‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’

Her face was right up close to his. He had never got a good look at her eyes before. The colour was the most unusual he had ever seen: not ginger exactly, warmer perhaps – an amber shade – the eyes that a tiger might have as it watches from captivity. He could see a caged anger lurking, and it was about to come out. 

‘And ’ow the fuck you gunna last on the Street?’

In the summer of 2019, before the scourge of the Coronavirus uprooted all of our lives, I witnessed a different epidemic spread its contagion through Manchester’s homeless population.

The city became headline news for the Spice habit which was plaguing its centre. Scores of so-called zombies, rendered catatonic under its effects, were seen slumped against walls, bus shelters and park benches, or doubled over impossibly at the waist, feet rooted to the middle of Market Street for hour after hour. Unkind souls made videos and posted them to social media. Eventually, the problem peaked but the images persisted in Manchester’s memory, a blot on its standing as a hub of new investment and cosmopolitan sensibilities.

I’d worked in an office building off Piccadilly Gardens for many years. I’d become used to seeing beggars crossing its expanse, cup in hand, receiving charitable handouts and, sometimes, uncharitable insults. But this was a new low of degradation. It still strikes me in the gut. How could fellow human beings be living such inhuman lives, especially in this era bristling with demands for equity and inclusion?

I decided to write a book. I believe in stories. They have an intimate power and are vessels for hope. They achieve precision of thought without restricting imagination.

I wanted to highlight an awful social truth, but, most of all, I wanted to make a point about how we see the homeless community. As objects of suspicion or subjects of mercy, these men and women are viewed through their collective label: the homeless. The only attribute that seems to matter is that they don’t have a home. We forget that a vagrant might think or feel like we do, have dreams and humour, show kindness or vanity. Perhaps fall in love.

Stephen K Easterbrook: image permission by the author

Ideas for the book came together. I’d read an article about council workers tasked with identifying Manchester’s dead when no one knows their identity. Imagine dying without anyone stepping forward to say, ‘yes, I was her mother’ or ‘I knew him, I’ll give him a proper send-off’. In my novel, these poor souls are the nameless. The story begins with Shane Ellis, a council worker, and her investigation into a nameless deceased beggar whose right thumb is missing. She is a social detective.

Ellis’s investigation leads to Red and Gracie, two young rough sleepers who met in a charity shelter. They share more than a lack of home – they share the pre-street miseries of childhoods gone wrong. They also have very human fears, hopes and passions. As Ellis learns about their dignity against the odds, she finds the key to overcoming a tragedy of her own.

The setting for my novel was always going to be Manchester. It is a city that I know and love. The character I am most proud of is Gracie. She is short, funny and fiery. She is the author of the Beggar’s Code, a set of principles by which she survives on the mean streets of the metropolis. She is one of Lowry’s folk, a proper Manc, full of sweetness and sting. The bee with the bitter honey.

Last week, I left the office for lunch. Walking along Market Street, I came across a man. He was half-hidden in his sleeping bag, his head propped up with a rucksack, face in shadow, although I could make out an intense focus in the depths of his eyes. His sleeves were ragged and torn, as though a dog had chewed them, while his fingers were swollen from the cold. As I passed by, I noticed that he was clutching a book.

By Stephen K Easterbrook


To buy Beggar Bee Nameless, published by Arkbound, click here.