There are moments in life where everything shifts, breaks apart, and falls, jangling, back into an approximation of its former order, leaving you stunned at your change in perspective.
These moments can be huge – a house fire which destroys everything you own; the birth of your child; the death of a loved one – or they can be small and seemingly inconsequential – a friend explaining they’re not who you (and they) always thought they were; a realisation that you’ve been viewing yourself through a borrowed and inherently wrong view; or an hour on a sun-baked pavement after work one day – but whatever scale they reach, the changes they wreak upon your world are vast and long-reaching.
Until those moments, the sun still shines in the sky, but beneath it, everything has changed.
Things changed for me today.
After work I cycled into town to see if I could catch up with Jenny and her friend, the Scaffolder. I found them in their shop doorway. In full, baking sunlight.
I waved a cheery ‘hello’ and walked towards them, but something wasn’t right. He was lying back, and she had her legs on top of him, and her arm around his neck. She smiled at me and welcomed me over.
The closer I got, the easier it was to see that the Scaffolder was in distress. Jenny was mopping his brow with a piece of crumpled tissue, and his eyes were filled with tears. I started an awkward conversation, and established to my satisfaction that they’d gotten the breakfast I left them on Sunday morning. Jenny told me it was as though the Christmas fairy had come, which was very sweet.
The Scaffolder, who had been murmuring in Polish, and crying, suddenly lurched up, and asked me if I could get him “a fucking gun”. I was alarmed and tried to laugh it off, telling him that I couldn’t. Jenny’s face drew in as she told me that he’d been having a bad day, and had been asking to kill himself all afternoon. His eyes were still on my face, then he rolled them and suddenly slammed his head back against the glass of the shop window. Hard.
Jenny slapped him and told him very sternly that he couldn’t do that, because he’d put his head through it, and she couldn’t afford to pay for the window to be fixed. Then she snuggled him in as tears leaked from his eyes again, and she kissed the top of his head, telling him to punch the concrete if he had to, cos they could get his hand fixed for free.
I asked what they needed – an umbrella to keep the sun off – they were burning up. That was easy enough, and later I returned with a white one, hoping that it would reflect the sun’s rays. Success. As soon as it was up, the temperature was noticeably different, and Jenny shuffled around on the nest of bags and bedding, trying to shade herself and her friend.
I hunkered down to chat and hear more of her wisdom.
She told me that whilst the streets aren’t kind to anyone, there are some people who just really aren’t cut out for it. The Scaffolder, with his shattered ribs, smashed skull, PTSD, depression and alcoholism, is one of those not suited. Really not suited. I naively asked why he couldn’t get treatment, and Jenny explained that in order to be treated, there were expectations for him to detox, but the alcohol is the only thing which allows him to cope with the mental and physical agony he’s in. He won’t even take paracetamol, she told me, because he’s paranoid about it – last time he went to hospital, he freaked out and ran away, with his catheter still attached to his arm, and the police were sent after him. She told them to take the catheter out and fuck off.
She told me he wants to die three or four times a week. She told me he’s fine as long as she’s there to stop him shouting abuse at people in the streets and trying to harm himself. She told me he flinches when buses pass by too loudly. She told me that this morning he swore at a nine year-old child, whose mother was incredibly upset, and (fortunately for the Scaffolder) whose father wasn’t present. She told me that love is crazy but she never knew how crazy until she fell for a homeless, fucked up alcoholic, 18 years her junior, who didn’t speak English. She told me she needed him to get drunk later and pass out quickly, so that she could get a few hours respite from him.
I heard about how the council and social workers are supposed to be finding them a roof over their heads, which is what they desperately need. I learned that the police vary in attitude, and that some are cool, and some try to bully them. I was told there is a handbook for policemen on the beat, which Jenny wants to get, so she can call their bullshit when they try to cite non-existent rules to intimidate her. I shook my head in sadness at her recounting their experience when a friend said he could stay with them, and upon meeting them, his wife immediately backed out and said they couldn’t. I flinched when she relayed that a woman had walked past and loudly called them “scum”.
Throughout the conversation, the Scaffolder’s hand inched closer to me, as I sat next to his untidy, pain-wracked sprawl. Eventually he slid his hand into mine and held it. Periodically he held my gaze, with watery, bright-hazelgreen eyes, and begged me to help him die. Every so often he would try to join in the conversation. Once, he laughed as I blew away a fly which crawled along my arm and tickled me. Intermittently he would drag himself upright and bellow in fear at the noise of some machinery being used across the street.
Jenny mopped away the sweat and gave him sips of drink (I didn’t ask what). The Scaffolder alternately wept, bellowed, or murmured intelligibly. I stroked his hand, which still held tight to mine. He locked his gaze onto mine and indicated Jenny, informing me “My mum. My mum”, with such love and pride in his voice that she visibly glowed. Then he slumped back, whimpering.
Eventually I arranged that I would bring tea for Jenny in the morning, and said I needed to go and get a Thermos to keep it warm and transport it in. She didn’t want a flask to keep, because she has so much to carry. But if I bring her tea, that would be wonderful. And I can do that.
As I was preparing to leave, the machinery started again and the Scaffolder dragged himself upright in a temper and lurched off, sans shoes, to yell at them from the roadside. Jenny fetched him as I gathered my bag and cycle helmet, and he came back, apologising to me for his behaviour and asking if he was the reason I was going. He indicated that I should sit back down with him, but when I told him I would come back another time, he gave me a hug and consented to sit with Jenny again.
Until this month, I had vague ideas about being nice to homeless people on principle, and treating them as human beings, and trying to help them when I could, because it’s the right thing to do.
Until this week, I didn’t know how strong my determination and desire was to support this very vulnerable sector of society, even though I’d recently hit upon the someday idea of opening a hostel for homeless trans people (thereby actively engaging with and helping two very marginalised and overlooked sets of people).
Until today, I never understood the sometimes minute-to-minute pain that homelessness can bring, and I suspect I haven’t begun to plumb the depths of understanding.
Until this afternoon, I had no comprehension of the scale of the problem homeless people face – I mean, I had some idea, but no – nothing akin to my new knowledge of this utterly insurmountable, hostile bureaucracy mountain they have to try to climb.
Until approximately 4.30pm on this day, the pieces of my life were…if not comfortable, at least safe and convenient.
Until all those untils, the sun shone differently and I didn’t have these two wonderful, messy, broken people in my heart:
Jenny, and her fallen Scaffolder.
Whose name is Gabriel.