On The Street.
It was the actor I noticed first, laughing and full of bonhomie, talking to a Big Issue seller on the street.
«That was John Hurt,» said the Big Issue seller to an indifferent passer-by.
«That was John Hurt,» he said to me as I walked towards him, his enthusiasm undimmed. «Did he buy one?» I said.
I could not ignore his pleasure. He was smiling. I couldn’t walk by, as I sometimes do with Big Issue sellers.
«Yes!» he cried excitedly. «That was John Hurt.»
John Hurt was an actor, but he was also jon hurt, a homeless man. Not unusual sight, an ordinary jon with ordinary hurts. But, this one could say:
«I may be in the gutter but I’m looking at the stars.» or, at one star – who had briefly brightened his life.
And for a moment, the illusion seemed real: that people cared, that everything would be alright, that we were all part of the same existence.
We might accept an illusion until the little boy points out that the Emperor has no clothes. How long did that glow remain with the Big Issue seller? How long did he bathe in reflected light? –
«John Hurt bought a Big Issue from me!»
But even if the actor had paid double (or more) for the magazine, had he really touched that man’s life? He may have briefly felt good about his largesse – he had been talking and laughing with the seller; not worrying about the price of the magazine and not waiting for any change.
Actions and gestures can take on a quality out of proportion to their worth. Politicians are prime examples of this.
They say they are in public life, as if they mean they are performing a service. But they expect the public to serve their ambition, behaving as if they have a right to their position – both self-seeking and self-serving.
It’s an illusion. The world of the two John Hurts do not touch. Another little boy sees that the ‘Emperor has no clothes’. No homeless person is rehoused. No policies change.
I briefly engaged with jon hurt on the street. But I did not buy a Big Issue. I already had a magazine for my journey home. I’d done my bit by witnessing jon hurt’s transformation.
John is still acting and jon is still homeless and I have turned the experience into a self-indulgent piece. Maybe the Big Issue will buy it.
copyright Marguerite Hegley 1994
N.B. The day I wrote this was the first day of an «Introduction to Journalism» at the City Lit in London. We were asked to write a ‘report’ on something that had happened on our way home, and bring it to the second lesson the following week. When the tutor read ‘The Big Issue’ he said to me:
«You are not a journalist, you are a writer». I did not go back to the class. But sent this story to The Big Issue the next day.
Next… A short story, written after the above encounter, imagining what jon hurt’s life could be like.
The Homeless Man
jon hurt – an imagined life
jon opened his eyes painfully and then closed them again. The numbness of his limbs made him let out a huge sigh. The sigh quickly turned to a cough which raked his chest and sent his head spinning. The single blanket which covered him was damp with sweat, despite the coldness of the morning.
The noises of others around him slowed and died… as he sank into unconsciousness.
He woke again and tried to stretch his legs. A cold stiffness crept stealthily thought his thin body. He coughed again and again until his head hurt. «
«Come on, jon, it’s chucking out time. Come on you lazy bastard, get up, you’ve already missed breakfast.» called a voice from the door, which banged closed shortly afterwards.
jon eased himself out of bed. He knew there would be no hot water to wash with and that the breakfast, even if there was any left, would have been rejected even by Oliver Twist.
He tried to remember where he had heard that name…
‘Oliver Twist’ sounded like a made up name. Where had he heard it before? Was it a book he had read at school?
He tried to remember.
There was a thin little boy standing in rags, saying that one plate of gruel was not enough.
«No», said jon out loud. «It is not enough.»
He remembered being at school. He had wanted to be an actor. He managed to get a warm cup of tea from the Hostel kitchen and sat, warming his hands… trying to remember.
And then he did remember. A school play when he was about 12 years old.
He had been Oliver Twist. He could sing then. He could act as well. Where had it all gone wrong?
jon collected his copies of the Big Issue and walked to his pitch in Leicester Square. He could always smile for the public. Some were his customers.
He had some nice ones, regular customers who said hello, some even stopping to talk.
«I may be in the gutter, but I’m looking at the stars.» he joked to himself with grim irony.
Now where had he heard that? Did he read it in book at school, where he read well and was always near the top in English?
Where had it all gone wrong? Why, when he left school, unable to get into Drama college, did he take one dead end job after another, start spending every evening in the pub, and be thrown out by his Dad, disappointed in his once- promising only son.
A middle-aged man stopped to by a Big Issue from him. He had a smiling, rather crinkly face which seemed familiar.
jon tried to put a name to the face.
He was an actor! At times like this jon began to feel hopeful that there could be a chance to do something else. That there was live after this. He looked closely at the man, who smiled.
‘Aren’t you an actor?’ he asked. The man laughed. He had a throaty, croakey laugh. As throaty and croakey as jon’s cough.
‘Well, yes,’ said the man. ‘My name’s John Hurt’. ‘But that’s my name’, said jon hurt, bitterly adding: ‘I bet it hurts me more.’
The actor looked sympathetic. He stayed and talked to jon then gave him a £50 note.
jon walked the streets with the £50 note in his pocket. What good was it? He could spend it trying to forget his situation. But it was not enough to turn his life around.
He remembered how going to the pub every night with his workmates dulled his ambition. He walked and walked.
What was the point of £50?
It would not get him a home, or a job. It would gradually be spent as he tried just to get by.
He remembered where he had seen his namesake. It had been in a film about a horse racing. That was it.
John Hurt had played the true life story of a jockey who had fought back against a terminal illness to win the Grand National, or some such big race.
jon found a bookies.
The Grand National had been postponed because of a bomb scare. Yes, he could put a bet on, it was running today, Monday instead.
jon chose a horse with ‘Lord’ in it’s name –
‘ha, ha,ha,’ he thought. ‘A titled horse’ and laughed until his chest hurt.
He put his £50, that was £40 after tax, on his ‘lordship’ at 100-1 on the nose. And then he walked away. He could not listen to the race, of course. He sat in Leicester Square.
Later he went to the bookies. He had won £40,000.
copyright Marguerite Hegley 1995
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