Last Saturday I had little excuse. I was taking an afternoon train into the beautiful city of Bath to meet old friends. These are the kind of friends that are like old sweaters you lose down the back of a wardrobe: you unearth them from time to time, but as soon as you slip them on, you rediscover that instant warmth and comfort you knew some time before. And so it was this day. Admittedly, the train was late and over-crowded: that first cool pint would be in our hands almost an hour later than we had planned. But conversation flowed with great hilarity, and the year that had surreptitiously prised itself between us fell away like dust.
Yet, right at the end of the evening, a few dark clouds scudded along the setting sun, and I found my disposition shifting slightly. Red wine may, in part, have been accountable; but vast experience has led me to concur that a mellowing rather than darkening of mood usually ensues. Not so much this evening, though.
You see, one of my friends is, and always has been a pipe-and-slippers man. Towards the end of the night, he had started to opine on the profound satisfaction he has with his lot. Like me, well into middle age, he enjoys a second wave of fatherhood; unlike me, he travels abroad with work, is into his cars, and often takes Saturdays away from home life to watch the rugby, Formula One, etc. Life, he said, in a rather rambling monologue, was as good as it had ever been. Of course, I wouldn’t begrudge him any of this. I’m thrilled to see a person happy with their lot, I really am. But I’m a wider-view person. And I’m thinking: what about the people around you – the people that help to make your world what it is – have you asked them whether they’re happy too? Have their lives slotted into a comfortable rut, as yours has? And beyond that? Beyond your immaculate home and your compulsively-organised garage; beyond your affluent shire and Merrie Middle-England? Are you happy with that wider world too?
Admittedly, none of my reservations escaped my lips – I value our friendship too much! I nodded, mumbled something about ‘life, indeed, being good’ and got the next round in. But, once we were on the return journey home, and they’d got off at their station, I continued to ponder. I had another forty minutes of journey ahead, and I turned his words (and my reactions to them) over in my head as the lights of the train carriage dimmed, and the late night travellers thinned with each station stop.
Come leaving the station to embark on a short walk home, I had descended into a deeper chamber of self-absorption. Surely, I should be looking to myself, to what I was doing, rather than casting a critical eye on an old friend?
I looked about me. There seemed something dark and very cynical lurking in very streets I traversed: a ‘Vape-Away’ shop here, an ‘Erotique Boutique’ there; the boarded-up ambivalence of a corner pub that had run itself into the ground. It was a very warm night; clouds were low and oppressive overhead and, despite the late hour, beads of sweat pricked across my brow. A young couple argued beneath a street lamp, as I turned the corner and walked into the road that led to the central carpark.
I found myself wanting an answer: where was God in any of this? I have struggled with faith of any kind as long as I can remember; but it is when faced with odd, inexplicable moods like these that the questions burn more deeply. If there is a god, is this the way the world was truly meant to be?
And at that time, each step taking me nearer to my home, I felt myself really wanting to believe. If I could have a faith of some kind, I knew it would make me stronger for those around me; I could blame agnosticism for inaction or doubt no longer.
It is quite a desperate feeling – wanting something, really concentrating, and yet feeling that it is those few but very potent germs of qualm that act as a barrier to any Damascene moment that you long for.
I remember closing my eyes as I walked across the deserted carpark, towards the blurred reflections of streetlamps shimmering in the dirty river that I was to cross before the final stretch home. If there was a god, why wouldn’t he or she appear to a non-believer?
I caught up with the river, and fell in beside its slow crawl, thrusting my hands into my pockets. The banks were uneven and unkempt, strewn with a few old shopping trolleys. Then, suddenly, I became aware of a dark shape slithering beneath a large bush which, despite the stillness of the muggy night, was quivering with disruption. A large hulk of a frame covered in a dirty green wax-jacket rustled into the foliage, a whole collection of plastic bags being scooped in around it.
Bewildered, I stopped dead in my tracks and looked down. The grubby face of an older man – perhaps in his late fifties or early sixities? – met mine from beneath the leaves. He had no words: his eyes were wide, scared.
I realised that I had seen him before – many times in fact. This nameless man was a frequent occupant of the city’s central car-park and its surrounding areas, sighted frequently sitting or settling on a riverbank: a dark and squalid figure in an orange ocean of carrier-bags. I almost moved on, but the irresistible connection between this chance encounter and my recent thoughts held me to the spot. On his part, I imagined that previous encounters with drunk and abusive passers-by at this late hour had encouraged him to keep up his guard – his expression certainly told such a story story.
‘Are you OK?’ I asked, somewhat inadequately.
Despite the laconic, West-Country burr, his speech was quick, nervous. ‘Yes, yes – I’m fine here,’ he said, quietly. ‘Just a bit noisy in town, isn’t it? Thought I’d stop here for a while until it died down.’
Looking down at him, I couldn’t imagine how it could ever be possible to find comfort in that damp space.
I crouched down on my haunches beside him and wondered what I could do. I had no money on me, only cards. Besides, what good could money do a homeless man at this hour? “I live nearby,” I said. “I could bring you something?”
He seemed almost alarmed by the thought. “No, no,” he said. “I’ve got all my food here.” And then, as if painfully aware of the sorry impression of his predicament: “I’ll head back onto town when it’s quieter.”
We talked a short while longer until, aware of his acute desire to sleep, I wondered if the conversation was becoming a mere indulgence to a sense of guilt or hopelessness on my part. His eyes were hooded, hollow, sad. Perhaps he wanted to be left alone.
“I’m Craig,” I said, extending a hand. He took it.
“Max,” he replied.
“Max. Are you sure I can’t…?”
“No, I’m fine,” he repeated. “I’ll find somewhere in town soon.” He turned his face away.
I left him, knowing that, weather allowing, he would stay beneath that bush all night.
I’m not ashamed to admit that tears pricked my eyes as I walked the short stretch home. I found myself wondering about the life he had had, and how it had come to rest with the humble occupation of a hedge beside a riverbank on one of less desirable sides of town. Whose son he had been? Where had he gone to school, to work? What relationships had he had? Were there children? What had been the dreadful tipping point in this man’s life?
The encounter had been brief and had hardly come to much, but its proximity to my period of reflection unnerved me. It was followed by a fitful night’s sleep and, in periods of wakefulness , the thought of stirring my wife to ask her what she made of it pressed me more than once; as did the compulsion to return to Max, beneath that bush.
I did neither. But as long as I am troubled with the thought that I asked for a sign, and may have received one, I no longer feel that I have a right to be as complacent about my agnosticism.