I stood in the queue with all the other down-and-outs, wondering whether the food tasted as awful as it looked.
It was a pretty dispiriting scene: a large church hall, stinking of unwashed bodies and misery. We shuffled forwards slowly, coughing, burping and grunting to each other.
I’d made a few friends today. Max, who’d been a roofer, until he’d fallen from a height and injured his spine, so that he forever walked with a limp and was unable to climb ladders. Losing his work meant that he’d soon lost his flat and then his marriage went by the wayside. And Bob, who used to work in a bank but had a problem with alcohol, so that he lost everything that mattered to him apart from the occasional shot of booze.
I’d soon learnt that my comrades and acquaintances who were euphemistically were referred to as having ‘no fixed abode’, weren’t all at rock bottom because of alcoholism, drug addiction or just sheer bad luck. A very few of the others had actually adapted well to the life to the extent that it was almost second nature, and they’d probably have found ordinary living and a nine-to-five job, more of a struggle than life on the streets.
And you know there really is quite a network of good people who help us. It always warms my heart to see a new face behind the steaming tea urn or the boiling pans and food-filled plates. Sometimes it’s a youngish person, mucking in and doing the humdrum duties, often it’s the silver haired ladies and gents, the newly retired I like to think, rolling their sleeves up and doing what they can to help us unfortunates. The nicest ones call you ‘mate’ or ‘love’ like they mean it, and you can almost bask in the warmth of the kindness in their eyes as they beam at you.
I’ve been to all the different places in town: the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters, the food bank, the Salvation Army hostel. Word gets around amongst us about the places to go for a warm-up or a bite to eat. Because, believe it or not, most of us who’ve experienced life at the sharp end have got to know pleasures many people never know about. Mainly it’s the joy you get from sharing the little you have with others, whether it’s buying a few cans when some kind punter has dropped a tenner your way, or putting the word out about a new shelter that’s started up when the rain’s begun to pelt down. Most of us look out for the youngsters and the vulnerable ones – especially the young girls. Many’s the time I’ve put the frighteners on some bastard who’s tried to force his attentions on some poor defenceless kid, and other guys have done the same.
What I disliked most when I started on this lark was the bad hygiene and the smells and the squalor. Who would have thought that the use of a private bathroom would be an impossible-to-attain luxury? I like being clean, me, I used to be fastidious about cleanliness in the old days.
All the volunteers are friendly, but there’s often this invisible barrier when they talk to you, know what I mean? Some of them might ask you about your circumstances, but you’d never dream of asking about theirs.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t like that with Molly. I liked her the moment I first saw her, stirring a large pan of stew. Molly looked to be in her sixties, about my own age, with lots of hair, lovely freckles, and the kind of great big genuine smile that warms your heart.
Molly and I got chatting that same evening she first arrived at the soup kitchen. After a while I felt as if I knew her well. She even told me all about the replacement hip operation she’d had in the summer, and how well she’d recovered from it.
“I’ve never lived in an ordinary little house or a flat,” I didn’t mind admitting to her. “In fact I don’t usually stay in one place for long.”
“Not like me then. I’ve been a real stick-in-the-mud. My husband was a solicitor,” she confided in me. “We had a comfortable life really – I worked as a secretary in London until I retired. Hugo was quite a bit older than me, so I suppose we both expected him to die first.”
“You’re not like the others, are you?” I said to her. “They never tell us about their lives, I suppose they think we’d be jealous of your good fortune. But it isn’t like that. You have your life, we have ours. We don’t get jealous. In fact some of the guys here enjoy living on the street.”
“Do they?” she said.
“Yes. There’s companionship at least. How many rich widows and widowers do you reckon there are, living alone with all the money they’ll ever need, but no one to talk to?”
“That’s very true,” she agreed.
And then we began to chat about all kinds of things: our families, my divorce, politics, history, current affairs, putting the world to rights. Molly and I met up the following day, and all the time she had for her breaks she spent with me. Same happened next day and the day after. I got to look forward to our chats. In fact talking to Molly was the highlight of my day.
After the weekend I went the soup kitchen, looking forward to seeing her, but she wasn’t there. I was really disappointed. But I reckoned that she’d probably got bored and found some other voluntary activity to occupy her time.
That’s when I decided to pack it all in.
What on earth was the point in going on at my age? Might as well give it all up now, for I’d suffered long enough. End it all. Take the easy way out.
But as I was leaving, never to come back, having made the momentous decision to end it all, I saw her in the distance, rushing up towards me.
“Barry!” she called out, slightly out of breath. “I’m so glad I’ve caught up with you. I left that place. I didn’t really get on with the others. They told me I was too familiar with our ‘clients’, and I had to ‘maintain a distance’. I told them to stuff their job.”
“Good for you.”
“But I’ve been thinking. In our chats you’ve made me realise how unfair life is. That you can’t get a job or claim benefits if you haven’t got an address, and you can’t get a room if you haven’t got an income. Well, the thing is, I’ve got a spare room, if you’d like to stay with me. It really upset me when you were telling me about the indignity of life, not being able to keep clean. You’d have privacy. Your own room, use of kitchen and bathroom. And with a proper address you could claim the benefits you’re entitled to.”
“That’s really kind of you, Molly.” I felt so choked with emotion that I found it hard to speak. “But I won’t be taking you up on your offer.”
“Oh!” Her face fell. “Why not?”
“Well the thing is, you see, I really can’t accept your charity.”
“But it’s nothing to do with charity!” She said angrily. “I want to help you because I like you. I like your company!”
“And I like yours. But I’ve made my decision.”
“Are you certain?”
“Absolutely. Oh Molly, by the way, what make of hip replacement did you have?”
“Hip replacement?” She was still angry, the twin red spots on her cheeks still prominent. “I think they said it was a Winterhalter unit. A newer type apparently. Why?”
“It is one of mine then! From the way you walked so well so soon after the op. I can always tell.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“I retired as a consultant orthopaedic surgeon six years ago to produce the hip replacement units I’d invented, and you’ve got one of mine. They sold rather well all over the world. I became a multi-millionaire and retired, but I wanted to do something worthwhile with my money, so I spent this year researching the best charities to support and work with. I reckoned that the best way to really find out which would benefit best was by testing them out at the sharp end. And I decided just now that I’ve learnt all I’m ever going to.”
Molly’s mouth fell open even wider.
“So thank you Molly, but I don’t want to move into your spare room, because I’ve already got a rather embarrassingly large detached mansion of my own. It’s strange but in addition to researching exactly how best to use my money when I sell it and move somewhere smaller, I rather hoped I might also be lucky enough to meet a nice woman to share my life with, who likes me for myself and wasn’t just interested in my money, like all the others. I think perhaps I’ve succeeded on both scores, don’t you?”