Thursday, January 29, 2009


The combination of being freelance (not wanting to spend my fluctuating income on luxuries such as new clothes) working from home (where every day is a dressing-down day and some are even dressing-gown days), and having a small child (often no room to wash and dry my own unfashionable clothes, necessitating wearing even older garments from the back of the wardrobe which then also invariably get smeared with food/snot, sometimes not even mine) means that normal standards of dress have been slipping for a while.

To save time in the morning, this look is often combined with my face being in the follicular hinterland between “hasn’t shaved” and “has grown a beard”. This state isn’t helped by the fact that although I have reasonably hirsute sideburns, moustache and chin area, my cheeks always look like they’ve been defoliated with Agent Orange, sporting as they do more bald patches than a monastery.

It was in this state that I went to the corner shop to buy some bread.

On the way I passed a hunched old man looking even scruffier and more stained than I was, shuffling along in flip-flops despite the cold weather. I asked him if he was OK, and he asked me the way to the corner shop. I told him he was going the wrong way and pointed the way he should be going. He looked confused. I pointed again. He looked more confused. After several more points/confused looks I realised that he was blind.

I offered him my arm as I was going that way, and we shuffled along together. He told me that he needed to pop into the greengrocer’s first as he needed to borrow some money from him, so we manoeuvred our way in through the crates of fruit and veg.

Unfortunately, only the greengrocer’s wife was in and she wasn’t going to be lending money to anyone. The blind man pleaded, but she was adamant. He told her that her husband often lent him a few pounds, but she was having none of it.

As the conversation wore on I looked up at the convex mirror that the greengrocer uses to monitor his shop instead of CCTV. In it I saw, to my horror, exactly what we looked like: two tramps begging for money.

I was in yet another socially awkward situation. I wished to help the man, and I didn’t mind being known as artistically, perhaps even eccentrically dressed by my near neighbours. But there is a fine line between “shabby chic” and “hobo” and I had to concede that this line was so far in the rear-view mirror as to be hidden by the curvature of the earth.

So, as the blind man continued his pleas I started trying to convey to the woman, using only facial expressions and my left hand, that I was in fact a middle-class, well-educated professional who was just having a bit of a bad beard day, and that I was not actually with this man. This was despite the fact that we had come in together and he was still holding on to my arm.

Neither of us were successful and we found ourselves back on the pavement, empty-handed. So I offered to buy the man’s groceries for him, and then we began the slow shuffle back to his house. I resisted the urge to casually mention that I was clean-shaven and wearing a pin-striped suit. Instead I listened to his sad story – about the wife in long-term care, the drug-addict son, the loss of his sight. I promised to phone social services on his behalf and tell them exactly about the help that he needed as soon as I got home.

I did, but first I shaved and went and explained a few things to the greengrocer’s wife.