Memoir

There is a green hill

The solace of community

I’D BEEN IN the house on Abbeyfield Road in Sheffield less than a week when Jack first arrived. It was a tall terrace, and narrow, with nothing but a small entry hall on the ground floor. Jack arrived with a sharp, determined ring of the doorbell, repeated three times. My housemate Richard bounded down to open the front door. I heard the voices echoing up from the narrow landing – Richard’s cheerful welcome and then a smaller voice, something I couldn’t make out. While condensation steamed the kitchen windows, I carried on preparing my standard student dinner by cutting a cross on a potato, sticking a fork into its side and placing it in the oven.

Even before I had closed the oven door I smelt Jack’s arrival. Stale cigarette smoke, damp clothes, piss. I looked up and there he was, paper thin, his skin dry and pale. And he was tiny: barely up to my armpit.

Jack, apparently, lived at the hostel down the road, though if you saw him (or smelled him) on the street, his trousers tied up with string, you would assume that he was homeless. It wasn’t just piss and stale cigarette smoke he smelled of but also tea, jam and a sour, hoppy, vinegar aroma that wafted over everything in that part of Sheffield north of the Wicker Arches, sandwiched as it was between the brewery-lined River Don and the pickled onion works on Savile Street. This was the 1990s, when the whole city was covered with tram works and the stench of hops.

 

I’D COME TO Sheffield in Yorkshire after a year spent touring the UK with a small theatre company, which ended with a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’d had some plays produced, performed my one-woman show in Edinburgh, but my experience on the tour was miserable. I’d come to England at the age of twenty-five ready to make something new, full of the eagerness that I carried with me everywhere then, the expectation that something marvellous was waiting for me, the hope that I had trained myself in. After years of trauma, by my early twenties I had begun to build muscle, to make myself. But I wasn’t done. I was not yet myself.

The house I found to live in was on the far side of Sheffield, away from the university and the town centre. Pitsmoor’s faded Victorian buildings were home to mice, long laid-off steelworkers’ families, and successive waves of immigrants from the West Indies, Pakistan and Somalia. Sheffield at that time was not a wealthy city, and it kept its steel-made prosperity tucked away. There were corners – Totley, Nether Edge – characterised by manor houses and gentility. They were on the exact opposite side of the city from Pitsmoor.

 

ON THE FIRST day, the dark-haired graduate student who opened the door to me led me up the stairs to my attic room and then made me tea in the poky kitchen.

The kitchen sat on the middle floor, and though it was the middle of the day, it was not bright enough to switch off the ugly fluorescent overhead. Pale crocuses shone in a drinking glass on top of the square table – big enough for four at a pinch – that butted against the sash window. I wondered who had put them there. I peered outside at the narrow garden, a bare vegie patch piled high with grass clippings. Richard made the tea in a pot and sat it on the table with a cloth under it. I watched him, trying to get his measure. I said, ‘You seem young to be studying for a doctorate.’

He looked down at the teapot, a slight rise of colour on the back of his neck. ‘I – ummm – I started straight after my undergraduate degree.’

I raised my eyebrows. I’d have pegged him as smug if it wasn’t for the way he poured the tea, asked if there was anything I needed before he went out.

I watched him leave and then sat for a moment on the green corduroy sofa, staring at the magnolia walls. I waited for something to happen and when nothing did, I sat upstairs in the bright attic room, laying out my scraps of possessions, making lists of what the year might hold for me, of what I might become.

When Jack walked into the living room three days later, Richard said, ‘Kathryn, this is Jack.’ I looked up from the oven, at the half-sized man, his trousers held up with string, standing there beside Richard. I said, ‘Hello, Jack.’

His face was folded in on itself, creased and somehow square. There may have been a time when he had a square jaw. It was impossible for me to imagine him as young, smooth-skinned, uncreased. There was no evidence he had any teeth. Jack worked his jaw as though chewing cud, as though considering. After some time, he burst out a string of words, a mangle. None of the sounds made sense to me. Clearly, though, he was asking me something. I said, ‘I’m sorry?’ I tried to sound concerned, tried to sound kind. I wanted to impress Richard.

Jack muttered something else, then repeated it again, raising his voice. There was no mistaking the tone. It was the insistent one universally applied to a foolish or unwilling listener.

Richard held up a mug, said, ‘I’m making you tea, Jack. No need to shout.’

We sat on the grubby sofa and drank the tea and while Jack muttered a series of words, Richard nodded and agreed and offered more sugar, and I wondered where I’d ended up, wondered who this man was.

 

THE DOORBELL RANG the next day with that same insistent tone. Again, Richard brought Jack upstairs. This time, Jack held his hand in a fist, the heads of pink dahlias peeking out. When he flattened his palm to reveal the flowers, there were no stems, just the heads. I glanced out the window along at the row of terraces, at the narrow flowerbeds further up. In the garden next to us, I could make out a line of headless flower stems, tilting in the wind.

He came often. Every day some weeks. Other weeks just once. I don’t think a week passed without his insistent ring at the door. Usually, he arrived with the head of a flower, or of several flowers. Sometimes the petals were slightly crushed, smelling a little of stale tobacco, and on those days, I knew that he had picked the heads of the flowers from gardens further afield. On his third visit, I understood enough to offer him tea, but I was lost when he shouted ‘Hixick. HIX. ICK.’ Richard offered a biscuit, and Jack chewed it furiously, gulping it down with his tea until his face crumpled. Richard paused, waiting, it seemed, for something to happen. Jack pounded on his own chest, making a hacking sound, choking, until Richard patted him on the back and a ball of barely chewed biscuit flew from Jack’s mouth and landed neatly on the floor. We looked, the three of us, at the spitball on the rug, and then Jack asked for more tea.

 

I SETTLED INTO a routine of sorts: to pay for my master’s degree, I wrangled a job on the other side of Sheffield, teaching communication skills to ex-cons and recovered addicts. I wrote, spent one night a week in the pub, walked everywhere. When the doorbell rang I tried to ignore it if I was alone. Tried, too, to ignore my own ill will. Jack was demanding, insistent. He did not offer gratitude in appropriate amounts. He failed to understand that I was offering him something – my time, my tea – and behaved as though we had an equal friendship. He was infuriating.

The choking happened often. He’d wrap his yellow-stained fingers around his mug and gulp the tea down. Gulp and guzzle, chewing bread or biscuits at the same time as he tried to speak. And then, the familiar hacking cough, his face folding more in on itself. Richard – it was usually Richard – would pat him on the back, or sometimes tap, and a ball of gobbed-up biscuit or bread would fly across the room, whereupon Jack’s smile returned. Another cup of tea and then a hymn.

 

IT WAS STARTLING, the first time I heard him sing. Before then, his sounds were scrambled, frustrated. Outside, rain pounded down. I’d never seen Jack with an umbrella, or a raincoat, and he had neither when he rang the bell that day – just a folded-up newspaper held over his head with one hand, the other holding up the string on his trousers. I let him in, mimicking Richard as I led Jack up the stairs: Have you been to Ed’s today? Do you want tea?

Ed was a minister who lived on the other side of Sheffield: a wide-chested left-wing American who had somehow settled in this city of steel. As far as I could gather, a great deal of Jack’s conversation was about Ed. As he held the warm mug, Jack grinned and then his face unfolded and a startling baritone emerged from his throat. Perfectly enunciated, utterly clear: There is a green hill far away. The music lifted, settled, and I felt tears prickle.

The singing happened often after that. There was a smattering of hymns, all tuneful and deeply known: ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’; ‘How Great Thou Art’. The greatest hits of John Wesley. Jack’s voice, when he sang, was graceful and rich, and each time I felt the surge of tears.

The first elephant had arrived before I did. Jack had gifted it to Richard: an ugly ceramic sub-Babar. A white-painted elephant, wearing a blue vest and cap, standing upright as though human. On the end of its trunk, a slight chip. When I opened the door to Jack one afternoon, he stood grinning at me. In one hand, the head of a pink cyclamen, its stem presumably left bare somewhere across town. In the other, a white elephant, upright, unchipped, wearing a pink vest. I told Jack I’d put the pink elephant in my room, upstairs – by which I meant: I’ll put it in the bin. He shook his head, grimaced, said ‘Noshegrrserr. Widat.’

I understood exactly what he said this time. No. She goes here. With that one.

They were among the ugliest objects I’d ever seen, but I put the pink lady elephant next to the man elephant, perched on top of the television, our two angels of the tube. They were to stay together. He’d made the rules clear.

Jack became part of the fabric of my life. An outer edge, certainly, but part of the weave nonetheless. Every few days, the bell would ring its insistent ring. When Richard was home, he opened the door to Jack immediately, offered a cup of tea, and Jack squeezed out that jumble of unintelligible words through half-chewed bread. And always, Richard nodded, listened, responded. Did you, Jack? We haven’t got honey, Jack, but you can have jam if you want. Oh, that’s a shame Ed’s not home. Sometimes, not every time, the singing, bright and loud, Jack’s body straightening, his shoulders pushed back, his jaw moving up and down and the tune bellowing out of him, sure and clear. The same hymns, usually, but sometimes others: ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Come All Ye Faithful’. Once, the chorus of ‘And Can It Be’.

When I was alone and the doorbell rang, I waited, hoped he would leave. He rarely did. On the third or fourth or fifth ring, I would stomp down the three floors from my attic to the front door and unwillingly, crossly, let him in, offer him tea and hope he would leave quickly. Sometimes, he did. Other times, he was as cross with me as I was with him. I’d become better at guessing his words – tea, biscuit, bread, Ed – but my guesswork was obvious, insulting, and sometimes Jack shouted at me, as though stunned by my deliberate obtuseness.

Let me be clear: I did not open the door to Jack because I wanted to. I opened the door because I knew he would not leave and I had limited patience for listening to the doorbell ring on repeat.

But when Richard listened to him, Jack unfurled, softened, and his voice became less strained, his words clearer. At these times he would offer what became a familiar, clear reflection, almost the only spoken words of Jack I could understand:

‘I feel much better now. I feel myself.’

I watched Richard, his dark head leaning towards Jack, watched the way he waited and did not hurry him, and I thought: safe harbour.

Jack displayed neither gratitude nor servility during our visits, not any of them. He arrived, expecting and demanding hospitality, but he knew how to be a guest. My mother told me never to arrive at a person’s home empty-handed, and Jack always had flower heads or some other gift – the elephants, a booklet he’d picked up from somewhere – that he handed to us, as though an entry ticket, when he arrived at the door.

 

WHEN I THINK of my time in that house, Jack is always at the centre of it. I don’t remember the first time he arrived with flowers just for me, the petals crushed in his hand, don’t recall the first time I looked outside the front door to see the row of bare-headed flower stems and realised he’d picked the flower heads from our own garden. I don’t remember the first time I realised that he had a line of houses along our street that he visited – not merely the other student houses, but college staff houses, and neighbours across the road too. His day, I realised, was busy: full of pastoral visits no less structured or significant than those carried out by Ed, the American minister. The firsts are hard to recall, those threshold moments that I ask my students these days to pay attention to. First flowers, first moment of understanding his words, first gift, first choking. They are blurred as though, like the Yorkshire weather, Jack was always just there. I do remember the lasts, though, some of them, the worst of them.

That last time, winter was just turning to spring. The flowers Jack clutched in his hand were bright yellow daffodils, some with a small shred of stem. It was a Friday, I remember that. The tall house was all mine – the other housemates away for Easter – and being alone was a delicious treat. I put a potato to bake in the oven, switched on the boxy television in the corner of the room, the elephants keeping watch over the noise and chaos of a program headed up by a red-headed English presenter. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and filled the room with the cacophony beloved of British television in the mid-’90s.

 

THE BELL RANG as I sat down in front of the TV, tea towel across my lap. I waited, hoping that he couldn’t hear me two storeys above. The ring again, and a third time. I put my plate on the bench, stomped downstairs, let him in, led him upstairs, boiled the kettle. I said, ‘I haven’t got long, Jack.’

Jack nodded. I handed him the tea.

In the corner, beneath the trumpeting elephants, the host instructed the audience in a complicated drinking game. Someone in the audience cheered, making the sound of a parrot squawking, which the host mimicked cruelly. I watched over Jack’s shoulder while Jack strangled a sentence, then repeated himself, louder.

I took a guess. ‘Biscuit, Jack?’

The ifs begin here.

If I’d just ignored the ringing. If I’d had biscuits in the house. If I’d remembered the phone in the hallway. If I’d been less distracted. If I’d been better.

 

JACK SAID YES to a biscuit, and when I saw that there were no McVitie’s to be found, I buttered a piece of white bread, slathered it in jam and handed it to him on a plate. As always, he lifted the bread so that I was left holding the empty plate. I turned the TV volume up so that I wouldn’t be distracted by Jack’s chewing and slurping. Someone ran through the audience trailing a sparkling banner. I wished Jack would leave so that I could eat my potato alone and then sit upstairs scribbling notes in my journal. He did not leave.

He tried to raise his voice over the barking noise of the television. I nodded, distracted.

 

I’M NOT SURE, now, when I realised that the choking this time was serious. Dimly, over the television noise, I became aware of the sound of his hacking cough. I was calm. This happened all the time.

I patted him on the back and when nothing happened, I patted him on the chest.

He coughed more, waved his knotted hands. I whacked him between the shoulder blades.

Nothing.

We looked at each other, me and Jack, both of us caught in a rising rip of panic. He was tiny, so thin, his bones so small, I was frightened I’d break him, but I stepped behind him and grabbed my hands into a loop beneath his ribcage, then pressed. Nothing.

The coughing escalated into wheezing, the slow, whooping loop of someone trying desperately to catch a breath. He was on the floor, Jack, his hands on the floor, his face turning red, then purple, while I smacked at his back, hoping, hoping, just hoping that Jack would stop being so infuriating, that he would spit out the damned bread, that he would breathe again and I would tick him off and kick him out and get back to watching my program, alone, and eating my potato, alone, and I never asked for this, I never asked for him.

I whacked. I pulled at his chest.

I remembered the payphone in the hallway. I ran upstairs, found my pile of 20p pieces. Ran downstairs, phoned 999.

The woman on the phone sounded calm. Where was I? Who was I with? What was my relationship to this person?

He was – he is –

I am his –

I paused. He’s my visitor, I finally said. Please come now.

 

HE WAS DEAD by the time the paramedics arrived, the insistent ring below echoing Jack’s, the two of them clumping upstairs in their heavy boots. They stood in the living room, looking around as though dazed. One of them said, You all right, Petal? Students live here?

I said yes. And then I looked down at Jack.

One of the paramedics was from Birmingham. He asked me where I was from, whereabouts in Australia, he’d always wanted to go to Australia.

I said, Please. Jack is right there. Jesus Christ.

 

THE POLICE CAME as the paramedics were wrapping up. My potato was cold on its plate on the bench. I wanted them, all of them, to go. I was still angry at Jack, at the way he’d insisted on being there, at the way he’d insisted on eating and speaking and swallowing at the same time, at the way he’d upended my night of solitude. I was angry at me, for the way I’d been unable to save him, for the fact I’d never bothered doing a first aid course when I thought I was such a bloody grown-up, for the way I’d been angry at Jack, for my own appalling selfishness, for my thoughts even then, even as they covered him up, his feet in too-large shoes sticking out the end of the sheath, and even then I wanted it to be done, I wanted it to be over, I wanted it to have never happened.

The oldest of the policemen stood right at Jack’s head. He took out a notepad, as though he were in a crime show. He said, ‘And the gentleman here’ – he gestured downward, in the direction of Jack’s head, with his pen – ‘the gentleman was a vagrant, was he?’

I said, ‘I’m sorry? What?’

‘A homeless, was he? Lost soul?’ The Yorkshire cop flipped his notebook closed, as though he’d answered his own question.

I started crying then. I said, ‘No. He wasn’t homeless. He wasn’t lost. His name is Jack Pine.’

 

ON THE DAY of Jack’s funeral, the gardens at the front of the cathedral were ripe with springtime daffodils. I’d been surprised to learn that his funeral was to be in the cathedral. I thought perhaps it might be held in one of the small side chapels.

It wasn’t.

The cathedral was already full when I arrived with Richard. In the pew opposite me, a group of residents from his hostel stood hand in hand. One man clutched at his pants in the same way Jack did. In front of me, a woman wearing a fitted suit sat dabbing at her eyes. There were loose groupings. For the most part, students seemed to be sitting together, hostel residents and workers similarly so. But as for the rest, wealthy-looking couples sat alongside immigrant families, nurses and their kids. All of Sheffield looked to be there. Pitsmoor residents, and those from the wealthy suburbs. All of us looking at each other, startled, wondering, how did these people know Jack?

Eventually, the organist began playing, and those who couldn’t fit in to the cathedral – there were quite a few – had to stand outside.

The American minister, Ed, led a procession down the aisle, with Jack’s coffin – barely larger than a child’s – borne behind him. Sobs echoed against the stone.

I looked across at the hostel staff. Two women leaned against each other. Someone behind wept constantly. Richard handed me a tissue.

I don’t remember the sermon, though Richard tells me it was something to do with entertaining angels unaware, and I don’t remember the hymns. ‘How Great Thou Art’ must have featured. But I remember this, that after the service, we traipsed outside to the cathedral garden, hundreds of us, united by one thing, one person. Outside, unwatched by the conservative cathedral staff, we overwhelmed the flowerbeds. When we were finished, the entire garden was a mass of bare stems. In our hands, the flower heads that we laid on Jack’s coffin as we sang him out.

 

A COUPLE OF weeks after his funeral, two carers from Jack’s hostel came to visit me. It was an act of kindness, designed, I think, to lay to rest my guilt and shame for having failed to save him. I remember that the younger woman was called Lucy. Perhaps she was the only one who introduced herself. They both wept, when they spoke of Jack, when they remembered him. They offered condolences, they offered amnesty. As they stood to leave, Lucy turned her head and paused. She nodded at the elephants, asked: ‘Were they from Jack?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He always brought a gift, but these he brought separately. One for Richard, one for me.’

The two of them laughed. Lucy said, ‘They’re from the display cabinet in the hostel. I wondered where they’d got to.’

 

YEARS LATER, AFTER we married, after our children were born, after Richard moved with me to Australia, we realised that the ceramic elephants had been lost. But Jack wasn’t lost. He never was. He always knew where he was, and he built a community of connections. Had it been possible to map his path across Sheffield, I’d have something resembling a portrait of humanity, an underground network unobtrusively linking everyone everywhere.

 

I KEEP THINKING about that moment in the packed cathedral, the moment of looking around, as though a curtain had been pulled back, and realising that Jack’s visits to our house, the flowers he handed me from my own garden, the singing, the chewing, the shouting – these were replicated all over the city.

 

UNLIKE ME, JACK had found a way of bringing himself back to himself. He’d found a way of making a rich life, one that grew out of his flaws and vulnerabilities as much as it grew out of his strengths. A life that flourished not in solitude, but in community.

Community is not people who have resources sharing them with people who haven’t. It’s people who often have very little making a claim that we are all human, all worthy, all ourselves. For me now, the question is not: have I got enough to share? Enough time, enough resources, enough patience? I never did have enough. I never will. The question is this: am I human enough to be as human as the person who has nothing? In his bloody-minded determination – his insistence – on drawing on those around him, Jack grew not merely his own life, but also grew mine. He taught me how to reverse the deficit economics of community.

Jack’s utter mastery of the doorbell demanded hospitality from each of us who attended him in that overflowing cathedral and in doing so, he made most of us better people. Some of us – like Richard – already had a deep seam of kindness and compassion, the thread of tolerance that makes humans shine. But others – like me – had to learn it. Jack taught us. He taught me. His refrain became both a blessing and an enduring challenge. I feel much better, I feel myself.

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