 16. Before they divorced, he taught her English and she now runs the Wetherspoons in Folkestone.
Two of his German children were born within 2 weeks of each other, to different mothers. One of those mothers he got pregnant after spending only a weekend together.
During his youth, he ran in the Olympics in Atlanta. This turned out to be the medallion he was wearing. He could have gotten a proper medal, he said, but he hadn’t attended the heats, and hadn’t tried very hard. The Americans won everything. He hated them.
When he had a home, he had designer clothes, top-of-the-range belongings, and top-of-the-range cars, though he didn’t say what he actually did for a living.
His brother was a millionaire, and was also the Head of Customs at Folkestone port. But he had an affair with his brother’s wife (also a millionaire), and now his brother wouldn’t even help him jumpstart his car. He thinks his god-daughter might actually be his daughter.
When he was made homeless, he lived out of his cars with many of his belongings inside them, but they have since been impounded.
While he was living in his car, he decided to get some paints together and do some art. He sold these artworks for a hundred pounds a time. He now has exhibitions all over Folkestone.
He received a letter from one of his German daughters last year, which prompted him to try to commit suicide. He has since attempted suicide 7 times.
He saw his youngest son in a supermarket recently. When his son saw him, he ran up to him and put his arms around him, and said “I love you, dad.” When his son left with the mother, he went around the corner and cried.
Yesterday, he spent all day with another homeless man. This other man was 61, and could barely walk. He felt so sorry for this other man, that he gave him many of his clothes.
He feels that there is always someone worse off.
He says that he could go to shelters, but he’s “done with all that.” He doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
In fact, he almost seemed to prefer his life now. He said he was doing all the stuff at 51 that he should have done at 15.
He’d had a new knee, a new hip, and a new back. He was eating healthier than he ever had, in fact he’d weighed 22 stone last December. He insisted, though, that he’d lost the weight through all the walking he was doing.
His liver is ok, his heart is ok, he’s healthy.
“My only problem is my Jekyll & Hyde personality.”
He longs to get away somewhere and start over again. If he could, he’d go somewhere hot. He dreams of living in a fishing boat off the coast, catching lobsters.
After every little story, he would say “there’s another little chapter for you.”
I hardly said anything while he was talking. Occasionally he would notice this, and announce ‘you alright?!’ before continuing.
Throughout our chat, he was knocking back fizzy pop, and talking about hair of the dog. He had 4 bottles of store-brand soft drinks for a pound, and offered me the pink one. I politely refused.
I tried to give him £5 as he was leaving. He began to cry and said “you don’t have to do that.” Although it reminded me intensely of the homeless man who used to kneel on the Mile End Road, with his cupped hands held out in front of him, pretending to cry; I told him that I wanted to help him, and he accepted the note.
When the ticket inspector had come and found he had no ticket, he spun him a story about being lost. The ticket inspector seemed happy enough to let him ride to the next stop, which happened to be the one he wanted. Later, the ticket inspector said that he deals with homeless people all the time, and they usually just get off at the next stop. “It’s society’s problem, not mine.”
I never got his name.