Shadow Lives

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I opened my eyes onto red brick. Long since I had opened them onto anything more. I pulled myself upright, which was somewhat difficult and stared across the road at galvanised steel. Nothing. A spider with a body like a tiny black pin prick whispered across the grey, concrete step and disappeared into a hole. The bricks were full of them: holes and indents, broken corners and worn edges. I’d loved the coarse, uneven surface of bricks as a kid. The rugged exterior of the outside juxtaposed with the more streamlined interior within. My head throbbed and my thin legs hummed with cramp. No surprise, shut-eye for even a couple of hours, disturbed at that, involved making yourself as small as possible, trying to hide, to be unseen, to be invisible. I’d slept with my knees dragged up to my chest in a canvas bag for three hours, an old peach towel, damp too, for a pillow. The bag was sodden because nothing dries out, not out here, damp a tapestry seared into your skin. Rain was the worst to contend with, worse than long cold spells or ice cold snow blizzards. Even when streets were puffed up with snow, you could find a doorway, a small, square patch, clear in which to get some shelter. Snow as a kid always seemed a treat. We waited for the temperature to drop then warm up ever so slightly, staring up into white, compacted clouds, waiting for the first dusting of magic. Perfectly crisp snow without dirtied footprints seemed virginal and innocent and mysteriously silent like the streets of a Christmas morning. Now everything was different;, my life had moved on like a snow drift, just not to a better place. Rain, unlike snow, was different. Tenacious, persistent. It ran down walls, trickled between bricks, seeped into cracks and slopped at doorways. It soaked sleeping bags and rucksacks, stiff thin blankets, old sheets and spare dirty clothes. It made a mockery of cardboard.

Needing a moment to rub the cramp from my knees, I twisted this way and that, pushed a leg against the glass facade of W.H Smith’s. My worn and battered Reeboks, no laces, seemed an affront to their crisp, bright window display. Shiny new books showing off their jazzy front covers and decorated spines: a biography of Prince William, an A-Z of the Kings and Queens of England, a book comprising a selection of aerial photo’s of the Monarchy’s royal estates, another, a sort of pop-up book of the inside of Buckingham palace. Expensive teddy bears with tiny white t-shirts, sporting red St Georges Crosses, packets of bunting, playing cards, tacky mugs with the soon to be king and Queen on. Can’t remember the last time I bought anything from a shop; the odd packet of cigarettes and a box of matches from a newsagents, a can of cheap, sweet cider from Tesco, hoping for a few seconds of respite. Consumption is a luxury and so is time, so I stopped working out the cramp and stood up – legs and feet still twisted like an arthritic old woman’s swollen limbs. Pushing everything into my torn blue rucksack, I hobbled across the road, and round the back of the fast food joint. At this time of a morning, they usually throw out stuff: stale bread and round buns, thin soggy chips, sugary cakes gone hard round the edges, sometimes greasy burgers. We all rush around and grab what we can. It can be a bit of a free-for-all. I have been whacked in the face numerous times. Fought on the floor, all arms and legs, trying to hold on to my breakfast. Ripping apart a burger with metallic tasting blood running from your nostrils and smearing your lips is an exquisite sort of agony

“Adu, aar kid.” This is Bob. He pulled open the bin. I looked inside. It smelt bad. Really bad. Bob was six foot with peppery grey hair and a pink fleshy scar on his forehead. He wore faded black trousers, scuffed brown boots, and an old green parka with a dull orange lining. The bin was mostly filled with boxes, wrappers and reams of cellophane, though I did find a half box of soggy looking chips, which we shared together, sitting on a low brick wall, as rain pricked at our faces. They were wet and soggy but would have to do.
“Yow werkin’?”
“Yeah, going up. Made quite a bit yesterday at the back of House of Frazer.”
Bob shuffled his feet. “Geaus nowt. “
“A lot will stay in today I reckon, watch it on television.” I hadn’t watched a television in years, wouldn’t even know what I was watching now. Mum used to like soaps, Corrie and a hot cup of tea, a couple of ginger nut biscuits on a white saucer. Dad pretended to like everything but really he would be asleep behind his perfectly straight newspaper.
“Wernit Balham?”
“Manchester originally. But yeah, Balham.”
“Daynt ave accent.”
“Been on the streets, it washes it away.” I laughed to myself and hitched my rucksack up onto my shoulder.

People always assumed streets were quiet during the night and in the early morning. Believed because they put their own little lights out, crawled into warm beds with dry sheets and plump pillows, everyone else was on lock-down, too. It wasn’t true. Streets in a city: places of reinforced concrete and glass fronted exteriors, multi-storey car parks, sprawling department stores, hotels and pubs, shops and sloppy fast food were never quiet. People fell out of pubs, often drunk, wanting to fight someone, anyone, couples clip-clopped to hotels for the night, taxis left and returned on a constant loop; there were ever-growing rowdy queues for chips and burgers. Girls screamed after too much to drink, boys fought over the same hysterical girls, as if intoxicated belligerence was a win. There were fights and screams, whoops and loud banter, jagged threats and shuffling feet, and often running feet, and by the time it all stopped and you hoped for a moments lull, a moments sleep – the sun unfurled itself from behind doughy, white clouds and birds, those little Avian Dinosaurs that I adored as a kid, would break out into high-pitched song, fill the air with repetitive melodies that felt like fire to the senses.

It’s even noisier today. All night the bunting had whipped and crackled on the wind and road sweepers were out earlier than usual unclogging gutters. We might not be in London, but we were still making the most of it. A enormous silver screen stood outside The Bullring attached to a giant steel scaffold and parts of the pedestrianized area had been cordoned off. Soon, it was obviously thought, hundreds would arrive, directed by police and security in high-vis to appropriate areas. It made me feel mildly optimistic. I might make some more money: the quiet hope of perhaps ordering a milky coffee in a Cafe or buying some chips or even making enough to get a night in a hostel.

“Wat time you goin up, Dom?” Michelle bounded across from behind a cookie shop. She wore a white shell suit with pink stripes, holes in both legs and a grey baseball cap on her head. Her hair beneath it was brown and curled with grease.
“On my way, I’m early but have nothing else to do.”
Michelle jumped in front of me and poked me with a bitten yellow finger nail.”Got any?”
“I’ve stopped doing it, six weeks.” I had. Weed was starting to make me feel paranoid, off kilter, it was better to try and quit, although being homeless and ‘with it’ was harsh emotionally.
“I need sum, though.”
I laughed. “Honestly, I’ve stopped.”
“What ya laughin at?”
“Nothing, don’t believe me, but I’m not lying.”
“Yow always doin’ it, I see ya at the back of that shop, lightin’ up one the other day.”
“That was a roll-up a passer by gave me, just tobacco.”
“Nah, Dom, ya lyin to me. To me?” Michelle clicked her teeth and stalked about in a circle. I wasn’t bothered by Michelle but the others she hung out with could get tricky, especially if she told them I had weed.
“Look I have to go. I haven’t got any, I will try and find some for you though, deal?” She stared at me intently, came right up in my face so I could smell her breath. The smell of beer coupled with the fusty stink of tobacco. Time seemed to stop, would she accept or scoot off to get the others. My heart strummed with anxiety.
“Well, okay then.” Her voice had softened and she hugged me, patted me on the back. It didn’t make me feel better.

We would pick the magazine up from behind the Catholic church, an old factory converted into offices. You would buy what you could afford then make so much on each copy you sold to the public. I got to the church at 8am. The offices predictably stood in darkness, except the top windows, silver beneath the sun’s cool gaze. I crossed the road to the park. It looked empty. Yellow grass stubbed with crisp packets and pop cans. A water feature no longer a feature. There were swings, slides, a sew-saw and a climbing frame encircled by a cracked painted blue fence. It all looked tired and depressed, as if childlike joy had lost its footing. Maybe too many teenagers sat on the slide smoking weed, one two many drunks had licked the wood chippings on a hot summers day.

Waiting is hard, so I sat on the swing, focused on the doors opening whilst I tried to forget. When I first landed on the streets in the Summer of 2006, I had no idea what it would be like. All kids struggle with their parents. They want the best for you long term, you want the best for you in any given moment. My father was an accountant. If you think they are dull, you’re right. He walked around with a frown all day, in a cheap grey suit and wore his black hair in a side parting which made his scalp look alabaster white and only ever conversed about numbers. My mother worked part-time as a receptionist at the local doctors surgery. She became so proud of her phone voice, she took to speaking like it all the time, a sort of shrill accentuation of every word that gave everyone a headache. Mum was nice though, until she kicked me out.

I scored fifteen, a mammoth victory, compared to the eight I usually picked up. They came in a transparent button-down folder which I shoved under my arm as the others jostled in the queue behind me. A sort of low-level sense of threat that made your head buzz. The magazine had been going for years, started out as just a pamphlet, black and white, two sides. Never thought about everything having a trajectory before the streets, everything changing from thing to another, but not always in a linear fashion.

Trudging back the way I came, in my worn trainers, feeling the cold sensation of sweat under my armpits, the greasy sliver across my ribs, I chose a spot, right outside Primark. If it rained, – an elbow of leaden cloud was on the move in a white-washed sky, the sun all but gone – I could get some shelter. No point, anyway, selling a left-wing magazine outside high-end shops and boutiques: they think you’re a cockroach, hardy and common, creeping into flawless homes and sterile lives. No, stay with the working class, try and crack through their cheap, faux leather. I had imagined crowds, masses, thought I might make a killin’ but people were too interested in Prince William. His head bald like the souls of my shoes, but he had a crown to hide his threadbare scalp.

“Please don’t stand here.” A women wearing a black raincoat skewered me with her stare. She had silver Dior glasses and a mardy looking face.
“Just tryin’ to make a living”.
“You are not here to celebrate the coronation though, are you?”
“Look. I’m selling these.” I pointed at them, gave her a twirl of my transparent folder. Her eyes bounced off the corners as if she might catch something.
“I will have you removed.”
‘Love, it’s all legit. Give me a break.” This happens all the time. I feel like saying “You dirty Slag” in a loud cockney accent but I don’t or at least I didn’t think I did.
“Excuse me, what did you call me?”
“Nowt, Bint.”

I did get a small, milky coffee and a carton of chips that day but didn’t make enough for a bed. Wound up in the doorway of W.H Smith again. Cramp in my limbs and wet through the skin. Weird what you get attached when living like this. When the coronation was over, screens taken away, bunting removed, I missed the energy, the people; the palatable sense of excitement and expectation that thrummed the air. I had nothing to look forward to, every day the same as the one before, a perfect replica of monotony and pig-headed survival.

“Dom, a man, he came, looking he was, for you.” This is Paul, has some sort of mental illness, talks to himself a lot. I don’t know whether someone is looking for me or it’s all occurring inside his head.
“Who’s that then?” He stumbles around as if the voices are so chaotic they prevent him from having any physical coordination.
“A man, a man.” Paul seems excited. He can be often upset, sometimes agitated, nice to see him lit up with a grin. He attempts a sort of skip and trips over his too long, corduroy trousers, ends up tangled up on the floor. Let’s out a groan.
“C’mon mate.” Pulling him to his feet, he gives me a wide grin and his cheeks glow a sort of washed-out pink.
“Daddy, he’s coming.”
Making sure Paul is okay, I head off. My head has started hurting again, and I have to go and get my days copies.

Time slows down on the street, it passes by in the slowest of increments, takes on a monster like guise, grows bigger and bigger in your head as you wait for it to pass. You don’t realise how important routine is when you have it, how it manages all your hours and minutes and seconds, spooning out just the right amount of activity from one moment to the next. When I was younger, when I had homework to do after school and had started going out with mates to play football, I found my parents too strict, felt hemmed in and manipulated by the time restraints and demands they imposed. I wish I had them now, would give anything to write an essay in one of those little exercise books whose back cover I would graffiti or go for a kick about over the field.

It could have been a Tuesday, I think it might have been. I had been up to get my magazines in the pouring rain, had wrapped myself in a black bin liner I found stuffed in a bin. Only managed seven, so knew I would be struggling, but I wasn’t too bothered. Maybe once I’d have been vexed but you become hardened out here, like the weather I suppose. I met Gareth, another homeless guy, he’d been out here longer than me, fifteen years. Years that had ruined him, the exuberant optimism of youth crushed like rose petals beneath a time-worn, heavy foot. We shared a smoke sitting on his crumpled makeshift bed and he gave me a bottle of sticky orange pop which I wrapped in the bag and stuffed in my rucksack. Six years ago, the arches were my dumping ground too, but I’d got beaten up one night, new face I guess, and even though they welcome me back now, I prefer to stay away, the jagged scar under my chin a stark reminder. Better on my own.

“Dom?” I heard the voice. The sort memories are made of, the sort that carve you up inside if you let them. I turned, slowly, really, really slowly and looked at him. Six years had blended his face, made it less distinct. Rounder now and redder except for the jowls that hung like a flat tyre. His moustache had turned on him, grey flecked with white and his side parting had no side to take care of any more; just a smooth egg with a few grey wisps that waved in the wind.
“What can I do for you, old man?’
He came towards me with a smile. I never knew he could smile. I didn’t even know him any more, just another face in a crowd and this saddened me and released me at the same time. Maybe it would be easier now.
‘It’s your mum.”
“Yeah?” Always the Achilles heel.
“Look, I’ve been searching for weeks, Dom, asking around, you know.’
“Yeah, someone said.”
“It’s cancer.”
“What is?”
“Your mum, Dom..”
“Mum?”
“Yes, look I know it’s hard, but when she became sick she asked, begged me in fact, to find you. Bring you home.”
“Why?”
“She wants to say goodbye and –”
“I’ve been waiting six years for a simple hello.”

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