Paul's gift

It’s a Friday night, just past knock-off, and the streets pulse with optimism. An eclectic crowd swarms the pavement, all chatter and clatter – Asian students with vertical hair, couples gliding hand in hand on their way to restaurants, young women in pointy heels and fitted grey suits burning the sidewalk with hurried strides. I enter the torrent and float along, flute over shoulder, mesmerised by this world outside of my living room.

The card table is filled with intricate objects made of what looks like woven grass – dragons, frogs, a cross, even an engagement ring. In place of the Chinese man who usually sits there, crafting his delicate trinkets, is Paul.
“Change of profession, I see?”
Paul glances up, surprised. His beard is snowy white and his eyes are pale blue. When I asked him where he was from last Christmas, he told me he came from the North Pole. “No, no, I looking after for other man,” he answers, smiling.
Right on cue, the Chinese artisan comes up to the stand. We greet each other with smiles and little humble bows.
“Look, I show you what this man do,” says Paul, guiding me round to the other side of the table. Apart from the woven articles, there are engravings of famous people (Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Madonna), and framed cut-outs of women’s profiles.
“I buy you one of these,” says Paul, pointing at one of the frames. “He will cut out picture of your face – take three minutes!”
My impulse is to refuse – the night is getting on and I really need to do some busking. But Paul is standing firm, eyes wide.
“Do you have the money?” I ask, immediately regretting what I’ve just said, and all that it implies.
He looks at me intently. I notice that one of his eyes is watering, sending a tear trickling down his right cheek. “I may be homeless, but I’m not poor,” says Paul. “I don’t pay rent, you see.”

“Stand right there,” says the Chinese man, and I obey. I face a glut of commuters outside a tram stop, while crowds stream behind me.
“Be very still.” I can sense people momentarily congregating at my rear, looking to see what’s going on. I move my eyes from side to side, attempting to see who is watching me. The artist stands a metre away on my right, nimbly clipping away at a piece of paper with a small pair of scissors. I am grateful for Paul standing in front of me, describing all the things he intends to do this week. Art gallery, gym, something else I can’t hear properly. As well as being from the North Pole, Paul is about 90 percent deaf. My ears strain, as his muffled words navigate the Friday night din.

“Done!” says the artist, and shows me the paper cut-out. I recognise that nose, that brow – normally I hate seeing my profile, but this time I’m impressed. Paul has been distracted by a couple of older women he knows. I recognise them from Sunday night dinners in Credo. They look refined and English. “Oh yes,” they say, admiring the image. “We can tell it’s you!”
Paul is pleased with the product. I thank him profusely. “It’s okay,” he says. “I want to give you something – you give me food at Credo, and I give you something as well.”

Clutching my frame, I exchange more humble, thankful bows with the artist. Paul and I part ways, a little more equal than we were before.