Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Living on the Edge

Having spent most of what I like to think of as my working life in the public sector, the notion of ‘edge’ conjures up images of what the jargon tends to call marginalised communities. These are folks without much money, without much of anything, really, so they find themselves stuck at the outer edges of our society. They live in poverty and wrestle with crippling debt from high interest lenders because that’s the only credit they can get near. They rely on foodbanks to provide for their kids, dread the next budget or mention of benefit reform because reform always means it gets worse. They shiver in poor, damp, cold housing if they’re lucky – the more marginalized individuals have no housing at all so are even damper and a whole lot colder.

The things most of us take for granted – cinema trips, new shoes if the old ones look a bit battered, getting on a bus, MacDonald’s, are usually beyond the means of the truly marginalized and excluded. They walk if they need to go anywhere, buy from charity shops, or just do without.
That’s being on the edge. Not much fun, but it’s better than falling off.

I tend to think of the homeless as those who tumbled off the end of the whatever this is that the rest of us balance on. That roof over the head, however crappy, makes such a difference. With a roof, you have an address, you can claim benefits, meagre though they may be. You can apply for a job, access health care, hold a bank account (assuming you can scrape together a few quid to put in it) and have somewhere moderately safe to spend the night. You can have a family life, friends. You are part of the community – just.

I have never been homeless (thank goodness) so I don’t – can’t – really know what it would be like. But I’m a writer, I have imagination, and eyes in my head so I can make a stab at it. That’s what I did when I wrote Spirit a couple of years ago.

This is a story about a woman, Beth, who finds herself homeless aged just 16 and lives rough for a couple of years. Hers is a perilous existence, dangling precariously right on the very edges of society. She exists within a huge city, one of the wealthiest in the UK, yet Beth is near enough invisible. She has simply fallen through the net and could lay down and die one night and no one would even notice until they came to sweep up the following week. Eventually Beth drags herself from that disastrous spiral though her own efforts and the unexpected generosity of a stranger.

Here’s an excerpt which describes some of what Beth’s life is like…

Leeds, December 2007

I cough, a deep, racking bark that reaches almost to my stomach. My lungs hurt, actually ache with the relentless onslaught. My throat hurts too, and despite the several blankets, coats and sheets of plastic wrapped around me I’m shivering. I shouldn’t be surprised I suppose. It is only a few degrees above freezing, and even the most sheltered doorways tend to be a little on the draughty side in early December in the north of England.
I can’t stay warm, I can’t get warm. I don’t even have the price of a pack of paracetamol to deaden the throbbing in my tonsils that crucifies me every time I swallow.
I shift, and even that small movement sends a dull pain through my bones. I ache everywhere. My body is discovering new places to hurt. And it’s not even nine o’clock in the evening yet. This night will get a lot colder before dawn.
Homelessness is no joke in the summer. It’s absolute crap in the winter. Add to that a dose of flu or whatever virus it is that’s rampaging through my system, and you have utter misery.
This is why people die on the streets. It’s not alcohol, or drugs, or the unspecified shiftlessness that the safe, warm folks attribute to those of us without anywhere to live. Instead, it’s the constant exposure to nature at her most ungenerous. Shelter, regular meals, a warm, dry place to sleep. Necessities everyone else takes for granted, the basics of a civilised existence.
Not for me, not for a long time now.
There’s a hostel in Chapeltown, where I might find a warm place to spend the night, perhaps scrounge a warm cup of watered down soup even. But it closes up at ten and I doubt I could get there in an hour. Normally I would, but the mile or so I’d need to trudge through the back streets of Leeds is just too much to contemplate right now. I’m right out of stamina, I doubt I could even get myself upright. Better to huddle in this narrow space behind an office block, dragging what comfort I can from the residual heat wafting from the underground car park.
All the office workers are long gone so no one should disturb me until perhaps seven in the morning. A particularly diligent police officer perhaps, they sometimes check the back alleys, but don’t always move us on. The shops open at nine and I might be able to lift a pack of painkillers from Boots. It’s worth a try, even if it does get me nicked. At least the police cells would be heated and they’d probably let me sleep.
Yes. That’s my plan then. Such as it is.

* * *

“What time is he due in tomorrow?” A female voice, punctuated by the staccato beat of high heels on tarmac. The sounds are muffled, on the other side of a breeze block wall, but still audible.
“Not too early. His plane doesn’t get in until after ten.” Deeper, a man’s tone.
“Will you be here?”
“Yes, I’ll look over these contracts at home, then get some sleep, and be back in by nine. Should have plenty of time to download the final versions and check those figures.”
“Will you need me?”
“No. Tomorrow’s Saturday. Have a day off. Spend some time with that new grandson of yours.”
“I will. Thanks. And don’t you work too hard either.”
I don’t hear his reply over the sound of car doors slamming. No more footsteps so they must have got into the same car. It seems not everyone had left after all.
And now’s my chance. If I can get myself hidden beside the outer shutter when it lifts to let the car out, I should be able to slip inside before it slides down again. The parking garage might be draughty but still offers a much better prospect for the night than the great outdoors.
I groan silently, but I know I have to move. I have to force myself into action if I’m to get some sort of shelter tonight, and Christ knows I could do with it. The dull purr of an expensive engine sounds on the other side of the wall as I haul myself to my feet, leaning against the damp brickwork for support. I shake violently as the cold air hits me, but I can’t hope to make it inside rolled up in my coat and plastic sheeting. I’ll need to be able to move fast, perhaps even roll under the shutter as it drops. The last thing I need is to get trapped under it, though the way I feel right now I could even view that as a merciful end.
I grab my tattered rucksack, but stuff the rest of my kit into the back of the alcove where I had sought shelter. I can only hope no other rough sleeper comes along and takes a fancy to my stuff. Not that I’d be able to do much about it even if I hadn’t left it behind. Not in this state.
I shove my fist in my mouth to try to deaden the harsh crackle of another bout of coughing just as the roller starts to lift. I turn to face the wall, huddled over, and edge as close as I dare to the now yawning opening. The bonnet of a car comes into view, gleaming red, long and low as the vehicle exits the garage and tips its nose upwards to ascend the short ramp leading up to the service road. I catch sight of a middle aged woman in the driving seat, very smart, her still-blonde hair scooped into a neat twirl at the back of her head. She is looking straight ahead, peering into the darkness and doesn’t spot me skulking beside the exit as she sweeps past and out into the night.
Even before the tail lights disappear around the corner I’m crouching and scuttling under the shutter. I make a dash across the empty parking bays to the relative safety of a large wheeled bin, and slip behind it. There could be security cameras in here, and I don’t want some night watchman coming looking for me.
Still, it was worth the risk. There’s no cold wind in here, and the temperature is several degrees warmer than outside. I sit back, my eyes closed as my sudden burst of energy evaporates and I give in to the aching now wracking every limb. This is me settled for the night. I couldn’t move again if the place was on fire.
“What the fuck are you up to?”
The harsh tone echoes around the empty space, but comes from right next to me. I swivel my head around, expecting to see the security guard after all, despite my sprint across the car park. Just my luck, he must have been actually looking at the CCTV monitor when I sneaked inside.
But this man is not in uniform, unless the pristine dark grey business suit counts. And this is the same voice I heard a few moments ago chatting to the colleague with the new grandson. I assumed him to be in the passenger seat and halfway across Leeds by now, but apparently not.
Shit! Shit, shit, shit.
I squint up at the man, back lit by the motion-controlled lighting in here. He’s tall, at least six feet, slim build, but solid. I can’t make out his features as he is silhouetted against the bright light, but he exudes authority. And hostility. His shiny, expensive looking shoe taps against the concrete floor. I suspect he might contemplate kicking me if I don’t shift quickly enough. At the very least, he’s sure to sling me outside again.
Best to go quietly. There’s never any point trying to resist or seek permission to doze on someone’s property. Even if he doesn’t actually own this building, he’ll act as though he does. They always do.
I feel so awful, so absolutely rotten that I’m close to tears as I reach for the handle on the side of the bin, intending to haul myself upright. I can almost taste my disappointment as I face a night outdoors after all.
“I said, what the fuck are you up to? Thinking of stealing a car?”
I shake my head. I can’t even drive.
“Just looking for a place to sleep.” My voice is croaky, partly the virus, and partly from disuse. I seldom have cause to talk to anyone here on the streets. A mumbled ‘thank you’ if a passer by tosses a coin or half a sandwich at me is about as much conversation as I can manage these days. No eye contact, they don’t want to actually look at me, acknowledge me and my humanity. I’m an embarrassment.
This man will be the same. He just wants rid of me. I look past him, back towards the still open shutter. It appears to be much farther away than it was a moment ago, and the edges are blurred. My head is spinning, I feel dizzy, but I’d still rather make it back outside under my own steam than be physically bundled out by this harsh stranger.
“Does this look like a fucking Holiday Inn?”
One back alley looks much the same as another to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever got closer to a hotel than the kitchen entrance where the leftovers sometimes get dumped, but there’s no point debating this. I bend to pick up my spare overcoat, my back creaking with the effort.
“I’ll go. Sorry…” I close my eyes, wait for the dizzy spell to pass before I make to step past him.
“Are you okay?”
Do I look okay? “I’m fine.”
“Wait, where are you going?”
I don’t answer. It’s not as though he gives a shit in any case, as long as I’m nowhere near his nice building or precious car. Or at least not in sight. I continue my long, slow shuffle towards the gaping exit and the chilly December night.
“I said wait.” Two brisk footsteps, then he grabs my arm and pulls me around to face him.
I scream, the pain in my aching limb just too much. I stagger backwards, my balance lost. I expect to hit the hard concrete, but he grabs me again, this time with both hands and holds me upright by my elbows. I might have struggled, even as recently as yesterday I expect I would have tried some sort of protest. Today I’m just too weak. Despite his help my knees are buckling, giving way under the immense strain of carrying my seven stone frame. I would have hit the floor hard but he pulls me closer, his expensively clad arm sliding around me and lowering me to the ground.
“Christ, what’s the matter with you? Are you high on something? Drunk?”
Chance would be a fine thing. I lie on my side, wheezing and coughing, my whole body now shaking.
His fingers are on my face, peeling back the thick woollen cap I keep tugged down over my hair.
“For fuck’s sake, you’re burning up. You need an ambulance.” He lets go of me, I assume to reach for his phone. I offer no comment, it would be quite beyond me to argue in any case. I suppose paramedics might be an improvement on the police. And they will at least have paracetamol.
He doesn’t produce a mobile though. Instead he slips off his suit jacket and wraps it around me. This is odd. Interesting, but odd.
“I don’t suppose you’ve anywhere to go, have you?”
Not so’s you’d notice. I manage to shake my head.
“Well, you can’t stay here. You need a doctor. And a warm bed.”
Tell me about it.
“Come on.” He hauls me to my feet, though not roughly. He half carries me across the car park, but not in the direction of the exit. Instead, he props me against the high bonnet of a black four-wheel drive monster. He opens the passenger door and the next thing I know I’m manoeuvred inside, arranged on the soft, buttery upholstery like a sack of potatoes. He must intend to take me to the hospital himself then. I consider asking him to drop me at the hostel in Chapeltown instead, but I have no idea how long it was since I last checked the time. They might be closed by now. If not closed, they’ll be full.

So I remain silent, my eyes closed, and wait to be deposited at the doors to A and E.

Spirit is available on Amazon, and is free to read on Amazon Unlimited

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the excerpt, Ashe. From what's here, Beth's homelessness is described with empathy and detail. You're so right about the difference it makes to have a place to go, and how there's definitely an edge there as far as security and safety.

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  2. What an atmospheric read, Ashe. We count our blessings every day. Some people's blessings are quite rudimentary. Sigh...

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  3. A really gripping excerpt. Makes me want to know not just what happens next, but what happened to her before that brought her to this state.

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  4. For someone who has never been homeless, you've imagined it with astonishing vividness.

    I had a college roommate -- graduate of an Ivy League university -- who had a stint of homelessness. I got a bit of a sense of the desperation that can engender from her. Plus the realization that it could happen to anyone.

    I'm so glad you posted this.

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  5. As others have said, Ashe, this description seems completely believable. Like Sacchi, I would like to know what led your heroine to her current condition in a major industrial city where girls like her are ignored or driven away. I'm glad she seems to have found a rescuer! I have too much to read already, because I volunteered to be a judge in Elisa Rolle's Rainbow Awards again this year, but now I think I need to read your novel to find out what happens next. :)

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