I caught myself being judgemental today, yet again, and remembered one morning the Summer before last when I was firmly kicked up the butt by the He, She, It, They that is/are the So Much More. As I walked towards the Coffee Shop I saw my Big Issue seller, David, sitting outside with a coffee and a very flash mobile phone on the table. He had been homeless since he was 12, living mainly in the woods and making a few pounds selling these magazines. I had become very fond of him over the few months since I had met him. We shared a love of Loreena McKennit and had had a few good talks about spooky stuff. But despite all that the thought was already in my mind, ‘Where did he get the phone from?’ I had sat down with my coffee and a refill for him into which he put eight sugars as he had to get his energy when he could. He told me he had found the phone the previous night on his way ‘home’ from the pub ; he had been celebrating a better than usual day. He was also sporting a bruised cheek where one of the pub drinkers had taken a swing at him. He was now waiting for the phone’s owner to come and collect it. ‘Oh Yeah!!’ I thought.
Just then Grant Mitchell’s double pulled up a chair and sat down. ‘Thanks mate. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to get my phone back’ – Butt Kick Number One. ‘Grant’ had two black eyes, the whites were verging on the vampirish, and he had clearly taken a very bad beating. He stank of alcohol. His marriage had broken up the day before and he had gone out and got totally wasted – ‘an alcoholic scrapper then’, I thought, ‘Bet the other guy came off worse’ and as usual when someone says they are having marriage problems I waded in with advice about how there is always hope. ‘Nah,’ said Grant, ‘I have been taking this from her for 5 years – she first knocked me senseless on our wedding night’ – Butt Kick Number Two.
I then saw a friend walking up to our table – Jane – a staunch Conservative and usually outspoken church goer, looking decidedly perplexed at the company I was keeping. ‘Please, please Jane, don’t say anything about proper jobs or alcoholics’ I thought. I introduced her to David who held out the filthiest hand ever and Jane beamed at him and shook it warmly. They then chatted about Venice! Butt Kick Number Three.
After ‘Grant’ and Jane had gone David told me he was leaving that day to move south. He had decided to go to Belgium to try again with an old flame he had been writing to. There were many obstacles in his way (fixed abode needed to get a passport being the biggest) but he had been offered a lift that would take him one step nearer and he was leaving later that day. His lift was with a police officer – Butt Kick Number Four.
As we said goodbye I gave him a huge hug, kissed his cheek and told him ‘lots of love’ and we both cried. I just wonder what all those folks watching from inside the coffee shop thought of that scene and did they even begin to see the truth. I itched for the next few days – just to drive the point home! I have a feeling David was and is ‘So Much More’….
David then reappeared in Kendal last Summer and told me how he had reached Bristol, found a place to stay and had been gradually making progress towards getting to Belgium. Then he had gone to a party and had awakened to find the flat deserted except for an unconscious young girl. He had phoned for an ambulance and stayed with her fearing the worst. The paramedics confirmed that she was dead, probably from a drug overdose, and the police arrived who then ran a check on David, discovered his active arrest warrant for an airgun offence in Scotland years before, and promptly put him in a police van and sent him back to Scotland! The Scottish police gave him a caution and put him out onto the streets of Aberdeen. David had then managed to get back to Kendal and had hooked up with another ex, Lainey, and after giving him a black eye for abandoning her two years earlier, they settled down in her council flat.
Lainey then appeared with their pitbullish dog, Bonnie, and joined us for coffee. Her face was a mass of piercings, her arms scarred from, as David later told me, self harm; outwardly a very scary lady but with a broad friendly grin. I liked her and she clearly adored David. He told me later that the night before she had knuckle dustered a Russian lap dancer who had shown too much interest in David. I still liked her but I was careful not to smile too much at David! At the age of thirty she had only ever known an unstable family life at which I can only guess, and I assume this had lead to her anger management, alcohol and mental health problems. She was well known to the police.
I met them a few times after that and they seemed to be getting on well. David had shaved and was clearly enjoying baths, Lainey’s scars were fading and a lot of the facial ironmongery had disappeared. In August they joyfully told me they were planning their wedding and would let me know the date when it was set. I watched them wander off down the road entwined and in love.
And then David disappeared again. His friend, John, told me they had split up and David had gone back to the Scottish hills where he likes to live rough. Years earlier he had suffered a stroke whilst on these fells which had left him with a paralysed left arm.
I have led a charmed life never knowing insecurity or abuse of any kind and when Denis, my husband passed away I was able to concentrate on bringing up Harry, my son, without having to rely on a career to fund my lifestyle. Since Harry has been independent and happily living with his adorable Kate I dabble with a smattering of charitable work but am predominantly a layabout. After years of freedom from the tyranny of the workplace I doubt very much I could commit to a conventional job again. And so I do identify to a teeny weeny extent with those who have been both homeless and jobless for years (David has been mainly living rough for 20 years now) ‘Get them off the streets into sheltered housing, get them into work – this is what they need’, say well meaning do gooders. Yes, a home and security are the end goals for many but getting there is so much more complicated and there are so many issues to be addressed along the way. Gentleness, patience, compassion, understanding, respect and love will engender the trust needed to take that helping hand and start to heal.
We in our cosy lives cannot imagine that the life of a homeless person is a conscious choice. We see their lives from our viewpoint and at best pity them or at worst curse them. Sometimes as David told me freedom is too high a price to pay for security or a conventional home. I feel his home is probably in the wilds of the Highlands and I so hope he stays safe there and comes to visit soon.