It was a stark night in Peckham. Women hung around the barbers, you know the one with the cracked window which never gets repaired and stays open all night? They hung round chattering, shouting things to the men and women having their nails painted and were rewarded with grins and sign language not comprehensible to the passer by. By the bus stop, a man in a tracksuit too small for him stands back from the crowd concentrating on holding his beer can. You know he’s not part of it, not part of those waiting for the No.12 or 171 or 348. He has no where to go, no where to be and no one to be with you see. Instead he holds his beer can aloft, eyes gleaming and murmuring sweet nothings to it as if it were a lover. No one takes any notice of him. Tomorrow he may end up in Prison or dead but this is of no consequence, and for the people for whom it should be- his family or friends? Well where are they? No one knows. Anyway he seems happy. Perhaps he is. Perhaps his is the last laugh, free of responsibilities and life choices and pressures and aims and ambitions not necessarily his own anyway. But he still has to deal with the cold that night and find somewhere to sleep. Someone stole his usual patch, a corner behind a bin in Lidls’ car park.
But he is in more of an advanced state of homelessness, a state that has gone beyond the realms of authority. The step up above him is to be lodged in Peckham’s hostel but that’s not going to happen. He can’t get benefits because he didn’t acquire the necessary certificate from his GP as, because of his mental state he didn’t understand the importance of turning up for the appointment and so he was thrown out of his room. But the hostel’s a wet hostel anyway. He’s better out on the streets he thinks, where he can look after himself and get away from things if need be. Everyone thinks he is now with his non existent family- they’d prefer to think that and if they’ve checked it no one’s saying anything. So he’s been allowed to wander off, even though they know he tells lies about things. He doesn’t matter to anyone after all.
A little up Peckham Road and near Camberwell Art College a girl wanders. She sticks in the head for many reasons. She wears an army surplus over coat, one of those checkered scarves they wear in the desert but won’t keep out the cold here and skinny jeans. At first to look at, she doesn’t seem poor. But get up close and you’ll see. She walks right up to a person, a young woman walking home and carrying a bag full of shopping- a fact she cannot hide.
Please, you got any money?
The young woman carries on walking but slows her pace to match the other’s, letting her in. But she shakes her head.
I’ve got nothing on me.
Although the young woman thinks, I’ve got food on me.
Please, I’ve had nothing for four days; I’ve got nowhere to go..
The young woman is suddenly put off. And suspicious because when the girl opens her mouth to speak, it is full of broken, yellow and black teeth- a sure sign she thinks, that she is a drug user and an alcoholic. She feels a sudden anger and she doesn’t know why. A sort of irritability. Why are you asking me now? Why are you putting this responsibility onto me now when I’ve got my own life to cope with, to deal with? Why are you giving me choices as to how I can react now? For she is the kind of person who can’t just give money and forget. She has to get involved, she can’t let go. In a millisecond a dozen different scenarios flash through her mind. I can hand out what’s in my carrier bag- but it’s dried fruit, beetroot, a bag of crisps- that’s not suitable is it, or is any food suitable? Or I can take her to the shop and buy her some pot noodles, bread, butter, milk, cans of vegetables. But I don’t think she wants this. Or I can take her to the late night cafe across the road and buy her fast food and we can sit in the window and she can eat and tell me her life story. Perhaps this is what she wants, company.
Please, I’ve got nowhere to go; I’m really desperate. I don’t know what to do.
The young woman looks at the girl and is suddenly afraid. The desperation is real. The loneliness is real. The terror is real and is an echo of the same fear the young woman herself feels, i.e of not being loved. She realizes the girl is not a girl at all, she just thought she was because of the way she is dressed, like a child. No, she is more her own age; in her 30s, older in fact, perhaps in her 40s. The woman clings onto her coat sleeve and shakes it. She observes that her hair is falling out, even though it is dark and slick it is covered in psoriasis. Some of the bits of skin fall onto the young woman’s coat and hand. She wants to help. A part of her says, in her head; go to the police. Something in the other woman’s voice carries the fact that she might be in real danger and the woman senses the police and not food are the best bet for her. But she might be wrong. How does she know she has not already had dealings with them? She probably has. She is muttering to herself now.
I’ve not had anything for days, please; I’m so weak, please help me, no one will help me, no one help me.
Perhaps I can take you to the police station, I think you need help.
The woman’s reaction is one of terror. She shrinks back from the younger woman in fear, showing the whites of her eyes. She sees for the first time in the light under the bus stop that her arms are criss crossed with knife marks. She realizes this woman is half mad. She is making a choking sound and suddenly turns and runs, dashing off into the night. Down a dark alley and then gone.
The young woman is left alone and feeling sick. The older woman was like something feral. Mad. Unable to look after herself. Probably if she took her in a shop, she would be unable to chose what to buy and so would want to buy everything. But degradation came with her too, the young woman could smell it. Probably she was used for sex. Probably so she could get drugs. Probably she goes in and out of prison. But who’s looking after her?
The younger woman turns on her heel and walks slowly back to her house. She herself is homeless but at least she is able to live with friends. Life is sometimes too difficult to comprehend from a place of instability, only those well off- stable, loved and so secure, can perhaps contemplate life’s difficult questions. The younger woman will feel guilty in the next few days and will look for the older woman although without success.
The older woman keeps running down the dark alley way. Suddenly her mobile phone goes off. At least she has one of these, she is still at least connected to people in some way and is not facing the dark tunnel – for this is what it has become in her mind- of life completely alone. She stops and checks her mobile, all the while looking around her as if afraid she is being followed.
A voice on the other end, a woman.
Katie where are you?
The older woman looks around. She does not know.
Is there a street sign somewhere? Try and look.
Katie can’t really see in the dark. She is suddenly very tired.
I don’t know where I am.
Her voice is slow and thick now.
Try and retrace your steps from when you first got here.
I’m at the hostel.
No you’re not Katie, that’s why I’m calling. You’ve not been there for days.
I can’t stay there. They’ll take my stuff.
a pause and a sigh.
We’re working at getting you moved somewhere else but for the time being you need to stay there so we can assess you. Try and find out where you are now. Do you remember how you got there?
Katie has slipped down onto the floor. In the effort of trying to remember she squeezes her cut wrists hard, one in each hand. She doesn’t want to remember.
No, I don’t remember, I don’t remember.
I came to the hostel in a police car. They brought me because I had no idea how to get to London.
Yes and the hostel’s in Kings Cross remember.
You know near that big red building, St Pancras?
Katie vaguely remembers. She is high on methadone given to her by the prison warders to control her behavior. She remembers getting to the hostel and hiding all her gear- methadone, cocodomal, temazepam, all these medications prescribed to her to help her with her depression and behavior.
I was hiding my stuff down a gap in the bed, hiding all my gear. No one can take it see. But I’m afraid, they’ll take it when I’m not looking. And I was hiding it down the back and people came. These women. They wanted to know if I wanted to earn some extra bob and I knew what they meant so I left. Can’t stay there. Frightened.
Why did you go home Katie?
She tries to lie, like a small child.
I didn’t go home.
Katie you did, your mother rang us. Your father was very angry.
there is a long pause.
Katie? You went off when I needed you to go to the Doctors. We needed you to go so you could put in your claim for your benefits.
Katie has a tear rolling down her cheek.
Wanted to see Dad.
Yes I know Katie but you know what happens when you go to see Dad don’t you?
Yes you do. What happens?
He doesn’t want to talk to me.
Yes. And he’s asked you not to try and see him hasn’t he? Otherwise he’ll tell the police and say you’re stalking him.
I just want him to talk to me. I’m his daughter, why won’t he talk to me? Why? You know? What have I done? I mean what have I done to him except exist?
Katie please try and find out where you are. Go and find a shop and ask and then get a bus back OK? I don’t want to send the police out for you, it won’t look good for you at all. Don’t make me do it.
But Katie isn’t listening. She has put the phone down. And is crying up to the night sky and the stars in the same way that she has done a thousand times before like a broken cracked repetitive record. Her song is the same and it is never answered.
Why doesn’t he love me, why doesn’t he love me, why did he hit me why why why? What’s wrong with me what’s wrong what’s wrong what’s wrong WITH ME?
Even though the Dad is 70 odd and can’t touch her now. But still she curls in a ball, feet tucked in; squeezing her wrists and pressing herself as much as possible against the concrete. If anyone came up to her she’d push them away, preferring the comfort of the floor.
Now if people saw Katie in this state they’d mostly want to write her off. People like you and me maybe.
Yeah she won’t get anywhere. Too old. She’s not even in a state to be able to question her life choices properly. It’s very sad.
She really needs serious serious help. Real help. She’s very unwell.
Well look at her. Look at her. Not even a proper adult. On drugs. An alcoholic. Living off the state. Can’t look after herself and take responsibility. Lock her in a room and throw away the key, that’s what I’d do. Such a let down to her family.
Mostly this is how some people might react. For have you noticed, that sometimes even in our most daily basic contact with others we are ready to put people down and wish and believe in the worst; rather than in the best of people because we ourselves are so afraid and insecure?
Katie doesn’t know it- or perhaps she does know it and this is her torture- that what she really needs right now is love and acceptance. Yes she might need assessment, she might need all the drugs; she might need a stay in a residential home caring for the mentally ill but all of these are really just substitutes for that thing that everyone says makes the world go round- that ‘ting’ called love. For how can love be given? Apparently you have to be certified sane before you can have it. If you’re homeless or mentally unwell you can’t have it. It can’t just be magicked up and brought to the person in need can it? It can’t just happen at the click of the fingers- person A can’t suddenly just decide to love person B can they, just because they are asked? Or can they? No it is much easier to refer a person in need onto others, much easier to provide physical care and comfort as much as possible and then leave the person to try and sort themselves out. And perhaps within these comfortable environs love can be sought and found finally, once the person becomes easier to communicate with. Perhaps.
Still what Katie probably needs right now and definitely will not get is a hug from a man, and not just any man either but most probably from her Dad. She knows that in that hug, that most simple of things, a million questions will be asked and answered. A million things going on in her head will be made safe and more importantly she will feel safe at last- safe and protected because she knows she is loved- and knowing at last that she is after all loved she would most probably be willing to die. Because nothing else is needed in the world. A nice room and counseling can never make up for that feeling.