I can offer you all kinds of everything, anything you want because I own nothing that I can call mine. All gone. Given away, stolen, spent. I can give you my arms to hold you, my whiskers for a scratch or friendly embrace, my heartbeat to move your body to, my blood to make you live and grow. Take it, don’t thank me, don’t put a coin in my hat but live your life like you always meant to live it: with freedom, with bravery, with kindness.
He said that, the filthy old foreign man on the steps of the church. But I could never hug him. He smelled. I might catch something. And anyway, he was after something. They usually are, aren’t they?: the beggars, rough-sleepers, refugees from life, outliers from our civilised world.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘I won’t bite.’ But I thought he might; rabies, gangrene, aids, the whole sorry lot − so, thanks a million for the offer, but I don’t think. I will.
‘You look lonely. Anyone ever told you that?’ he asked − all the time; all the bloody time.
‘I was a pianist once. Blessed hands, see.’ I saw, and, if they were delicate once, all I saw now was grime. ‘My mother taught me the piano, she brought her sensitivity. Bill Evans was my hero. I saw him play in Paris in 1967, that changed everything.‘
Bill Evans? I needed to go. And then I actually spoke to him: ‘I need to go,’ I said. I didn’t, of course, but I didn’t want anyone leaving work seeing me talking to him. The ones like Gary, who shouted across the road at him, ‘Heh, Bin Laden, I thought the yanks dumped you in the sea’; and his friend who mimed shooting him with a machine gun, ‘ppp ppp ppp!’ And then the laughter, I always hated their laughter.
‘My daughter was your age,’ he said − okay, here we go − ‘and one night, in a previous time, she and her friends at the university were taken away. We heard nothing for months until we received a call to go and identify their bodies.’ − this was too much. What the hell was he trying to do to my day? − ‘Her name was Sara.’
That was my name. I told him: ‘My name!’
And that’s when he cried, tears trickling the dirt in a fine line down his face. Skin revealed. ‘Salt,’ he said. ‘Tears taste of salt. Thank you, I needed that, to cry I mean.’
My brain was buzzing. Was he making things up? Was his daughter really called Sara? Did he somehow know I was Sara before he stopped me? Had someone told him? Was this some kind of wind up? Gary’s idea of a joke?
He pulled out a creased photo from his pocket: a brown, grey picture of a striking looking young woman with long dark hair, wearing a polo-neck-jumper. She was smiling at the camera; a wonderful vibrant smile. ‘I took it in Tehran, outside the university’, he said. And then he produced another: the same girl seated on a bench by a younger boy, proud looking adults standing behind them – their parents?
‘Sara! My family! And that man was once me,’ he said, pointing at the father, with his fine suit and impressive black moustache.
‘What happened to the boy? Your son, I mean? And your wife, what happened to her?’
He pressed his hand on his heart. ‘Here, with Sara, always here.’
I felt tired, suddenly dizzy. He moved his bags so I could sit on the step beside him.
‘It’s a horrible world,’ I said.
‘No, don’t say that, it’s the life we have.’
He offered me a bottle of water from his bag. ‘A kind person gave me this today, you look like you need it.’
‘Your English is so good.’
‘In our house, we spoke English often, French too.’
‘You must hate it here. ‘
‘Sara, don’t say that, I don’t feel hate.’
‘But the English distrust foreigners. Arabs particularly. ’
‘A few do, not many. Most try their best. I know this. And you do your best too. I see you on the way from work; you carry the world on your back. I feel your care, your sadness.’
‘I should go.’
‘Yes, of course, but you’re welcome to join me anytime.’
‘I don’t think . . .’
‘You will, if you need to, you will.’
‘Thank you . . . I don’t know your name.’
‘Bye, Sara, and remember your name in Iranian means pure, pure of heart.’
I shook his hand. It felt so soft.
He’d been a fixture on the church steps all winter and I’d finally spoken to him.
I went looking for him the next day but he wasn’t there and wasn’t there any day after. He’d disappeared, the old man with the filthy clothes and delicate, soft hands encrusted in grime, the pianist, father, husband, son, with a name, Rahad.
Sara ‘means pure of heart’; that touched me. I Google his name:
Rahad: ‘eternal traveller, a note of music.’
Alan McCormick lives by the sea in Dorset, England. His short stories have won various prizes and his fiction has been widely published in print and online. His story, Go Wild in the Country, was in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015. His short story collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize.
He also writes Scumsters, flash fiction in response to pictures by the artist Jonny Voss, and is currently working on the second draft of Holes, his first book of non-fiction. More about Alan.