Tom Hollingsworth – The Shouter
By Tom Hollingsworth
He kept shouting. A bus driver shook his head and tutted. The bus windows open in the heat. His passengers looked into the shop windows, uncomfortably avoiding looking at the twitching figure of the man noisily striding up and down the nearby pavement shouting at the top of his voice. His arms flailed. I heard him as I turned the corner. The sunshine made me squint. And I crossed the road a good fifty yards in front of him. A small police car drifted to a stop, and a burly young PC got out. Comically he drew himself up to his full height. The car toy like against his size. Silence fell. I stopped and glancing back I surreptitiously watched. The noisy man hung his head. He listened intently to the young policeman who leaned in and whispered into his ear. Suddenly the man strode off as if he had received urgent news. A galvanised ragged figure proclaiming his otherness, lost in the neat surroundings. A few distant spectators lounged back in their chairs outside the coffee shop. “Nothing to see” one mouthed through the window to a ghost shadow in the dark interior. And I walked into the tube station. My working day begun.
The weather had been on the turn and it had been getting warmer. I had taken to reading my evening paper sitting in the sunny bay window of my flat. From my third floor eyrie I could lean out and clearly see the top of my street as it joined the busier high road that ran along its narrow mouth. Often I would hear the sounds of thumping car stereos below in the street. Cars and taxis dropping off, and picking up my neighbours and their neighbours too. City life. I sipped my tea and murmured appreciatively. Just like my first cup of tea in the morning or crossing out important dates on the calendar pinned to the kitchen notice board, my evening tea and paper ritual never changed. My little habit.
Five thirty, tea and the Evening Standard. These simple regular habits were like the tent poles of my life. Habits, rituals govern our every waking moment. Everyone has them. A comforting regularity in this sea of a troubled world. Without mine I always felt vaguely incomplete, cheated of my basic comforts. And to put it plainly, thrown off kilter. I must admit that thinking about it now some of my habits are pretty rigid. A form of OCD. Out the station at five, get the Evening Standard and pick up spare provisions if needed. Keys out and home. Jacket off, case down, shoes off, kettle on, TV on, check answer machine, make tea, sit down, read paper. But that’s me. A creature of habit or as I said ritual if you will. A regular orderly person. Rigid in my own way. A place for everything, and everything in its place and time. Equilibrium.
This particular Monday was no different. The sun had begun to lose its heat, but the breeze was still pleasant. I internally noted with pleasure that I had made a really good cup of tea. Then the shouting began. It was constant and loud echoing between the houses. Craning my head round the gently moving curtain I saw him, head thrown back, arms beginning their frenzied flailing. The shouter. In full shout mode.
I don’t remember quite when it was that I started to refer to him as such. I think it was to my newsagent once, when I was buying my film magazine. I didn’t mean it badly or negatively. It was just my way of naming things. But he’d become regular event in my life schedule in a way. The poor man turned up regular as clockwork and ranted his way down our high street every day for it seemed like the past six months. From then on my nickname for him passed into my common parlance. The shouter.
I would find myself mentioning him in conversation. Friends would ask if I had heard him lately. Often at work I would compare errant colleagues to him and once as a joke I told a story about him. I`d gone to Oxford Street, shoes I think, and there he was, the shouter, stiffly frozen outside a fast food restaurant. Angry voice raised and his straining neck muscles reflected in the plate glass. When I got back to my office I told my colleagues of my surprise at seeing him away from his usual spot outside my local bank.
I went on to venture what I thought was an amusing theory that perhaps the man who normally went mad there was off sick, and that loony central control had got in the shouter as a temporary replacement. We all laughed together and as I went back into my own office I felt a sudden sense of guilt. O.K. Make a joke, fine, but to get a laugh at the expense of the shouters tortured mind. Shame ran through me and suitably chastened at my crass remarks I picked up my ringing phone and guiltily pushed him from my thoughts.
That evening I sipped my tea. His voice ringing through the cooling evening air. He kept on. I put my paper down and listened. It wasn’t as if you could clearly make out distinguishable phrases or sentences. It was a rising and falling crescendo of syllables. Short and fierce. Barked almost. The odd swear word puncturing the flow. You couldn’t see him from where I sat. He was obviously just out of sight round the corner. Probably pacing back and forth along his usual regular tiny route outside the bank. He would pace up and down the length of about five shops agitatedly walking between the bank and the newsagents. His voice rose in pitch and then in volume and then abruptly snapped off as if a switch had been flicked. I looked out and he shuffled back into view. His other walk, a strange cat like movement that silently took him beyond my line of sight. The peace a blessed relief. Back to the film reviews and then dinner I thought. Order returned. Things back in place.
About a week later I`d taken a break from work and visited a friend in Watford. In a fit of indulgence I`d spent far too much on a leather jacket. It just seemed the thing to do. I`m semi self-employed. A sort of consultant. Music and Media mainly. It gives me the flexibility to work my own hours. But sometimes like all one-man band businesses I overstretch myself. In fact a few years back I basically worked myself into collapsing from exhaustion. So now sensibly I am all too aware of the danger signs. Stress can creep up on you all too easily. My indulgent day out of lunch and shopping was a signal to myself to take it easy. I never wanted to feel the way I had that last time. In a hospital bed wired to countless monitors. So now I took things a lot easier.
I’d got back home later that afternoon and annoyingly the phone didn`t stop. But my short break had done me the power of good. I felt fine. Lots of energy, plus I had plans for a very unusual new project which really appealed to me. I was about to pour myself another cup of tea when to my annoyance I realised I had run out of milk. Damn. And further the dribble in the bottom of the carton was never going to be enough for that evenings guests and myself. So groaning I was forced to nip out on a quick shopping expedition. Tugging on my shirt I suddenly felt energetic and leaping down the stairs two at a time, I fell into the street, barely pausing to adjust my sunglasses and catch my breath. The fresh air and exercise would probably do me good I thought.
The little shop I use is at the top of the road. About a hundred yards past the local pub. There is a nearer shop but for no discernible reason they seem to add about twenty pence to every item you buy. Apparently it`s the price you have to pay for them being open so late. For the saving I walk. It`s only twenty pence I know but it`s probably that feeling of being ripped off, more than the saving if I`m honest.
As I reached the top of the road the shouter started and I automatically crossed over, avoiding his regular little patch up from the bank. A thing I always did. He made me feel uncomfortable. He wasn`t like the little bundles of sleeping bags and dogs on the Embankment. Passive and pitiable. Easily assuaged with a handful of change. He almost demanded attention. Often I would glance toward him as I crossed further down the street. But he always seemed to look toward me so I would feign interest in a shop window and hurry by. I don`t know what it was. The venom in his shouting. His lunging hands as he fought with imaginary foes. The terror on his face. But he’d never harmed anyone. He seemed so lost in his own world. And his invective seemed directed at the sky. But for whatever reason I avoided him. It seemed politic. He lived in his world of shadows and I in mine of light. There was no link, no common ground, no connection.
But there he was that day. In full voice. The sun was still bright and I felt comfortably anonymous behind my dark glasses. Furtively I watched him as almost in parallel we both made our way along the different sides of the road. Strangely he always wore a grubby white two piece suit. A formal looking thing. But only just grubby though. And I had often wondered where he came from each day. It seemed logical that it was a home or day-care centre because from time to time he would appear with a haircut and a trimmed beard. His sun darkened skin scrubbed, his suit semi pressed and clean. The rest of the time he appeared unwashed, a greasy mat of tousled hair, his beard unkempt and wild.
His exact age was a mystery, he could have been thirty or a thousand, he seemed almost ageless but the main thing about him that always struck me was his eyes. I’d once seen them briefly as he’d brushed past me. Just for a second out of my left field of vision. They were a piercing brown colour. And even through my dark glasses they caught the light as he mirrored my journey down the street. Thrown into sharp relief by his tanned dirt smeared skin and dark beard, they almost shone as if lit from within as he wildly stared in confusion at things invisible to me.
Almost on cue a police car pulled up and shaking his head a burly sergeant trotted after him catching up as the shouter wheeled gracefully round on his set path. Quiet words were exchanged and the shouter snapped into his usual sudden urgent cat like stride. Disappearing down the road in silence, leaving the sergeant to grin at the dry cleaner who leaned in his shop doorway. My mind switched to my mission and I bought my milk as well as a packet of marshmallow teacakes. The sweet smell of which reminds me of my late mother for some strange reason.
Pausing only to skirt a Range Rover as it precariously tried to squeeze into a very small parking space I carefully twisted my carrier bag shut and crossed the road.
I hadn’t gone more than ten yards or so when a sudden shriek made me turn round. There by the library stood the shouter, head bowed, his way barred by a large woman. She stood in front of him calling out to the street in general, making some point about him being no better than an animal. Her companion, another large woman stood beside her nodding vigorous approval as an untidy knot of small children clung onto her skirt.
One of the women lunged at him and I clearly heard her hand connect with his face. A muted sort of slap. Sending his head rocking back. Her face a flushed red circle bobbing near his grime smeared white chest. The other woman prodded him with her finger. He stood immobile while they tugged and poked at him and I walked toward them aware as I did so of others moving alongside me.
Someone brushed past me quickly. “What`d he do “ventured a fat young man in a tight leather jacket “Didn`t touch the kids did he“. He stood theatrically, a fist outstretched, looking around him for approval. “I`ll have you son“ he spat at the shouter who looked to all the world as if he was pinned to a post. His body slumped, his skinny frame seeming to sway scarecrow like on an invisible breeze.
The red faced woman folded her large arms contemptuously “He looked at me“ she breathed in sharply. “We was walking by him and he looked right down my dress“. She moved her head catching eyes but her sense of outrage was lost on us. The fat young man looked disappointed and shrugged. She looked at me imploringly. “Well how would you feel“? I removed my dark glasses and I heard myself trying to sound reasonable. Saying calming things but as I finished the shouter slowly lifted his head and our eyes suddenly locked.
My breath caught in my chest and I remembered the only other time I had ever looked into eyes like that before. I clutched my milk and fell back forty years.
My early childhood. Scouts. Ten years old. Endless summer camping trips, sunny, foggy, raining. Sundays always meant a visit to the nearest church to fight the good fight. We were Christian we were told, but I didn’t feel any different for it. My parents never went to church. But they thought it was good for me. Our scout leader made us say grace before every meal. He believed. In some greater power. I simply didn’t get it. My parents were the power in my life. Then the school teachers. Then the Scouts. Then my brother.
The church we visited always smelt of old clothes and damp to me. A musty woody and empty lifeless smell. And there was a large brass eagle lectern that the vicar read his great bible from. I liked to imagine it launching into flight. But it never did. The vicar would rub it with his hand. Almost stroking it. And as he droned on I would try to feign concentration while staring up at the long stained glass windows. Distractedly trying to catch a glimpse of the daylight outside through the only splash of colour inside those dead and dry empty walls. Great weals and slashes of bright colour. Sending splashes of colour across the cold flag stoned floor. Bearing images of drama and dread. Knights and angels. Crying women. Clouds and storms.
But it was the pale man on the cross that always fascinated me. Shimmering crimson red drops hung from his hands and feet. Blood from his gaping wounds. Like sparkling rubies on a white silk sheet and his eyes raised to the sky. Great pools of brown, aching, desperate, alone. Bright eyes that knew the pain of the world. Eyes that seemed so lost. Eyes so full of despair. So troubled. So alone. The eyes of the shouter.
The fat woman slapped him again and his gaze wrenched from mine as his head jerked back. Swiftly pushing past the fat boy, the police sergeant stepped between them his voice angry now. “Okay that’s quite enough of that. Nothing to see here, everyone just move along now. Off you go the lot of you“. Tutting loudly he put a meaty hand on the shouters shoulder and tugged him closer. Almost conspiratorially. “Now what did I just tell you“? His voice dropped to a gentle whisper and carefully he led the shouter over to a nearby bench. I watched him for a second and then crossed over to avoid him.
I left him there. He was being taken care of. What could I do? So I went home. And in no time at all I was sat with my paper. Equilibrium restored. Everything back in its place.
Days passed but the thought was now set in my mind. The picture from my childhood fixed in my head. Imagine. To be trapped on that cold window. Eternally locked into that single dreadful moment. Deserted, in agony and waiting for a merciful release. Helpless and calling into the silence. Unsure of the final destination. Trapped in a world between worlds. Lips wracked with pain trying to form the words help me. Voice raised to heaven. Forgive them. Imagine to be so lost and so alone. With no-one to see your pain. With no-one to help you. People simply walking by. When all that was needed was a kind word. A human touch. Love.
I’m sitting in my window. There’s a noise from the street. And I can hear him calling out now but to my eternal shame I know I will always cross over.