It happened several years ago. A week of writers–Pinter, Doyle, Irvine Welsh; musicians and Qi Gong enthusiasts doing their thing on the streets; an afternoon spent with no one but the seagulls; the Irish doctor who showed me around the Canongate and told stories about his favourite writers the way other people tell stories about their favourite aunts; apple-and-cheese lunches; jazz one blustery night near Arthur’s Seat; and then it was time to leave Edinburgh.
The Norwegian mime troupe who’d offered me a ride in the van hadn’t bargained for the double bass player who was dating the driver; I said, no problem, I’d make my own way back to London. The flights and trains were too expensive, so I booked a bus ticket, and everything, naturally, went wrong.
The wheels on my suitcase locked, so it had to be dragged and carried down the street. It was a grey, mizzling morning; “here, luv, ‘av an apple on me, you’re too early for breakfuss”, the lady at the desk had said kindly when I was leaving the hotel. But the apple and my spare cash had disappeared through a hole in the lining of my coat by the time I wrestled the suitcase into the bus. It was packed; two hours into the journey, I woke to find the guy in the seat next to me breathing his halitosis–stale beer, fried fish–into my face; when we stopped at a gas station, the loos had been pre-puked in by the previous busload getting out of Edinburgh. Five hours later, I’m starving. No, really. I blew my cash in Edinburgh on music tickets and books; it’s only genteel starvation, but I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast two days previous. And the people behind me are eating hamburgers with way too many onion rings. And my coat is too thin, I’m freezing, and the window doesn’t close all the way…Halitosis opens his eyes, mumbles something, turns the other way and releases an awesome Stealth Fart, the kind that makes your eyes water for the next half hour. I open the window. Now it doesn’t close at all, any more, and everyone’s glaring at me–but at least I can’t smell Fart n’ Onion. Only, as we roll into London, smog, car exhaust and Big City Dirt.
London was an indulgence, I knew that right from the start, but it’s only at this point that I’m wondering if I made a big, big mistake. Broke, cold, wet, miserable, hungry, sleepy–I should have just got on the flight back home with the rest of the small group from India.
That’s when I see Leaflet Boy. He’s young, probably in his early twenties, a thin, brown figure wearing too-large spectacles that he has to keep pushing up his nose. He’s standing at a corner watching the slow progress of traffic and offering leaflets with a grave, courtly gesture to Londoners who clearly couldn’t give a damn about him or his leaflets. I don’t know how long he’s been standing there, handing out leaflets no one wants, but his eyes are watery in the wind and his cheeks are blue with cold.
I know it’s rude to stare, but he’s such a small, brave, pathetic figure. I’m about to look away politely when he catches my eye and waves.
The bus has stopped in traffic. I’m at the window; I’m sure he’s waving to someone else, so I look around instinctively.
He’s smiling now. He waves again.
At me? I’m confused.
He points a finger in my direction and sketches a wide bow. Yes, you.
Tentatively, I wave back.
He puts a hand on his heart and sketches an even lower bow.
Hello! he mimes.
I smile, uncertainly.
He draws a huge smiley face with a flourish in the air.
Cold! he mimes, shivering exaggeratedly.
This I can do. I mime “cold” back with absolutely no trouble. I’m guessing this is just a brown-face meets brown-face encounter.
He does a complicated mime. If you smile–ok, got that–and jump up and down–hmmm, not in a bus–and wave to random passers-by–they look startled, but some smile back at this skinny, exuberant kid–then you feel–he mimes overcoat, comfort–ah, warmer.
I start laughing. By now, other people in the bus are beginning to grin at the kid, wave to him. And people on the street aren’t edging past him; they’re stopping, briefly, turning around to smile at the loony Indian kid.
The bus starts up again. Leaflet boy looks sad, but only for a second. He crumples one of the leaflets deftly, working fast, shaping it into a rough paper rose. Puts it between his teeth, puts his hand on his heart, gets down on his knees and starts singing.
“Musafir hoon yaaron…” It’s a cracked, adolescent voice, getting fainter and fainter until it’s lost in traffic.
Soon I can’t see him. In the bus, people go back to sleep, rustle their papers, look for mints, stretch, get back to their individual cocoons of silence.
I never saw Leaflet Boy again, and we probably wouldn’t recognise each other if we met on the street. But over the next few years, I travel a lot, and each journey brings its own adventures: lonely roads, unsafe trains, fleabag hotels, muggings, magic, great meals, strange pilgrims, the works. But I’ve never travelled that broke again, or felt that lost and alone in a strange country.
And I’m sure that no matter where I go and how many friends show up at the airport to receive me, I’ll never be welcomed as warmly, as gloriously, to a city as Leaflet Boy welcomed me to London. Bless the boy, wherever he is.