A homeless man was sleeping in the stairwell when I came home. Or, to put it in the terms which my instinctive body understood, a stranger, appearing unexpectedly, had barricaded my door; his body was coiled and his face hidden; I had to step round him to get in.
Raised in Australia with its pleasant acres of ground receding from each family’s door to the nearby street, and in Indonesia where we lived in a compound, surrounded by high fences topped with broken glass, I struggle to ignore the constant stampede of human traffic that passes within a few feet of me where I sit at my desk or curl on the couch. That is mostly families who live here, plus the thundering party animals upstairs. Occasionally delivery men, wrong numbers, post. This was new: the street door downstairs stood propped open, because dusty workmen were clambering in and out all day long with their lengths of wood; a man had slipped in, with all his belongings in two filthy rucksacks, and curled on our stair.
It was hard for me to be compassionate. My first instinct was fear. I felt afraid of him because I couldn’t see his face. I unlocked my own door as quickly as I could and tried to shut it soundlessly behind me. Then I tried to think what to do. There was only one thing to do and that was, make him a cup of tea. It is so cold. A man without a roof is still a man. I boiled some water and hesitated in front of the stock pot of chai masala I brew every few days on my stove. Perhaps it would be too weird, too spicy for him. Germans don’t like tea; if you order it in a cafe you will get a tall glass of hot water with a tiny plate on top, a tea bag resting on it. I didn’t like to offer him coffee as he was clearly about to try to sleep.
I made the cup of tea in a clean honey jar, not liking to risk one of my landlord’s mugs. It was hot and I had to cut a strip off my old pyjamas, washed and stashed under the sink, to wrap round the glass with a rubber band so he could hold it. I added milk and honey. Then I went cautiously out onto the landing.
He was still there. I came towards him, keeping at arm’s length, fearful of alcoholic rage, resentment, violence. “Entschuldigung.” He turned away, gathering the hood of his jacket more closely around him. “Ich habe Ihnen eine Tasse Tee gemacht. Es ist Milch und Honig da drin, und Kardamom. Für die Wärme.”
When I get nervous my German deteriorates. What I tried to say was, Excuse me. I have made you a cup of tea. There is milk and honey in it, and cardamom – for the warmth.
He sat up. Pushed back his hood. I knew him – a man who often begs in the cafe where I write. This was not reassuring as he carries with him a sort of leashed impatience or suffering which made me yearn to be not recognised by him, lest he learn where I live. “Was ist drin?” he asked. So I repeated, Milk and honey. For the warmth. “Just leave this standing here when you are done.”
“Danke schön,” he said, taking the warm jar in its undignified skirt.
“Bitte schön.” I ran away. Locked myself into my house and roamed for an hour from one room to another, unable to concentrate. Why have I three rooms and he has none? Why have I not listed my living room as a shelter for some person recently arrived from devastated Aleppo? I picked up a book on mindfulness and laid it down again. There are days when I cannot even leave my house, when the thought of facing anybody undoes my heart. This is a luxury.
I sat on my bed with my head in my hands. It seems to me life is filled with suffering. It seems to me every one of us, before we went down this path that has brought us into our limited, anguished adulthood, was somebody’s baby, somebody’s child, and brimming with almost infinite potential and easy to love. I think we get harder to love as we get older, as every classist, racist anti-abortion campaigner so elegantly demonstrates. I went out an hour later to my chores and it felt so sweet and reassuring to find the skirted jar resting on the common window ledge, which looks out from the ‘stair house’ as Germans call their stairwells into the bleak winter courtyard behind; the man was gone and as I drew closer I could see he had drunk about half the tea, much good may it do him in his hunted, hounded, and unwelcomed bitter day.