"The only man I ever met who knew it was a homeless beggar," Alf said.
"What did he say it was?" I asked.
"Oh," said Alf, "he never got round to telling me." Alf's eyes sparkled. "But I'll tell you the story anyway.")
I saw him on my walk to school, standing on the street corner behind an empty table. It was his eyes I noticed first. Icy blue, cold like the winter air. He was staring blankly into space. Billows of steamy breath puffed out from his nostrils. His red knitted hat was fraying at the edges, his blue coat dirty and torn, a pocket falling off. He shuffled from foot to foot to keep warm.
On my way home from school he was still there.
"What're you staring at?" Mother asked, then looked over to see the man. "Come on," she said, trying to hurry me along. I stood there, transfixed.
"Alright, alright," Mother said. "Here, give him this." She opened her purse and handed me a thrupenny bit.
As the man saw me approach, his face broke out into a kindly smile. "You're my first customer of the day," he said. "What can I do you for?"
I held out the coin. He shook his head. "You couldn't buy nothing here with that," he said.
"What're you selling?" I asked, looking up and down the empty table.
He leaned forward. "Here, I'll tell you a secret." He looked around to check no-one was listening. "I'm selling the meaning of life. To one patron only."
He looked at me expectantly, then he gave me a wink.
"How much is it?" I asked.
"To you young sir, two pounds."
Two pounds would take me weeks of pocket money. I'd never managed to save that much.
But the meaning of life. I'd asked Dad about it before. "Tell me when you find out," he'd said, laughing. Mother had scolded me and told me to focus on more important things. "Like what?" I'd asked. "Like school, your education," she'd replied. So I took the question to school. Mrs. Walker said I would get out of the habit of asking such awkward questions in a decade or so. Then she had put "decade" into next week's spelling test because I'd asked what it meant. It seemed to me grown-ups didn't much care about the meaning of life. And yet here was a man offering it for sale.
As I stood there thinking, Mother came over and dragged me away.
"What took you so long?" she scolded. "I told you not to talk with him, just to give him the coin."
"But he knows the meaning of life."
"Oh does he now? Very good." She said "very good" in the same way she did when Dad said he was going out to the pub. She hated him going out, I could tell, but all she said was "very good".
The next day the man was gone. I asked Mother why.
"The police must have asked him to move on. They like to keep the town centre clean of beggars," she said.
I knew better. They must've moved him on, yes. But it wasn't because he was homeless. It was because grown-ups couldn't cope with having someone in their midst who threatened, at any moment, to explain the meaning of life.