‘Murder’, it said in bold black letters on a bright yellow background. I have seen these signs before. Most Londoners have. Big, buckled and awkward, the signs appeals for witnesses to come forward in the strictest confidence. Such signs are often chained to a lamppost to ensure against theft, against concerns that somebody might march off with the big awkward A-frame and stand it in their bedroom as some kind of trophy, a drunken prize. Not a murder, then, just a lump of metal with the word murder printed on it in bold, with a time, date and phone number
This particular sign was at Marble Arch. There were three or four of them spread around. One was placed to catch the eyes of people sitting on the benches eating sandwiches. Another was aimed at the cars and buses that curved around Park Lane on their way to Knightsbridge. One seemed to be aimed at me as I exited the pedestrian subway at exit 10. I can’t say that I have ever paid much attention to such a sign before. I remember reading one while stuck in traffic. But this sign, even when it was no more than a flash of yellow, sent a chill down my spine.
On the 30th of August…
That was two weeks ago, I heard myself thinking.
A man was assaulted… he died from his injuries…
The reason this bothered me was because on that day, September 14th, I was working on a story for Time Out magazine about homelessness. I was living rough in London for 7 days, gathering portraits of life on the street. I had come up to Marble Arch with a mind to sleep there. Any concerns generated by the yellow sign were all about me. I had no thoughts for this assaulted man. There was no assaulted man. There was a yellow sign with the word murder on it. It was a time and a date. A phone number I had no use for.
I asked a young homeless guy in the area if he knew anything about the murder. Specifically, I wanted to know if it was homeless person that had been murdered. He thought that it was. On a wave of vulnerability I scurried back to the relative safety of Covent Garden, to a group of homeless men who had taken me into their group, who looked out for me and protected me.
A week later I wrote the story. I mentioned the sign. Not to highlight a murder, but the sense of vulnerability on the streets. A week after that, on October 4th, the story ran along with a small photo of the sign. That was it. It was all in the past. I moved on to other projects. Then I received an e-mail from Alan Rutter, my editor at Time Out. The subject line read, ‘On a sadder note’.
Could you pass this lady’s details on to Alan Emmins. She’d really like to talk to him. It was her partner who was murdered at Marble Arch (as mentioned under ‘Tuesday’).
“Why?” was my initial, stiff-backed reaction. I didn’t know the man. I didn’t meet the man; I met the sign. I told myself I would call her after the weekend. I meant it, too. But I couldn’t stop thinking about why she wanted to talk to me. I called her at 8pm on the Friday, the day of the e-mail. Her daughter answered the phone, “Oh, mum, it’s the man from the magazine.“
Mum cut in, “Tell him to call back in five minutes.”
“Sorry, my mum’s dying my hair and her hands are covered in hair dye, can you call-”
“DO CALL BACK THOUGH!” I heard the girl’s mother shout in the background.
I called back.
Susan had been sitting in a dentist’s waiting room with a friend when she came across the homeless story. There were lots of magazines to chose from. For whatever reason she chose Time Out. She noticed the article about homelessness and thought it might be interesting, relevant even.
“Well this is what Ian used to do,” she told me over the phone. “Go on these long benders and sleep on the streets… Then I got to the part about the sign and…”
Ian. So it wasn’t just a metal sign. It was Ian.
“When I read your story I thought, I have to contact this man. I have to tell him about Ian.”
What Susan was saying, very sweetly, was that this may have been a sign to me, a bold word on a yellow background with a time and a date, but to her this was a person: it was Ian.
“If it were me,” she continued, “I’d want to know something about the person. I mean, you stopped and you reacted to the sign, so I thought you’d like to know who he was?”
I wasn’t sure at first whether I did. Whether it was right for me to know anything about this person. It seemed so personal. None of my business. But Susan was so enthused that we spoke on the phone for well over an hour. She told me that Ian was from Newcastle. She told me that he was thirty-four-years old. A year older than me. She told me he was beaten over the head with a bottle. Beaten until he was dead.
I thought about Ian a lot over the following days. I thought about the harshness of these metal signs.
I was struck by their sadness. They signal an abrupt and violent end, and the absence of another soul to speak on the deceased’s behalf. I didn’t want to speak on Ian’s behalf, but to at least elaborate a little on his life. I wanted to get him off that sign, if I could. But I questioned my reasoning. Who was I doing this for? Can I not stop being a writer for five minutes?
Then I got a text from Susan, correcting an error in the e-mail address she had given me over the phone. I called her back and told her I had been thinking about Ian, that I wanted to write about him, that I wanted, somehow, to turn him back into a person again. I asked her how she would feel about me, a stranger, attempting this?
We met two days later. We sat outside the Three Greyhounds on Old Compton Street, drinking a coke and water.
“He had been working on a house just over the road from where I live,” Susan began. “He told me I caught his attention. On his last day, when I came home, he started calling out to me. He came running over and said, ‘When are we having that drink then?’ I thought, do what?”
Ian, over the following few minutes, convinced Susan to go out with him.
“When?” she asked.
“Tonight,” he told her.
He was on her door a few hours later with a big grin and a bigger bunch of flowers.
The following Wednesday he was on the doorstep with his bags.
“He told me he had been sharing a flat with some other fellow. He was complaining that his stuff kept going missing. At first he said he just wanted to leave a bag at my place. Later that evening I thought, hold on a minute, he thinks he’s moved in!”
Susan describes Ian as a lost soul, as a child who couldn’t stop chasing the party. Her suspicions that things weren’t quite what they seemed were confirmed on the occasions when Ian would take her into the city, where they would go for long walks.
“We’d be walking along and all the homeless people would say hello to him. He would try to pretend he didn’t know them, but some would chase after him saying, ‘Ian, Ian, it’s me!’ and then when he was confronted, face to face, he’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, sorry. I didn’t recognise you.’ I remember thinking, how does he know all these homeless people?”
Susan took Ian to a friend’s party. Although a great time was had by all, and the night ended with all Susan’s friends demanding that she bring Ian out more often, she recognised something from her past.
“I’d grown up with alcoholics all my life. My Father. My mother. Ian had made a point of not drinking in front of me at first, though he found it odd that I didn’t drink and kept asking why. But then at the party he was totally smashed. I thought, I know what this is.”
Ian showed more and more of himself. This included his dependency on alcohol. Susan and Ian quickly made an arrangement: when he drank and went on what she described as ‘a bender’ he had to go elsewhere. This wasn’t so much for her peace-of-mind, but for that of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Sophia. Ian agreed, and soon began disappearing for weeks at a time.
“That’s how he knew all the homeless people: he was one of them,” Susan laughed.
Susan never knew where Ian was during his absences. But soon enough she would get a text message, either from Ian’s phone, or if he had lost his phone from one of his friend’s. He would test the waters with his text messages before asking if he could come home.
“He always wanted me to go and meet him at the station. Always. He would just go on at me until I agreed. So I’d be there, by the barriers, and then I’d hear him. ‘That’s my wife! She’s come to collect me! See, that’s my wife!’ And there he’d be, this big oaf of a man with a huge bunch of flowers and a big smile. We weren’t married. That’s just what he told everybody. I knew what he’d been up to. He was sat on the train telling everybody he was on his way home, that his loving wife was coming to collect him. He was trying to convince everybody around him that he was normal, that he had a normal life.”
Though Ian’s life was far from normal, he did long for normality, along with a smattering of designer clothes and gadgets. When he did have money, either through building site work or bank loans, he would go on shopping sprees. He would lavish gifts on Susan, one time buying her a top-of-the-range washing machine.
“When it didn’t arrive on the day it was supposed to I called the shop. They told me he’d gone in and cancelled it, got a refund. I thought to myself, well, I wont be seeing him for a few weeks.”
It sounds, by anyone’s standard, like an awful lot to put up with. Susan and Ian were together for two years. It was during this second year that she started to see a change, to see signs that Ian was starting to think of a different life, to move toward a different life. On one shopping trip Susan noticed Ian was no longer by her side. She turned round and found him gazing in a Mothercare window.
“Look at the little boots, Sue,” he said. “Hey, we could have a baby!”
Ian dragged Sue excitedly into the store to test drive pushchairs. On the train ride home Sue remembers Ian with a big bunch of grapes, offering them to everybody around them with his excited Newcastle drawl.
“Would you like a g-r-a-a-p-e? Would you like a g-r-a-a-p-e? Sue, nobody wants a g-r-a-a-p-e.”
But even though Sue saw this warmer, loving side to Ian, she knew exactly where they were going, and where they weren’t.
“I loved him. He was just a big kid, a lost soul. He wanted everybody to love him and admire him. That’s why he never had anything: he gave it all away. When he had money he’d be in the pub with a handful of tenners, waving them around and buying drinks for everybody. When he came back from these benders of his, and sometimes he was in a right old state, stinking of urine and sick and filth, something just kept telling me to take him back, to take care of him. I think because I knew we wouldn’t last – and I absolutely knew we wouldn’t last – that made it easier, knowing this wasn’t forever. He was just a lost and troubled soul and I just thought while he’s here if I can just make him happy, make him smile, then that’s a good thing… I never thought it would end like this though, with murder.”
When Susan read the homeless article at the beginning of October, she came to a section describing how a man had become very angry with me and threatened many and varied forms of violence. He basically (and rightly) didn’t believe I was homeless, which was odd, as I hadn’t claimed to be. Susan wondered if this had been what happened with Ian. She imagined him sitting there amongst the homeless announcing, “I don’t even need to be here. I’ve got a wife and a house!”
It will be a while before Susan gets her ‘why’? She will need to attend the trial. And she does need to attend the trial.
“I have to go, to let this other fellow know that I forgive him.”
The other fellow being the man the police have in custody for Ian’s murder. The reason, if you like, for the cold metallic sign, for the call for witnesses, for Susan and I sitting outside a pub smiling at the tales of a man who is no more.