It’s the constant beeping which is the worst. Mental torture served up by good old Marks and Spencer. I won’t be buying my pasties from them ever again. I wonder what Saint Michael thinks of their behaviour.
I was sleeping behind Marks and Sparks in Ilford for a while. Under the tunnel, next to my Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Portuguese and Romanian brothers and sisters. It’s probably the safest place to kip, all told. Whatever our differences we are all in it together, so if someone threatens to knife you to get your mobile phone, or a cigarette, you know you’ve got back-up. Not that I need it really anymore. I’m good at fronting it with those types and they only tend to pick on the ones who appear mortally wounded. As my good friend Aiden put it, on one of my first days back on the streets, ‘You cry, you die.’
But that hideous sound. I always associated Marks and Spencer with comfort and gentility. My grandma used to take me there as a child and a visit to their food hall was a real joy and a privilege. No more. The beeping starts about midnight, just as you’re dropping off to sleep and it continues until around the time that passers-by might notice and alert people to the human cruelty they are inflicting. It’s horrible, and no amount of ear plugs can block it out. Just to twist the knife, they tend to stop it for a while…usually around 3am, and your exhausted body exhales. ‘Oh thank fuck, it’s stopped’. But that’s just a cruel trick, as you finally sink into a state of sleep, it starts again, about twenty minutes later. It’s vindictive beyond words and yet we’re causing no bother, we always leave our place under the tunnel clean and tidy. We aren’t hurting anybody. We are human beings trying to survive.
In the morning, you awake, dazed from no rest and try to steady yourself, see if you can bring yourself to get your sorry arse to the jobcentre, benefits or maybe earn some cash. It’s hard when you are sleep deprived. You have to be on top of your thoughts. Just staying alive is a constant battle and you can’t afford to make a mistake. But your brain is weary. Luckily it’s warm now so you can collapse in Valentine’s Park for a few hours if necessary. Valentine’s Park is full of people collapsed on the grass. People thrown on life’s rubbish heap, like me.
I feel weird today. Maybe it’s because I’ve stopped smoking. Picking up dimps is part of the full-time job of being homeless. But it’s such a waste of energy. More likely it’s because latterly I’ve been sleeping under a roof. I’ve had a shower and a shave, put on clean clothes. Walking down Romford High Street, in my borrowed clothes, I could pass as a ‘normal’ person. Indeed, I actually do. I finally understand the expression ‘fish out of water’ and I feel uneasy. A young cockney black guy approaches me. I’m waiting for him to offer me Spice, but instead he asks me if I think my credit rating is good, fair or bad. I collapse into giggles and he enquires no more. I bet his isn’t so good either, kerb crawling for credit card companies on the minimum wage. Still, you do what you have to do to get by.
Then a chirpy, bosomy, white Yorkshire lass asks me who my home broadband provider is. It feels odd. Normally the Chuggers and gym and mobile data purveyors swerve me. I look too much like what I am. Homeless. But today I must be looking more respectable. Well every cloud has a silver lining and being homeless and looking like shit does , at least stop you getting accosted by Chuggers. Again I laugh, I don’t get broadband in my sleeping bag’ I tell her, as gently as possible. She looks aghast. ‘Noooh, you can’t be homeless’. I walk off. Oh God, I feel like such a fraud. At the station I see my mate Jamie sitting with his sleeping bag. I give him a few dimps I collected. Old habits die hard. And I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve betrayed him in some way. Survivors’ Guilt, I guess. Whatvever you want to call it. He tells me he loves me and I reciprocate. I really do, even though I barely know him. I know enough, and I know his story is my story. It’s all our stories. Mistakes made, bad calls, betrayal, mocked, abandoned, reborn stronger, lost then found then lost again, booze, fags, whatever else gets you through (though I stuck to the old reliables), disrespect from them, respect for yourself and your street family. Love. Dysfunctional love yes, but a love which runs so deep it manages to cut through the darkest moments.
And now here I am. In Romford. Disguised as someone I used to be. The one who used to walk past. Whatever happens to me from here on in, and only God knows that, I know I can never go back and I truthfully believe I am better for that…