I woke hearing voices.
“That’s a bloody nice sleeping bag. He’s got money, he has.”
“Leave him alone, Ralph. He’s not got much, else why’s he sleeping under here?”
“Spying on us.”
“Don’t make me laugh. Why’d anyone spy on us?”
“He’s no copper. Look at his shoes.”
“What for? What secrets have we got? They come in their uniforms when they want to hassle us.”
Laughter. Well, more a cackle, really. I couldn’t help it; I laughed a bit too.
“I hope you don’t mind...”
“Mind? It’s not our bridge. There’s plenty of room.”
I’d noticed the remains of a fire when I found the dry place under the end of the bridge, but it had never occurred to me that it was somebody’s regular home. They offered to share their meal with me, which I accepted when they pressed me, saying there was plenty – which there certainly was. All stewed up in a huge, battered old saucepan without a handle, perched over a wood fire on three stones, and served out in old tin cans.
Pigeons – I don’t know how many, but several – nettles and other wild plants. And potatoes they said they’d stolen off the field. I didn’t ask how they’d caught the pigeons.
It was a good meal, better than many in fancy restaurants. Good company, too. Three old men and an old woman, Ralph, Fred, Mike and Margaret, all dressed in stuff from Oxfam, given to them by the manager – stuff Oxfam wouldn’t have been able to sell.
I almost felt like staying with them, but I was awake before they were in the morning, and had got a lift in a truck by half past seven.
Addendum, 2017: I’ve spent worse – much worse – nights in hotels. Indeed I wouldn’t call that a bad night at all. Whereas I’ve had bad nights in hotels sometimes. I’ll mention two awful places in particular: a Holiday Inn near Southampton, and a horrible hotel in Harrow whose name I forget. The first was arranged, and paid for, by a prospective client, whose job I declined in the event; the second was arranged and paid for by a client for whom I was already doing some work. The first, happily just one night; the second, several nights while I studied on a course learning an arcane computer language (IBM 3790 “intelligent” terminal macro assembler). That I only ever used on that one job.
The Holiday Inn is still there, but whether it’s still as bad as it was in 2008 I cannot say. I don’t know whether the Harrow hotel is even still there – that was in 1976 and I remember neither its name, nor exactly where it was. I’ve stayed in some pretty dreadful hotels in India too – but at least they were cheap.