WANJURAH: A Manchester beggar’s queer way to show she has no breast milk for her baby
I was musing at the irony of the Manchester cathedral being encircled by so many bars and so much evil when she suddenly appeared.
It was around 7pm and the sun was still up in Wayne Rooney’s city. When you are used to the “normal” Sub-Sahara sunset, walking home in the sunlight at 8.30pm feels surreal. You begin to doubt your watch!
But on this Saturday evening, the sunlight had its visual advantages. From my seat or rather a cold concrete slab at the Exchange Square, I was witnessing the steady gathering of Manchester’s infamous pub-crawl crowd. From the drunken shouts in nearby bars, the fun had started much earlier for some.
In the neighbourhood, the horizon, however, belonged to the famous cathedral. Its Gothic architecture towered over nearby buildings with the silent arrogance of the first-among-equals that a VX driver stuck in traffic jam reserves for the Vitz by his side.
Earlier, I had walked by the Cathedral and posed for pictures by its gates. It left me with an angst that envelops me whenever I stray into hallowed grounds. It is the same feeling I felt weeks ago when the Imam ushered me into the Leeds Grand Mosque during Maghrib prayers ahead of our meeting.
On such occasions, the cross of my previous “sins” weighs heavily on my soul in spite of my impiety. On this day, I was recalling of a particular childhood incident. In our house hung one of those ubiquitous portraits that proclaimed Christ to be the head of the house; the unseen guest at every meal.
I must have been in class two or thereabouts. Having just learnt how to write my dad’s name, I couldn’t wait to bring down the portrait and ‘edit’ it appropriately. I thought it was only logical because both at school and in Sunday school, we had been taught that dads were the family heads.
But I only managed to drop and shutter the portrait. On this Saturday, the accusing eyes in the picture of Jesus now lying exposed out of the broken glass that was hitherto his cover returned to haunt me. My guilt was compounded by my subsequent lie that the portrait had fallen on its own.
Four rough-looking men smoking weed by the Cathedral wall jolted me out of my penitence. Did I mind a puff of the best of Manchester? Did I have some loose change? Was I interested in bargain girls? And all this by the Cathedral gate!
In disbelieve and disgust, I had walked back to the Exchange Square. It is a creatively designed but otherwise cold-as-a-cemetery row of concrete benches. Here, the only exchange that perhaps happens is that of transfer of your body heat to the slab. I presume it derives its name from the Corn Exchange building a few meters away.
It was in this mood that she surprised me. She was in what could have passed for a buibui. Her veil fell back midway her head to reveal wax-filled ears and unkempt hair whose racial background was difficult to pigeonhole. Compounded by her indefinable skin colour and her smattering English, she could have hailed from anywhere from Syria to Ethiopia!
Comparatively, my surprise was milder than my two friends sitting to my left. It is on them that the stranger first appeared like an apparition descended from the greyish clouds, and behind the fading sunset.
In her left hand, she carried a bunch of fresh, yellow roses. After mumbling something to the first of my friends, the stranger pulled a single stem and forced it onto her hand.
Had I witnessed the scene in Kenya, I would have excused the gesture on several possible and innocent motivations. Here, my immediate thought was that a woman of an alternative sexual orientation– as lesbians are politely referred to – was desperate for a Saturday evening date.
The stranger then moved to my next friend. She repeated the ritual. Now I wasn’t sure anymore of her motivation. Before I could float another thought in my head, she was standing right in front of me!
I think she muttered something like “best is for man” as she pulled out “my” single rose. She was so close that I could feel her clothes on mine. I caught the smell of cheap liquor on her breath. Her nails were blackened with the dark-brown dirt of smokers who regularly stub out their cigarettes for later lighting.
From her face, she may have been anything from 20 to 40. But they must have been long, tough years that had chiselled on her face the stamp of premature old age. A better life would have made her beautiful.
She must have read my thoughts because she tried to say something but English failed her. From her gestures of pointing at her belly, then at me and of someone running, I understood her to mean a man had impregnated her and vamoosed.
For the benefit of my understanding, she pulled out a piece of paper from her “Chest bank.” On it, “Help with money for baby milk” was scrawled alongside a poorly sketched image of a bottle-feeding baby. My initial reservations with “free” flowers were confirmed!
As a personal rule, I never give out alms in the streets. I have heard and read of the common deceitfulness and duplicitous lives of many beggars. I believe much of the money given is frittered away on indolence and drugs.
But then, no one has ever given me flowers as quid pro quo for begging. At least, she was not expecting help for nothing. By then, my friends had gathered around me. We offered her the flowers back. She resolutely declined. Goods once received are not returnable, she seemed to suggest.
So what to do next? I thought a few coins could buy us freedom from her. Because I had exhausted my loose cash at the coffee shop, I turned to my friends. But they didn’t have any coins too. I had 20 pounds in my wallet. I would never waste that much on three miserable flowers even in the name of charity.
She was a sly beggar. Since our problem was the lack of cash, she suggested we buy her a burger at the nearby eatery. It took all major cards, she advised with the assuarance of someone who had settled for this compromise regularly.
I was getting irritated. So I politely but firmly told her “No!” and asked her to go and leave us alone. For a moment, she gave me such a venomous look I feared she was either about to spit on me or slap me.
Then slowly, mechanically, she put her right hand on her chest. I anticipated another paper perhaps written something about her baby or burgers. It turned out I was very wrong.
Instead, she was holding her “evidence” that she did not have milk for the baby. She turned to my friends who were too embarrassed to look. Then, she turned to me and challenged me to confirm she was not lying. I, too, turned away. I was not sure how, exactly, I would have undertaken the confirmation!