The invisible man
The invisible manI'm not quite sure what his name is. He doesn't talk much and when he does he mutters into his chest. His head is always down. Basically, he's invisible to almost everyone. The residents ignore him sullying their perfect town. The holiday-makers look straight past him like he's a nobody at a networking event. Their children are afraid; they whisper to each other and their protectors. I think his name is Alwen or something Welsh. On the rare occasions when I have coached speech from him his voice is not crude. It has vestigial politeness from the age before everyone started imitating Jonathon Ross and there is a musical lilt to it. Welsh or possibly Irish.His path crosses mine most days of the week and sometimes we arrive at the same point at the same time. I try my best to have some change ready to slip into his hand, or a fiver - with which I can say, "Fancy some fish and chips". He always thanks me, shocked but polite. He always mumbles "Thank you very much." There's nothing drunken, common, criminal, abusive, threatening or druggy about his demeanour or his speech. He invariably wears a battered fleece and a hideous waterproof jacket, whatever the weather. Sometimes he stands near the beach, slightly out of view, watching the normal people and their normal lives, as if he is fascinated by their world.Once in a while I mention him to people to see what they think. All the most beautiful girls in town are volunteer collectors for the Lifeboats. I chat to them most days when they look bored. None of them even knew who I was talking about, though he walks right past them, twice, each day. A sun-beaten local with classic seaside casuals, chestnut tan and white beard often speaks to me in broad Cornish accent. He thought Alwen was into drugs. The lady with five sheepdogs thinks he's a tramp, which is fairly obvious. My friend Keith who empties the litter bins and cleans the windows at Sainsbury's (which is right by the beach) says "Â…he's pitiful but harmlessÂ…" No more curious than that.Is Alwen mentally ill? Was he released into the community? I doubt it. I can recognise nutters and feel their vibes. He doesn't give off that strange menace that crazies and hostile networkers do. Did he lose his job? Did his wife kick him out? How long has he been sleeping rough? Does he get any benefits? I doubt it: sometimes I see him picking through bins near the chip shops. I have never seen him with a drink in his hand, though I know where he goes to collect dog ends that teenage thrill-seekers have left behind during their petting sessions.I strongly suspect from his age and the strength of his constitution in resisting that awful life that he's ex Army. One of those guys who goes into shock and never comes out. One of the heroes that we abandon after we've used them up. If I can discover the details I know where to write to get him help. I've done it before when I lived in Warminster, which is haunted by broken soldiers.Where does he shelter on stormy nights? I'm trying to find out but he's extremely secretive. He glances behind him like he's afraid of being followed. He cowers. He wants to be invisible. He wants to be lost and unknown. He's the real thing, not some wanna-be folk-singer posturing at being a drifter like everyone did in 1966. This guy truly is drifting, like garbage in the wind as far as anyone is concernedÂ… Even the Reserve Police Lady doesn't know who he is, or doesn't care, or doesn't want the hassleÂ… And she's very nice.So, it seems like it is down to me to keep him in touch with the human race and watch out for him in the snow. And I can't even walk. We don't want to take him home but I can't abandon him to the elements and the slight risk of yobs with vicious dogs that we get in the summer. Someone has to keep an eye on him to make sure he isn't ill, to check that he puts in an appearance every day, his invisible appearance. If I could discover where he lays his head I can confirm that he's OK in bad weather when he doesn't showÂ…This evening I thought I saw him and since I had a pocket full of change I went after him for a casual hello and maybe a nod of the head and a quick handover not to insult his dignity. As usual, he was looking back to check that no one is following. He saw it was me and slowed down, because he actually likes having a bit of money to spend for a change.As I approached I was getting ready to speak, carefullyÂ… Same ample hair but scared white. Same battered coat but the trousers looked different. Perhaps he's found some new ones in a skip. He turned.It was someone else: a distinguished intellectual type, dressed down, in town for the Jazz Festival. But he looked just as haunted, just as afraid in the eyes, just as bitter in the jaw, more so, in fact. Perhaps that's why we ignore those who have succumbed to the fate we fear ourselves, slipping through the cracks in society and into the gutter. One banker's bonus could save Alwen and ten thousand others like him.
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