Billie bowed his head into the winter wind and walked on towards the town centre. It really was bloody freezing, bone chillingly cold, with small snowflakes mixed in with the icy rain. Even Ted, his old Staffie was protesting; he would stop every 50 yards or so and just look imploringly up at him.
“Not much further now” Billie said encouragingly, “Just a little bit further and we can settle down out of the wind.”
He pulled the old, frayed hoody further down over his face and they pressed on. He’d had the old dog for years. He’d got Ted as a pup, before he met Sally, when he was on the social. They’d spend all day, every day, together when Ted was young and they had really bonded. He’d grown into a big strong dog, always by his side, very protective of him. Ted seemed to have an uncanny ability to detect ill intentions in others. His stocky, muscled shape, bared teeth and a low but loud growl would see off most threats (earning him one of the biscuits Billie always carried in his pocket).
It was still early as they turned the final corner with the blessed relief of the old, now vacant, building shielding them from the easterly wind. Billie relaxed, heaving a sigh of relief, seeing that his normal pitch in the unused doorway was vacant. It was one of those deep, Victorian entrances and he and Ted could settle in and stay dry….hopefully, anyway.
He slung the weather-beaten rucksack off his shoulders and pulled out their essential gear. First came the square of carpet he’d found in a skip. Nice and thick, it formed a comfortable barrier between his backside and the stone flags. Then came the threadbare blankets. Ted settled down as he usually did between Billie’s legs with his head poking out over the blanket Billie placed over his legs. The second blanket was wrapped around Billie’s shoulders. Finally, the section of cardboard with “Homeless and hungry’ written in felt tip was propped against the stone doorway. A torn and grubby old hat into which Billie carefully placed a selection of coins left over from the previous day, completed his preparations.
The pitch was ideally placed on the route between the station, the multi-story car park and the main shopping and business area. Billie didn’t usually bother with the rush hour, people were always in a hurry, eyes on their phones, pretending they hadn’t seen him.
Miserable, privileged gits, the lot of them, Billie thought, not one of them had probably experienced real hardship. No, it was the shoppers that kept him going.
“There we are, love,” Said an old lady dropping coins into his hat, “You get yourself a nice coffee to keep you warm.”
“Thanks.” Billie replied with a smile. He believed it was important to thank everyone who gave. Funny how it was usually the old folk who gave the most. They had the least to spare but they led simple lives and probably remembered times after the war when life had been really tough.
The middle classes were really different in their behaviour, Billie’s experience showed. This was epitomised by the well-dressed, middle- aged Liberal type lady who marched up to him late that morning bearing a Greggs tuna and sweetcorn baguette.
“There you are”, she announced as she placed the sandwich in his hat, “something nourishing for you! And a little something for your doggie, too” A large biscuit joined the sandwich. Giving her his best smile, Billie offered thanks from them both. It was if they couldn’t or wouldn’t trust the disadvantaged with money.
The day went well with a steady flow of coins and notes into his hat. Apart from the weather, that is. By mid-afternoon the wind had moved around to the west, leaving Billie and Ted exposed to gusts of the rain and sleet and becoming steadily wetter. However, their bedraggled appearance only served to improve the flow of contributions into the hat.
The kindness of the passers-by in bringing Billie a number of large coffees and the increasing cold and damp, produced a pressing need of a different kind. Unable to vacate his pitch for fear of losing it, Billie had to resort to the cover of the blanket and an empty plastic bottle.
Late that afternoon, an elderly but very erect chap with a stick, marched up and greeted Billie
“How do,” a clear and precise voice boomed out, “Were yer in the forces then, lad?”
“Aye” said Billie
“Yorkshire, 1st Battalion”
“Did yer see any action?”
“Aye, Afghanistan, Helmand. One tour, got shot up.”
The questions kept coming and so did Billie’s responses, never expanding on anything but always to the point.
“Well, you take care, lad. You get yessen sorted out.” And a tenner made its way into Billie’s hat. Billie expressed profuse thanks from both Ted and himself.
As the afternoon dragged on, the rain came down heavier and Billie decided it was time to make a move. He packed up the rucksack and pausing only for Ted to cock his leg, they walked back across town. Billie looked around; the houses in this part of town were old and run down, it was clear that even the council flats had had no money spent on them in decades. Stopping in a quiet side street, Billie took out a key and opened the door of an old but very nice Golf.
“Well, then our Ted, jump in, we’ve had a bloody good pay-day. Time for home to dry out, get changed and go and fill us boots!”
As they drove through the thinning rush hour traffic, Billie pondered the day. It had been another good one. Yes, the winter wasn’t much fun but, by God it was good for business. That silly cow, Sally, should have stuck around and she could have joined him for the holiday he was planning. No problem with a sun tan in the summer; went with the image of an outdoor life. He sniggered.
Mind you, he thought, got to get back on the internet and do some more research; that old bugger nearly caught me out on the military stuff a couple of times there!