Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Churchyard

AFTER a ten mile walk along the river, it was time for a rest. I turned the corner past the church, saw a bench, and took a moment to recoup my energy. That’s when I heard him.

“Hello again,” he said.

“Sorry?”

“I saw… didn’t I meet you earlier?”

This he hadn’t, for I had been miles away building bridges, traversing rivers and exploring woodlands. Undeterred, he decided to join me on the bench. His head was shaven, his face battered by years of smoking and hardship; dried blood patches dotted his cheeks and neck after shaving with a blunt razor. He wore a dark blue padded coat, with tips of other clothing protruding from beneath, compressed and limp from being worn for days.

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” he said. “Can I be honest with you?”

I nodded.

“I mean… you won’t tell anyone?”

 Desperation was apparent in his eyes.

“Of course not,” I reassured him.

“You know, I haven’t got a home. I… I left my shelter two days ago, didn’t know where to go.”

This was horrible, of course. Where was he sleeping now, I asked?

“I… I slept in a field last night. I woke up at 7 o’clock. It was cold. This is between us? You promise you won’t tell anyone?”

Once again I reassured him. I saw no reason, particularly given his appearance, to disbelieve him. He certainly looked like he had slept rough the night before.

“Someone gave me this…”

Shakily, he reached into his inside coat pocket. With some effort he eventually handed me a piece of paper, a print out from the website of a homelessness charity based in Watford. Slowly, he explained.

“I wondered… what you thought? Should, should I go there? I mean, I’ve got to tell you something — I left my last shelter two days ago, now I’m sleeping outside. I just got desperate, yeah? I couldn’t take it anymore, I felt like I was… trapped. Every time I went outside they told me off, told me I had to stay in my room.”

His speech was slow, affected perhaps by the cold of the night before and years of chequered history.

“I’m forty six. I can’t live like that. Why can’t I be free? Why can’t I go outside and… try to be something? They can’t make me stay in there.”

I agreed the centre in Watford sounded like a good idea. He smiled.

“You’re the first person to speak to me. Everyone else is so rude, they… they won’t listen to me. This city is bad for me. I’ve got to get out.”

He paused.

“What’s your name?”

“Simon,” I replied.

“You’re a good man, Simon. My name’s Pete.”

“That’s my name. I’m called Pete too.”

A second voice had joined to our left, on an adjacent bench. Here was a man in his twenties, wearing jeans, a sweaty old black polo shirt beneath an open black jacket, cropped black hair and scruffy beard, cigarette in hand. His face bore the hallmarks of a friendly soul, yet weathered and aged before his time. He had just joined us on the nearby bench, having been kicked out of the church (where he had been sleeping against the radiators) because of a funeral.

And then a peculiar thing happened. With me as witness, the two Petes became friends. The younger Pete had spent 16 years moving between foster homes, then homeless shelters, churned around by the system – he understood completely what the older Pete was experiencing and offered advice from a place of experience but great wisdom.

Older Pete recounted, several times more, his woes.

“Can I be honest with you? You… you’re not going to tell anyone is you? I… I don’t want to go back.”

“I don’t tell nobody nothing,” assured younger Pete. I nodded also.

“I just left the home a few days ago. They made me feel like a prisoner. I slept in a field last night. I woke up freezing. I can’t go on like this. I got to find a new start, get away from this city.”

Young Pete more than understood.

“One shelter they lock the doors on you at 8,” he recounted. “They turn everything off by 10. You’ve just got to waste the time in the dark until breakfast the next morning, then they kick you out into the cold for the day. That’s all your life is allowed to be.”

“I’ve got to be honest with you… wait, what’s your name?”

“Pete, just like you mate.”

“Pete, yeah.”

He threw the same question to me.

“Simon.”

“Simon. Simon Says!” Younger Pete giggled. “Simon, Simon, Simon. Didn’t I meet you earlier?”

“Not me,” I replied. 

“I met a Simon today. He was with my mate Dan. Dan the Man. ‘Simon Says’, that’s how I remembered his name.”

Younger Pete giggled: older Pete interrupted.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Younger Pete recounted his varying sheltered and couch surfing experiences, recalling the locations and names of suitable shelters older Pete might like to try. He spoke of strategies for protecting your possessions when there’s nowhere to hide them. And slowly, but surely, he lifted older Pete’s spirits, giving him hope and, most importantly, a plan. Older Pete should go to London, they decided, to Shelter in Kings Cross. There he could have a new start, and would be allowed to pick himself up.

Younger Pete’s story was torrid and convoluted. He had three younger brothers, each brought up by his parents. Yet he was thrown to the fostering system, with only his grandfather still in contact. He loved his grandfather. They’d even been to the Royal Albert Hall together, to see Katherine Jenkins. Somehow, however, he was now sleeping rough, banned from various shelters for being “a bull in a china shop”.

He giggled. “You know that expression, don’t you? ‘Bull in a china shop’? They kept me locked up when I’d done nothing wrong. Every man snaps eventually when they do that.”

Younger Pete, just like older Pete, just wanted to be treated like a human. He’d acquired scars striving to achieve it.

Older Pete looked worried once more.

“London. They… they won’t turn me away?”

“Not unless you cause problems,” he was reassured. “You got nothing to worry about.”

“What was your name again?”

“Pete, just like yours mate. We’m in this together.”

“Pete, yeah. I… I’ve got something I need to tell you. You won’t tell anyone will you? I… I run away from my last home. I slept last night in a field.”

“Nobody can keep you locked up if you’ve done nothing wrong. Don’t you worry. Kings Cross is where you need to go. Get the train to St Pancras, and it’s just over the road.”

“Kings Cross. Yeah. London. You think I’ll be safe there?” A pause. “So I get the train to Watford…”

“No, no, St Pancras. Kings Cross is just over the road. It’s called Shelter. Big red logo. That’s right isn’t it?”

They turned to me, I nodded, speaking as positively as I could about Shelter and its work.

“What was your name again?”

And on it went: the forgetfulness, the nervousness and the camaraderie. By the time I left, younger Pete had become a mentor and father figure to older Pete. A plan for them to go to Kings Cross (not Watford, eventually) together was afoot. I wished them well and offered to help with a train fare.

And then they were gone.