He appeared on the first day of lockdown and took up his position on the edge of the pavement in front of our small Sainsbury's Local. There he has sat day after day from between 9 and 10am till between 5 and 6pm, week after week, while the lockdown continues. Unless you are walking along that pavement you might not see him, as he is usually hidden by the cars parked along the kerb behind him. I don't know his name or where he comes from. He's not local. He doesn't have much English. The suspicion is he's from somewhere in Eastern Europe, possibly Romania.
He presents a pathetic spectacle, this small human pyramid, perched for hours on a cushion covered in blue plastic. If you catch his eye he will nod an inarticulate greeting with a smile, holding out his plastic coffee cup, saying, 'Please, please,' in a soft lisping whisper. He made me think of Norman MacCaig's poem about the visibly disabled Italian beggar sitting outside the Cathedral of St Francis in Assisi. MacCaig used that image to provide a moral lesson for well-heeled transient tourists flocking to gaze at the glorious frescoes about the life of St Francis, ignoring their spiritual message and viewing with indifference or disdain the all too human ruin at their feet.
His presence has created a palpable sense of discomfort in our quiet residential street. We are more used to seeing his like begging from doorways in the city centre where we can hurry by, but now the shops and cafés are shut he has clearly had to move somewhere else. Our embarrassment derives naturally from the guilt we tend to feel in contemplation of someone apparently much worse off than ourselves, but to whom we owe no personal loyalty or responsibility. He's unshaven, but he doesn't look starved or stoned or hungover, and he clearly has somewhere to go at night.
A couple of weeks back he acquired a sign, handwritten in rough black ink on a piece of torn cardboard, indicating that he wanted to work, would do anything, shopping, gardening, etc, in order to feed his children. One day a woman behind me in the queue for the supermarket asked him how he was and if he would like her to get him a sandwich. He merely smiled and held out his cup. Another day he was actually eating a sandwich with some relish.
Sadly, this man's presence struck me first as more of a blatant business opportunity than a real case of human misery, turning up out of the blue at the start of lockdown, a complete stranger to the area, an alien presence, primed to exploit the sensibilities of people who don't need to beg for their livelihoods, though goodness knows many have suffered economically here who never expected to. He irritates like a nagging tooth.
But then you wonder who is behind him? What real story of human misery might his presence hide? I looked up internet sites dealing with human trafficking and I am convinced that is what has brought him here. I could contact the police or Crimestoppers with my suspicions. But I'm reluctant to say anything to anyone official. You never know what the consequences might be. I don't want to make his circumstances worse. I can say, he's not my problem. He's harmless. It's as if the supermarket has adopted him as their charity mascot for the duration. But he bothers me nonetheless. Is doing nothing the best policy?
What will happen to him when lockdown is over? Will he return to the city centre? What debt has he accumulated to come here? How much is he allowed to retain of the money people give him? And what would Norman MacCaig have made of him had he passed by and seen him?
From occupying a relatively low profile in our language and lexicons, the word 'shielding' is now constantly in use in conversation and in the media. Shielding means being protected. And 180,000 shielders in Scotland (2.6 million in the UK) are being especially protected from COVID-19 – because of underlying medical conditions making them more susceptible to the deadly onslaught of the virus – by not leaving their homes in virtually all circumstances.
I am a shielder as I suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which affects the lungs – prime targets for COVID-19. Living alone, I have been fortunate enough to have an extremely supportive relative fetching me food, medicines and newspapers. Many others, critically, have to depend on their local authority or charities.
However, shielding could soon return to relative lexical obscurity when, from 18 June, our lives should be enhanced by being allowed to step outside for the first time in an interminable three months of enforced isolation.
We should be able to take in great gulps of fresh air again… but only if the COVID-19 infection rates are low enough, although this seems very likely judging by current statistics. Shielding is not a legal restriction and is being applied on an advice-only basis by the Government. Nevertheless, only a fool would ignore the advice.
We have been dependent on advice in letters from the Government whose phraseology and psychology are occasionally fascinating and contradictory. The latest epistle, from interim chief medical officer, Dr Gregor Smith, although informing us the end of our enforced isolation could be in sight, stresses we must 'stay at home until at least the end of July'. However, confusingly, from 18 June, provided the infection rates remain low enough, Dr Smith explains: 'Once confirmed, our advice will be that there is to be no limit on the amount of times you can go out on exercise, or how long you can stay out for'.
There are conditions we must adhere to – we should go for 'a walk, wheel, run or cycle'; only go out alone or with someone we live with; maintain social distancing of two metres; choose times and areas that are quiet; and stay close to home so we don't have to use a toilet that is not our own.
Observing that 'going out for exercise can also have real benefits for your physical and mental health', the letter then, somewhat obliquely, comments: 'We know that you may have mixed feelings about this advice. That's why we want to tell you as much as we can about how shielding might change in the future. We are learning about the virus all the time, and about what increases or reduces the risk to you and to others'.
During the summer, the Government promises to give us updated clinical evidence about our medical condition, explaining: 'We will give you access to support to help you make informed choices about your life and support you to put your choices into practice,' adding: 'We will do this because shielding will be having a huge impact on your life and the lives of your loved ones... It is important that you are given the chance to consider and make informed decisions about what matters to you'. And that certainly sounds a good deal, Dr Smith!
While out walking in our local park at the weekend, my wife Karen picked a buttercup and held it under my chin, asking 'do you like butter?' In that instant, I was back in my wee central Scotland village, for this was an oft asked question when we played out in summer. 'Do you like butter?' If the reflection of the flower on your chin was vivid, this indicated your liking of the dairy based product and was what would now be termed in today's parlance as a binary question.
Yes or no were the only acceptable answers. None of the, well, I prefer margarine or some other non-dairy spread. No if the response to question one is in the negative, then go to question four to expand on what you do like. Nuance was a word and an experience we had not yet been introduced to nor made aware of in our younger, tender years. The first time I ever had to take sides in a music debate, was in response to the question at around the age of 10: 'Are you a Slade, or T Rex fan?', not 'Slade or T Rex, discuss', binary!
By the way, it was Slade, they were loud, colourful and exciting. Though in time as I came to understand and appreciate subtlety, subtext and depth, I switched to T Rex. What had initially turned me away from them, became the attraction. They had more depth, their musicianship and lyrics were more meaningful and required a deeper level of appreciation. I had to work at liking T Rex, it did not happen overnight – it required some level of scrutiny and analysis and was worth it. Though, of course, I do not like all
of their songs. I do also still love easily accessible music, am no elitist or snob in that direction, and the idea that I only have a binary choice in this regard (though I still can't stand heavy metal, sorry folks) leaves me cold.
In other aspects of my life, though it can be a struggle, I do try to understand issues to some level of depth before expressing what are hopefully, well-reasoned and considered viewpoints and opinions (even though they, given time and further consideration, sometimes prove wrong).
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