The Beggar

‘This thought cheered Bozo, I do not know why.

He was a very exceptional man.’

                                    – George Orwell, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’


Bozo was explaining to the boy he didn’t have to make money to survive, that one had only find some kind of happiness and all would be well.

Oh, and to steal things.

This was somewhere in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris, and Bozo had been slowly drinking himself to death for a couple of weeks since his fiancée died. Bozo was well into his thirties, though he’d lost track of his age, and now refused to work it out from the year. He preferred to be ageless. The boy on the other hand was fifteen. He told Bozo this when they first met only a few days ago. Bozo thought the boy was far too fat and clean to be homeless and came to the conclusion he’d run away from home.

Stealing food was okay, he told the boy, but not money. Don’t steal money or else if they catch you, you’ll go to jail. And jail was no place for someone like them. But food was there for the taking. People threw away food all the time, and if no one took it, it rotted. Such a waste. He’d seen it happen before. The fattest turkey no one wanted, glossy with egg yolk, green-shaded with parsley and rosemary, the smell, hot and fleshy. But if no one wanted the fat turkey, they threw it away. It would sit in the gutter outside and fall apart in the rain or rot in the sun.

The boy had a smug fat face, weird round ears, the long arms of an ape, the tallness of a youngest son. He was lost and had made himself lost and that was no one’s business but his own. But he was hungry. Soon that fat face would flop and distinguish the hooks and curves of his bones. The boy begged and got money only because he was young. They felt more pity for him than for Bozo. But the boy often had to run from the police because he was young. They wanted to put him in a home. Like it’s a crime, isn’t it? That he was young. The worse one of the lot, the young bastard.

But how? the boy asked Bozo and the boy sat down on the curb and watched Bozo draw on the ground with a piece of blue chalk. How do you do it? I’m starving. I don’t think I’ll last the winter.

Who cares? Bozo said with the pessimism he and his homeless colleagues were used to but didn’t realise the boy was not used to it. Saying ‘who cares’ is just accepting their fate, which is something a child can’t do. And the boy was just a child.

They were in the road not too far from the Elysée Palace, not too far from where Bozo used to live.

The boy said: ‘J’ai tellement faim. Est-ce que personne ne me nourrira?’ (The boy was hungry).

Bozo was not from France. He was English. Originally from London, Bozo had served in the war, in India and France. After the war, he got himself a painting job in Paris and fell in love with a French girl called Marion. Marion was twenty-five, short, had brown hair, and rode a bicycle, which she rode each morning and evening to and from her job in a café. One day she was hit by a bus.

Marion was killed instantly. Her funeral was only three days later, which made Bozo feel almost insane at the thought of speaking to her only four days prior when she was alive and well. Bozo couldn’t handle his grief very well. He was fluent in French, but he felt he couldn’t express anything to anyone who wasn’t English in that moment. He realised the only French person he was really close to was Marion. He felt incredibly alone.

Bozo had been working as a builder, but during his time off he’d taken to drinking. You see, one drinks when one is depressed, and one is almost always depressed regarding one of two things: love or death. In Bozo’s case it was both, so he drank doubly, and he got drunk.

He returned to work after several days to the condolences of his colleagues who were kind enough to pat him on the shoulder and offer him words of advice. His French seemed to be slipping, though, and he couldn’t understand anyone. He’d been living in Paris for over two years and could speak and understand French, but it had gone from his brain. He felt the awful realisation of being in a foreign land on his own and not knowing the language.

That day he decided to just get on with his work and began tiling a roof. He didn’t know if his hands were shaking because of his hangover or because of Marion’s death, but the shakes went to his knees. He slipped and fell from the rooftop and broke his foot to pieces. Couldn’t walk without hobbling around like Quazi Modo.

Bozo said to the boy, I want to work but I can’t. I’m going home to England in the next few days to find work. There’s plenty of work in London. You should come with me. Be my companion. I could use someone to help me, see, I can’t walk very well, and I could look after you, too. We’d be a team. (This was all said in French).

The boy looked at the picture Bozo had drawn on the ground. It was of a cat. A man walked over the cat without paying.

You see? Bozo said. No one cares. But no one has to care. Why should they if they don’t who I am?

Some people dropped coins on the cat and Bozo gave half to the boy. The boy disappeared to get food and never came back. Bozo was told by the old man at the end of the street that someone had taken him away. Who took him? Who knows?

After the boy left, Bozo fell into a depression. He felt the boy was his friend after only knowing him for a few days. He was worried though. If the police had got him, he might have been okay, might have been put in a home. Otherwise, might have been murdered. Or put to work somewhere. Strangely, either of those things would have suited Bozo, and then Bozo became jealous of the boy, whether he was murdered or working, it just wasn’t fair.

Bozo hobbled away on his crutch, leaving his pavement drawing to smudge under the feet of the French and eventually wash away in the rain. He missed Marion terribly. They were to be married. Soon it would reach the date they had planned to marry, and the surreal reality of not wearing a suit in a church next to the woman he loved and instead sitting on the ground somewhere near Place de la Concorde, a foot that no longer worked so that it flopped to one side like a fish, while drawing pictures to prevent his mind collapsing in on itself. The date was in June. Which was in four months’ time. Such a thing to remember would no doubt lead him to suicide. Which would subsequently mean he would be robbed of all his money.

Bozo thought about killing himself in a variety of ways, which turned into his own internal amusement – the ways in which one can cease to exist can be creative, painful ways, but funny, nonetheless. His suicide would come as a romantic gesture to his friends in Paris, dying tragically over the wall of the bridge into the Seine, hitting his head on a 16th century brick. However, two days later, Bozo returned to England.

His first day in London in several years. The city, compared to Paris, was darker and thicker. He found that the people all seemed to have somewhere to go, whereas the French liked to sit and wait. He realised, being English, he had an irritation of the French not bustling around in a hurry, but being back, he wanted them all to stop. But no one stopped. They were like cars around Champs Elysée. They were the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

He looked for work straight away, but the limp held him back. No one wanted a cripple to work for them. He’d settle for anything outside of a construction yard, but he was only good at building and tiling roofs. After a week, his money was diminishing from having to eat and sleep in bedsits. With no job, he’d soon have nothing to his name. He began drinking again. He made friends with an Irishman in a pub and soon they begged together and shared their gatherings. Sometimes Bozo thought of the boy and became sad. When he was sad, though, he thought of Marion, and cried alone in an alleyway near the cathedral.

The Irishman, called Patrick, was old and slow, however he was very funny. He made Bozo laugh almost all the time. He reminded Bozo a little bit of the boy, in the way he seemed innocent and naïve, but Patrick had lived in more countries than Bozo had. He’d experienced a life that made Bozo want to write a book about him.

I spent six months in America, Patrick said. In New York. I met this girl called Dara. She was a singer. I met her in this club where I was working as a bartender and she was up on stage singing these songs with this band beside her. Fell in love with her, you know? Asked her to marry me after two weeks, haha. She said yes and I asked my friend who was a priest to marry us and he did it, haha.

What happened to her?

She’s probably still singing somewhere in America. I ended up out of work and poor and they deported me. At the time I didn’t want to be a beggar over there, but now look what happened, haha.

So you’re still married to her?

Technically, yeah. But she’s welcome to marry someone else. I’m not stupid. I know I’ll never see her again. It’s weird thinking that way. I mean, she might as well be dead. That’s sad, really. I did love her though. It was only a short time, but bloody hell, I’m glad I met her to feel something like that. Look at me now, who am I going to love now? Dara was a good piece of my life that I hold dearly. You’re still a young man. Don’t you have someone in your life like that?

Bozo said, I was engaged to get married, but she died. Then I broke my foot and now I can’t walk on it.

Yeah, life shits on the best of us.

I just wish she hadn’t died.

Well she did, he said. And there’s nothing you or your limp foot can do about it. I bet you loved her.

Bozo nodded his head.

You don’t need her now. Cry over her all you like, but you haven’t got her now. One has only find some kind of happiness and all will be well.

At night, Bozo and the Irishman slept on the embankment. There they – or, rather, Bozo – looked up at the stars and, what he thought was the planets, too. He stared and stared and imagined very hard, as if his eyesight travelled the distance of several light years to the faraway lands, like they were different, fictional worlds, and imagined there were people sleeping on the embankments up there, on Mars or Jupiter.

Bozo liked to imagine being boiled alive up there in space, on Mars, perhaps. Because life was much harsher up there. Down on Earth, where he was, on the embankment of the Thames, next to an old, sleeping Irishman, you got arrested for stealing a sandwich. He made a small giggle in the night. It made him giggle a second time upon hearing it.


© Michael Holloway