“But at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery - that we were made in God’s image. God was the parent, but he was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge…and God’s image shook now, up and down on the mule’s back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and ...he pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God’s image.” (Graham Greene, ‘The Power and The Glory')
It's midnight and Liam is asleep, wrapped in a duvet, his head resting on Ivan’s shoulder. A Buddhist and a Christian. That piece of information was shared when they exchanged names more than three hours ago. The concern that brought them together has now become inconvenient as the cold bites and the rain has long since penetrated to the skin. Ivan feels odd in these situations and wonders was it a mistake to have gotten involved in the first place.
He is a private, solitary man who likes to walk alone and seldom ever talks to strangers along the way. Not that he is cut off or anything, because he tends to notice every passer-by, but he doesn't want to engage too much with strangers.
It happened as he neared the end of this evening's walk, at about 8.30, that he saw the man lying face down on an exposed seafront bench. Unlike the regular homeless men, he didn't have any bedding and this made him look more vulnerable. Maybe he wasn't homeless at all. Ivan wondered if the man might be dead, a thought that made him retrace his steps to check.
“Are you alright?” he asked the prostrated man who stirred and dragged himself out of the deepest sleep. He could neither stand nor speak coherently. “Would you like me to get you a coffee and something to eat?” asked Ivan and he understood the other’s agreement. So, suggesting that the man move into one of the shelters nearby, he helped him there and went to get food.
On his return the man introduced himself as Liam and Ivan told him his own name. Liam gestured for him to sit which he did, though he felt a bit awkward, foolish and too visible to others. They ate chips together.
Back home Ivan contacted some groups who help the homeless but none was in a position to do anything right then so he decided to go back down with a duvet and hot water bottle. Liam was out cold again so Ivan covered him, put the hot water bottle inside it and returned home.
But he couldn’t settle and went again at 11.00 pm to check. Liam was sitting then, bent over groaning with the duvet covering his head. He was in pain, wanted medical help but not an ambulance. Ivan dialled 999 anyway and spoke to a very nice lady who ran through a series of questions, tried to speak to Liam who tried to answer but there wasn’t a lot of clarity, except that he had pain in his stomach.
“I need you to feel his chest” she said, talking again to Ivan. “Can you place your hand on the skin of his chest and see if he’s unusually hot?”
“Liam” he said, “I need to put my hand inside your shirt to check your temperature. Is that ok?” There was no answer, no objection and his chest didn’t feel unusually hot. Anyway, the night was cold. The lady said an ambulance would come to check him out within two hours. Would Ivan be able to stay with him. He would. He did.
So, he sat there with his companion who had fallen quickly asleep. Sat there in a silence that was flooded with the sound of the sea driven to the pebbled shore by a merciless wind. A merciless wind, a driving rain.
This is not his time for being out and he was seeing the night in a new light, observing an alternative movement of life. Mostly the sound of taxis, slamming doors, distant voices and passers by who turned to look at the two figures huddled in the shelter. They probably saw Ivan as a homeless man.
He settled into the experience, feeling a tenderness for the man by his side, the physical warmth at the point where their bodies touched, an emotional warmth and something like peace. Maybe at times a deep peace. What was initially concern for a stranger had grown into compassion. Concern, companionship, compassion. That was the progression.
But what is the use of this compassion, he wondered? It solves nothing.
“Are you in recovery?” Liam asked. “I am” said Ivan. The other slept again. The other put his arm around him. He thought of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and he thought too that he was holding the Body of Christ. Said a prayer for the one who slept. Absorbed something of Liam’s unnamed distress into his own being, a distress that might not easily depart. And he absorbed too something of the man's goodness. In a waking thoughtful moment Liam placed the hot water bottle on Ivan's lap to keep him warm.
Three street pastors came by, like the angelic visitors to Abraham, two women and a man. “Everything alright?” asked the man. “You look in bad shape,” he said to Liam. “I’ve called an ambulance” Ivan informed him. “I don’t think they’ll take him” the other said. They gave Liam hot coffee and two cereal bars and left saying they would try to find him a sleeping bag.
There’s something about the cold of the night. You can hold it at bay for so long and tell yourself it’s not so bad but eventually it gets you and you start to shiver. Can’t stop shivering! This is just a few hours of one night. What about those who do it eight hours every night? Ivan thinks you would have to be drugged or drunk to endure it. But the drugged and drunken hangover of the morning would be hell. And hell is the cycle that pushes you into more drink, another fix to cope with the day.
At about 1.30 when Ivan was thinking he could take no more Liam woke suddenly and said, “take me to a safe place.” With no ambulance in sight, Ivan decided to take Liam home where he gave him a coffee and an two armchairs to sleep on in the basement room. Not perfect, not even right but safer and warmer.
The ambulance lady phoned at 2.00am, apologizing for the late call, asking if the ambulance was still needed.
“No, he has revived, he’s alright.”
“Are you still with him?” she asked.
“Yes, “he said, “I brought him home with me.”
“Are you alright with that?” she asked.
“I think so,” he said, “yes, I’m alright.”
As he lay down, he wondered if his actions had been an interference in Liam’s night. Maybe the other would have been better off left to his own devices, left free. Maybe there are homeless people who value their way of living. He had no satisfactory answer to it. He only did what he thought to be right and was unable not to do it, knew no other way of doing it.
When morning came, he went to rouse Liam. “Give me ten more minutes man!” was the plea. He gave him that and a bit more. On his return, Liam told him where to go in no uncertain terms! “I need to go to work and I need you to leave!” Ivan told him calmly, kindly but still let him sleep till the last minute.
I need you to leave! That’s what happens to the homeless in the cold light of day. They are ever evicted.
At the last minute, Liam was up, ready, with a grateful hug to the companion of his night. “Thank you for staying with me, man!”
“…he pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God’s image.”