Northern Ireland

Day Three: The kindness of a stranger

Andy West
Image caption Day three on the streets of Belfast and the kindness of a stranger makes all the difference

I couldn't beg. It's against the law. But even though I didn't have a paper cup or an upturned hat in front of my feet, people still offered money, food and cups of tea.

For the first couple of days I managed to keep it together, but after endless hours of boredom, exhaustion, loneliness and alienation, one particular act of kindness finally broke me.

I found myself blubbing in the street as embarrassed people passed by on their way home from work.

Most people, you see, march by, flicking their eyes in my direction and then turning away.

It makes me feel dirty and alone. After so long without a shower, I was dirty and I was alone.

It was around 5pm when I noticed an elderly man looking at me from a few feet away. He wore a tatty flat cap and a worn overcoat.

I wondered if he was homeless and when he walked towards me I thought he was going to move me on from my patch.

Central Belfast is criss-crossed with invisible territories, claimed by beggars tussling for the best spot.

Sit and talk

I'd already been told to "Get out of here" by a young man in a sleeping bag beside the Duke of York pub. I had wandered over to him late on Saturday night as people supped the last of their pints further up the cobbled alleyway.

I thought I could sit beside him and talk or just share the warm, dry spot for a while. But I wasn't welcome.

"Go," said the young man, in a thick accent I couldn't recognise, "This my spot, you go somewhere else."

I asked him where he thought I should go.

"You go round the corner to the next alleyway. This my spot." I looked to his feet. There was a single 20p coin sitting at the bottom of his paper cup. Not a very fruitful night. I clutched my sleeping bag and cardboard more closely to my chest and wandered on.

Back to the old man. He'd changed direction and was standing a little way down behind me. I shifted uncomfortably and flinched as I caught him in the corner of my eye moving towards me.

"Take this, son." The man's voice was quiet and tired. "Get you a cup of tea." He held out a neatly folded five pound note. I thanked him but said I'd be okay.

As he walked away, I noticed his scuffed shoes and the lope of his walk. I doubt it was easy for him to spare £5 for a stranger. And that's when I lost it. It might sound sentimental, but his kindness meant much more to me at that moment than his money.

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