The air was oppressively hot, like the whole of London was a locked car, hungry for dogs to stifle. There was no breeze to offer relief and the only things that moved fast were the trickles of perspiration down glistening sunburnt skin. This was boob sweat weather, the worst kind of heat, with nowhere to hide and not enough unattended kiddies’ paddling pools to hijack. I did the only thing a girl could do in this weather; I wore as little as gynaecologically decent and did my best impression of a rotisserie chicken in the garden of PFPT Towers, slowly rotating until an even crisp formed.
Having taken in enough ultraviolet radiation to turn into a cancerous superhero, I peeled myself off the singed grass, scooped my sticky flesh into a shorts and vest combination that bore only the slight risk of my particulars falling out while in public, and with the slow elegance of a roast ham dragging itself through a honey glaze, I made my way to the shop for vital supplies (Twister ice lollies and wine).
It was late afternoon but the sun beat down upon the streets aggressively, and people flowed along the pavement like treacle (treacle in hats, sun dresses and flip flops, granted, but treacle none the less) and as I made my way to the purveyor of cold treats, I saw him. An authentic East London tramp, broken and slumped against the wall, his shirt strewn among his myriad plastic bags, his nails, dirty and long like his bedraggled beard, and his weather beaten face as wrinkled and worn as a hooker’s bed sheets. He stood out against the maxi dressed throng as a shabby beacon of class division; malnourished, homeless, suffering the dangerous effects of cheap cider in a cruel heatwave, so obviously my first instinct was to Instagram him.
Having resisted the urge to callously photograph a man who had fallen upon hard times and an even harder pavement, I gladly entered the welcoming air conditioned environs of the supermarket and took my time by the chiller cabinets, allowing the wafts of artificial cold air to cling to my salty limbs like the kisses of an icy-lipped lover with questionable oral hygiene, then, having purchased my delectable frosty treats, I ventured back into the unforgiving kiln of the street once more, eager to return to the cool shade of my home where I could indulge my desire for consumable coolants, but my feet wouldn’t allow it.
No longer slumped against the wall, this matted man, this fetid fellow now lay on the ground with nothing between him and the cruel smile of the sun. Whether passed out from drink or passed out from boredom, this man was performing an impression of a metaphorical egg, frying on the tarmac. As he lay there, prone and alone, not one person stopped to assist, not one person thought to take action (not even for an artistic Instagram shot) and the most distressing thing of all? I actually cared!
At a young age I tried to swap my emotions and sense of humanity for a My Little Pony, but the selfish little brat declined, so there I was, my ice lolly melting and my wine becoming 2 degrees above optimum serving temperature, actually caring about someone other than myself. All manner of thoughts crossed my mind: should I call an ambulance? Should I find a responsible adult? Seriously, should I Instagram it?! In the end, I opted to buy him an isotonic drink (electrolytes – good for dehydration) and so back into the shop I walked, and stood by the fridge wondering just what flavour drink a tramp might like. When I found that they don’t make turps flavour Lucozade (just about the one flavour they don’t make) and having um’d and ah’d over whether to just get a mineral water, “or how about a blackcurrant juice drink?” (seriously, these things matter, even in a crisis) I did the sensible thing and picked the sports drink on special offer.
Still he lay there, motionless in the sun and still people walked by, gawping like fish at a circus. I approached his prone form and delicately gave him a well manicured prod from an angle where bodily fluids would likely miss me should he erupt. Nothing. What was I to do?! All about me, people were rubbernecking as I proffered a 78p bottle of fruit flavoured beverage to a piece of societal roadkill. I confess, I panicked somewhat and stood the bottle near his face and scurried off, with bemused eyes mocking me.
You’d think I would have returned home feeling triumphant about my small act of generosity and at having gone a little out of my way to help someone who others consider to be trash. Well, you’d be wrong. Emotions are a cruel mistress and mine had me choking on a cry. Salty tears of defeat and shame mixing with the salty sweat on my cheeks as I berated myself. I should have done more, I should have incited other to help me move him to shade, I should have cared less about the judgmental eyes burning into me, I should have called for an ambulance, something! No, what I should have done was made a sweeter deal for that My Little Pony.
It was a long, restless night, the relentless heat in the air preventing an easy sleep and the tramp weighing on my mind. What if he had died? What if he had woken up to find his least favourite flavour of Lucozade? What if he would rather have had the blackcurrant drink?! On my way into work the next day, I passed the scene of my altruistic encounter and there was no sign of a corpse and no isotonic drink, so all must have gone well (or the local eateries are selling slow roasted, free range cider-fed meat for a day or two.) You think it’s a happy ending right there, don’t you? That my tramp based anxiety has been quelled and my good deed, reward in itself? Wrong again. I may not have his death on my hands but it also turns out that he wasn’t a secret millionaire, and that’s 78p I’m never getting back!