Spectator: Lucy Baring on the homeless

There is no sign of the vests coming off or the house feeling less arctic and I can’t help thinking about the tramp and the Frenchman. The tramp who appears and disappears around here isn’t old and has few belongings. He sits cross-legged at different points on a stretch of road, or sometimes on the pavement outside the Co-Op. He never looks up, but walks slowly, methodically, like a musician pacing to his own beat. He has a swarthiness that could be south European. Or perhaps he’s just weather-beaten?

Sometimes, you find a makeshift shelter on one of the footpaths, usually behind the enormous sawn-off tree trunks that have been placed at entry points to prevent travellers with their vans. He’s never home, but I don’t loiter by this fragmentary evidence of human existence because it feels like trespassing. I’ve never seen him speak to anyone. He’s in and from another world.

Late last summer, another man came to the door, again not old, carrying a small backpack. With a strong French accent, he asked if he could spend the night nearby as he was on a walking holiday and preferred to pitch his tent somewhere quiet. I showed him to one of our fields, which he declared a little ‘too greezy’. I think he meant greasy, which is not how I would describe our chalky soil.

Pushing down my thoughts that, for a man looking for a free campsite, he was being a little picky, I showed him to the watermeadows next to our garden. It’s an idyllic spot with a stream and a huge oak tree. It was also full of cows, but, as the rest of the farm was busy with the harvest, it was the only option. ‘I love cows,’ he said, so I left him there.

Minutes later, he reappeared, asking if he could have some water and possibly something to eat. This is not Jean de Florette and I don’t have a pot of vegetable soup always on the go, with crusty bread and a carafe of wine. I found a bottle of water, some ‘plastic’ cheese and sliced white bread. He looked very disappointed until I added a bar of chocolate, and off he went into the evening. Then, I began to worry about him being trampled in the night by cows, so, a short while later, I made my son Will come with me to find and move him.

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As we walked over the brow of the small hill, I saw he was naked from the waist down. He had his back to us so I stifled a shriek and lay on the ground. Will looked at me as if I was mad. ‘He’s having a pee,’ he said. And had clearly just had a wash in the stream. We waited, then whistled and waved to forewarn him of our approach. He wasn’t happy at having to move. He’d laid out his meagre belongings: a small tent, a plastic bag with a razor, a toothbrush, some tobacco, a sleeping bag-that was it. No cooking equipment, no extra clothes, no food.

As we walked to the only cowless place I could think of, odd and contradictory tales poured out. He was an only child with an elderly mother. His father had shot himself in front of him when he was a boy. He was deaf in one ear from an explosion he’d witnessed when in the French Foreign Legion. He’d walked from Dover that day. Dover? That’s more than 100 miles. He was heading for Salisbury. And then where, I asked? Canada, he said. He was a musician, he’d played at jazz festivals and he was following a girl who had stolen his heart. To Canada.

I went to warn the neighbour whose garden borders the field where we’d left our strange camper. Robert, a wise and tough Cumbrian, is ex-army and does security work in war-torn corners of the world. If anyone can look after himself because a psychopathic Frenchman (as he had now become to me) has turned up 100 yards from his house, he can.

The next day, Robert dropped in. He’d had a long chat with the Frenchman, cooked him a huge breakfast, driven him into town, given him £20 and a map. He’s just a harmless homeless man, he said. It will be -7˚ later, and I can’t help wondering where these two men will spend the night.

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