Last night when I was walking home from the station I saw an old man shuffling across the road in front of me.  Eric, of course.  Now that I know his name its hard not to keep using it.  So I walked up to him and said… ‘Eric?’ and he looked up at me from under his fleece hat (his eyes were barely out) and said ‘Yeaaays?’.  I introduced myself and he seemed pleased to be talking to me.  So.  He’s old, has a grey beard, speaks the queen’s english and wears two pairs of trousers, a jersey, a shirt a jumper and a coat, a hat, big boots and carries a rucksack with a tatty old sleeping bag attached to it.

I walked back to his spot under the bridge with him and he told me about how he once climbed Mont Blanc and was very resilient and handled the cold quite well. (I knew all of this already because Pat had told me).  But, he said, he was older now and he was finding it increasingly difficult to move with ease.  Yesterday in the day I had called up a few places to find out whether we’d be able to take Eric to a shelter or whether someone in the council could help.  I found a couple of good organisations, including Spear, a local hostel and they also told me about churches that open their doors in the winter for people to go and sleep in.

So, once I’d had a bit of chat with Eric, I asked him whether he knew about this Spear place.  Of course he said he did, and that he wasn’t a ‘big fan’ of those shelters because they were full of drug pushers and drunks.  He liked the idea of the church more, but wouldn’t let me drive him to one.  I told him he had to look after himself, and he said he did, and that he would.  I told him that it was going to get very cold, and he said ‘yes, around-3 they say, but actually it’s a bit warmer here by the river, and under the bridge’.  I told him that I didn’t want to find him frozen to death in the morning, and he laughed and told me it wasn’t that cold yet, although last night it had been a bit colder than the night before.  I told him he needed to take this seriously and that he was ‘no spring chicken’,and he said ‘I’m glad I’m not a spring chicken because I saw about 3 foxes last night, and they would have had me’.  This made me laugh a lot, and then Pat appeared and said: ‘Right lets take you somewhere warm’.  And Eric said ‘No, no, no no not tonight.  Please don’t put yourself out for me’.

The thing about Eric is that he’s clearly very clever, and is choosing to live in this way to some extent.  He lost contact with his family when he first became homeless.  He looked sad when I asked him about it.  Weirdly though, I felt very comfortable taking to him, he was very gentle and I didn’t notice anything volatile or strange about him.  I know that probably sounds stupid, but I guess he just seemed a bit lost,  a bit misty and nostalgic, but also strangely cheery, like he was just living, and it wasn’t big deal that he was sleeping on the streets.  So perhaps he is not entirely aware of the situation he is in, or perhaps it genuinely isn’t that difficult yet.  The truth is, we don’t know whether he is able to look out for himself.  Physically he is not at all strong, but mentally he seemed pretty hardy.

In the end we had to compromise by getting him the hot water bottle again, and also giving him Pat’s amazingly warm arctic sleeping bag, which I forced him to take (he didn’t want it at first).  The problem now is, what happens next?  He left the sleeping bag and the water bottle outside the boat again this morning.  Will we do this every night forever now?  I don’t want him to get into trouble, and he’s old so at some point he needs to get proper housing. In the meantime, I guess we do this until he’s ready to go to a shelter…. Crumbs.

Pat met Eric two nights ago when he was taking his cousin to the mooring entrance on her way home.  It was a cold night and Pat spotted a small white heap under the bridge, came back into the boat and promptly decided to go back out and check if the heap was ok.  I said some nonsense about ‘being careful’ and Pat marched off.  Then I sat twitching in front of the TV for a while, cleared up, and then thought maybe it would be best if I went to check what was going on.. just in case.  I put my coat on and wondered out, saw Pat wave in the distance and then grumbled off again.  It was late and I was practically asleep and a little bit unfriendly in general.

Half an hour later Pat returned bleary eyed and told me all about Eric, our newest neighbour, a 77 year old man living under the bridge next to the river. Pat wanted to bring him in, but he also didn’t want to. He offered him food, blankets but Eric didn’t want any of it.  It was confusing. It was also almost freezing that night and we didn’t know what we should do- put him in the wheelhouse?  Make him tea?  I did actually make him a thermos while I waited for Pat to come back- having decided that would be a sort of half-effort, kind of helpful but not fully committal.  As it turned out he didn’t want tea because it made him need to wee in the night.  And he didn’t want money or biscuits of gloves or an extra sleeping bag.  But he did graciously accept a hot water bottle, which Pat took out to him.

I didn’t go out to meet Eric because I thought it would be like Cheepy again, only with a full-grown human and massively more complicated and also I wouldn’t be able to call the RSPB and ask them for advice.  So I hid in my little warm shelter (boat and head) and had a weird night’s sleep, and so did Pat and we wondered whether it was right to leave him out there, or whether we should have brought him in, but if we’d brought him in then when would we stop- and is that even appropriate, and would I sleep with a stranger in the house? But does that even matter because surely he can’t be sleeping a wink out there in the cold with 77 years behind him and arthritis, so my sleep situation is neither here nor there.  Then we thought we could offer him the back of our car to sleep in, but Pat remembered he had to go to a client’s house to edit the next day and turning up in our battered old Volvo is one thing, but turning up in it complete with hobo asleep in the back is maybe taking the whole bohemian lifestyle thing to the extreme.

So anyway.  Pat had to go the next morning very early to work and when he left in the dark he found the hot-water bottle perched on the entrance gate, with a little note attached. ‘Property of Patrick , Seahorse, many thanks, Eric’.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the table in the kitchen area. What colour it should be, what shape and style. How it should sit amongst the other kitchen things. Eventually we opted for a very nice e-bay find. A 70’s table, round, which extends and you can get a lot of people around it. It was rather tatty and brown (well, wooden), and I decided it needed to be white. So I painted it, and now it looks bright and MODERN. But with a retro twist. Twisty. This is good because that whole area of the boat was beginning to feel like a sauna/chalet and whilst I have the utmost regard for Swedish lifestyles, I do not need to be in one all the time.
Also, we were very kindly, nicely, wonderfully given a dishwasher as a boat-warming present from Pat’s mum, Clare, and it’s amazing. I know it’s not in keeping with the rustic style, but frankly, I don’t care. Its like a big magic cupboard to put dirty things in and it’s good because they come out clean. Ping! What a treat. I’ve never had a dishwasher before. Not in my own life.