Henry's Home

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In a crowded city an old man sits waiting under a bridge

The van bumped across the uneven ground beneath the motorway flyover, the back wash from its headlights illuminating the red shield on its side. Henry struggled upright, shielding his eyes from the sudden glare. Carefully he unwrapped the sheets of newspaper from around his body, not wishing to damage them and risk having to endure the full impact of the freezing conditions. The van ground to a halt, the headlights extinguished leaving a sudden gloom as two figures alighted from it.

By the light of the security lights around the nearby scrap yard Henry could make out the familiar form of Ayesha, even bundled up against the cold night she was unmistakably short and round. The other figure was less familiar, probably one of the volunteers. In her hand Ayesha carried the bulky rectangular shape of the medical bag, while the other figure carried a thermos pot. Henry’s mouth salivated in anticipation.

“Evening Henry. How are you tonight?” The round figure called, her Caribbean accent as familiar to him as Henry’s native cockney.

“Not so bad, Miss. What have you got tonight?”

“Chicken and vegetable. Now, let me take a look at that arm of yours Henry.” The woman demanded. “No soup till I’ve had a proper look.” She slipped a band round her head and pressed a switch to light the torch that was fitted to it. The bright light hurt Henry’s eyes. The woman gently pulled away the layers of rags that made up Henry’s clothes until the pale grey of the bandage was revealed. Taking scissors from the medical bag she snipped away the dressing, her nose wrinkling as the smell of the putrefaction beneath began to escape.

“Now Henry.” She dabbed at the ulcerous flesh with an antiseptic wipe, “You’ve really got to see a doctor about this, or you risk losing your arm.”

“Don’t like horse piddles, Miss. People die in horse piddles.” The white of the woman’s toothy smile contrasted brightly with the deep black of her face.

“Well, OK, but Dr Ngani is holding a surgery at the Citadel this Saturday morning. Come to that and let him take a look at your arm.”

“What day is it today?”

“Thursday. Please say you’ll come.”

Henry knew that to argue would delay his meal, so he reluctantly agreed.

His arm was bound up with a fresh new bandage. “Now, Stefan will give you your soup. I have a little something in the van for you.” Ayesha snapped her medical bag shut and rose to her feet, her knees clicking in protest.

 

Stefan. Henry’s heart soared. As the woman walked back to the van Stefan raised a warning finger to his lips and passed a small tin flask to Henry. He grabbed it and took a large swig.

“Is good. Is Polish Vodka.” Stefan confided, making the V sound like a W. As he spoke he filled a large cardboard cup with the promised soup. Good old Stefan. As a Salvation Army Officer Ayesha was tea-total and disapproved of alcohol on principal, but Stefan took a more liberal view. If you lived under a motorway flyover then a drop of Vodka was the least he could provide in the way of home comforts. Stefan passed Henry the soup and retrieved his flask, splashing a drop more of the precious spirit into the cup. Stefan heard Ayesha’s tread behind him and quickly concealed the flask in his pocket.

A large bundle obscured Ayesha’s face and muffled her voice. “Here you are Henry. Just handed in this morning.” She passed the rolled up duvet to Henry. The light was just good enough for him to make out the pattern on the cover. Trains. A distant memory woke. Thomas The Tank Engine. A child’s duvet, now being given to him, an old homeless man. It wouldn’t last long of course. The damp would get into it and make it useless as insulation, or the rats would start to gnaw through to get at the stuffing to drag away to their nests. He couldn’t guard it night and day, he knew.

“There’s a new girl, under the railway arches on Lacey Street.” Henry said between gulps of the scalding soup. He felt his belly begin to warm.

“How old?” Ayesha asked.

“No more than sixteen at a guess. Only just arrived by the look of her.”

“Thanks Henry. Stefan, we need to get over their before anyone finds her. Who knows….” She let the sentence finish in mid-air, not wanting to voice her fears for the new girl. The two hurried back to the van.

“Goodnight Henry.” Ayesha called over her shoulder. As the van bumped away Henry pulled the duvet tight around himself. Today was a good day, he thought as he closed his eyes.

*          *          *

The following night the van bumped its way back across the waste ground once again. Ayesha easily picked out the bundle of bedding that made up Henry’s home. Strange, she thought. There was no movement from him tonight. Her heart skipped a beat, fearing the worst. Her volunteer tonight was Maria, a student at one of the local colleges. They did Duke Of Edinburgh’s Award and charity work counted towards their credits. She wasn’t as enthusiastic about the assignment as some of the regular volunteers, but Ayesha was glad of the company and the girl had made an effort to try to mask her boredom.

 

“Stay here.” Ayesha commanded, the concern clear in her voice

“What’s the matter?” The girl sounded frightened.

“Probably nothing, but I want to make sure that Henry’s alright before you get out. You can bring the soup when I call.”

Ayesha kept the engine running to preserve the van’s battery. She knew she would need the power of its headlights. She pushed open the door and lowered herself to the ground, testing with her feet to make sure she wouldn’t stumble on a loose stone. She had been injured that way on previous nocturnal visits around her nightly route.

Ayesha reached back into the van for her medical bag and rested it on the driver’s seat while she groped inside for her head torch. Finding it she slipped the band over her head and clicked the switch. At last she was ready.

There was a scurrying and scrabbling from around where Henry lay. Another ominous sign. A long, low shape scuttled away into the deep shadows.

“Henry!” Ayesha called out. If he was just sleeping it wouldn’t do to get too close. He may have been drinking. He might lash out. Better to approach with caution she had learnt over the years. She called again, then took a cautious step towards him.

Henry’s head sat perched above the smiling trains printed on the duvet cover. His woolie hat was pulled down over his ears and one of the many layers of jumpers and cardigans concealed the lower part of his face, so that all that was visible was his nose and the dark pools of his eye sockets.

The torch light coloured everything yellow, so it wasn’t possible to see the colour of Henry’s skin. Besides, skin colour on a homeless person provided no reliable indication of his health. Grey is grey, whether on a corpse or on a living being. The lack of any movement was what concerned Ayesha the most. She made her decision and stepped towards the swaddled figure.

Now she was up close there could be no doubt. However, she still had to make sure. She pushed away a layer of wool and felt for Henry’s carotid pulse. Nothing. His skin was cold, but that was something else that wasn’t unusual amongst people who lived under motorway flyovers. She drew her stethoscope from her bag and inserted the ear pieces into her ears. She pressed the chest piece to Henry’s neck. There was no sound of breathing, no thu-thump of a heartbeat. She pulled the necks of his garments away and slid her hand down inside the filthy layers so that she could listen directly to Henry’s heart. Again, nothing.

Ayesha rocked back on her heels, folded her hands together and lowered her head as she offered a silent prayer for Henry’s soul. She wasn’t alarmed. She had encountered scenes such as this too many times. She checked her watch, a routine action. The police would ask her what time she had found him.

Composing herself Ayesha reached into the pocket of her thick winter anorak and pulled out her ‘phone. She gave a resigned sigh as she scrolled through the numbers to find the first one she needed. It would be a long night. Someone had to cover the rest of her round. While Henry was beyond the help of her organisation there were still too many others that needed it still.

Ayesha felt movement beside her and looked up to find Maria standing next to her, her gaze transfixed as she regarded the heap of humanity that had once been a man.

“Is he…….?”

“Yes. I’m afraid he is. We’ll have to stay here until the police arrive. They’ll want statements.”

“Oh. Can I ‘phone my Mum and tell her I’ll be late?”

“Of course you can. We wouldn’t want your mother worrying.”

“What did he die of?”

“Any one of a dozen things, probably, but mainly of neglect.”

“You can’t die of neglect.” The girl stated flatly, confident in her knowledge of the world at the grand old age of nineteen.

“Oh yes you can, Maria. It won’t say that on his death certificate, of course, but that’s what caused him to die.”

“Have you known him for long?”

“I’ve been doing this work since before you were born and I think I’ve known Henry for most of that time. He wasn’t always like this, of course. I first met him at one of our hostels. He was quite old even then. But he was erratic. He got drunk, he got into fights with the other guests, so eventually he had to be excluded. We didn’t abandon him, of course. We tried to get him help but people like Henry often don’t want our help. Not that sort of help anyway. So he ended up out on the streets, getting older and more sick.”

“Was he always like that?”

“Oh no. Once he had a family; A wife, children. But he got sick. Mental health problems they called it. Nowadays they call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His wife left him. His children didn’t want to know him, nor for that matter did he want to know them.”

“Post Traumatic Stress.” The girl repeated. “What caused that?”

“He had been in the army. Korea I think. He’s too young to have been in World War Two, despite how he looks. I think he saw some pretty bad things.”

The howl of a siren could be heard, the volume growing as the police car got closer. Ayesha sighed again. She had told the operator that it was too late for Henry, but these young constables couldn’t resist the drama of a night time dash to a dead body. If things took their usual course there would soon be far more police here than were necessary for the death by natural causes of an old homeless man.

“Didn’t the government help him? When he left the army, I mean?”

“When Henry left the army there was no such things as PTSD. It’s hard for soldiers to admit they’re suffering from it even today. By the time he was properly diagnosed he had already slipped through the net. My Commanding Officer,” Ayesha slipped easily into the parlance of the Salvation Army, “tried to get the Ministry of Defence involved, but they said they needed him to go into hospital to be assessed. The British Legion tried, but it was the same result. Henry wouldn’t have anything to do with hospitals. He said people died in them. Look.”

Ayesha dragged Henry’s hand from under the duvet and shone her torch onto it.

“He has a tattoo.”

“Yes, Marie. But look at the tattoo. Do you recognise it?”

“Looks like two snakes wrapped round some sort of stick. Are those wings at the top?”

“That’s exactly what it is and those are wings. It’s called a caduceus. It from ancient Greece. It’s the symbol of the healer and appears on the cap badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Henry was a medical orderly, which is why he didn’t like hospitals. He’d seen to many people die in them. Try as we might he always refused to go, so he was abandoned by the people who sent him to war.”

“So you can die of neglect then.”

“Yes, you can.”

The police car arrived in a spray of loose stones and its siren died away. The doors flew open and the two officers jogged over to join the two women.”

“No need to hurry, Simon.” Ayesha admonished, recognising one of the two new arrivals. “He isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.”

In the dim glow of the torch light Ayesha thought she saw Simon’s face flush with embarrassment.

“Hello Ayesha. It’s Henry, isn’t it?” Simon asked.

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Poor old sod.”

Ayesha didn’t approve of the use of the swear word, but she recognised the sentiment. “Yes, poor old sod.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any soup going?” Simon asked hopefully.

Ayesha rolled her eyes in a world weary way. “Can you get the soup from the van please, Maria. No point in it going to waste.”

 

 

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