I woke up this morning. A man I met yesterday was determined not to. I feel angry, guilty, frustrated and really, really sad. For family reasons I had spent a few hours near a town in what looks to be a very prosperous part of the south of England. Before getting stuck into the 150-mile drive back to the boat yesterday I diverted into the town centre to buy some guitar strings. I’ve only visited that town once before, but as town centres go, it is quite attractive. It is on the River Kennet and there are narrowboats. The afternoon light was fading and I didn’t have time to take a riverside walk. I was trying to get back in time for the first performance of a community singing group started by the Drama Lady.
I bought my strings (and some other bits I hadn’t intended) in Hogan Music, a very friendly independent and interestingly stocked music shop and wandered further into town. That’s where I saw him. Sitting on the ground in the near zero temperature in an alley just off the High Street. I tried to remember where he was and decided I would talk to him on my way back from buying a birthday card. I don’t go into towns very often - not when most of the shops are open anyway - so I have to remember things like birthday cards when I get a chance.
A few minutes later when I returned he had relocated a few yards into the High Street. I didn’t blame him. The alley was probably a wind tunnel. He was sitting in the doorway of a closed, darkened shop. His knees were drawn up and draped with a thin woollen blanket. Although his coat looked warm, it probably wasn’t. He looked utterly defeated. Even his hat for voluntary contributions looked wretched. Someone had dropped in a piece of costume jewellery, a brooch of some sort, but I could see no money aside from a few coppers.
I asked if it was okay to sit with him and he looked at me from a very long distance inside himself. I sat among some empty sandwich packets and coffee cups. I have assumed until recently (because several street people have told me so when I’ve done it) that it is unusal and welcome for a stranger to offer a few minutes of time when they drop some money into the hat. In my middle-class, do-gooder way I breeze in and out of their lives for a few minutes of my precious time and feel suitably virtuous. When I visit a place I make sure I have ten pounds in my pocket, which I know I may end up sharing among street people, people busking, people begging and sometimes even people selling the Big Issue. If I didn’t set myself a budget I might be tempted to give everything away. I’ve done it before and given away my train or bus fare. Sometimes I buy myself something from a sandwich shop and get something extra for someone I have seen. I never know whether food and a warm drink is welcome or whether the bodies of these people need some other form of nourishment. I know mine would be screaming for fruit or fresh vegetables (and probably, I confess, some very, very dark chocolate) if I tried to live on a diet of burgers and pre-packed sandwiches.
Sitting with people for a while they invariably have a story to tell. Often just one event has happened to turn their lives completely upside down. There are times in my own life when that could have been me. In Highbury, a few weeks ago I tried to spend a bit of time with people who clearly didn’t want my company. I hadn't really encountered that response before. One man outside the tube station had a palsy so bad he was risking spilling the change right out of the plastic disposable cup in which he was collecting contributions. I couldn’t tell if his attempts at speech were the result of his condition or whether he spoke little English. Whatever, with such violent tics forcing his body to run flat out he must have been exhausted. A few minutes later I dropped some money into the bowl of a very young man who had just enough English to point down the street and tell me to go. “You give money. You go!” He exclaimed in a voice that sounded fearful. Just what had happened to detach him from social contact with people in such a desperate fashion? His response made me question my actions. I thought I was trying to treat each person I spoke to with the same kind of respect I would want for myself. I always ask if it's okay to chat. I know they must be wondering what it is I want from them. I think most of us need something and that what they need is likely very different from what I judge to be the case. What have I been expecting or wanting? I didn't think I wanted anything from them. I felt that there was little enough I could do to show a little bit of human kindness - I have enough for myself with enough to share a little - but maybe I need something more than that. What? Absolution? If I'm lucky I may get a song out of it. Then I have to balance the right to exploit someone else's misfortune against an opportunity I perhaps have to raise awareness. Has Ralph McTell saved any lives by writing and singing "The Streets of London"? My approach to street people since then, however, was to be very unsure of how best to approach them or, indeed, whether attempting conversation was a good idea at all. On balance I think it may be. Too many street people have said how they appreciated someone spending a few minutes with them, having someone look at them rather than the other way and having a chance to tell their story.
There is always a story. Here’s one from a man I also met yesterday.
Thirty-three year old P had lost his job, his girlfriend and his flat. He had a place in a shelter which accommodated him and his companion of many years, his dog Tizer. Tizer had a temperature. P took him to a vet who prescribed antibiotics. A few days later Tizer regurgitated blood, lots of blood, seven towels worth of blood. Tizer turned out to have cancer and P couldn’t afford the prescribed operation after he’d already paid out for treatment. He had to say goodbye to Tizer. Then the hostel presented him with a bill for six months of arrears. He had been keeping up with the £17.50 a week that had been asked of him, but now they were telling him that his benefit payments didn’t cover the remainder of a bill he did not realise he was incurring. He had to leave and I was speaking to him as he prepared for another cold night in the open while still mourning the loss of his mother and the more recent loss of his dog. He asked me my name and tried to guess my occupation. He thought I was an artist ... or a hippy! He was pleased and not surprised to find out I was a musician. “What’s your instrument?” he asked. I told him to guess. He said I couldn’t be a drummer or a trumpet player. He thought I was a violinist or a flautist and seemed disappointed when I told him I was a one-man band and did play percussion. We shook hands as I got up to go and he laughed when I told him that his name was the same as my boyfriend’s.
Back in the High Street the defeated man showed signs of being seriously strung out. He spoke slowly, quietly and with effort. There were many pauses in his tale while his eyes went into periods of hibernation before his voice petered out. Then he would re-emerge for few more seconds to move the story on. He had spent the previous night indoors at the invitation of a “friend”. Come morning his sleeping bag, blanket, some spare clothes and his friend were all gone. I was horrified and outraged. He told me to take back the money I had dropped into his hat. There was no point and he no longer wanted to live in a world where such things could happen. I told him to keep the money in case he wanted a cup of tea and I bade him farewell. I knew I couldn’t leave it there. I found a charity shop which, fortunately, was still open and went inside to ask if they had any sleeping bags or blankets. I related the story. The volunteer looked at a few unsuitable options and said she would see if there was anything more useful in the back of the shop. She came back with a bagged up king-sized duck down duvet. I realised this was incredibly bulky for a homeless person, but the evening was getting colder, so I bought it and took it back to the defeated man. I asked him if he minded if I left it with him, because it was wrong that someone should take his stuff. He barely acknowledged me as I placed it on the ground beside him on top of more food containers I hadn’t noticed before.
“You won’t see me again,” he said. I said he was probably right and that I wouldn’t be back to that town for a long time. “No, I just don’t want to live in this horrible world where friends steal each others’ things. I’m going to end it tonight. I shall stay here and get as much money as I can to buy as much heroin as I can get and then I’ll o.d. I have no reason to live and I will die tonight.” He was very matter-of-fact. He had reasoned this out. However shocked I was at what he was saying I could see his reasoning. What would I want were I in his shoes? I had to admit it could easily be something very similar. “I said, okay that has to be your choice, but I hope you can remember that the world where friends nick your stuff is the same one where someone you’ve never met before and will never see again gives you something to try and keep you warm. I hope something good happens for you.” Immediately I hated myself for being so supercilious, but it was the best I could come up with on the spur of that moment.
I left, shaking and weeping. A big voice inside me was telling me to alert someone to his plans, but who should I tell and what would be the result of me saying something? The best that could happen would be that some official would turn up and his freedom would be taken away. I needed to talk this through and the only place I could think of was to go back to the charity shop where the volunteers had been so kind and helpful. They gave me a chair to sit on and a few minutes of their time as I composed myself. When everything else has been stolen from us is it right to take away that final microscopic thread of dignity to make a man conform to our own view of how a life should play out? I’m guessing and hoping that the defeated man had nothing like the amount of cash he needed to be able to close his body down in his chosen manner. I’m also hoping that he wrapped himself in duck down and began to feel differently as his body became a little less frozen.
I turned the wrong way and couldn’t find where I’d parked my van. Asking directions I had to walk the length of the High Street again, passing his spot once more. I saw the defeated man and he was on the move. He was up on his feet and stooping to collect his remaining belongings together. I really wanted to see if he took the duvet with him when he headed off, but that would have ruined the point of the gift. Sharing this experience with you probably also defeats the object. This is not a tale about me, but I am trying to work out what I experienced. It is an expression of the shame and anger I feel that some of us are forced into such a place that suicide appears to be the only remaining option for self-determination. So, in the face of homelessness - and climate change, species decline, greed, famine, war, sickness and poverty - we’ll keep intoning the mantra, “Brexit ... Brexit ... Brexit” and congratulate ourselves on getting our country back; we seem to be doing a jolly good job there.
Yes, I woke up this morning. I was in my comfortable bed and although the cabin on the boat was cold at only 12ºC, I wasn't affected by the wind and, while raining, the rain was falling outside and not on me. Neither had I been kicked awake by some drunken louts out for a bit of "fun". I hope the defeated man woke up today. I hope he experiences a little bit of kindness. I didn't make it back in time for Drama Lady's concert. I hope I didn't make the defeated man's life worse.