Give us a cigarette

Even the mundane days are eye-opening when you’re in the gutter.

I went to the Welcome Centre for lunch yesterday feeling a bit downhearted and rejected, it’s a fairly common feeling if you’ve been on the streets. It’s hard to trust human beings again and sometimes you can be your own worst enemy, pushing people away before they get the chance to let you down. But in this instance, I kinda had been rejected again. Hey ho…who hasn’t?

But before I even got to their glass doors I saw Dumitru jumping for joy, literally leaping in the air when he saw me approaching. It was a lovely feeling. On one of my first nights back on the street he made me a bed and I will never forget that. He speaks hardly any English and I speak no Romanian but we somehow understand each other and love each other to bits. He’s tricky. He has a serious temper but then so do I. That’s what happens when you get pushed around too much. He channels it into his boxing. I channel it into writing this and tearing strips off doctors receptionists’ who are cruel to people with mental health issues…and all the other heartless bastards and bitches out there. If I channel my anger, like a boxer, I really can use it to devastating effect.

One day, when I was still smoking, I was sitting outside Morrison’s in Dagenham, having a fag and talking to my friend about meditation. Oh the irony. This gym-muscled black geezer came out the shop and walked over to his fancy motor. ‘Bro!’ he yelled.’ ‘Give us a cigarette!’

No ‘please’. No ‘excuse me’. And I couldn’t remember the day I nominated him as being one of my numerous brothers. In fact, I’d never met him, he was just a stupid person looking for a free cigarette who actually thought I was so thick that I would give him one because I would feel guilty at turning down my ‘brother’…

I didn’t flare up straight away. I was talking about meditation after all. ‘I’m sorry, I’m on the phone to my friend. And I’m homeless,’ I told him, assuming, wrongly, that that would be an end to matters.

‘Well you shouldn’t be smoking a cigarette then should you,’ he said puffed up with self-righteousness.

‘Excuse me?’ I said, leaping to my feet. As a rule of thumb…if you hear me say, ‘excuse me’ in that tone of voice, run for cover…

‘Who the f**k asked you? As it happens, Theresa May bought me a packet of cigarettes out of my paltry benefits. I know I really shouldn’t but I’m a bit stressed, what with trying not to get stabbed every night and shit. And anyway, who the f*ck are you, in your fancy car, poncing cigarettes off homeless people?’

‘Well you don’t look homeless!’

‘That’s ‘cos I had a shower and I put on clean clothes,’ I told him. ‘What do you want me to do, roll in the mud so that YOU, whoever YOU are believes that I’m homeless.’

You could almost hear the penny dropping as I pulled a cigarette out of my packet and launched it across the car park. It was a perfect shot, hitting him smack in the middle of his forehead. To my eternal amusement, he picked it up off the floor.

‘You really are homeless?’ he said…

‘Yes!’

‘Are you sure you want me to smoke this?’

‘Yes! I want you to smoke it real slow my friend and while you smoke it think about engaging your brain before you open your big fat stupid mouth and insult another person about whom you know nothing. And just for the record, I ain’t your borother. I’m picky…’

‘You take care of yourself,’ he said, looking sheepish.

‘Like you care,’ I growled under my breath.

It doesn’t always wind up negatively with my temper. One night I was in O’Neill’s having a pint. It was one of those weeks when I actually had a bit of spare money. I had no passport so I couldn’t get anywhere to sleep, but I did have a little spare cash. I had my bed in a bag on the stool next to me.

‘Who’s left their washing out?’ scoffed this northern bloke who just walked in, ‘Oi! That’s my bed! Don’t be rude!’ I snapped. He turned out to be really nice, a funny bloke and a real gentleman, called Paddy, he bought me a couple more pints and let me bring my bed into the tiny space he was sleeping in around the corner while he worked on the construction sites for a pittance. I haven’t seen him since but I do hope karma has rewarded my brother Paddy.

Back to yesterday, and I walked back to the bus stop, via the bridge where Dumitru and the others sleep. I thought I’d surprise him with some cider and a sarnie. He’s a tough character, a kickboxer, but yesterday I saw him cry for the first time. He’d had a shit day. I don’t think it was anything in particular, just that accumulation of hopelessness when you feel like you’ve just wasted another day trying to climb up a ten foot pole which has been greased by the government. Trying to achieve the impossible and get yourself out of this hole. You know the odds are massively against you, that there is probably no chance of escaping, but the will to stay alive keeps you going. Until it doesn’t.

I’ve been there before when he has contemplated doing bad things to himself. I hope he never does. I hope some miracle comes along and pulls him out of this mess because I don’t have the power to do that. He truly is my brother. When I sat down next to him he made the sign of the cross and looked upstairs and said ‘Thank God’. I gave him a cuddle because no one was looking.I hope he made it through another 24 hours…

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