The Big Issue

The Big Issue

Despite the chill wind and the cold drizzle it pushed before it across the old man’s face, he was in a good mood. For only the second time since Covid stalked the land, he had met up with his friends and former colleagues this past evening at a pub, and had thoroughly enjoyed exchanging insults and banter with his old mates.

He had come by train, from the village where he lived with his wife, checked in to a hotel for a freebie using reward points he collected during the pandemic, before heading out across the city to meet his friends, some of whom he had known longer than he had known his wife, and he had known her for fifty-three years.

He had been walking for a quarter of an hour, and had about another four or five minutes to go before getting back to the Doubletree Hotel where he was staying. He was looking forward to ordering a pizza that was available 24 hours a day, and sipping a beer using the complimentary voucher he had been given at check-in. As he crossed the footbridge over the docks, he looked up to see an amorphous shape at the far end of the bridge that hadn’t been there on his outward journey.

As he descended the gentle curve from the centre of the bridge span, the shape moved and gradually changed into a human like cocoon. Despite being near the centre of an affluent city, homelessness and depravation was still rife. The old man was cautious. Professional beggars operated all over the country, and were oft very convincing.

On the other hand, there were genuine homeless people around, but if he came across them, rather than give them money, he would usually offer to buy them food or drink. If they refused, well, he assumed they weren’t homeless or in that great a need.

As he got closer, the shapes changed into two separate sleeping bags. From the top of one poked the small face of a teenage girl, wrapped up in misery by a protective arm around her shoulders from an older woman … but not much older.

“Can you spare some change please, sir” came a quiet voice from the older girl/woman.

Macey was seventeen, and had been living rough for over two years, ever since her drunken stepfather had come into her room one night.

She didn’t know how old was her friend and companion of eleven months. She called herself Susan, but Macey had no idea if that was her real name, and no idea of her real age. She daren’t ask because if “Susan” was under sixteen, as she was fairly sure she was, she could be in trouble. The type of trouble that would involve her having to go back to live with her mum and stepdad.

She looked up as footsteps vibrated along the metal bridge to see a man of around seventy walking purposely across the dockside. He looked average, with good quality, but inexpensive clothes, and Macey took that as a good sign. In her experience on the streets, the more money people had and the more they flashed out on clothes or accessories, the less likely they were to throw a coin her way.

As the man approached, she asked politely, and quietly if he could spare some change, but he continued past her without looking.

“Oh well,” she thought, she and “Susan” would have to make do with the £1.29 they had made that evening. If they were lucky, a street vendor would take all they had in exchange for the last burger or hot dog on their stall rather than bin it.

The man had been striding past, relatively fit despite his age, but then suddenly stopped and turned to the two girls huddled in their sleeping bags, all glistening with drops of water that would soon soak its way through to their clothes.

Without saying a word he put a hand in his left pocket and pulled out a small wallet. “Oh my,” thought Macey, “he’s going to pull out a fiver,” but then her hopes were dashed as he stuffed it under his other armpit and plunged his hand back into his pocket again before pulling out a fistful of coins and holding his hand out to Macey.

She made a cup from both her hands, and then watched open mouthed as the old man opened his and let everything cascade into the girl’s waiting palms.

Not a fortune, but a good amount all the same. A mixture of copper and silver, several ten and twenty pence coins, but also to Macey’s surprise, several pound coins and at least one two-pound coin.

The man checked his pocket again as Macey held up her cupped hands like a chalice, but that was it. There was nothing left, so he put his wallet back in his trousers, nodded to the girl, and then walked away.

Six pounds, plus copper and silver. Seven to eight pounds in one go. Enough to keep them fed if they were careful for another day.

The man got to the end of the bridge then stopped briefly before walking slowly back a few paces.

“Have you eaten today?” he asked.

The young woman shook her head.

“Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight?”

Macey nodded, and pointed to a shop doorway across the road.

The man pondered for a moment, then pointed at a brightly lit building further along the dockside and said slowly, “That’s where I’m staying tonight. You have no reason to trust me, but if I were to sit in the public bar on the ground floor and order two pizzas from the all-night kitchen, you and your friend would be welcome to share it, with no strings attached.”

After the man had gone, Macey asked her friend what they should do. Susan thought for a moment, then said, “He’s old, there are two of us, the bar is open to the harbourside, there are bright lights and still quite a few people around, and I’m hungry.”

When the two women got to the bar, they got a few stares from some of the patrons as they carried everything they owned in two black plastic bin liners across the room, but received no comments after the old man smiled and waved them over before indicating that they should park their chattels under the table

He had a pint of local beer and his laptop open before him as well as a pot of nibbles the barman had brought over when he had taken his place.

He went to the bar and ordered two plain cheese pizzas, showed his room key, then walked back to where the two girls were nervously waiting. They were surprised a few minutes later when a barmaid arrived carrying a tray with two mugs of hot chocolate.

As the girls sipped their drinks, the old man chatted to them about his life, and his wife, whilst attending to something on his laptop at the same time. After about ten minutes, the same waitress brought two pizzas as well as three plates and cutlery.

Afterwards the old man spent a few minutes at the bar, then came back with a pen and a hotel notepad. He scribbled something on the top sheet, tore it off, then handed it to Macy.

“What is it?”, she asked.

“I collect hotel reward points. I collected enough during the pandemic to allow me sixteen free nights across two hotel chains. That is a booking code for a twin room at the Holiday Inn Express which is opposite the station, about two hundred metres from here.”

“It includes breakfast. I suggest you head there now and get a good night’s sleep.” Pulling several paper and plastic bags from his pocket, he offered them to Macey before saying, “Have your fill of breakfast, and while you do so, quietly slip as much as you can into these bags to keep you going later.”

“Now if you will excuse me, it is way past my bedtime, and I have a train to catch in the morning.”

Macey thanked the old man, then asked why he had decided to help them. He nodded towards Susan and said, “I have a granddaughter about your age”.

With that, the old man stood, picked up his laptop, and bade the two young women farewell and good luck before heading towards the lifts without a backward glance.

After he had gone, Macey looked back at the table only to discover a city map where the old man’s laptop had been. The maps were given out free at reception, and this one had been folded in a particular way to highlight a circle and a cross marked in black ballpoint pen, with the words, “The Big Issue Office” writ in bold capitals next to it.

For the next week the old man tried to avoid watching or listening to the local news, lest he hear about a young girl or two, each found dead with a syringe in their arms. He anguished for some time. By giving them money, he had broken his own rules, and had no idea whether he done a good deed or a bad thing by doing so.

To this day, he still does not know the answer.

The Big Issue is a magazine sold across the UK to support the homeless and less well-off community. It is a good magazine. It has many interesting and varied topics, and relatively cheap to buy. It is available for vendors to buy at half the published price, then sold on the streets to the public at its marked price.

The vendors get to keep the profits.

For some vendors, it is their day job; no different to a newsagent or street corner newspaper seller.

For some, it is a job they do to supplement their income in order to make ends meet.

For many, it is their only means to make enough money each day to pay for a room and meals in a hostel each night. For them, the magazine is a lifeline, and a lifesaver.