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A Shout From The Attic: Being A Missionary - 7

Ronnie Bray recalls an encounter with a gentleman of the road.

Billie Ray Anderson and I were walking through Cheltenham town centre when we came across a gentleman of the road. He was in his late fifties, we guessed, with long white hair and a beard that covered most of his chest. His clothing was worn and dirty, and he looked in need of a good meal and a bath, but not necessarily in that order. But, there was something of gentleness about him that was appealing.

We invited him to come to our lodgings at The Chapel, Knapp Road, for dinner that evening, and I gave him my missionary card so that he would know our offer was genuine.

Billie Ray and I returned to our digs and got dinner ready for our guest, who came promptly. Before dinner, we suggested that he might like a bath, following which I gave him a haircut and a beard trim. As the piece de resistance I brought out my almost brand new demob suit and offered it to him.

As I considered the plight of tramps, I have thought that while they have their ways of getting fed, but I imagined that finding suitable clothes must have been a major problem: that and getting into a dry place on a bad night. I often considered their lot and their reasons for being on the road with no place to call home, no friends or relations around them, no core of supporters to whom they could turn in hard times, but always dependant on the kindness and sympathy of strangers.

Many tramps had served in the armed forces during the Second World War, and returned home incomplete through their sufferings, physical, mental, and emotional. Some had arrived home after a hard war to find their families scattered, disrupted, or dead, or, worse, to discover they had been supplanted by a stranger, and had no home, no family, no place, no welcome, and unable to cope with the damage this caught, suffered the disintegrated if their personalities, and drifted into the restless world of the rootless wanderer.

What had taken Tom Cannon onto the road, we never did discover, but he gave the sense that whatever hurt he carried, he had still some sense of his worth, and the dignity to remain himself, even in his straitened circumstances.

His self-respect came to the surface when I offered him the suit. He looked at it with courteous brown eyes, then looked straight into my eyes to declare, “It’s not my colour.” I took his refusal and did not try to persuade him to accept the gift. He had his reasons, and I have thought that perhaps his worn old clothes engender more sympathy in strangers than a new suit would, but I will never be sure of that.

We gave Tom a good square meal that he appeared to enjoy. He ate unrestrainedly but was not talkative, and we did not press him to be less silent, although we had many questions we would have liked to have asked.

We said ‘farewell’ at the chapel door, watched him unlatch the gate then disappear beyond the range of the street lamp’s yellow light and into the cold night air. I wondered if he had been as warmed by his experience with us, as I had been warmed by our brief contact with him. Another unanswered question.

I have never forgotten Tom Cannon, although as I write about him it is almost half a century since I saw him. I think about him and hope that he spent his life in as much comfort as he wished, and if his hurt ever left, or if he found a home, and how he lived, and where and when he died, and under what circumstances, and whether anyone wept at his funeral, or missed him because they loved him.

Tom Cannon, you still raise more questions than I have answers for!


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