The steep basement steps tip down to a small, dark courtyard, a brick-arched under-pavement recess, and Michael, crammed up to his knees in a fire exit. He uncurls a little as I touch him on the shoulder.
‘Are you all right?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘How you doing? You feel cold to me.’
‘It is cold’
He uncurls some more, swings his legs round from the basement doorway and pulls his fat hands out from either jacket sleeve. Coarse, bitten back and raw, tattooed with a pen.
‘Somebody rang to say they saw you.’
‘I don’t know. They were worried.’
Michael looks out at me from under his double hood, drawing his focus, collecting himself. Then he reaches up, grabs hold of a railing, and hauls himself to his feet.
‘So what’s going on?’ I say.
‘I haven’t got no place to sleep. I need somewhere to get me head down. I haven’t slept in days, man.’
He holds a trembling hand out towards me.
‘Look at that,’ he says. ‘See that? That’s alcohol. I need alcohol.’
‘Apart from being on the street and needing some alcohol, is there anything wrong with you this afternoon? Are you in pain?’
‘Yeah. If I don’t get alcohol I’ll go crazy.’
He puts his hoods down. His face has been as blasted as his hands by a winter on the streets. His lips are plumped up and numb. Everything about him looks improvised; his ginger goatee could be cut from an old welcome mat, his ginger hair smeared on his scalp with a palette knife.
‘Take me to hospital.’
Michael sways a little as he tries to see who it is talking.
‘Let’s go up top and have a chat there.’
I head back up the steps and he shuffles behind. At street level again, he collects himself for a moment in the brighter light; slowly his anger and frustration seem to swell as the blood flows more freely again, like dreadful wings filling out as blood flows into the circuit.
‘So Michael, the only thing wrong with you right now is that you haven’t got anywhere to sleep and you need some alcohol.’
‘There’s no fucking place in this town. I’ve got no bed. And if I don’t get a drink I’ll fall down in the street and have a fit. Is that what you want?’
‘Have you been along to the shelter?’
‘They got no beds’
‘They could give you better advice than I can.’
‘They got no beds’
He grimaces, raises his arms out to the side, tips his head back, grinds out a strange, strangled kind of roar, half rage, half yawn, flecked with spit. Then he looks straight back at me, and it’s like he’s seeing me for the first time. We stand opposite each other on the pavement, lunch time workers flowing efficiently round the obstruction, the moving statue, approximately human in all its layers, St Michael the Terrifying, fucked-up father to rough sleepers the world over.
‘I’m from Yorkshire, me,’ he says finally.
A police car pulls up behind the ambulance.
A policeman gets out, and puts on his hat.