Today, I met a man from Ballymena and his name is Robert.
I sat with him today, just for five minutes during my rush from lunch back to the office but I will never forget those five minutes for as long as I live.
You see, Robert told me a little bit about himself today and he struck me as a fascinating man. He spent 22 years in Her Majesty’s Navy, he told me, and then he asked me whether I could guess who his hero is. His hero is Jean D’Arc, the maiden soldier from Orleans. He didn’t tell me why, but he told me that before him and his wife separated, they had gone to Paris together, and at the Notre Dame cathedral he saw her statue, where he said he fell to his knees and wept at her legacy.
He went on to tell me that his favourite ever story is called Ballykissangel, a BBC television series. “You should look it up, if you have time.”, he said, “although I am sure you are very busy and that you won’t have time.” as he kindly patted me on the shoulder. He gave me a brief synopsis and then told me that the show had been filmed in Avoca, County Wicklow, which is a beautiful place. This last part was for my benefit because he knows that I work for Irish Tourism.
As I looked into his ice blue eyes, they were bloodshot around the edges. His clothes were dirty but his hands were clean and strong; firm in their grasp as he shook my hand. They were rough and calloused, yet gentle; like my grandfather’s used to be. The hands of a working-class gentleman.
Conversation about my accent and how I had come to live in Ireland prompted me to tell him that my Mum’s from Coleraine. “Ah, up at the coast.”, he noted, “most beautiful up there.” He mentioned these origins must be why I have such a strong name. Sáoirse. Freedom… He mentioned Avoca again and then finally remarked: “It is good, to be Irish.”
But as he said so, he wiped a tear from his eye and smiled a brave, but sad smile.
What you don’t know is this: Robert is homeless. I met him on the streets of Belfast.
As I saw him, sitting on the cold and damp stone pavement, in the same spot where he always sits, I couldn’t help but think “that can’t be good for your kidneys”; but something tells me that’s the least of his worries.
He went on to tell me then, that he remembered me from the last time I had stopped to chat and give him some money and that he had been to hospital since then. “I’m dying.” He said to me. “My doctor told me that I am going to die. I am going to die because I am on the street and because I drink too much.” and then they had sent him away. When I expressed my pity, he told me “don’t worry about me love, I’m past caring. We all die eventually anyway. The question isn’t whether we die. But whether we lived.”
In that moment I couldn’t blame him for drinking. Wouldn’t you want to forget the cold? The wet? The pain?
I wanted to hug him. Lift him up and take him home. Give him a meal and warm bed. Clean clothes for his back.
But that ruthless clock was ticking and I had to get back to the office. He took my hand once more and told me “Here’s a wee gesture from Ballymena.” He held my hand tight, and touched the back of my hand to his right temple, before kissing it and squeezing my fingers tight. I wanted to cry.
Instead, I kissed his hand in return and told him to keep his chin up. He thanked me for taking time, and for the pound I gave him. He said it meant a lot that I stopped and sat and stayed for a chat and that he was sad that I had to go, because there was so much more he would want to tell me.
I promised that I’d stop again next time I see him. And I will. I hope I can even take him out for lunch.
I stood up and left him there, cold and wet on the streets of Belfast. Here I am on my warm leather couch by the fire. Thinking about him. Thinking about Robert. A man forgotten by his family. Forgotten by his Navy and forgotten by society. A man who, like the rest of us, will die one day. But who will remember how he lived?
I don’t want him to be forgotten. I won’t let him be forgotten. Even if it’s just by telling you about him. You may never meet him but his name is Robert and he’s from Ballymena.