You can never guess who will be next through the door of the charity where I work. We do drugs and veterans and food parcels. The hours of the days ease along quietly. Time is broken down into segments by the ringing of the bell over the front door. Door opens and the bell rings. Not an electrical thing. Old style.
Maybe it is someone we have known a while. And maybe they have come to say things are getting better. Life is more liveable. Or maybe it is a new person ringing the bell for the very first time
Some come in with body language screaming with embarrassment. Their eyes tell the story of a life that has unravelled so very quickly: too quickly. One minute things are going along like just they always have done. Then something happens. An event. Some news. Something unexpected. That dreaded first domino that sets off a time of calamity. Expressions ask how has it come to this? And sometimes they will tell us whilst we do the paperwork and fill a food parcel. A sneak preview of a fractured life. The back story to needing a food parcel from a place like ours. Tales of crash and burn. Of a world that has gone dark. Of benefits that haven’t come through and families who have turned their backs.
So it is for an hour on a dead and buried rainy afternoon. Outside the pavements are quiet. Gutters gurgle. Shopkeepers dream of the holidays they had once taken when times were better. Buses with three passengers splash by. Like Paul Newman said in ‘Cool Hand Luke’.
“You know how it is. Small towns. Nothing much to do in the evenings. And mainly we’re just settling old scores…”
Ring a ding ding.
Two women. One in her forties. One twenty or so years her junior. Both in clothes that speak of better times. Both give off a sense of dejection. The older one steps forward first, a slip of paper in hand. The referral slip is from Women’s Aid. The paper tells the usual story. So very usual in fact that it is barely worth telling. Benefits delayed. No money for food. And of course it is hard to be sensible and make a solid contingency plan for the moment your partner flips out and beats the living daylights out of you. She apologises and requests no chicken meatballs. She just can’t eat any more chicken meatballs. Which suggests that this isn’t the first time she has been in for a one of our food parcels. The benefits must have been in the post for a while. Long enough for her to for her to come to hate chicken meatballs from Lidl. Now the younger companion chips in. Can I have mine without chicken meatballs as well please? Same story. And no doubt in the years to come the sight of a tin of meatballs will bring forth memories of the dark time.
The bell rings as they depart with their meatball-less carrier bags. And the phone rings. A veteran client. His life was fractured in a split second on a
corner in the early 70’s. Maybe it was raining. He has never said. One minute he
was counting down the slow hours to the end of road block duty. And then the
crack of a sniper’s rifle turned his life on its head. The bullet went straight
through the neck of his pal who was standing a foot away. Then it was chaos and
panic and gushing blood and a frantic fireman’s lift. All to no avail. Just
another young dead British squaddie added to a list that grew and grew for
another quarter of a century.
And time passed.
The IMF saved our bacon. Bobby Sands faded away. Maggie Thatcher had her hour upon the stage. People got mobile phones. But the memory of the slit second never went away. It came back every night. Over and over and over and over. Until the man on the phone could live with it no more and sought help. Which of course is a good thing. More to the point it is working, And now he feels the way to at last walk clear from that fateful street corner in
Belfast is to return to that very same street corner in . To look it in
the eye. To finally try to fix a fractured life. To do what Humpy Dumpty
couldn’t manage. The call is all about arrangements. Details. One of our lads
is making the trip across the water with him. To share it. They will be two middle age
guys on a street corner and no-one will think to give them a second glance.
Because the world always moves on. Belfast
The call ends and bell on the door says ‘next’.
He more or less marches in. How old? Impossible to say. Might be forty. Might be sixty. He carries that smell of alcohol every day. All day. His clothes are outdoor clothes. Well worn. But not as well worn as the face. It is one of those faces that has seen a lot of weather. And a lot of life. He has a well filled rucksack on his back and kind eyes and a ready smile. I wait for the food parcel slip but none is forthcoming. Instead he is in the market for advice. Things have taken a turn for the worse. At first he was sure that landing in
represented a step forward. Finding a place on the edge of town to pitch his
tent had not been a problem. Even better, he had discovered a church where free
soup and bread was served every afternoon by people who were as kind as any he
had met. Life was on an up. And then just like everything that goes up, it had
gone down. Some kids have set his tent on fire and burnt it to ash. Someone at
the church has come good and given him a replacement tent. But he has lost
confidence. Lost faith. How can you pitch your tent in a place where the kids
come along and burn it down? How indeed. He has heard of a Buddhist place in
the hills. A sanctuary far away from arson hungry kids. Would he be able to go
there? Would they let him camp? I have no idea. I make a call. The answer is
maybe. It all depends on what skills he can bring to the table. Has he any
skills? Not really. Just a willingness to graft. He explains he is a man of the
islands of the north which goes some way to explaining that face. He used to
dig peat for a living. Long days out in the unforgiving Atlantic wind with the
distant cries from a Kittiwake colony.
And our discussion is broken by the bell, more urgent this time.
A young woman with trauma written all over her. I know her. I’ve known her for a while. Two years ago she was one half of what looked like being a happy ending. She had hooked up with one of our regulars and had helped him defy all expectations and turn everything around. For a while things had looked so very promising for them both. A nice house. Two lovely kids. A future to step into. Then came a lapse and too many blue valium and my client was gone before he would see twenty three candles on his birthday cake.
One life gone. One life fractured.
Kids away to family and everything coming apart at the seams. And now here she is with the kind of eyes that once upon a time kids from small American towns had when they returned from week long search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta. She says she doesn’t know what to do. Everything is garbled. She says she needs help. What kind of help? She can’t seem to work out what help she really needs. Maybe a food parcel or something? But it is pretty clear that a food parcel ain't going to cut it. Maybe a cup of tea? A few deep breaths and time to calm down a bit? OK. Maybe that. I give my Island Man in the rucksack a kind of ‘is that OK with you’ look and he nods to say ‘course it’s OK’. We get half way up the stairs when the front door crashes open.
How old? Maybe 25. A baseball cap and a face to chop wood with. Angry eyes and angry words. He shouts her like he is shouting a disobedient dog taking a shit on the pavement. What the fuck does she think she is doing? She looks at me and shakes her head. Trembling now. So I leave her on the stairs and return to the counter. My Island Man is making a show of studying our shelf of second hand books on sale to the public at £1 each. The angry baseball cap demands to know what is going on and I tell him that is confidential and maybe he might like to tone it down a bit. The veins stand out on his bony face and I am glad the counter is high enough to make a lunge tricky. Island Man is tensed and ready. I suggest to the baseball cap that maybe the best thing is if he waits outside? He obviously doesn’t rate this idea much at all. But what else to do? He wonders aloud what the fuck is going on and then exits with a crash of the door. Island Man grins and gives me a ‘phew’ sort on a look. I nod in agreement and go back up the stairs. Tea? Sugar? But she never gets to say how many sugars because the door has slammed open again and her master's voice is demanding she gets the fuck downstairs. I tell her that she doesn’t need to go anywhere. He can be sent outside and we can see what we can do to help. But the moment has passed. She is just too beaten. It is thank you, but no. Every square inch of her is shaking as she tip toes back down the stairs whilst he demands to know what the fuck she thinks she is doing. I remind her that we are always here and she nods and says she knows and follows him out of the door like a beaten dog.
The Island Man returns to the counter with sadness deepening the lines of his all weather face. He says that he thought it best not to leave. Just in case. I thank him. I tell him that we are well enough used to this kind of thing. But what can you do? He gives the closed door a thousand yard stare and shakes his head.
“He’s a very angry man so he is. He’s going give that little girl a real beating so he is.”
A statement of fact.
But what can you do?
And with a last shake of his head he reaches out a calloused hand for shaking and leaves to take a bus to the place where a small piece of
Tibet lives and breathes in South
On a quiet rainy afternoon.
In a quiet rainy world of fractured lives.