The description "a gentleman of the road" certainly fitted Bert if it ever fitted anyone. Well spoken and well turned out, it was surprising in a way that I realised he was homeless. But there were just a few clues, a few things about him that were slightly incongruous which led me to suspect the truth. Firstly, there was the bread he was spreading with margarine. People of Bert's age and class don't usually do that on park benches, certainly not at ten in the night, even if it still was light. They usually have their sandwiches well prepared before they venture out. But if Bert had nowhere to venture out from, then he would be preparing his food on a bench. Then there was this large plastic bottle of lemonade he had with him. Again it wasn't something one would normally see in the possession of a man like Bert. Bert would surely be a tea drinker by inclination, but with only a few shillings in your pocket, a large bottle of pop is one of the cheaper ways of obtaining liquid other than water. But the biggest clue of all was Bert's odd footwear - sandals.They clashed completely with the rest of his conventional attire. So I asked if he was on the road and he affirmed he was.
For a man living rough, Bert looked remarkably healthy, especially for someone who was 76. But, as he explained to me, he wasn't living rough all the time. Out of his pension he could afford a bed and breakfast twice a week, or a youth hostel three or four times. When he had no money for that, he lived rough on a budget of £7 a day which he spent mostly on a good breakfast in a cafe.
So why was he then on the road, I asked? He felt God had told him to do it. "You see I believe we are in a time when Christ will soon be coming back to rule this earth. I'm very much a biblical scholar. In point of fact, I study the bible quite diligently."
Of course at this juncture alarm bells began sounding in my head, but I was intrigued to learn how a man of Bert's age could live the life he was living and yet look so healthy, so I took up Bert's lead. "Does that mean, Bert, that you sometimes find accommodation in a religious retreat or places like that?
Bert carefully put down the knife he'd been using to spread margarine on a slice of bread: "I don't think a lot of these churches are preaching the right doctrine. I confront a lot of these vicars but when I do, they back away. They don't want to know. They think I'm a crank - but I'm not."
Of course I should have backed away. Anyone in a bad plight over the age of thirty usually has but himself to blame. But despite his religious mania, Bert was an amiable sort of chap. I could sense he'd been a dependable work colleague once, a good neighbour. Something deep and painful had obviously set him off on the unusual course he was now on. And it was going to rain. So perhaps rashly I offered him a bed for the night. "Oh, you don't want to be burdened with me," he protested. His saying that, though, confirmed my opinion he was a genuine enough sort of chap, so I insisted he accept my offer.
Bert had a good night's sleep in my attic room and didn't arise till shortly after I'd done so. When he appeared, I sat him down at my kitchen table and gave him a cup of tea and a few slices of toast. He looked out at the weather: it was drizzling. "It looks bad out there," he said. "I was thinking it wasn't too bad," I responded. I was a little worried about our difference of opinion on this subject. Was Bert angling for a more permanent situation? I'd expected him to swig his tea and be off, cautious not to overstretch his welcome. But Bert wasn't angling to stay on in my house; he was angling to proselytise.
I don't quite remember how he started his discourse on the Book of Revelations but once he had begun, he was in full flight. I found myself taking notes on the back of an envelope, mainly to placate Bert, but it now enables me to outline the basis of Bert's thesis. John had seen a beast rise out of the sea. The sea was the sea of humanity and the `beast' in this case was the pope. Why Bert should pick on the pope, when he had the whole of humanity to go at, I couldn't immediately see but this became clear later. John had also seen a beast rise out of the earth. This was a `beast' of material things, he was therefore a political leader. Here I might have suggested Hitler or Stalin, but no I was wrong, wrong completely. This ogre was the leader of the European Union. Another esoteric choice on Bert's part, I thought - I couldn't even name him. So why had Bert picked on these two? The Book of Revelations, it seems, made reference to a city on seven hills which was obviously Rome, and the European Union was created by the Treaty of Rome, and the Pope, of course, was the vicar of Rome. "Funny, how it all seems to keep coming back to Rome," opined Bert.
I couldn't help thinking that amiable Bert was nudging his way to a diatribe against Roman Catholicism and Papists in general - that is to say, most of my relations. Remembering which, I said: "I have to phone my father, Bert." It was true enough, but Bert couldn't have taken the hint better. He sprung to his feet like a hare out a box. "You've been most kind," he said. "God, I'm sure, will reward you." He placed his hand on my head, which I think was meant to be some sort of benediction, and was gone.