A woman clutching a pink rose and a man clutching joke books peer through the window of a jewellers in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. I think to myself, “Love and laughter on the streets, that’s a good story”. I sidle up to them and the man launches into his spiel: “What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?” I tell him I’m a journalist and does he fancy a cup of tea instead.
We enter the café and the man behind the counter looks at me and shakes his head, as if I’m dragging a couple of rotting corpses behind me. David, the man with the joke books, hopefully suggests a pint in The City Arms, just across the way. It’s not yet midday, but if they fancy a lager, I can at least buy them something quaffable. I insist they bin their cans of cider and in we go.
The bar lady doesn’t like the look of us either, but business is slow, so she serves me anyway. A couple of gulps in, and David is listing in his seat. Nicola, the woman with the pink rose, grabs his coat and pulls him upright. “David,” she hisses, “you’re gonna get us thrown out”. David opens his eyes and slaps his face. “We’ve been on the streets since 3 o’clock,” Nicola explains.
While Nicola is in the toilet, I ask David how they met. “Down the side of Piccadilly train station, about a year ago,” he says. “She invited me to stay at her dad’s and we haven’t parted since.” I ask David if it’s love and he looks affronted. “Of course I love her. She’s got a kind heart. She’s the one.”
When Nicola returns, she fleshes out the story. “It was love at first sight between me and him,” she says with a throaty chuckle. “When we first met, I said, ‘Be loyal to me, be honest and we’ll get on fine’. And he’s been both those things.
“He’ll shout at me from down the street, ‘Nicola, I’ve got a rose for you!’ I must have 10 of them, maybe more. We bicker, but we wouldn’t be normal otherwise. I couldn’t live without him. It’s true love, nothing false about it. I love that boy to bits.”
There is romance, but not much laughter, in the story of Nicola and David. Nicola had a house but lost it after serving two years in prison for theft. She was shot in 2006 – “mistaken identity, or kids messing about with guns” – and suffers with lung disease, asthma, sciatica and depression.
While in prison, Nicola missed her mum’s funeral, and the wound festers to this day. “I’ve not dealt with it, it’s still up there,” says Nicola, who is 43 and hasn’t had a job since she was 16. “I’ve seen a psychiatrist, but I find it hard to talk. I know I need to, to get it out of my heart and out of my head.”
Nicola is in contact with her dad but “doesn’t like to mither him”. Her youngest daughter was raised by her sister, her oldest daughter by her former partner and his girlfriend. The oldest daughter only discovered Nicola was her real mum when she applied for a passport, shortly before Christmas.
“My sister is a good girl and brought my daughter up well,” says Nicola. “My daughter calls her mum, but calls me mum as well. She’s at college doing media and makes her own films. She showed me one on the computer and I said, ‘Did you make that?’ She said, ‘I wrote it, directed it, the lot’. I’m really proud, and it kills me that I don’t see more of her.”
David was a forklift truck driver and warehouse assistant but has been without a job or home since finding his girlfriend in bed with another man, smashing all the windows and consequently being evicted. His mum recently passed away, while his dad lives in Preston, where he works in a hotel.
David hears voices and thinks people are talking about him – “I need to go back to the doctors, but I never make it” – but manages to sell enough joke books to pay for bed and breakfast for him and Nicola most evenings.
“We have to sleep rough at times, and if it weren’t for David, I’d be doing it every night,” says Nicola. “We come out about 3am and walk around and around for hours on end, usually until about 11.30pm. My legs really hurt and sometimes it feels like I’m being strangled, because of the lung disease and asthma. We get the odd cheeky comment, but mostly people just ignore you.
“Once we’ve made enough money, we check into a B&B, have a nice shower, get into our dressing gowns, jump under the nice, clean sheets, cuddle up and watch the soaps on TV. But I’ll soon fall into a deep sleep. I’ll be having a nice dream, about better times, when, before I know it, someone’s banging on the door, telling us we’ve got to leave. I think, ‘Bloody hell, back to real life…’”
According to official figures, Manchester’s streets were home to 78 rough sleepers in 2016. Nicola contends there were far more than that, that the number is rising rapidly and that the authorities aren’t doing much about it.
“On almost every corner there’s a homeless person,” says Nicola. “They don’t pay their rent, and that’s it, they’ve lost their home. They want people back into work, but who’s going to employ a drug addict, an alcoholic or somebody in such bad health they can’t even walk? They want me to use email, but when they ask me if I’m online, I say, ‘What, you mean me washing line?’
“They don’t know what it’s like to live how we live, or what we’re going through. They judge the book by its cover and just don’t care. I feel forgotten, right at the back of the queue. But what’s happened to us can happen to anyone.
“I think of the future every day. I’d love my own little home, where I can put a key in the door, take my shoes off, put my slippers and pyjamas on, make a brew and curl up on the settee. I hope it happens, because I’m too old for this. The streets aren't a place for anyone to live. Please God, help me.”
David is fast asleep, the bar lady is looking anxious and Nicola is getting wistful. “It has entered my head to marry David, but it’s only a piece of paper. When we bumped into you, we were looking at rings. There were some lovely ones in that jewellers. Buy a couple of rings – I’ll have mine, he’ll have his – kiss each other and we can be husband and wife. It’s as easy as that.”
Before we say goodbye, I promise Nicola I’ll text her if I manage to sell their story. Maybe they'll send a photographer, maybe somebody will read about them and help. Nobody was interested. One editor replied, “We’ve had a bit too much misery lately”. I never saw Nicola and David again.
I forgot to ask David the difference between ignorance and apathy, but I found the answer in the joke book he sold me: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” It's not very funny.
* I met Nicola and David, whose names I have changed, in February 2017, and intended to sell their story to a newspaper or magazine for Valentine’s Day.