The man who emptied ashtrays
I was sitting on a bench next to a litter bin. The clock read 17:40. I had almost an hour to wait until the start of the launch party at River Cottage Winchester.
The man reached inside the bin, flicking open its ashtray with aplomb. Dozens of butts tumbled into his tattered plastic carrier bag, quickly followed by a puff of stale ash.
Most of the shops were closed. Suited gents and smartly dressed women walked with conviction and confidence. It was home time. I was alone on my bench, opposite the Buttercross. I’d spent the day soaking up the marvels of this medieval city with its history dating back over a thousand years. I sensed the easy affluence as I flitted from boutiques to cafes and strolled through the meads of Winchester College. I wore an elegant dress in readiness for an evening of fizz and canapés. Now, homeless men and women folded up their cardboard signs and raggedy blankets. It was time to leave their daytime patches.
The ashtray scavenger rummaged through his harvest, picked out a half smoked cigarette, straightened out the crinkles and placed it behind his ear. I noticed pink lipstick stains on the filter. He looked at me. I held his gaze. Deep wrinkles filled with grime fanned from the corners of his pale grey eyes.
“I hate that fucker. I’m gonna get every one of these bins before that drug smoking bastard gets to them,” he grumbled. I looked up the street and saw the ‘drug smoking bastard,’ another homeless man. He had a blanket draped over his right shoulder and was in an argument with a Community Policeman. From a distance, he had the look of Clint Eastwood about him.
I asked ashtray man if he wanted to sit down. He remained standing using his hand to lean on the bin. He smiled and said, “That’s a lovely Irish accent if I’m not mistaken.”
With less than half the number of teeth an adult should have and all stained nutmeg brown, he should have looked frightening. Instead there was warmth in his eyes. He took the half smoked cigarette from behind his ear and asked if I minded if he sat down. I sidled along the bench to make a little room and he began to tell me a story.
“She hit me once too often. I had to leave. Couldn’t take it anymore. That’s why I had to go. She always says sorry… but I had to go.” He turned towards me; eyes now glassy then took a deep drag of his fag. “I still love her. She just can’t handle the drink.”
Muttering something I didn’t quite catch, he rose quickly from the seat. “God bless, love,” He said, as he gestured a hug. I stood, held him gently and he kissed my cheek firmly. His breath smelt of malted hops and his bristles felt soft. He walked towards the next bin and stopped.
11 people are sleeping rough in Winchester according to the latest government figures of street counts and estimates of rough sleepers in England (Autumn 2013).
21 year old Luke Addison is running a campaign with support from Fixers, to highlight that the homeless population of Winchester have stories to tell and are often not living on the streets by choice. He says, ‘In Winchester, there is a homeless population that we feel are too often ignored or judged by the general public.’
Please watch the video. Hear the stories behind the nameless, ignored faces, the Humans of Winchester.