So there I was, spacing out behind the counter somewhere around half past eight in the evening. It must have been a Sunday, tail end of my 84-hour
week and preparing for the next. At least that's what it felt like.
Business was as slow as a snail crawling through a puddle of molasses but we were desperate for any kind or
amount of cash flow so I'd just stick it out in case some stray customer walked through the door. Sundays were spent goofing off on the state of the
art 286 computer or rearranging stacks of tickets. No bosses showed up and the phone might as well have been unplugged. Hell, even the flies stayed
outside on days like that. It was just me and a copy of VGA Planets. On days like that I didn't get much more than the odd lost tourist anxiously
looking for their boat.
The port was almost closed. Only one or two departures remained after which the city would revert to being a quiet place, forgotten by God
and everyone else who didn't have to take the boat. I don't think I'd seen another human being either in the shop or walking past it since three
o'clock. Most places and ticketing agencies had closed hours earlier or not opened at all. And then this bloke wanders in asking for the way to
The man in the moon came down too soon
Let me tell you, this fellow looked like he'd been on the road for months. Or on the moon. He'd just gotten off a ferry from Brindisi with nothing
but a battered knapsack, not one of those fancy fifty-pound contraptions that Canadian backpackers travel around with and certainly not
a second change of clothes. He wasn't sure where he was going, save that he had to go through Athens to get there. Which really didn't help since you
had to go through Athens to get practically anywhere. He was also evidently in wine (of the inexpensive sort), which didn't help the situation
In the end I managed to get him to admit that it was an island he was looking for. So I rattled off the names of some of the more popular
destinations, those teeming with Italians and Germans at that time of year. We eventually settled on Mykonos.
"Yeah, that one."
He then revealed that he was bumming his way there. His name was Maurice and he was from Bournemouth. He didn't have any drachmas to
pay for the ticket to the island but had already made enough on the streets of Patras since getting off the boat to pay for his way to Athens. I told
him he'd have to take the bus, the last train of the day having left two hours earlier. He was as unruffled about having to take the more expensive
means of transportation as he'd been about everything else, including the prospect of being stuck in a hole in western Greece for the night.
There are some people who are irresistible. You simply become interested and get into conversations. He was one of those people. You know that they
have a story and that they won't tell it to just anyone. You have to earn the right to hear it.
Sit us down.
Tell us a good story.
Sing us a song that we know to be true.*
I had no lame company policy to deal with as regards dealing with customers, paying and non-paying alike. I was in charge of the shop, more or less
made my own hours, and could do whatever I liked, be as helpful as I cared to be, and invite whomever I wished. Smelling a good yarn, I left the
counter and disappeared into the water closet. Maurice watched with amusement as I prepared my special kind of frappé coffee and handed
it to him. Yeah, we were so poor we made our coffee in the WC, the sink in there was the only source of water. And we walked ten miles through the
snow to get to work, even in summer. Uphill both ways. Uh-huh.
He had set out from home several months earlier. He set out with only twenty quid to cross the Channel to Calais. There was no
particular aim or motive to his wanderings. He was going across Europe and what's more he was going to do so drunk. He begged his way through France
and spent some time in Barcelona. He met fellow travellers, shared a bed or two, drank wine, and begged what he needed. He went to lengths to
explain that he was straightforward about it. Didn't pretend to be needy, never insisted and didn't try to guilt trip anyone into giving him
something. He just asked people in the street for money, plain and simple. As casually as you bum a fag from a pal in the same room.
At one point I made a motion to pull a thousand drachma note out of my pocket. I don't do this often. I'm generous with buskers and others
who sing for their supper one way or the other but "spare some change" will get you nowhere unless I have credible evidence
that you deserve my hard-earned change. "Don't do it," he said, "I won't take it." I wasn't a cheap hit. I was now a temporary companion on his
journey, and he took no money from his friends. Only strangers could pay for this trip.
He'd been an accountant, he said, back home. One day he flipped. Quit his job and took off almost as bare-arsed as his mother bore him. He spoke
earnestly, the coffee having sobered him up a bit. I made him out to be around twenty-threeish.
He had stories. Stories from France, from Italy, from Spain. The policemen in Malta who refused him entry because he was broke and escorted him
back to the ferry to Italy, smiling all the time. Wine, park benches and other travellers. Wanting to go to "Mikolos" and having no idea what he'd do
once he got there. He spoke with the dreamy zeal of Odysseus on his voyage to Ithaca. He spoke like a stoned prophet sitting on Pythia's
By the time we were halfway through it was past my usual closing time. Hey, I said, the last bus leaves at quarter to eleven. Let's get you onto it
or you'll have to wait until half past two for the night bus. In lieu of cash, he asked me for a favour. He left me his mother's phone number in
Bournemouth and made me promise I'd call her and tell her he was alright. Yeah, I could do that much. I'd use the line that got billed to a stinking
rich shipping company in Crete.
I tossed the coffee utensils into the sink, followed him outside and locked the door. There aren't many things as relaxing and pleasing as a
night-time stroll by the sea late in a Mediterranean summer, even when the seaside is forty yards of concrete docks and a pier. It was perhaps five
minutes' walking distance to the bus station.
I never ask people their age nor do I particularly care. "Thirty-eight," he said. He looked younger than I was, and I was more than a fair bit
younger. Thirty-bloody-eight. He'd been working at that accounting job for eight years and had had enough. He wanted to reclaim his life and waste it
whichever way pleased him, and I'll be damned if he didn't. I say he found the fountain of youth. And he was born with the sun in Aquarius. Like
them or not, your typical Aquarian is irresistible as a philosopher.
"I want you to know something," he said.
"Realise that you can do anything. Anything."
"Sure, why not," I replied nonchalantly.
"No, I want you to say it."
He made me say it out loud. He was going to make me believe it, whether I claimed to know it or not. I don't think that I had more than an
abstract idea of willpower and determination, not being endowed with much of either. He made me say it. He made me believe it before I did so.
In less than five minutes on a half-deserted main road in a crummy port city in the boondocks of Europe I was being handed an epiphany.
"I can do anything!"
He still wasn't entirely sober and thus not quite capable of doing anything himself, so I helped him buy his ticket and got him onto the
right bus. I won his argument with the driver about letting him take his bag with him, explaining that he'd had too much stuff stolen out of it in
Italy and was really paranoid. They'll eat up anything that makes Italians look bad but don't take kindly to drunken tourists with dirty luggage so we
promised it would be stored at his feet and not on their faux-luxurious pullman seats.
I'm pretty sure he made some ticketing agent in Piraeus shake his head the following day when he asked to go to "Mikolos". Not once that evening
had he managed to get it right. I then walked home, stopping to buy some ice cream at the corner shop. It had been a good day.
In the years that followed I did some things. I'm not a motivated person, I don't think I expected to do any of them
before I met Maurice. I did a few things that people don't typically do. I did some things that people typically do but I never cared about
enough. I did manage to lose Maurice's phone number before getting through and still wonder whether he ever checked to see if I'd called.
Random people make a difference in our lives. Not teachers or parents, they're the ones we grow up with. Not employers or relationships, their
presence is steady, predictable or expected no matter how often they might change. I mean the people who leave you with only a snapshot, not with a
roll of film. The mother playing classical violin on a crowded train. A pizza vendor complimenting you on your choice of partner out of the blue, when
that "partner" is someone you just met. The young man with
the tie, another story I'll tell you about one day. None left as lasting an impression as this bum whose goal in life was to cross a continent with
neither a penny to his name nor a sober day.
You can do anything.