Posted by Billy in November's Magazine
Towards the end, people (no, not people, heartless bastards) started stealing money from him. He never once begged you understand; passersby just gave him money unprompted. His name was Arthur… still is thank god. Rather I meant ‘towards the end’ of his time on the streets.
The police staged an intervention, for his own good I guess. Let’s face it, he’d let himself go some and his tormentors weren’t just taking his cash, they were doing so with threats of violence. So it was that 20 years or more of fighting against oblivion on the streets of Edinburgh came to an end in the time it took to get him to the hospital where he would spend the next few weeks.
And you know what? He loved it. The attention, the small kindnesses, I don’t know, maybe even the routine…the still peace. Essentially a shy, humble man, he blossomed under all that well-intentioned fussing and public goodwill.
Turns out that for a 75-year-old man who had spent almost a third of his life adrift in the capital’s urban sprawl, he was in pretty good nick. His signature (indeed identifier), impossibly long dreadlocks succumbed to the scissors – he was, apparently, quite taken by the new look!
He’d come to Edinburgh from the Seychelles in, let us say, the late 60s early 70s. When I first encountered him (in the early 90s?) there was no shortage of characters on the street. Remember the ‘exploding man’ who careered around the Cowgate? He had the shape and look of a fully rigged Spanish Galleon whose sails had been shredded by too much cannon fire, as if he had somehow contrived to swallow a live hand grenade. God he was huge, if you wanted to circumnavigate him you were well advised to provide a forwarding address.
Arthur was different, he always seemed of and within himself, drink and drugs were never his thing. In those days he used to check into the warm air vents outside the side entrance to John Lewis’s of a night – smart move if you’re asking me – offering, odd to say, a certain Zen like calm amid the cancelled faces of the bargain hunting January hordes. Maybe that’s just me over projecting. Slice it anyway you like; did he come to Edinburgh for love (spurned) or was he trying to outpace the coming military coup (the family were politically connected) that was splintering his homeland? Both are probably true. No, they are true.
What you have to remember about him is his stubbornness, or let’s best call it self-determination. In Arthur, as Nik Cohn would have it, ‘was never a shape to fit’. His (surprisingly extensive) Edinburgh based family constantly offered any form of shelter that suited his purpose, even a return to the Seychelles at the time of his choosing. Typically, he declined with a curt “Why? I’m a Leither now.” (Indeed as I write, back among us, in sheltered housing). He is a man given to few words, but we’ll try these out: he thanks all the NHS staff for their tender mercies and the people of Leith for making sure, no demanding, that he never became invisible.
Arthur Williams, it seems, was never going to slip through the cracks.