Every Saturday he would be there, as accurate as ever, precisely two minutes before eleven. He was more reliable than the trains. I’d sit, to the left of the steps leading up to Queen Street Station, knees bent up, hands stuffed in pockets, trying to figure out why he fascinated me so much.
As usual he wore his blue and grey striped hat, pulled roughly over his ears even though it was June and the Glasgow sun was shining for once. He wore the same faded and frayed denims that looked two sizes too long, and the same thin grey sweater that was out of shape round the neck and stretched at the sleeves as if some one had put it on the wrong wash.
He rested his slim frame against the wall, just like he always did, and began to watch the commuters buzz in and out the train station like flies. They were all a blur to me, like a video tape on fast forward. After months of living on the streets, watching hundreds and hundreds of people and their feet walk past you every day, you stop noticing them after a while. Today was no different, I paid no attention to them whatsoever, they were merely passing objects getting in the way of my view of him.
I watched him check his watch as it passed eleven o clock. He grew anticipated, his eyes searching through the crowds. He slumped back against the wall, deeply disappointed. I always wondered who on earth he could be waiting for. He always looked so saddened, so let down. But as usual I never found out who he waited on because like clockwork, as the minutes ticked twenty past, he checked his watch one last time, stared sadly at his feet and walked away, fading almost sinking, into the bustling Saturday crowd, and out of my sight. He had stood there every Saturday and left in the same way for as long as I could remember.
The next Saturday was no different. He caught my eye easily and not just because he was a familiar sight, always dressed in the same old clothes, but because he stood out from the crowd, like the whole world was lying down flat except for him. I watched his every move, predicting when he would next look at his watch. I smiled when he did, he was so predictable, yet he still searched determinedly through the crowds. I wondered if he would ever give up.
Suddenly, I realised our eyes had met and he was staring straight at me with what looked like curiosity. The same way I was looking at him, I guessed. I tried a smile but it was faint because for some reason I had suddenly become very nervous. The people moving between us kept breaking our gaze, but eventually he smiled back, even if it was just for a moment. I’d never seen him smile before, it transformed him. I willed him to look my way again but he remained pre-occupied with tapping his watch as if it may have stopped. All the same I felt he was aware of me watching him and he glanced hesitantly in my direction a few times, but never long enough for me to catch his eye.
All too soon it was twenty past again, and I watched as he shuffled reluctantly down the street and submerged himself into the crowds.
I sighed, missing him already. Lately he was all I ever thought about. I imagined names for him, David, Jack, Neil…but none of them suited his face. I wondered what colour his hair was beneath that hat, I imagined light brown, judging by his fair complexion. From here, I could never tell the colour of his eyes, but some how I knew they were blue. Sighing, I went back to watching people’s feet and waiting for Saturday again.
My flimsy paper cup remained predictably empty all week although the guy singing Don’t Let Me Down on his guitar was happily watching coin after coin land in his guitar case. Maybe I should get a guitar.
It wasn’t always like this. Sometimes, a face would appear out of the blur of moving bodies, always the same caring face, belonging to an elderly lady who had cloudy blue eyes and the palest ever skin. She would drop a coin into my cup, ‘There you go, dear,’ she’d say affectionately, as if she knew me, then she’d disappear back into the moving blur before I could even thank her. But it didn’t happen often enough, I thought bleakly as I stared at my frail little cup which was teetering in the breeze. I put a stone in it to weigh it down, so that it wouldn’t blow over or blow away for good.
On Saturday, as it neared eleven, I grew increasingly nervous, going through the same old worries – what if he didn’t appear this time? What if I never saw him again? Or worse – what if whoever he was waiting on turned up? I had become convinced it was a girl, I don’t know why, I just knew it was.
He appeared at two minutes to eleven, not a second sooner, not a second later. Then began his ritual of wrist watching and crowd searching. I marvelled at how sweet he looked when he furrowed his brow, remembering that he looked even sweeter when he smiled.
We both noticed her at the same time. An old lady, wrapped in a faded grey coat, broke away from the crowd and walked straight up to him. At first I thought she must be the person he was waiting on but he looked as surprised and confused as I did as to who she was. I thought vaguely that she looked a bit like the old lady who dropped coins into my cup but hundreds of old ladies walked past me every day, and I couldn’t be sure from here if it was her or not. I saw her say something to him and he stuttered something back. Then she pressed something into his hand. As she walked away he stared down at what she had given him and I saw that it was money. I realised that she must have presumed by his shabby clothing that he was homeless. The thought, along with the shocked expression on his face as he studied the coins made me burst into hysterical laughter.
He scowled over at me although I’m sure he couldn’t have heard me laughing over the hustle bustle of the crowds. Then to my surprise he started to make his way through the crowds, towards me. I was stunned, what was he doing? It had just turned eleven, what if whoever he was waiting on actually turned up and he missed them? After all that waiting… For a moment I lost sight of him then he appeared before me, hands in pockets, a slight frown on his face. I had stopped laughing by now and looked up at him, waiting with bated breath for him to speak.
‘What were you laughing at?’ He enquired, looking a little displeased.
My gaze dropped to the money in his hand and I stifled a laugh again. Eventually his frown disappeared and he broke out into a smile.
‘What’s so funny?’ He was trying not to laugh, his eyes sparkling. They were blue, just as I’d thought.
‘Did she think you looked like you needed it or something?’ I said and he looked down at the money in his hand and his own threadbare clothing then we were both laughing.
‘Well you’re doing better than me.’ I gestured to my empty cup.
His smile faded a little as he noticed it. Did it bother him that I was homeless? Perhaps he hadn’t noticed from across the street. I knew he wasn’t living rough, I knew all the faces round here that were. He bent down and dropped the money into my cup. I hadn’t expected him to.
‘Thank you.’ I told him as he sat down, introducing himself as Paul. I studied him carefully, now that he was up close. He seemed to be doing the same to me. We laughed at each other as we noticed. ‘What colour is your hair?’ I pulled off his hat to reveal a mound of fluffy, straw coloured hair.
‘Hey I’m having a bad hair day today,’ he joked, pulling it back on. Then as if by habit, he checked his watch. It was twenty past. ‘Hmm. She hasn’t come.’ he said somewhat distantly.
‘Who?’ I asked but he only stared at the hands on his watch as if willing it to read a different time.
‘My sister.’ He mumbled eventually.
‘You always wait on her,’ I said, finding that it actually annoyed me, ‘and she never turns up. Why do you keep waiting?’
He thought, then shrugged. ‘She said she would come…I don’t know what’s happened to her.’ He searched the crowds again.
‘Well, what does she look like?’ I asked, scanning the crowds with him.
But he gazed at me as if slightly confused. ‘I can’t really remember to be honest.’
I nodded, knowing the feeling. It seemed like forever since I’d seen my own sister or my parents, and their faces were fading in my memory too.
‘Do you mind if I wait with you?’ he asked. ‘I may see her going past.’
I smiled. ‘Course not. I might have more luck with the paper cup.’
‘You know,’ he said, ‘when the old lady gave me that money she told me to go over and give it to you.’
I frowned. ‘Why didn’t she just give it to me herself?’
No sooner had I said it, she appeared again, smiling warmly. ‘Ah, you see, you’ve found a friend, son.’ She said to Paul then turned to me. I saw now that she was the same woman who always given me the money, I remembered her clouded eyes and skin like pale velvet. ‘It makes sense you know, you both looked so lonely, poor things. Poor, poor wee things, you’ve no idea have you?’’
Paul and I exchanged glances, figuring that, as sweet as she was, she was must be a bit senile. We shook our heads in answer to her question.
‘Here dear, I hate to see your little cup so empty all the time. I know it makes you so sad.’ She said as she placed a few coins in it. I thanked her, wondering why she knew that. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll both be fine from now on.’ She gave us both a smile before sighing heavily as she wandered off into the crowds. ‘Poor dears,’ I heard her say, ‘They were so young, so young…’
I looked into my cup, happier now that it didn’t need stones to stop it blowing away. ‘That was nice of her.’ I said. ‘My cup’s been empty forever.’
‘I think she’s that old lady they talk about.’ Paul told me as we watched the tail end of her coat disappear among the commuters.
‘What lady?’ I asked.
‘The one that walks round George Square talking to all these imaginary people.’
‘She must be senile, right enough.’ I said.
‘I’ve heard people say that it’s ghosts she sees, talks to them all the time.’
I burst out laughing. ‘Ghosts in George Square?’
‘Maybe she’s the ghost.’ He giggled and we fell back against the wall, creasing up with laughter so much that I almost knocked my cup over.