Part One: John
Tucked away within the heart of London's ribcage, John was a headteacher at an expensive private school. After working hard for so long, John's career was very successful. People treated him with respect. The salary was excellent. Nonetheless, he hated everything about it. He hated the pressure; he hated the constant micro-managing; he hated the responsibilities; he hated how staff and students pretended to like him; but more than anything, he hated the relentless meetings filled with people asking more, asking more, asking more of him.
John had dirty blonde hair brushed back over his thin, oblong head. Authoritative cheekbones bulged from his face, making him seem gaunter and hungrier than he truly was. Slight sack-shadows sat beneath his eyes and his skinny, unsmiling lips were thin, pink, fleshy worms pressed together. A smart but stern man.
Every day, John awoke at 5:15am, slipped into a suit, brushed his teeth, and left for work, walking a half-mile to Brixton Underground Station, stopping only once -- at a coffeeshop -- where he'll buy the same coffee and the same toasted salmon bagel. Lastly, before getting The Tube to school, he'll give a pound to the polite homeless man who's usually sat outside. Something about the man with the cardboard sign and the holey, khaki sleeping bag felt familiar. John would give him the golden coin, the man would say thank you, they'd nod curtly at each other, and John would try to conjure a genuine-looking smile before finally tottering across the street to catch his train.
When he arrived at school that morning, his assistant gave him a polite, toothless smile. "Good morning, Sir," she said.
"Good morning, Miss," he said flatly. "What do I have on today?"
She grimaced. "Two assemblies, and, erm, six meetings."
John rolled his eyes. "Fantastic. With whom?"
"Governors, parents and the DfE. Assemblies with years eight and eleven. Expectations Behaviour, uniform."
My head has not been 'in the game' recently, John thought. I have no clue what any of these meetings are about. I'd rather pull a tooth out than find out. "Is everything prepared for the assemblies at least?"
"No, Sir, sorry. You'll have to pull something together."
John didn't respond. I can't even pull myself together. He turned dismissively and moped into his office, where he sat behind his desk and held his head in his hands.
The concept of more meetings, more paperwork, more complaints, more 'suggestions', and flurries of false smiles made his tummy turn. Every task, every meeting, every conversation: meaningless. It'll just be the same as before, he thought. Put in all the effort, receive no thanks, receive a million 'suggestions' I could do my job better, lather, rinse, repeat. Tears swelled threateningly in his eyes so he didn't blink; he speculated when he last cried. It must have been over twenty years ago. This is ridiculous. I can't live like this anymore. I want a straightforward life of no responsibility, no effort, no concerns. I don't want anyone to greet me sweetly, then drop their bogus grin and blabber about me behind my back. I'd swap it all for nothing. I'd give it up for nothing.
As if acting independently to his brain, his legs walked him from his office and out past reception. There, his assistant was collecting something from her car. Every word felt robotic. "I can't work today," he said, "I am unwell." Striding out of the school gate without looking back, her eyes burned holes in his back. I don't think I can come back to this ...
The next morning, John woke in his grey-beige two-bedroom apartment and tried again. Cheap wine bottles littered the coffee table and sitcoms still rolled on the television from the evening before. The comedic programmes only pressured John to wonder when he last smiled honestly or sincerely laughed. I'll try it one more time, he decided. John dressed in silence and didn't look in a mirror. Rain was spitting, but he didn't take a coat or an umbrella.
When he approached his usual coffeeshop, the polite homeless man sprang to his feet. "My friend," he said, "what's wrong?"
John hadn't psyched himself up for human interaction so felt unprepared and defenseless. "Nothing, thanks," he blurted instinctively, trying to step around him.
As if John was made of glass, the homeless man saw straight through him and his façade. He side-stepped again and blocked John's route to the coffeeshop door. "I see you every day looking more and more miserable," said the man. "Tell me what's getting you down. You're always kind to me, let me be kind to you. What's your name?"
"Honestly," he lied, "I'm fine. My name's John. And yours?" He extended a hand for the man to shake, which he did.
"I'm James, but you can call me Jim. Come, John. Sit with me over there."
Jim led John to a nearby park-bench, where they chatted for nearly an hour. John never checked the time. John described his life, his job and what it all required of him. He explained how desperate he was for a simpler life, without the stresses and obligations that run him down deeper into depression. He told how empty and lonely the job made him, and how he barely felt like 5% of the man he used to be.
They were interrupted when a group of scruffy schoolchildren (whose blazers were emblazoned with a different school's badge) bumbled past them, pointing and laughing.
John launched to his feet angrily. I get enough of this at my own school. "What?" he snapped.
"Nothing," one of them shouted, "you two look like twins ... but it's weird 'cause one of you is like a banker or something and the other one is a tramp!" They raced away as John stepped towards them.
When he turned back to face John, he saw it. They did look similar. Very similar. They both had dirty blonde hair, both soggy and slicked back with rainwater; both had gaunt cheeks with cheekbones capable of cutting cheese. Their eyes were the same shape, and their lips were the same pastel-pink slug-shape. The only obvious difference were their teeth. Jim's incisors fell out many years ago, while John's were pristine.
Jim looked uncomfortable. "I'm sorry to hear life is treating you so poorly, John. We could always swap lives if you want," he joked.
John heard the joke and smiled. Stars filled his eyes. To the shock of his face, he smiled a heartfelt smile. "Yes please," he said earnestly, "can we trade lives today?"
Jim glared at him. "Are you serious?"
"As serious as suicide."
Part Two: Jim
Jim was an intelligent, well-read man who was more comfortable outside than in. Homeless for most of his life, Jim was streetwise and knowledgeable about the comings and goings in London; he knew areas to avoid and the best methods of getting around; he knew which establishments were liberal with their leftovers; he knew where the 'underground-but-are-really-overground' communities were; where his company was enjoyed or despised, and the hangouts of other humans who'd fallen through society's cracking concrete. Jim has always considered himself fortunate, as he can do whatever he likes, whenever he likes, but always aspired for much, much more. Intelligence niggled at him for decades. 'You should be doing something important', it would remind him. 'You could be sleeping in a bed with a fire crackling nearby'. Intelligence especially loved to mention this whenever thunder rumbled around him.
The public were usually kind to Jim -- in fairness, he no longer noticed those who weren't, so it never affected him. Most people ignored him; Perfect, he'd think. All day he could sit outside the coffeeshop and read or natter with regulars and strangers. Politeness went a long way in city where people were too wrapped up in their own life-bubble. Sometimes the employees would give him the unsold food from that day: sandwiches, sausage rolls, pots of soup, brownies and cakes. Sometimes all at once, day after day. Other times, nothing for months.
Jim had a routine. He'd sleep beneath the underpass with a community of other homeless people he knew. It was a certainty that he'd be woken early, usually around 06:00am, when the cars started beeping and screeching above. Then, he'd take his sleeping bag and his sign, and walk over to the coffeeshop. The manager would wish him a courteous good morning. If he'd finished a book, he'd drop by the converted phone box library, where, although he'd read most of them, he'd swap that book for another. Tolkien last week, Tolstoy this. Throughout the day he'd recognise familiar faces -- the compassionate and discourteous alike -- then he'd go for a walk with a friend through the park, then find somewhere somewhat safe and sheltered for the evening. Though he wished for more, life was manageable, reasonable even, and Jim knew he could always depend on himself. You should be doing something important.
One morning, a familiar face -- attached to a very sad looking man -- arrived at the coffeeshop. That morning, the man looked gloomier than usual. Jim always thought he was a polite man, he always gave him some money and treated him like a human. 'Thank you' Jim would say, and the man would share a nod. Today's nod was followed by the most forced and unhappy smile he'd ever seen. The well-dressed man's lip looked wobbly, and his eyes were glassy. More and more miserable every day, Jim thought. At least he has a job and somewhere decent to sleep. Seems successful to me. At least he can eat whatever he wants and can afford to buy any book. I bet the library doesn't kick him out on sight. I bet he can buy beers without people thinking he's an alcoholic or walk down the meat isle in a supermarket without presumptions that he's going to thieve steaks. I've got enough meat in my trousers, he joked to himself, I don't need any more. The man left the coffeeshop with his expensive bagel-and-drink breakfast and headed for The Tube.
The next morning, Jim was sat in the light rain outside the central Brixton coffeeshop when he saw the sad man approaching. He might have it all, but he's clearly not happy. He always tries to be good to me, Jim thought, I'll try to repay the favour. Springing to his feet, Jim shot over to his ally. The man looked utterly blindsided, like he was deep within a depressing daydream and had been bothered by a tactless charity collector. After a few moments of convincing, the sad man agreed to talk with him. Naturally, Jim didn't have any pressing engagements, so expected the man to make an excuse about punctuality and rush to his fancy job, but he didn't. The man said his name was John and that he was a headteacher.
A while passed and some schoolchildren ran past them, pointing and laughing -- it was nothing new for Jim, it didn't even bother him anymore, they could laugh at him all they wanted. It said more about them than him, he'd remind himself. They can't possibly be laughing at John, Jim knew. John stood to defend him.
"What?" he growled.
"Nothing," an overfed boy shouted, "you two look the same ... but it's weird 'cause one of you is like a banker or something and the other one's a tramp!" Jim barely registered anything other than 'you look the same', but the word 'tramp' did echo between his ears. The children ran away cackling.
When Jim looked up, he noticed John staring at him as if he was a fascinating, freshly sprouted alien plant. The staring continued and continued until he didn't know what to say. At least he doesn't live like me. "I'm sorry to hear life is treating you so poorly, John," he said, "we could always swap lives if you want."
John's eyes filled with colour. It made Jim think: I wouldn't mind having your life ... that's for sure ...
"Yes please," John blurted unexpectedly, "can we trade lives today?" Surely, he doesn't mean that? Jim gazed suspiciously at him. "Are you serious?"
"As serious as suicide."
Part Three: John
The first few hours of being homeless was a freshly baked slice of relief. Nobody pressured him. Nobody gave him a smile that dissolved the moment they thought he was past eyeshot, and he didn't feel obliged to check the time on a single occasion. Some people were even friendly to him, giving him some copper coins and a sausage roll from the coffeeshop. It took a half-day for things to change.
By the early afternoon, John's bum had gone squarer and number than if he'd been sat on a slab of ice. Afterwards, no seated position was comfortable. Jim had given him his sleeping bag and it was surprisingly warm. When he stood, he found that his legs, too, were numb. Then they were overcome with prickly pins and needles. How did Jim sit for so long? Once John was standing instead of seated, nobody acknowledged him. It was clear they tried their hardest not to see him, despite having seen him. Nobody gave him money or any food. People either stare too much or look too little ...
Standing or sitting, people passed by disturbingly close. Are homeless people not permitted personal space? Each step was three or four centimetres (or fewer) from his fingers or feet -- it didn't matter whether he was sprawled across the pavement or tucked tight to the wall -- they would walk or cycle past distressingly close. Considering they weren't looking at him, John was surprised to escape unscathed. Another woman walked her dog nearby. It led her to the lamppost beside John -- barely three feet away -- and the owner stood there patiently on her phone while her dog cocked a leg and urinated. The woman didn't acknowledge John in any capacity but asked her dog 'are you okay?' more than once, then praised it. John became aware of the concrete's slight slope when the dog's urine trickled towards him, forcing him to abandon the area he'd called 'home' for the last seven hours.
Being chased away by yellow dog waste made him want to shower. Where should I even go to wash? John didn't expect a shower -- he only wanted to stand in front of a sink and mirror for five minutes -- but every single café and small shop ushered him immediately back to the exit before he was anywhere close to the bathroom door. Customers glared at him like he was going to swipe their lunch or spit at their children.
The evening was golden yet cold and the sweet-cookie smell of the bakery lingered in the air and made his belly rumble. Over the course of the morning, John had collected £1.76, which he decided to use purchasing food. Everything is so expensive, he thought while weaving between the supermarket isles. Was it always this expensive? A man dressed all in black poked his head sneakily around the corner of the shelves. He stared at John in a way that made him feel naked. The man locked eyes with him. When he stepped imposingly out of his hiding place, 'SECURITY' was clearly emblazoned on the man's bomber jacket. The guard charged towards John.
"Not today, mate," he said, "you've gotta leave."
John was taken aback. "I haven't done anything?" he said defensively. "I'm just here to get some food."
"Yep, I'm sure you are. Don't cause a scene. Follow me outside so I ain't gotta drag ya."
John didn't know what to say. "This is a joke."
Once outside, the clock tower in Brixton's centre bonged eight times. A blanket of dark had settled suddenly over the city. A chilly breeze wound its way between the buildings searching for fingers to freeze. Most of the cafes and independent shops were closed, which meant John was unable to buy himself any dinner. I'll try again tomorrow, he decided, defeated. At least I have some money to use tomorrow ... I can't believe I used to spend £8 each morning on a bagel and coffee. The wind whipped him across the cheeks. John pulled his shabby coat up over his throat. Where am I going to sleep tonight? It's freezing ...
As he walked through the centre of Brixton, searching for somewhere suitable to sleep, it dawned on him that he'd never considered where homeless people sleep when they're not obstructing the pavement. Skulking through an empty park with few lampposts, John observed several benches with enough space to lay upon. He perched on one for a while, trying to get a feel for the area, but discovered that people were uncomfortably blasé about their open stares while in the park. It made John feel very exposed, like he was its main attraction. A short walk later, John discovered another bench that was more distant from the pathway and obscured by bushes. Perfect. It had been a long day. It wasn't long before John found himself visited by the sandman. A loud laugh stirred him. A group of drunken young men were staggering through the darkness, sniggering in whisper-shouts how easy it would be to beat him up. Without thinking twice, John snatched his sleeping bag and sprinted from his seat. The only exit he knew was the same break in the fence through which he'd entered. They charged after him, jeering and hurling half-empty beer cans; fortuitously, they all missed, but he was slapped by the spray of their contents as they splattered and skidded across the grass. John peered over his shoulder. The men had abandoned their chase. Their laughs echoed out of the park. Clearly my fear and vulnerability were only a snapshot of their evening's entertainment, he thought. I haven't run like that in years. He put his arms behind his head as if relaxing and waited to catch his breath. Adrenaline pumped through him like liquid electricity; it made his heart pound so hard his pupils shook. I've got to find somewhere more open to sleep, he thought, somewhere safer.
Beneath the comparatively blinding lamppost lights, John searched for somewhere with specific criteria: open yet secluded, private yet packed with protective public eyes, crowded but quiet. There surely isn't such a place? Returning to the spot outside the coffeeshop seemed as good a place as any. It took a few minutes to make it back. The concrete was even less comfortable than he remembered, but he cuddled into a ball on his side, faced the darkest corner and closed his eyes.
A few feet away from him on the pavement, people tottered past talking at the top of their voices. Not one person lowered their voice for John. There were several comments like, "Oh, look at that guy," and others like, "How can he sleep in such a battered sleeping bag?" Another said, "I wonder how many drugs he's taken to be able to sleep there? Reckon he'd share or fight us for our shoes?" All of which startled John into alertness. Once, he saw a spider on the wall barely an inch from his face, which he batted away, heart thudding. One person kicked him in the shin. Accidentally. Apparently. They muttered an insincere sorry and hot-footed it before John could heave his head from sleeping bag. His belly rumbled again. The hunger alone could've stoppered sleep. As time ticked away, the number of people passing by died down, and just as John started to drift off to uneasy sleep, it started raining again, soaking through his sleeping bag and his tattered clothes before he'd realised what happened. There was no way to dry. Nowhere to shelter. The sheltered doorways near around shopfronts were accessorised with spikes on the floor, specifically designed to keep people like him away. Benches had third-party armrests installed, specifically to keep people like him from resting there. Tummy rumbles. It there that John realised he no longer had his money-cup; either someone stole it while he laid beside the coffeeshop corner, or he left it in the park when he escaped. His eyes gulped down tears as one might swallow vomit. I mustn't cry, he thought. That money was everything I had. I mustn't cry. This is what I wanted. I mustn't cry.
I've got to speak to Jim, he decided, I can't go on like this. I haven't eaten, I haven't slept. I'm going to die out here. At least I knew how to survive in my old life. At least I could eat and sleep and be safe. I haven't seen Jim all day. He'll never want to swap back ... why would he? Regardless ... I've got to try.
Part Four: Jim
The first full day of professional life was saturated with strange glances and questions about his absence. It had been over a decade since Jim had lied to someone. No excuses popped into his head. He did look the part, though. The thing he'd been looking forward to the most was wearing a crisp suit. Though he couldn't figure out how to pay for the underground as he had no money and didn't understand how to use the plastic cards that John gave him. Jim didn't mind the two-mile walk that replaced his journey on The Tube -- he could walk it with purpose. When he arrived at school, he asked the receptionists to direct him to his office, which they did, but confusion slipped into their expressions.
Within twenty seconds of being inside his office, there was a knock at the door. Behind it, stood a woman. "Can I help you?" he asked her.
Her eyebrows narrowed. "Erm, no, Sir," she said, "but you're supposed to be giving that assembly now that I mentioned to you the other morning. Are you okay to do that? The students are sat in the hall awaiting you."
"Sure," he said, not knowing exactly what an 'assembly' entailed, "show me the way."
"Show you the way?"
"Yes please. To the hall."
"Oh, erm, okay."
The assistant led him silently through the school corridors and into a vast room. Ancient plaques were hung throughout the hall and a huge stage loomed at the far end, fitted with a presidential looking podium from which, Jim assumed, he was supposed to speak from. A central walkway separated the hundreds of seated students who span their necks to stare at their 'headteacher'.
"What am I supposed to talk about?" Jim whispered to his assistant.
"Expectations, behaviour, uniform."
John felt hundreds of confused and smirking eyes burning through his suit. They were almost as puzzled as he was.
"Can you talk about those things instead please?" he asked his assistant, "I don't feel well."
Her eyes tripled in size, but before she could retort, Jim scurried back the way they came, slammed his office door, and locked it. When someone knocked firmly ten minutes later, he ignored it and pretended he wasn't home. It would be only the first time. Another ten minutes passed. Knock, knock, knock. "Sir, are you in there?" Each knock inflated bubbles of anxiety in his belly until his belly felt like a bubble bath.
The computer erected on his desk cycled through the same screensaver for several hours. It would bling-ding occasionally, indicating some sort of message, but the screen asked him for a password that he didn't know, so he couldn't access or see them. What am I going to do? I have no idea who's who or what's what ...
Knock, knock, knock. "Sir, we really need your input. Governor Falsone is here ... Sir?"
Only once more during the working day did Jim vacate his office and that was to locate and use the toilet. During this trip into the wild, he was bombarded with questions from teaching staff, who appeared exaggeratedly happy to see him; their faces snapped back to banality the very moment their interaction concluded. Other staff members detailed how it was imperative he converse urgently with particular staff members -- but he didn't know who any of these people were. This happened four times during his search for the toilet. Jim's insides screwed up, tighter and tighter each time until he felt light-headed. In the end, the conversations were so disorienting, he forgot to use the toilet. I never had any of these problems on the street, he thought. Outside, people never hid how they felt about me. I never cared. Here people smile their fakest smiles at me. I'm embarrassed for them. I don't care if they like me, why can't people just be honest?
A bell rang sharply at 3:30p.m. Jim assumed that it signalled the end of the school day. He waited around forty minutes and watched from the window as hundreds and hundreds of students filtered out onto the roads, nonchalantly walking out in front of cars, buying boxes of fast-food, staring down at their mobile phones after a seemingly difficult few hours of not being able to do so. When the coast is clear, I'll make a run for it, Jim decided. The last thing in the whole world he wanted was to engage in another conversation that made him feel like a fool, imposter, or worse, an idiot.
When he eventually made it back to his new apartment, it seemed more beige-grey than he remembered it to be. After holding it for longer than he'd ever done, he used the toilet, soaking the seat.
Sat on the sofa, the silence made him anxious. Faintly buzzing electronics around the room offended his focus like an over-loud ticking clock. The TV sat dormant for hours. Not knowing how to use the remote, he pushed the big, clunky button on the front of the display, which kickstarted the set into exhibiting a shopping channel. The hosts of the programme were discussing the benefits of spending £180 on an object that supposedly cleaned ovens.
Inspired, Jim investigated his new cooker and fridge. There was nothing in the fridge except a beer and expired milk. The freezer was packed with peas, potato waffles and half-eaten ice creams, but no proper food. Though, he would've eaten the waffles, Jim didn't understand the dials on the cooker's countenance, you could fly an aeroplane with less dials than that, he thought. Even more complicated, however, was the single dial on the washing machine that had more gears and settings than a mountain bike. The microwave looked comparatively simplistic, but -- according to the box -- the waffles couldn't be cooked in the microwave, so he had no food. I never went to sleep hungry when I lived on the street, he thought sadly.
Usually, when trying to relax or pass time, Jim would read. John informed him briefly that he owned thousands of books, but there wasn't a bookshelf in sight, only an e-reader. When he pressed its only button, it lit up to tell him that it needed charging, which he didn't know how to do. Trying to put the e-reader back, he tripped on a coffee table leg and sent it spinning and tumbling down the stairs. When he clicked the button at the bottom again, but the screen's innards were splattered across itself, gushing with ink like technological internal bleeding.
The time displayed on the shopping channel said it was 8p.m. Voices from the hosts helped him to feel less alone. Feeling as if he'd tried everything, John sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV. The sofa was too squidgy to sit restfully on, he kept sinking deeper and deeper into it. Jewellery was now the focus of the TV show. Even if I wanted to buy this stuff, he realised, I don't know how to give them my money. I don't know where I'd buy stamps to send my cards to them. I couldn't call the number they keep flashing on the screen anyway.
Around 9:00pm, John decided to go to sleep. In front of the bathroom sink and mirror, John washed with the same technique he did so for several decades, but still felt somehow dirtier.
The bed was one of the things he looked most forward to. But, while laid in it, the silence was loud and unsettling. The bland walls and buzzing of this old, two-bedroom apartment made Jim feel strangely vulnerable. On the streets, he thought, if you know where to go and who to see, there are always people looking out for you, but here, someone could be prowling in these shadows, under the bed or behind a door. Someone could break in the second I think I'm safe and nobody would raise an alarm for me.
The bed was too soft. Quicksand. If you were in one position for too long, you'd sink into the mattress permanently, never able to pull yourself out. Instead, he laid the duvet on the floor, and used the corners of it to snuggle (it was already far warmer inside than he was accustomed to). After hours of staring at the swirly-beige-painted ceiling, and just as Jim started to fall asleep, a car alarm startled him awake. Half-asleep-Jim was anxious in case it was a house alarm alerting him to an intruder. It was the last straw.
I cannot relax, he thought. I cannot sleep. I cannot do the job that I thought I'd be able to do. Everything is too complicated and unnecessary. Everyone is a pretender. No one is honest or trustworthy. This life is disingenuous. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I need my own life back where people respect me or respectfully ignore me. I need what I know. I'll try to find John in the morning. I'll ask someone for directions to the coffeeshop. I can't imagine why he would want this again, but I'll see if I can convince him to take his old life back.