I froze in horror when the picture appeared on the computer screen. I could just about recognise Billy but he was in a dreadful state. Both eyes were badly puffed up as were his lips. His face was maze of red blotchy marks.

“What happened,” I gasped.

“He was found like this by a neighbour.”

“Is he…?” I asked

“No, not dead, but not far from it. The police have agreed to us publishing a picture to help track down the bastards.”

I turned my eyes away and felt sick. After a moment I realised that the room was silent and everyone was looking at me.

“I’m sorry, I’ve just realised I’ve got an appointment to go to,” I said, rising swiftly from my chair, scattering paper before me.  “Steve can you take over.”   He looked at me bewildered. “Yes but what about the front page lead, do you want to go on the pensioner?”    But I was already heading, ashen-faced, through the office door and did not answer.

I arrived at the hospital about 20 minutes later.  It was one of those so-called ‘super-hospitals.’  It took me ages to find a parking spot in the huge car park and then just as long to work out where the ward was.

I could feel my nerve ends jangling as I finally rushed down the corridor. It wasn’t visiting time but I looked on a white board to see where Billy’s bed was and strode towards it.   It was empty and as I turned round a large, big-footed, red-faced nurse, in a uniform she was almost bursting out of, stood in my way and said: “Can I help you?”

Billy had died just minutes before due to his injuries. He had been moved to a side ward, but because I was not a relative they would not let me see him.   I pleaded and pleaded with the nurse who fetched a stern-faced sister but she was also adamant. The answer was no. When I told her I was from the paper she was even less sympathetic and asked me to leave immediately.

Billy’s feeble, tortured frame was just the other side of the door but I could not say my farewells to him. I could feel the anger rising in me and I hurled abuse at the pair of them before storming out.

I went and sat in my car and wept uncontrollably. Not only because of Billy’s death but because of the shameful manner in which I had deserted him. I’d also let myself down by the way I had behaved in the ward.

Oh Billy, what should I have done…..?

When I returned to the office I summoned Steve in and said: “For tomorrow’s paper I want a full, in-depth background feature on the pensioner. About his life – you know the drill. Let’s get out there NOW!”

His full name was William Stacey but everyone knew him as Billy.   He was well known in the area, having lived there for at least 20 years.  But there was very little information about his life before then. He regularly used to ask his neighbours if anyone had any spare wood and was always stopping for a natter.

The people at the local fish and chip shop were particularly devastated by his death. They said he appeared  regular as clockwork at 6pm every Friday for his usual order of fish, chips, mushy peas and two pickled eggs.   The owner said: “Billy lit the place up when he came in. He had everybody chuckling and smiling.  He was a real gent.”

But what surprised me most was that as well as being generous with his time, it turned out that Billy was also generous with his own money.    He may not have spent much on himself but he certainly had enough funds to be able to help out people around him.

Several neighbours told how Billy would turn up at their door and hand over amounts ranging from £10 to £50. Somehow he had found out that they were in need.

The local vicar at St Thomas’s even related how Billy would occasionally arrive at the church with even larger gifts of money if he had seen something on the news which had touched his heart. He asked the vicar to pass the money on to the charity concerned.

But word of Billy’s deeds had obviously spread and that is what probably led to his death. Police told us that he had been mugged once before and that his house had been burgled on several occasions. He had also been taunted and abused by local yobs.

And whilst all this had been going on I was smugly enjoying my rising career.

Where all Billy’s money came from no-one knew. There was no trace of any family and all Billy’s gifts had been in the form of cash. There was no record of any will, bank, building or savings accounts. In fact, there wasn’t a single penny left in the rented house.

Whoever had beaten him up had also taken his telly and even the sherry glasses.

The funeral was to take place at St Thomas’s which was about half a mile away from Allen Street.

I asked one of the reporters to find out about the arrangements but what she came back with left me with a kingsized knot in my stomach, because no relatives could be found and because Billy had no funds, the council would have to take on responsibility for his funeral. It would therefore be a very basic affair.

As I sat alone in my office looking at the picture of Billy’s battered face, my mind drifted back to our first encounter.  His warm smile, his friendly manner, his sense of humour. He was also, as I now fully realised, the most generous person you could ever meet.   I could not leave him to the ignominy of a pauper’s funeral.

Thankfully it was a warm, sunny day and the giant colourful wreath made out in the word ‘Billy’ fully covered the solid oak coffin.

As the horse drawn Victorian hearse proceeded down Allen Street, residents emerged from their doors and took their place behind it for the slow walk to St Thomas’s. By the time the hearse reached the end of the road there were over 40 of them, men, women and children of all ages.

I was trying to keep my composure and was just about managing to fight back the tears.

Out there walking in front of the hearse, I was comforted by the close presence of a new addition to my family.

Her lovely, doting, dark brown eyes kept glancing towards me and I sensed that she too realised the significance of the occasion.

As we turned out of Allen Street and along Forman Drive towards the church, Maisie kept in perfect step with me. Billy would have been proud.

© Patrick O’Connor 2009

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