I don’t remember the first time I noticed Fred. Like most people I probably saw him, but didn’t register. For years he shuffled round the streets, often at night, before retreating to his roadside den. Tramps belong on our streets and we don’t question it. It’s why homeless people say they feel invisible.
Fred made his home on the central reservation of Wolverhampton’s ring road. The roads, lined with iron railings, were named after saints, though I could never remember which ones. Fred had a tent sandwiched between the dripping, skeletal trees and bushes. Traffic rumbled past either side, within feet of him, spouting plumes of diesel or revving at red lights, tinny stereos blaring. Tens of thousands of people passed him daily, but I doubt many gave Fred a second thought. His tent was yards from the clubs and pubs in the city centre. Careless drinkers stumbled past, pissing in the weeds, spilling kebabs, bottles tinkling and cans running at the kerb. Fred’s domain was the kingdom of the road, a forgotten hinterland. Though he was close to the debris and the noise and the hustle, Fred couldn’t be further away from people’s lives. He was hemmed in by iron railings, the roar of traffic and the tide of road dust and diesel, shattered hubcap and burger wrapper.
Fred wasn’t the only soul to be lost there. When they cleared a thin tract of land further along they found a skeleton curled up beneath the tangled bushes. An old man had escaped from his nursing home years before and closed his eyes beneath the thorns, never to wake.
I’d shoot past on nights, en-route to domestics or pub fights, and look for Fred. Most of the time he couldn’t be seen, but sometimes you’d catch a glimpse of him tugging the canvas flap down, startled for a moment by our lights and sirens. That gaunt, craggy face would glance up, but look away in an instant. Fred was balding on top, with the white ragged, trailing beard of an alchemist. It was a beard you could rake leaves with. He wore scuffed boots and a greatcoat that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Civil War veteran.
Fred died in 2007 and suddenly people wanted to know all about him. The local newspaper scoured his past. Relatives were traced in Germany and Croatia. It turned out Fred was really Josef. He’d fought with the German army in Africa and been made a prisoner of war by the British. He’d laboured under guard in the midday sun in Egypt. He had a Polish mother and switched sides to join the Polish army in England. His mental health suffered and his nephew claimed he slept with a pistol under his pillow. He sent one letter home in the 1960s, but no more was heard of him. Fred simply disappeared. Letters were returned to sender.
For years rumours filled Fred’s silence. Was he an SS officer? Was he a childhood friend of the Pope? Fred drifted and made his home on the streets. Near enough to the rush and the noise, but detached from life perhaps?
After his death flowers were laid at his tent. An artist made pen and ink sketches. A song was written and a statue was mentioned. People wrote about Fred online from Australia to Poland. Some said the fuss was a media circus, but Fred’s wanderings had become a habit for many. Whatever his past, Fred inspired affection from strangers.