It's a bitterly cold morning in March and I am en route to Grafton Street, in Dublin, to meet a friend who is writing a play of my novel, The Quiet Life. With an hour to kill, I decide to treat myself to a large café mocha (with chocolate on top) and a slice of carrot cake, on the 'terrace' of a café on Bachelors' Quay. I don't have to worry about the calories. I've been good. Very good. I've already cycled half way up a mountain in dense fog at 7am in the morning with my 10-year-old daughter, in sub-zero temperatures. (Don't ask! It's a Christopher Columbus thing. We're exploring the world.)
Suddenly a voice says, 'Have you got a cent?'
I look up from my coffee and squint into the bright sunlight. It's a homeless man.
'I have, but you're not getting it,' I say. 'Anyway, a cent would be no use to you. Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat? Do you want some of my cake?'
He puts his fingers to his mouth and all but pulls out his tongue as if the thought of cake would make him sick, and moves off.
'Are you from the North?' I call out after him, feeling pity.
'How did you know?' he says, doubling back. He seems suspicious, as if he is not happy that I've noticed.
'Your accent,' I say, thinking it was obvious. 'I'm a Northerner myself. Where are you from?'
He's probably thinking I'm an Orangeman, I realize.
'I'm from Belfast,' I add. 'Andersonstown. My parents are Catholics from the Falls Road, though you're probably going to tell me now that you're from the Shankill.'
He pulls out a chair and sits down opposite me. I'm half expecting the waitress to come out and tell him to take himself off. His clothes are filthy. His scarf looks like it's come straight out of a tip, his coat is a mess and he reeks - of dirt mainly, but also of booze. To her credit, the waitress leaves us alone.
'I know people from Andersonstown,' he says. 'Did you know Joe McDonald? He was from Andersonstown.'
'The IRA hunger striker? Yes, I knew him. He lived opposite me.'
Next thing, he's singing the ballad of Joe McDonald to me, and I'm thinking what have I got myself into now. My three children will be saying, "There you are, Daddy, serves you right for talking to all the drunks of the nation?!" when I get home.
His voice is strong, but too many years in the cold have made his words hard.
'You don't know it, do you?' he says, when he has finished.
'Listen!' he says. His gaze is intense and aggressive.
He sings the first line again.
'Say the words!' he says.
I do as I'm told, suddenly feeling fearful. I mean, he could be anybody. He could have a knife under his coat.
I say the words.
He sings the next line.
I repeat the lyrics.
He grabs my arm.
'Stop looking around you! Never mind who's passing by behind me! Listen to what I'm saying.'
His grip is strong, though his red and purple hands are thoroughly misshapen after years of life on the street.
I repeat the lines.
'You know, they pinned Joe McDonald,' he says, pressing his forefinger into the side of my knee now after he has finished his song. 'They shot him in the knee. The prison chaplain was very good to him.'
'Were you in jail?' I ask.
'Where did you sleep last night?'
'Were you sleeping in a hostel?'
'Do you want a drink of my water?'
He shakes his head. No.
'What's your name?' I say. 'I'm Adrian.'
'What's the first letter?'
'What age are you? You must be about my age. I'm'56.'
'Listen, I have to go now,' I say. 'I'm meeting someone later. Do you want something to eat before I go?'
'What can you eat? A burger?'
'Well, then, let's walk to Burger King on O Connell Street.'
I take a drink from my bottle of water and set off with him in the direction of O Connell Street.
'You want some of my water?' I say as we go along.
He snatches the bottle from me now. He struggles to take the top off - he doesn't want me to catch his germs - but I tell him to drink it all and he downs it in one go, like it was whiskey. He bums a smoke off a Philippine couple looking at engagement rings in the window of a jeweler's shop. I smile at them, hoping that they'll realize that I'm not one of his homeless friends. He stops a Guard to ask the time. The Guard reads the time of his watch, but of course S. doesn't want to know the time. Time is meaningless to him. He's taunting him.
We reach O Connell Street. He suddenly morphs into my personal tour guide.
'Do you know who that's a statue of?'
He is pointing up at a statue by O Connell Bridge now.
'Do you know what the book is he has in his hand?'
'It's the book of logic.'
'Know who the angel beneath him is pointing at?'
'She's pointing up at Edmund. Know where Edmund is looking at?'
'Did you go to Trinity?' I ask.
'See the third step, at the foot of the statue?' he says.
'See the can that's sitting there?'
'I slept there last night. When I woke up, you oouldn't see Trinity College or the GPO. There was dense fog everywhere.'
Tell me about it, I'm thinking. My 10-year-old daughter and I had cycled to the 'top of the world' in dense fog, our hands frozen. How can any human being lie out in temperatures of minus three in dense fog, in our capital city, and survive? I'm in shock.
We reach Burger King.
'What kind of burger do you want?' I ask.
'I don't want anything,' he says.
Which is when I realize that I've seen it all before on the streets of Tokyo, where I used to work
with down and outs in between my classes in Japanese at Waseda University. There comes a point when a homeless person can't eat any longer. The body gives up. It's not about the food, for him. It's about the company. My company.
'A drink, then?' I ask.
Moments later I reappear out of Burger King with Coke and water. He is smoking his cigarette. I hand him his Coke. He opens it and gulps it down. I go to place the bottle of water in his pocket, but it's caked with dirt. He points to the ground. I set it there against the wall of Burger King. The ground is his table.
'What's your name?' he asks once he has quenched his thirst.
'Adrian,' I say again.
'I'm Seamus,' he says.
He shakes my hand, with a big, broad smile on his lips. He finally lets my hand go.
'Seamus, if you get through April, you'll survive the year,' I say, leaving him.
Moments later I am walking up Grafton Street alone. Homelessness is almost never about a home, I'm thinking.
It's about connection.
It's about being unwanted, unloved, sad, unknown. No one to ask you how you are.
Seamus doesn't have the luxury of walking in off the street and asking the friendly café owner in the Mill café in Maynooth for a hug, like I sometimes do when I'm feeling down, or the luxury of being told "You're the best Daddy ever!" or of a wife holding him.
I reach Bewleys. My hand is still stinking of alcohol and tobacco. I give my friend a hug. I listen to his update on the play of my novel, but my heart is elsewhere. I want home to give my daughter something important - the biggest hug the world has ever known.
My daughter knows what's important. That's why she is out on the road with me at 7am. She's building connection.
If only we could build houses with the same ease.Suggest a correction