One sunny Sunday morning. Rosie and I are on our way back from the local bagel place, scoffing rye and sesame bagels as we walk. We’re sharing – taking turns taking bites out of each other’s bagels. We round the corner and make the descent down the steep and picturesque hill that leads us back to our flat.
The walk will take us through the oldest and most historic parts of our neighbourhood. There’s a church a few steps from where we are with a chocolate-box cemetery, overgrown with moss and wildflowers. Walk through it and you end up in acres of park – old land where sheep once safely grazed.
We’re still a few minutes away from there, just turning the corner. This is the corner where our dear friend lives – in an apartment block that’s home to a lot of quiet families and a few loud drunks.
Instinctively, I look over at the rows of windows, take in this building that is so incongruous with its surrounds (looking down the hill, that is), and feel comforted that she is in there, probably still in her pyjamas.
Then I look down, because something catches my eye. A young man, blue eyes dazed, bald head bobbing, is leaning against the parapet wall. He looks like he’s listening to music, but he doesn’t have any headphones on. He’s crouching there, like he’s waiting for someone. Like he’s tired and having a cigarette, except he isn’t smoking one.
Then I look further down. There’s the pavement and some fluid just beneath him. And then – what’s that? – is it? No – not here. Not now, on this sunny Sunday morning.
It is. A watery turd. Human waste. His waste… on the pavement.
I stop chewing my bagel – which is, rather unhelpfully, black rye – and pull Rosie away from him. He doesn’t even notice us.
The sun is still shining. Even on him. And now I’m fuming. I walk Rosie briskly down the hill, loudly decrying this stranger’s behaviour. “Disgusting,” I gasp repeatedly. I turn around and see him stand, pull up his trousers and saunter away. “He didn’t wipe himself,” says Rosie, still munching on her bagel. “Why is he doing poo in the street?” I am too appalled to answer.
Instead, I think: I want to call the police. Too late, I realise I should have captured his indignity on my mobile phone and uploaded it to YouTube for all the world to see, with the title: DO YOU KNOW THIS MAN? I tell Rosie that the best punishment for him is to find him when he’s sober, hand him a bottle of bleach, and get him to clean up the mess he’s made. She nods.
And then I tell her that this is what happens. This is what happens when you drink too much alcohol and take other bad things.
“But Daddy didn’t do that,” she says.
I can’t remember now what I said then. I’d like to think that I didn’t say what I was thinking – that her dad had come home at least once having soiled himself. That he probably did do exactly this not once, but a few times.
Looking at him now, it’s hard to believe he sank that low. It’s easy to forget.
Small mercies then for those who remain in that dark place. Who have lost all dignity and squat on the pavement within my own neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from our 13th century church flanked by equally old and majestic trees. Small mercies because these wasted lives, this human waste – reminds me of what was and what must never be again.