It had been a normal run-of-the-mill Friday morning. Goods were dispatched, transportation all going to plan and delivery target times looking good. Jack looked at his watch, 12.30pm, the sun was shining and had been all morning. He slid his chair back and stood up, “I’m going to lunch Clare”, he said. Clare didn’t look up from her computer screen, just half lifted her left hand in acknowledgment, “Enjoy”, was all she said.
He blinked as he stepped out of the office into the warm June sunshine, all week the weather had been good, but this was the first chance he had to enjoy it. It only took him a few minutes to reach the traffic lights on the high street and cross over the road into the park. He made his way to the duck pond and sat at the first empty bench. He had visited the park many times over the last three years and never seen a duck, but still in his mind he referred to it as “the duck pond”. Opening the green Marks and Spencer’s biodegradable bag holding his lunch he fished out the boxed sandwich, chicken and mayonnaise, it was up there among his favourites. Removing half of the sandwich from the wrapper he took a bite, took his mobile from his pocket and started to view his emails.
“Have you any loose change sir?”
He looked up to see a young woman standing in front of him holding out her hand. She was wearing a dirty blue jacket even though it was warm, an old pair of jeans and tired trainers. Her hair was long, greasy and unkempt . He stared at her for a moment, despite her unkempt appearance she spoke with a well-educated accent.
He shook his head.
“No sorry”, he replied.
“Thank you anyway”, came the reply.
She turned and started to walk away.
Why had he said that? He had plenty of change, why had he responded in the standard way, without a thought.
He called after her. “I have a sandwich if you want to share it.”
She turned and looked at him as he held out the box containing the other half of the Marks and Spencer’s sandwich.
“But that’s your lunch”, she replied .
“I’ve got plenty.” He reached out towards her with the sandwich. She hesitated then took it from the box.
“Thank you”, she said, and taking a bite started to walk away.
“Aren’t you going to eat it with me?”
He couldn’t believe he had said that, it had been instinctive, natural.
She turned and looked at him, “Why would you want that?”
He shrugged, “It’s a nice day, there’s room on the bench, why not?”
She was unsure, hesitant, but turned and then sat herself halfway down the bench and putting down the large bag she was carrying continued eating the rest of the sandwich.
“Thank you, that was nice”, she said finishing the sandwich and wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
“Yes, it’s one of my favourites”, he replied, and reaching into his bag pulled out a six pack of chocolate bars.
He handed her a bar; she took it without reply and unwrapping it took a bite.
“You’re welcome”, Jack replied.
She looked at him.
“Why?” she asked.
“Why are you sharing your lunch with me?”
He shrugged, “I’ve got more than I need, you look hungry and to be honest I’ve got a pocket full of change, so I don’t know why I said I didn’t.”
“Everybody says that, don’t worry about it”, she replied taking another bite of the bar.
There was a silence for a while as they both ate their chocolate bars.
He spoke first, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” He sat back into the bench and stretched out his legs.
She shrugged, “It’s not raining, I hate it when it rains.”
He turned and stuck out his open hand, “My name is Jack.”
“What’s funny about that?” he questioned.
She shook her head, “Nothing, nothing at all.”
“Well why did you laugh then?”
“My name is Jillian.”
He looked blank.
“Don’t you see?” she asked. “Jack and Jill, all we need is a pail of water and we’re there!”
He smiled, “Sorry, didn’t see it at first”, he hesitated, “are you homeless?”
“No, I’ve got a penthouse flat just off the Chelsea Road.” The sarcasm in her reply was obvious.
“Sorry, I suppose it was a stupid question. How long have you been homeless?”
“Jesus Christ! Half a sandwich and a chocolate bar doesn’t entitle you to my life story.” Her voice was raised, and she got to her feet.
“Sorry”, he replied.
“You must spend a lot of time being sorry”, she snapped.
“I was just trying to make conversation, wasn’t sure what to say really. I didn’t mean to pry, please don’t be annoyed with me, I’ve never had lunch with a homeless person before, it’s not easy knowing what to say.”
She stabbed a finger at him. “You gave me the sandwich! You asked me to sit down!” Her voice was still raised, “Look at you! Just look at you, your smart suit, smart haircut, and,” she paused, “and you smell great! Just look at me, I’m filthy, I haven’t been able to shower in weeks, I’ve only got the clothes I stand up in, I’m a mess, a shitty bloody mess. Do you think it’s easy for me to sit down next to you, share your lunch, look at you and smell how clean you are?” She paused and looked down at the ground, her voice dropped. “I’m embarrassed and ashamed of myself, the way I look, the way I must smell.”
He reached back into his bag and pulled out two more chocolate bars and handed her one.
“Please sit back down.” He tapped the bench.
She took the bar. “What the fuck for? So you can ask me more questions, humiliate me more?”
“I never meant to do that! I just wanted to talk to you that’s all, please, sit back down.”
She unwrapped the chocolate bar and begrudgingly returned to the bench. For a while she said nothing, just munched on the chocolate bar and stared at the duck pond. Then she turned to him.
“I haven’t always lived like this. I had it all once,” she paused and turned back to stare at the duck pond, as if lost in her memories. “I was married, we had a house, a mortgage, we both had good jobs. We had it all.”
He was hesitant to say anything, he knew a thoughtless question; the wrong question and she would stop and probably walk off back into her world. He waited.
“We lost it all, everything.” Her words were quieter now and shrouded in sadness, regret.
“Aren’t you going to ask how?” she said without looking at him.
He had to be careful, she was opening up to him, sharing her sadness, and now for some reason it had become important to him to know, important to him to care. He chose his words carefully.
“If you want to tell me, I want to listen”, he replied.
“He had a good job in commercial banking”, she continued, “mixed with the high-flyers, socialised with the wealthy. He started spending more time so called networking. Normally at some wine bar or the other or some top restaurant. He was drinking heavily, then it was cannabis. I begged him to stop, told him it was dangerous. But no, he would just say ‘It’s ok everyone does it’. Then one day I found a cocaine wrap in his jacket pocket, and that was that, things went downhill fast. We got into debt, got behind with the mortgage, then he lost his job. He would disappear for days on end; we lost the house and were declared bankrupt. I never saw him again after that. I had nothing, I couldn’t return to my family, they had warned me about him and I hadn’t listened. I stayed with a couple of different friends for a while, tried to keep working but that couldn’t last, so I ended up like this.”
“And what about him?” he asked quietly.
“I heard from a friend that he had been found dead in Barrack Street public toilets. Drug overdose. He still had the syringe in his arm.”
He could see the pain in her face, there were no tears, just pain.
“I’m very sorry.” His words felt inadequate, almost meaningless; he tried to improve on his response. “I’ve lost people I loved, lost things I had, I do understand.”
She turned to him; her voice was sharp.
“My pain is my pain, my loss is my loss, and my hurt is my hurt. You don’t understand, how could you? Look at you! You’re smart, you have a job, you have a life, a fucking life.”
Her tone had changed again, anger flowing into her voice.
“How the bloody hell could you understand?”
She turned away from him and started to get up.
Taking her arm Jack pulled her back to the seat.
“If you think you are the only one in this world that has felt grief, felt pain, felt loss then you are wrong.” It was his turn to show some anger in his voice, and it surprised her. “Ok, so life has given you the shitty end of the stick, you’re not the only one you know! Sure, you can hide from life, wander the streets, eat whatever crap you can find, punish yourself for failing, but you know, deep down inside you know, you’re worth more than that, you’re better than that.”
She pulled her arm away and clapped her hands together. “What a speech! So, you are the expert on life, you know all about it, well I’ll tell you this, you know didley shit about me.”
“And you know didley shit about me”, Jack replied, “you saw me on this bench, thought he looks smart, he must have some money and came over to try your luck. You’re so wrapped up in feeling sorry for yourself with your pain, your loss, your hurt, so wrapped up, you’ve given up on life and other people. You are incapable of understanding other people have their pain and their loss. Other people care.”
“OK! OK!” she snapped back at him, “so tell me what makes you such a fucking expert? Tell me that, tell me how you, sitting here looking the way you do, happen to know so much about life, about loss, I’m interested to know.”
Reaching into the Marks and Spencer bag he retrieved a tin of coke, “I’ve only got one tin.”
Frustrated with him she pulled her bag open and rummaging around took out a battered plastic mug and held it out to him. He opened it and shared it out between them.
“I was in the army”, Jack told her, “always wanted to be in the army even as a boy, I wasn’t a great scholar but worked hard and managed to get into Sandhurst. After I passed out, I was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the Rifles, spent six months in Northern Ireland before we were posted to Afghanistan, to Camp Bastion in Helmand Province.”
She was listening to him, sipping on the coke yes, but listening to him.
“That’s where I met my fiancée” he continued. “She was a lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps, she’d been out there longer than me, six months longer. Bit of a whirlwind romance I suppose, but after three months I asked her to marry me and much to my surprise she said yes. We planned to get married as soon as we were both back in England.
“And did you?” she interrupted.
“No”, he paused, “we never got the chance, things happened.”
He stopped talking and looked at his watch.
“What things happened? You can’t just leave it there; you gave me the speech! So, tell me what things happened?”
“I’ll be late back to work”, he said, and started putting the discarded wrappers back into the bag.
“Oh no you don’t! You’re not just going to walk away with your story half told, what’s the matter, hard to talk about is it? Hard to share your hurt! Is your hurt, your hurt?” Her last words were laced with sarcasm.
He smiled, put his bag back on the bench and looked at her.
“Ok point taken. We were out on patrol; the Taliban had infiltrated a local village and were reported to be operating out of there. I was leading B company, our objective was to advance from the south-east, C company were to advance from the west. We were using a gully for cover, Jimbo was on point, I was leading the rest in line astern. Then suddenly Jimbo stopped and raised an arm, but as he did we were hit with incoming fire from two sides. We scattered, took cover where we could and called in air support. We were pinned down, just had to dig in and hold on for help. We returned fire and tried to regroup, we were taking casualties, men were down. Where we could we got the injured under cover. I could see Jimbo about twenty metres out, he was dead. Jack stopped and rested his head in his hands.”
“You survived though, you got out”, she said to him.
He didn’t answer, just went on with his story, “They started hitting us with mortar fire. The first couple fell short, the third didn’t. I don’t remember much more after that; I was told two American Black Hawks arrived and took care of things and we were medevac’d out”. He paused, “We lost, I lost, seven men that day and four badly injured.”
“And you? Were you injured?”
She was staring at him now; she had become entangled in the net that was his life.
He reached down and pulled his left trouser leg up a few inches to reveal a prosthetic leg.
“I was lucky, they saved it below the knee, they shipped me home and the army put me back together again, only less the bottom half of my leg.”
“And your fiancée, what about her?”
He turned away from her for a moment as if gathering his thoughts, his memories. “Lieutenant Catherine Stockley wasn’t so lucky, she was shipped home five weeks after me, but she was in a coffin, killed in a rocket attack on the base.”
“I’m so sorry Jack, I had no idea.” Her voice was soft now and there was a sensitivity in her tone.
“Why should you have”, he replied. “My hurt is my hurt, my pain is my pain. After that I suffered from P.T.S.D; had flashbacks and couldn’t sleep. Started drinking heavily, resigned my commission, refused help. I went back home and slowly, very slowly my family helped me put my mind back together, you see the Army can stitch you up, get you mobile, but it can’t repair the hurt, the pain the loss. As you said Jill your hurt is your hurt, your pain is your pain and your loss is your loss.” He stopped talking and picked up his bag. “Go back home to your family, talk to them, they love you, they will help you. Don’t give up on life.” He stood up and looking down at her, took his wallet from his pocket and removed two twenty-pound notes. “That’s all I have on me, go to a shelter, get yourself cleaned up and go home. You need to start again Jill; we all make mistakes.” He offered her the money.
“I can’t take your money, not now”, she protested.
He dropped it into her lap and turned to walk away, “I hope we meet again Jill, I really do.”
She sat and watched him as he walked towards the park gate, his slight limp evident now.
“So, Jack did fall down”, she said quietly to herself.