‘I saw one homeless man after another, hunched in doorways, shrouded in blankets’

Hilary Fannin: On that wet, freezing night in Canterbury, youthful hordes swirled past the silent, watchful men, blowing on their cold, stiff fingers

We made our privileged pilgrimage back to the car, past silent men in doorways, unfurling like the fronds, watchful, expectant.

We made our privileged pilgrimage back to the car, past silent men in doorways, unfurling like the fronds, watchful, expectant.

 

We flew to Gatwick and hired a car – a stout, orange car, a vehicle verging on tangerine. 

“It’s an upgrade!” the lady on the rentals desk said brightly, a little too brightly. The pulsing car was the last on the lot; the previous customers must have swiped the downgrade, or maybe they took the bus. 

We strapped ourselves in and fiddled around with the the satnav. 

Our own car doesn’t have satnav; it has a hearing aid and incontinence pads. I navigate by the stars. Oh all right, I don’t – I just try to read the road signs through the foliage. Once, it took us five hours to get from Athlone to Dublin, admittedly on a minor road and via a grand little bar in Clonaslee, but still. 

That Gatwick afternoon, under a gun-metal sky as solid and impermeable as one of Margaret Thatcher’s back-combs, we keyed in our destination, the cathedral city of Canterbury. Without hesitation, the precise and demure lady trapped inside the navigation box, in her court shoes and strings of abalone pearls, politely suggested we put the satsuma in gear and roll on to a recognisable road to begin our pilgrimage. 

It all went swimmingly until I needed a pee at a motorway service stop. 

“U-turn! U-turn!’ she pleaded pointlessly, searching in her handbag for a Xanax.  

It occurred to me, as I washed my hands in the empty forest of plastic cubicles and then made my way back to the car, past a handful of drivers eating wet salad sandwiches at Formica-topped tables and staring at miniature plastic ponies on a stilled merry-go-round, that the satnav woman’s objections may have been rooted in some deep-seated fear of being trapped in a Kentish limbo. No wonder she needed her medication.    

We were travelling that weekend to bury the ashes of someone we loved. We’d booked a b&b in the centre of Canterbury, a half-timber house famous for being ancient – which is something we all might aspire to – and its historic literary connections. (Don’t ask me what – maybe Chaucer clipped Dickens’s toenails there.) I ignored the guest information, impatient to get out and sample the town. 

I’d never been to Canterbury before, or walked its cobbled streets, strung with beautiful medieval churches, houses, and bars whose low portals led into dark, higgledy-piggledy interiors.

On that wet, cold Friday night, wrapped up in layers, hands deep in pockets, we walked under the ancient arch of Westgate and down along the city’s central thoroughfare. 

Streaky-tanned women

Despite the freezing temperature, rolling groups of young people, mainly white, swayed from kerb to kerb in summery outfits, streaky-tanned women in scrappy tops falling forward on their platform sandals as if being hurled down a deck. Goosepimpled and tattooed, they swirled in and out of heaving hostelries, many of which had Union Jacks plastered to their latticed windows.

An older man in a luminous jacket, with the words ‘Street Pastor’ emblazoned on his back, stood still among the sallying throngs – waiting, I suppose. 

A little farther down the road, a hive of sharply dressed young men, in spotless trainers, were gathered around a doorway, their talk loud and derisory. When they moved away, I saw the object of their ridicule, a young black man, rough-sleeping, curled into a stained sleeping bag under a Chaucerian portal.  

He wasn’t alone. Looking along the street, I saw one homeless man after another, gloved and hatted, hunched in doorways, shrouded in blankets, eyes wide open to the night. 

An older man in a luminous jacket, with the words ‘Street Pastor’ emblazoned on his back, stood still among the sallying throngs – waiting, I suppose. 

There was a weekend wildness in the air, and something else too: an abandonment of caution, a sense of victory newly tasted, an old order being hurriedly dismantled. And yet the street life felt ancient too, the bawdy humanity brightly pitted against the rain and the night.

And yes, there were other streets: trim redbrick terraces, leafy river walkways, and narrow lanes packed with delicate shopfronts and highly-strung restaurants. And, doubtless, had my friend in the satnav been able to escape her mechanised bed and plump up her curls, she would have shown me all of that finery first. 

“U-turn,” she might have cautioned if she saw me heading downtown. “U-turn.”

I hope I would’ve ignored her.    

The next morning, flower stalls occupied the space where, the night before, youthful hordes had rolled. We bought spring flowers to put on our loved one’s freshly dug grave. We made our privileged pilgrimage back to the car, past silent men in doorways, unfurling like the fronds, watchful, expectant, blowing on their cold, stiff fingers. 

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