He was holding a pale-orange plastic carrier bag when I first saw him. He was walking down the street that passes in front of my house. He had the plastic bag in one hand and a mobile ‘phone in the other. He stopped every once in a while and I noticed that he looked very unhappy. His face was reddened and slightly coarse – but nonetheless he had a strange kind of appeal. The pale-orange transparent bag seemed to hold a few groceries; the bag looked like a water-colour sunset – a soft lament to the end of the day. When the man reached a point opposite my house he stopped. He looked at the ground; his thoughts seemed fixed on something. He spoke into his ‘phone: I heard him say:
“No, please, please stay. Please just listen to me.”
And then he said, loudly and desperately:
“I’m so sorry. I need you. You know I need you. What can I do without you?”
He waited for a few moments in silence. Then he said:
“I’m standing here pouring my heart out to you. Please don’t go. Please, please wait for me.”
And then he moved on up the road. He moved unsteadily; his eyes were fixed on his thoughts; he was blind to the world. Occasionally he made wide sweeping gestures with his arms. Sometimes he strayed off the pavement and walked in the middle of the road. I watched him continue up the street until I lost sight of him.
Only once before, in my life, had I ever heard a man speak with such naked desperation in his voice.
It was just before three o’clock in the afternoon. Parents always begin to assemble at this time in order to collect their children from the school that lies opposite my house. I was sitting upstairs and I watched the first of the parents arrive. I saw that the man with the pale-orange plastic bag was among them. He was still carrying a pale-orange plastic bag. This time the bag seemed to be holding some sort of coat. Maybe it was a coat for a child.
I saw the man leaning over one of the railings at the entrance to the school that the council has put up to stop people falling off the pavement and into the road. Then I noticed that he was crying. A couple of his friends were with him. The crying man just looked down at the ground in front of him. He didn’t make much of an effort to hide the fact that a few tears were rolling down his cheeks and falling into the gutter. He looked dismal. He looked resigned. He looked defeated.
One of his friends reached out and gently rubbed him on the back. It was the simplest and most basic gesture of support. No words were spoken. A few moments passed. Then the three men made their way into the playground to collect their children.
Sometime later I saw the man with the pale-orange plastic bag wander slowly, ever so slowly, down the street with a child. He looked empty of hope. He looked as if he was walking towards oblivion.
I arrived home at eleven o’clock at night. I had one or two things in the boot of the car that needed to be unloaded – so I spent some time unloading this and that. It was a clear night. The moon was shining; I was reminded of the mood created by Coleridge in his poem ‘Cristabel’. It seemed to be that sort of night.
Then I saw three men walking down the street. I recognised one of them as the man who carried the pale-orange plastic bag. This time his bag was stuffed full of bottles of wine and cans of lager. He and his friends were very drunk. The plastic bag was swinging from side to side. I wondered if the bag would ever make its way home.
Still, the men were able to say something to each other despite the fact that they were very drunk.
“She’s gone. She’s gone,” moaned the man with the pale-orange drink-laden plastic bag:
“She’s broken with me. She’s gone. That’s it.”
He walked on. He walked past my car.
Then he howled in one last cry of pain and defiance:
“She’s gone … but I’ll always love her.”