When I first arrived in Liverpool, I had very little money and nowhere to stay. I managed to get the last available bed in the mixed dorm of a hostel that was crowded, dark and not completely tidy, but it had an atmosphere that made me and everyone else feel right at home. Within days, I had made friends and became a member of staff. All the adventure I had felt was missing in my life was now happening at breakneck speed. Apart from dealing with life in a foreign language, I had to adjust to the hostel’s booking system, working hours and social hierarchy as well as the weird and wonderful people who knocked on the door every day. Life in the hostel was like living in a bubble, as far removed from most people’s regular lives as possible. Those of us who had made the choice to live there embraced this otherness, and I’d like to think that those who had come out of necessity managed to be at peace for a while.
And then one day Andy was there. He had obviously returned from somewhere, because the regulars knew him and treated him like a long-lost family member, which was of course exactly what he was. Those who had not met him before remained distant for a bit, especially those short-term guests who had found the hostel itself to be a surprise and different from what they had expected. But once he settled down in the reception area (the central meeting-point of the house and a place where he was to remain for days on end), Andy had everyone’s attention. He was a striking character, a hunched, silver-haired Caribbean man of indeterminable age who had a habit of suddenly looking up at you and starting a conversation. They were very much one-sided conversations though, because he had a lot to say. Most times it wasn’t immediately obvious what he was talking about or why he chose to speak, and the regulars knew that time was needed to get to the bottom of those two mysteries. Those who had never met him before were simply stunned, maybe scared and often unsure how to react. So we all just let him talk.
He had been around the world, although nobody ever found out any specifics. With all the talking, Andy never clearly told anyone his life story. We put the pieces together over the course of the months and years we spent in the hostel. He was of African-Caribbean heritage and spoke about his mother and siblings in the Caribbean, his time as a teacher in Jamaica and his brother in London. Later, when I had become one of those who sought him out for late-night talks, he often talked about his daughter. I never asked where she lived, I just let him talk. He’d lived in so many places, we didn’t even try to see if the pieces could fit. It wasn’t that we thought he might be making things up; there simply was no need to concentrate on those superficial things. Details didn’t matter. He talked about life, and his story was a universal one. He knew things. He had a way of making the world seem a simple enough place, where things made sense, even if they meant human pain and suffering. He talked about Africa and its people. He predicted the uprisings of the Arab Spring. He was a spiritual being, soliloquizing about the Creator and his plan for hours. Every day he would scribble in his tattered notebook, and those who managed to get a closer look couldn’t see any sense in it. He did, and he had a way of making you feel it too. Most importantly, he gave advice. With all the talking it was easy to think he didn’t listen very well, because questions or helpless interjections often didn’t faze him. But quite early on I realised that he did indeed know. He listened in to conversations and knew exactly what people said or did. If those people later had the wisdom to ask him for advice, he had already given their problems some thought. Most of the regulars started having private talks with him when he joined them for their quiet night shifts. For them, he became a regular guru, and maybe even a friend. For all the others, he was simply an awe-inspiring character, and he became the hostel mascot, joining in with jokes and looking delighted at the fact that his catchphrases, particularly the enthusiastic “Dazzit!” he used to finish his speeches with, caught on and were repeated by the guests and regulars alike. Practically every guest had their picture taken with him before they left. Even after all those years, the thought that there are pictures of him in photo albums all over the world makes me smile.
The last time I saw Andy I had to look all over for him and found him praying and meditating on the floor of what had become his private room. He looked frail, and was obviously still suffering from a long-term stomach issue. I had big news – I was pregnant with my second – and he seemed pleased. At that point, I had stopped visiting regularly, and when I came back months later, he wasn’t there. I didn’t ask, but assumed he had gone to live with his brother in London, something he had been talking about for years. Time passed, and I rarely thought about my time in the hostel because I had moved on. One thing remains etched in my memory forever, though. I had met my husband in the hostel, and Andy was delighted when we got together and announced we were expecting a baby. He talked about relationships and families for a while, then asked me why I thought we made a perfect couple. I tried to explain to him that we had a similar outlook on life and the same morals and values, when he interrupted me with a sharp, “No!” He looked me in the eye and said gravely, “Because you love each other! You have love!” Dazzit.
Andy died on July 1st in Ghana, where he was with his family. Very little else is known, and it wouldn’t make a difference. The details never mattered, after all. He mattered in a different way to each and every one of us.