Let me tell you a story, but whether you believe it or not is entirely up to you. I’m not sure I fully buy it, either.
It’s a cold Monday night in Belfast. My friend and I have been out for a few beers to catch up, as I’m visiting his city for one night only before I fly to England. After a chilled out evening, we decide to get some food at some Turkish kebab joint.
There’s only one other person in the place when we arrive, standing at the counter and looking up at the menu. He’s dressed in an olive-green trench coats, jeans, and trainers. He looks clean, but a little disheveled, like a construction worker who had a long day at work. I thought little of it at the time, but when he turned to see us come in, he was quick enough in letting us order food ahead of him. “You guys go ahead,” he says, “I can’t decide what to have”.
Once my friend and I order, I go to sit down, but soon I’m approached by the first customer.
“Do you guys mind if I grab a seat?”
“Fire ahead”, I reply dryly. “There’s plenty of them free”.
At this point, let me explain something about myself. I’m cynical as hell, and generally have little time for being approached by people I don’t know. Obviously, it depends on the situation, but a lone guy in a fast food diner in the wee hours of the morning is likely to have had a few pints, and my tolerance for drunk people is low at the best of times. Right now, I’m assuming this mystery man has had a few beers.
The man quickly notices at I don’t have a Belfast accent, and asks me where I’m from.
“Have a guess”, I reply, clearly not in the mood for this.
“You’re about two hundred kilometres off.”
The small talk turns into a bit of banter, with the occasional tense moment when some of his jokes go awry or get lost in translation. He mentions that he has returned home to Belfast from his time in the army, to visit his mother. With the way he mentions her, it doesn’t sound like she’s healthy. Soon, though, when the ice has been broken (though I haven’t warmed to him fully) he changes his tune.
“Gents, I don’t mean to be annoying”, he starts, “but can I ask a favour?”
Here we go, I think to myself: He needs money.
“My friend and I are homeless, and we’re just trying to look after ourselves tonight…”
Some people would have reacted right away, by reaching into their pockets. Some would’ve given a tried-and-tested line to politely refuse, saying they’ve no small change, or something similar.
I did neither. I pushed him on his story, listening to the suspicion in my head. He sat in front of me, telling me he had been in the army and that he had been visiting his mother in Belfast.
Something didn’t add up.
I asked him how long he had been back in Belfast for: Five months.
Where had he been posted while in the army: Afghanistan and Iraq. He added that he had been through things that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. I told him that I wouldn’t dare to imagine.
“If you’re visiting your mother,” I ask, “why can’t you stay with her?”
He becomes uneasy at that question, replying that “it’s all too much to go back there after everything [he] went through”.
Where’s the friend? “About 250 metres north of here”, he replies. Weirdly specific, I think, wondering if he phrased his answer to convince me of his background, or if his training has remained part of him after all.
Do the army not provide assistance to former soldiers? “They have a [specific] base in England”, he replies, making me realise that he has fought for the British Army instead of for the Irish. “I couldn’t bare the thought of returning to them”.
The glassy, somewhat distant look in his eyes make me want to figure out more. They remind me of a family member who once ended up homeless, and died after being assaulted while living on the streets. It’s because of that family experience that I wanted to verify this guy’s story. I couldn’t ask him much more, though; I had already acted as a some police investigator, trying to pick holes in his story. The time for passing verdict had come.
I reached into my pocket, and grabbed three pounds in coins. Before giving them to him, I tried to give him a little advice without preaching to him. I explained that a family member died on the streets, so I’ve heard enough stories about homelessness. Seemingly, he knew I wasn’t trying to pontificate, but he was grateful for the few pounds.
I’m still not sure if his story was legit or not. He wasn’t sober that night, but if he had been drinking, it wasn’t that much. If he had taken something else, I wouldn’t have known, but that glassy glaze on his eyes was a sight I had seen before.
If his story was real, then questions need to be raised over the mental and physical health of discharged soldiers (in the UK and elsewhere) and the resources available to them, to stop them falling out of society. Social services have been badly under-resourced throughout Britain and Ireland for years, and yet the governments of our countries often forget that cuts to funding impact on people’s lives severely.
If his story was bogus, then I paid £3 for a captivating performance, and that man is missing out on a compelling acting career. I’ll be happy to give him a good reference for his next audition, if that’s the case.
More fool me, if so.