In my memory now, from some years ago, I am taking a walk along the riverside with a man I knew as Old George, who had sort of befriended me as I took my regular walks. He had approached me this day as I stood looking out across the water.
It was a calm day. Cold, but with little wind and some sunshine in between the clouds. George was, and perhaps still is, basically a down-and-out, although a rather civilised one, with a refined accent. And this was the day he decided to tell me why. The reasons rather surprised me, because I had quickly labelled him as just a drunk old hippy. His long grey hair and beard, torn shirts, loose baggy clothes and plastic sandals all led me to that appraisal. But I had got him all wrong. Of course I can't recall the precise words, but I do recall the gist of it all and the most vital phrases, which were all very close to this:
‘I came upon this town when I was released from prison, just wandering around, and I talked my way into some emergency lodgings,’ he said, as if I should already have known he had been in prison. My frown must have allowed him to realise that I had no idea.
‘Two years for fraud. I served one of ‘em. Twelve fucking months. I was a local manager in the construction business. Used to make about thirty five thousand a year, legitimately, in days when that was quite a lot, but it wasn’t enough. My wife was ill, my kids were teenagers with all their bloody needs. I got greedy.’
We were tramping along a stony patch, and my feet were scrunching and slipping once again across wet stones, polished to roundness by millions of years of water. After some yards of silence, when maybe he was expecting me to respond, he continued.
‘Didn’t do it for myself you know. Not really. I saw other people doing it. Jesus, half the fuckin’ world is at it mate, even in a country like Britain. Overpricing contracts for friends, then taking kickbacks from them, giving out inside information to make some pal profits that find their way back to themselves. I got sick of watching other people getting fat on fiddles and dodges as they bought the BMW’s, the houses, the women they didn’t deserve. So I started doing some of it myself. In a little way, then bigger. Jesus though you don’t realize how quickly things mount up when you start that game. Over about ten years they reckoned I had made more than two hundred thousand quid. And maybe I did. But the kids, the wife, the house, the little modest house actually. They all saw the benefit of most of it. Then the wife left me of course. Ha! When I was in prison. Fuck it!’
We marched on, in silence for a while. George’s head was down and the wind was whipping his mop of grey hair. I remember this conversation so vividly. Why is that? Well, it was just a couple of little things that he proceeded to say.
‘You gotta move on though. Gotta just forget,’ he began again. ‘That’s why I came here. And because they let me stay in the lodgings, so long as I work a little bit at cleaning up the rooms. I'm the longest resident now. I think. I was miserable for a long time. Drank even more than I do now. And I do know that I’m an old drunk by the way. Not so bad now though. Not so bad lately. But Jeez... You have to not look back to the person you were. The things you lost. You have to just accept the future as an opportunity. No matter how bleak the future might seem at times, it does still hold new opportunities that would not be there if you weren’t here. Does that make sense?’
I think there were tears beginning to wet his eyes. And of course it did make sense, it does make sense, although it sounded strange coming from a man who basically spent his days doing nothing but wandering around town half drunk every day. New opportunities? What was he talking about? I wonder if old George had seen the signs of depression in me? I don’t know. Probably not. But those phrases of his stayed with me and often resonate in my head, especially in the darkness of the night.
‘You gotta move on though. Gotta just forget... No matter how bleak the future might seem at times, it does still hold new opportunities that would not be there if you weren’t here.’