It’s Wednesday, three o’clock and I’ve finished my classes for the day. I should be teaching but I’m at home. Each day at school, we wait for our managers to mention the sacred word: ‘Phil, Monsieur Decroux has just………(but wait for it Phil, don’t get excited yet, Monsieur Decroux could be calling to say he’s going to be five minutes late or wants to change the time of his lesson. It could be anything and because our managers know that I’m waiting for the sacred word, they keep the sentence hanging in the air for as long as possible. But finally)…. ‘And Phil, I’m afraid to tell you that your lesson has been…cancelled. YES! For a split second I try to look disappointed but it’s impossible in these golden moments and a broad smile spreads across my face and I start to pack up. We’re meant to stay around to do something useful, as we still get paid. But no one does that. Not anymore.
As I’m walking back from school at around two, I notice the homeless man from yesterday sitting outside the shopping centre. As normal, his expression is indifferent, his eyes seemingly not focussing in or out on anything. Neither watching, nor not watching. Simply taking it in like CCTV.
He’s around 50, dressed in dirty jeans, a few thick jumpers and a duffel coat tied with a belt. I never see him beg or ask for money and as I walk past him I nod hoping he might recognise me. But why should he? I’m just one of the thousands that walk past him every day. I wear black trousers, a shirt, a pair of brogues, a black jacket. I blend into the background like everybody else.
It was after seeing him one night in late November that changed my view of where I live. Before, I’d considered my bed-sit that overlooks a run down Mosque, a 1930s block of flats and a Halal Butcher, as a tiny, cramped, over-priced box. Hardly, the France I remembered as a nineteen year old working on a farm in Provence, where my window looked out over blooming apple orchards with row upon row of Grenache grape vines in the distance soaking up the glorious Mediterranean sun in the light breeze of the Mistral.
After that night, while my flat or its location hadn’t changed, I thought differently about apartment 0215, Rue Saxe Gambetta: it was warm and safe, it was quiet, I could sleep, it provided me with a shower and a toilet, it was 15 minutes from school. It was mine.
I didn’t have to sleep in the cold with the constant threat of being smashed in the head, pissed on, or evicted. I didn’t have to get up in the morning to find a place to piss or crap. Neither did I have to endure the daily grind of finding food and drink. Nor suffer the effects of bad sanitation and health. Yes, my flat could be bigger, have a better view, have a bigger cooking space, a better bed, a better shower. I could spend my whole life wanting to upgrade to bigger and better things: better job, better woman, better phone, better car, better everything.
I could go and sleep outside the shop for a night under the awning. Come back in the morning cold and hungry and then decide what I thought about the size of the kitchen, the bed or the bathroom.