St Quentin’s square is somewhat off the main thoroughfare of the city’s streets; traffic is admitted under sufferance and parking is not allowed. A quadrant of buildings and a narrow, peripheral, cobbled road hem in a small area of gardens. People like to use them at lunchtime and as respite from busy shops and workplaces. At midday the sun holds back the shadows thrown by the buildings; it is pleasant and feels oddly remote from the rest of the city. A pop-up café serves frothy drinks and cellophane-wrapped snacks. Sometimes, a busker plays.
For many years now visitors have become accustomed to seeing three men in and around the square, as much a part of its architecture as the cenotaph which marks its centre, and as watchful.
Morning. The commissionaire is the first to come. He materialises with the bluish dawn under the imposing portico of the Grand Hotel. Smart in a braided uniform, his inflexible decorum declares a military past. But years of comfortable living in his tiny apartment beneath the hotel eaves, and a regular supply of plated meals from the hotel kitchen, have broadened his girth; he is plump and rather florid, but his eyes are strangely sad.
He is an institution at the Grand, much-respected, although nobody, now, can remember why. The current staff is several iterations on from the one which watched the commissionaire win his spurs.
He stands for the first few minutes breathing in the slightly sour city air and surveying the square with a veiled but proprietorial eye. The hardy gardens are really little more than a collection of very resilient shrubs and a determined tree or two. The plashing fountain is unfortunately a depository for litter and its bottom winks with copper pennies, the currency of abandoned hopes and despondent wishes which no one - so far - has been prepared to demean themselves by wading in to collect. The steps of the war memorial bear poppy-wreaths throughout November. The rest of the year, people sit on the steps and eat sandwiches and lean against the names of the decomposed heroes.
To the left of the hotel is the Crown Court; obdurate and magnificent. To the right, the crest-fallen church of St Quentin. Opposite are the bank HQ and the various barristers’ chambers - an uneasy melding of old stone and plate glass.
The Commissionaire inspects it all solemnly from beneath the peak of his hat, until the first guest requires a taxi.
All day long he extracts guests from cabs and feeds them through the revolving doors of the Grand. He carries their parcels and fondles their pooches. He escorts them under the protection of his umbrella, keeping them dry while he, himself, gets wet.
At regular intervals his hand will travel discreetly to his jacket pocket, secreting five and ten pound notes. Those who proffer them do so almost as though they are not aware of it, as if their hand acts of its own volition, and he, equally, accepts with only a murmur; it is a vulgar transaction, beyond the dignity of both parties to acknowledge.
His expression is blandly impassive. Nothing from any guest will ever shock him; the cabinet minister who falls out of a taxi in fishnets, the ancient actress glutinous with implants and slap, the Oligarch’s entourage - twelve strong, and all packing hardware - he greets them all with poker-faced deference. His conversation, if any, is restricted to mild observations about the weather, to which he will receive barely a reply, and expects none.
It is his job to serve without attracting notice. He is the impressive face of the Grand - designed to be forgotten the moment the opulent interior beyond the revolving door is glimpsed. And indeed he is forgotten immediately, dismissed as a faceless flunkey. Beyond the request for a taxi or directions to the theatre, no meaningful remark is ever addressed to him, and very few people know his name.
The man with the hat arrives in the square early, but not as early as the commissionaire. By then the city is rousing itself. The street cleaner trundles across the cobbles collecting yesterday’s litter. The Court janitor opens the massive doors and sweeps the steps. A handful of early office-workers scurry into the bank HQ and a very few would-be communicants loiter outside the church waiting for the priest to arrive.
The vagrant makes his way from whatever doss or hostel has housed him overnight and sits on the bench outside the Crown Court. If he has managed to get a bed at a refuge he will have had breakfast, but usually he has not. Hunger—like cold, penury, loneliness and ridicule—has become something to be endured; as mildly irritating as the wasps which proliferate in summer, and as impossible to overcome. He hunkers on the bench and takes what the day brings, and in return he offers the story on his hat.
The hat is formed from a sheet of brown cardboard formed into a cylinder and fixed into a brim. It is ridiculously tall and unstable; madder than the mad-hatter’s. The entire surface is covered in words; the tiny, intricate penmanship is very fine, with flourish and curlicue, exceptional calligraphy executed without error by a master scribe.
He sits on his bench as the city stirs and stretches and comes to life; as Court business gets underway, as shoppers travel in by bus and tram, as traffic roars and growls outside the precincts of the square. Invariable, inevitable, day after day, the man sits on the bench with his bizarre hat perched on his head. The sight of him there in his peculiar hat is as familiar as the barristers in their gowns and wigs and the defendants in their unaccustomed suits. He’s a fixture, a character, odd and faintly repugnant like the ever-present, oily pigeons. Like the cenotaph he is warmed by sun or washed by rain, whatever befalls, and remains in situ, seemingly impervious to either. Impervious except for his hat which darkens and droops in the wet, getting saggier and soggier until it collapses onto his head, its finely calligraphed story smudged beyond deciphering.
His hat is the thing by which he is known and of which he is most proud. If he catches a by-passer’s eye one hand touches its brim, the other urgently beckons. ‘Come and look,’ he invites, with evangelical zeal. ‘Come. Come and read my hat.’ But the truth is that few people want to get close enough to decipher the words. They keep their eyes averted, fearing a tirade of senseless rhetoric or a long sob-story outpouring from which they cannot get away. His hat and his evident destitution mark him out as a weirdo; unpredictable and possibly volatile. Their eyes skim across him as over an eyesore; politely myopic. His eager gestures go pointedly unnoticed.
In fact the man will neither importune nor harangue them. His hat is his story and is all he has to say. For a man who has nothing, it is all he has to give. For the rest, he enjoys a kind of famished peace; watching with a futile interest the comings and goings of the square.
The priest comes last. Usually, indeed, he is late, arriving at breakneck speed on his decrepit old bicycle, his trouser-bottoms stuffed into his socks, which are odd, and often with holes. He hurries up the slippery, litter-strewn path to the church and unlocks the door. The meagre congregation straggles in, politely irate: they will be late for work. By the time he has scrambled into his robes and sloshed the communion wine into the chalice they will be half way through the Creed, having started the service without him.
Afterwards he leans for a few minutes on the low, damp wall that surrounds the church and watches them disappear into the morning crowds. Across the square the man with the hat is already in position, pointing from time to time at his hat—newly constructed, by the look of it, after yesterday’s deluge. The commissionaire, very austere, brass-buttoned and braided, helps a lady with three pink poodles out of a limousine. The lady’s hair is the same colour as the poodles’; it looks like candyfloss. The commissionaire’s face betrays no reaction whatsoever.
Behind the church wall are a few very ancient graves—so old that their inscriptions are lost. They teeter amongst the rank grass and rubbish. It is the priest’s job to keep it tidy, a verger being beyond the means of the straitened church, but he never seems to have the time. If he is lucky he will have time now to have a cup of instant coffee and a slice of bread in the arctic vestry—assuming the milk hasn’t gone off or the bread turned mouldy—before pedalling off again at top speed in the direction of the hospital.
With a stipend inadequate to keeping body and soul together, he takes on additional ministry as chaplain to two hospitals. He is also the minister in residence at the crematorium. At every place he is a depository for the cares of the anxious, the ill, the lonely, the bereaved and the dying. They pour their tears into him as into a vessel and the salt is corrosive. They expect him to dispense wisdom and reassurance but he feels that his words are like pennies thrown into the fountain in the square. Their vats of grief are too vast and his expressions are empty gestures.
At the hospital an old woman is dying. She has nobody but the priest, who holds her unresisting hand while he mouths platitudes about the everlasting arms and the place prepared which he doubts can comfort, but her passing seems peaceful. Later he commits a body to the flames. His solemnly repeated promises of life everlasting sound hollow to his own ears but after the service the mourners press his hand and declare themselves comforted. By lunchtime he is back in church; an hour devoted to prayer and sermon preparation, but a parishioner wants to talk about his cut in benefits. He has a muddle of paperwork from social services and final demands from utility companies. Instead of prayer, the priest offers assistance, and they march off together to see the man’s social worker leaving the priest’s prayers unsaid and his sermon unprepared.
It doesn’t matter. There is no congregation at Evensong. The priest recites The Owl and the Pussycat instead and goes outside to sit in the envelope of evening sunshine which slices obliquely between the court and the bank HQ to bathe the front of the church in brief artificial splendour. Despite the sunlight the priest’s face is as haggard and in need of reinforcement as the façade of the church. The burdens he has collected during the day are like a teetering tower above him; he feels leeched of faith and drained of strength, his evening rounds of the wards and his usual vigil-hour at the hospital chapel way beyond his capacity. He wishes he could keep on sitting there, on the wall, while the sun goes down and night shrouds the deserted square. His soul cries out for rest and refreshment, but none comes, and the chiming clock above the courthouse tells him he is late.
One January evening, the square is deserted. A heavy snow overnight and during the day kept most people at home and the city’s commerce–like its traffic—has ground to a halt. St Quentin’s square is slick with greyish slush like gristle, its bumps and runnels indistinguishable from the granite cobbles. The fountain’s waters are gelid, more solid than liquid, they rise up torpid and heavy, and fall back with a smack. The shrubs of the gardens are petrified and stark, the trees lifeless. The dusk arrived prematurely, hurrying the day towards night and now dank fog makes the air taste as wet and thick as an old cloth, so that breathing is like drowning.
The bank HQ and the chambers are unoccupied, the courthouse’s doors firmly closed.
The hotel is empty. The chef and his commis—who live-in—are playing cards in the porter’s lodge behind the reception desk. The restaurants are shut. The porter will do duty at reception if anybody comes. But nobody will.
The door of the church is ajar; a single, feeble light bulb glimmers in the porch and, from within, the strain of organ music sounds like somebody wailing.
The priest is in the vestry, looking at donations for an imminent bazaar. There is no one else to sort through the dross and cast-offs that have been dumped at the church door, and time is short. The text for this evening’s sermon was Jabberwocky; as good as anything, he thought, to a congregation of none, although, if the archdeacon had decided to attend—which he has threatened he might—it would have given some cause for comment. Earlier, at the hospital, a tiny baby brought prematurely into the world had been taken as suddenly out of it. The priest’s shoulders are still damp from the tears of the teenage parents, as damp and threadbare and useless as the ragged trousers and frayed woollens in the bags piled all around him.
The commissionaire, as always, stands to attention under the portico of the Grand Hotel. He shuffles his feet discreetly, to keep the blood flowing, and plays out imaginary conversations in his head.
The man with the hat sits on his bench. He is cold. His hat is disintegrating in the damp air, its legend sliding, the ink seeping into the pulp, becoming blurred and irrelevant, like him.
The church door bursts open and the priest erupts from inside. The sound of the wailing organ becomes indeed a human cry, wild and inconsolable. He runs across the cobbles and into the gardens, slipping on the wet slush, skidding to a halt in front of the obelisk of the cenotaph. His priestly robes are dishevelled, his face gaunt, his eyes bright and glittering with a disturbed light. The sound of his anguish ricochets off the blank façades of the buildings and comes back to him like the voice of another man in torment. His eyes cast around him, taking in the icy fountain, the desolate trees, the mute memorial, before settling on the man with the soggy, woebegone hat.
‘I envy you,’ he cries angrily, stretching an accusing fist at the vagrant. ‘Do you know that? I envy you!’
The man with the hat is so startled to be directly addressed that for a moment he does not respond. He turns slowly, left then right, to see who the recipient of the priest’s resentment might be, but there is no-one, and he lifts a disbelieving hand to point at himself.
The man with the hat gets to his feet and negotiates the few steps which take him down from the court’s apron and onto the cobbles. The priest comes to meet him. The commissionaire, who has seen everything, finds himself descending the steps of the Grand and crossing the street.
‘At least you have time,’ the priest exclaims, pointing an accusing finger at the vagrant, ‘and nobody bothers you. You can sit, and think, and pray!’ The priest’s face, formerly bloodless, is now hectic. He spits out his words, their liquescent venom melding into the foggy air and sprinking, a little, the front of the vagrant’s grimy coat.
‘Well,’ the vagrant replies hesitantly. Praying is not something he would wish to take credit for. The rest, he supposes, he can hardly deny. He reaches up to touch the brim of his hat, a reflex action; it is his lodestar, he knows where he is, with the hat. ‘Well,’ he says again.
‘Now, now,’ says the commissionaire calmly. ‘I don’t think we can blame ...’ he realises—they all realise—that the name of the vagrant is unknown, even after all these years. The vagrant himself finds he does not have it easily on the tip of his tongue. ‘I don’t think we can blame this gentleman,’ the commissionaire concludes, ‘because we’re run off our feet.’
‘You’re hardly run off yours,’ the priest replies bitterly. But his tirade is over. He sinks onto a damp bench and puts his head in his hands. The vagrant and the commissionaire sit on either side of him.
‘Not today, no,’ the commissionaire admits.
‘You get well fed, though,’ the vagrant says, rustily, ‘and a warm bed at night, I bet.’
The commissionaire nods. He can’t deny it. ‘But a machine could do my job. Come to that, people could get their own taxis and carry their own umbrellas. None of it matters. Nothing I do really matters to anybody.’ The depths of his discontent surprises even him. The priest and the vagrant turn, slowly, to look at him.
A thick shroud of mist billows across the square, blotting out the buildings. Somewhere in the abandoned city, a clock strikes the hour.
The Commissionaire, the Vagrant and the Priest In the night the temperature drops so that when the sun rises the grey fog has been transformed into white frost. It coats the branches of the shrubs like sugar crystals and the surface of the war memorial winks and shimmers as though embedded overnight with crushed diamonds. The fountain is frozen; a petrified burble erupts from the centre of a smooth, translucent glaze. From its depths, a million pennies glint like granted wishes. The commissionaire steps out from under the hotel portico. His uniform is unaccountably loose on his diminished frame, but very smart, each button meticulously polished. The hotel barber has freshly-groomed the suddenly-overgrown hair, and shaved the oddly-weathered chin. Breakfast sits like a Christmas gift in his belly. When the first cab draws up at the kerb the alacrity of the commissionaire’s step to meet it is remarkable. Almost instinctively, he raises his hand to his hat as he escorts the guest up the steps. Its peak has been burnished to mirror-bright perfection. The church doors are flung open wide, and music flows through them and out into the square. The priest stands at the porch door, ruddy and smiling. His robes, through threadbare and rather tight around his girth, are beautifully laundered and ironed with military precision. He extends his hand eagerly to each congregant, engaging avidly with each, taking their burdens onto his willing shoulders. The Eucharist will be oddly disorganised but the worshippers are used to that; the priest is such a busy man. The vagrant comes to his bench ahead of his usual time, and takes his seat with a kind of diffident relief. He watches over the arrival of the workers with a benedictive eye, lingering on each one as they hurry past, his lips moving. ‘Talking to himself now,’ they tell themselves. ‘He must be scattier than we thought.’ His hat is not so expertly constructed as formerly, the lettering less elaborate but more legible. The sharper-sighted amongst the passers-by make out the first line; ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms …’
This story originally appeared in The Book, my collection of stories, articles and travel writing. The inspiration for the story was Albert Square in Manchester, and a gentleman I saw frequently in Doylestown, PA, who wore a cardboard hat of the type I describe.