How one life was lived

On Saturday in Heavitree, I came across these flowers. Just outside the Co-op was Graham’s spot. He was the Big Issue man and we often said hello.

While I was there, two very elderly ladies came along, both knew him well and said he’d been around Heavitree for at least fifteen years,always had a smile on his face and never a bad word.

I believe that Graham had been homeless for many years, but I don’t know which of the night stops he visited.
He always seemed healthy, so it was a total surprise that he’d passed away. He was probably around my age, there but for fortune . . . .

Just a couple of weeks before he died he was given a flat, too little too late. Graham’s cheerful presence covered a very different reality, he must have had serious mental health problems, because he threw himself in front of a train.

Rest in peace Graham, I wish I’d taken more time to speak to you.


Rough Sleeping Season, a reprise

Some of you may be wondering about our ‘rough sleeper of the copse’. I met friend for post Christmas lunch today, swapped pressies (a nice scarf and some smellies) and got an update. Ten days before Christmas there had been one very cold night – for some reason it’s always several degrees colder in the empty but beautiful countryside east of Exeter – so friend and husband were quite concerned. Rough sleeper hadn’t been seen since the original meet. In fact friend was glad that husband had seen the tents, to confirm that he hadn’t been a figment of her crumpet-stupored-post-work-sofa-snooze, uh, sit down, particularly as the police hadn’t been able to find him.

News came that the hunt were meeting. Friend has had her garden trampled several times by arrogant pink jacketed t*****s, and their packs of hounds, so knew there was a fair chance they would bulldoze their way through the copse as well. Rough sleeper’s camp wouldn’t stand a chance, so they strolled across to check and warn him.

Beside the camp there were a couple of bikes which explained why he hadn’t been seen, obviously quick ins and outs were possible. They were greeted by a young man in his early twenties, but a different one, equally friendly and happy to chat. One of the tents was firmly zipped shut, presumably containing rough sleeper number one.  Number two was grateful for the information and said they were about to move on anyway. A bit later they were seen wheeling their bikes and backpacks across the motorway bridge, off to pastures new.

Questions still remain. Who are they and why they choose to live/travel as they do? It’s a lot less appealing than biking around France picking grapes or backpacking in some tropical beach paradise. If you are homeless but have company, perhaps the countryside is a safer choice than the inner city. It could be some sort of self imposed endurance test, a rite of passage. They could have rode off to join the Occupy people,

I much prefer to think of them spending Christmas in the bosom of their families, but at least we know they are okay.

Rough Sleeping Season?

I can’t help wondering about him. There was a knock on a friend’s door a couple of weeks ago, quite a rare occurrence as she lives out in the boondocks, eight miles from the city centre with just a very light sprinkling of other cottages around. There was enough light left to see the shape, not large enough to be worrying, of a man through the half glass door that she opened.

‘You left your keys in the door.’ he said handing them to her with an open faced smile.

It could have been a bluff but she took it as a sign that he was okay-ish as he hadn’t just barged in, attacked her with a blunt instrument and left with the family treasure. He held out two large containers and asked for some water ‘for the dogs, we’ve been for a long walk and forgot to bring them a drink.’ Friend looked behind him and there were no dogs to be seen, but thought there should have been at least a hunts worth of beagles to need that much water.

‘They’re down the lane in the car with my mum,’ he was quick to read her thoughts. ‘Of course you can have water,’ and grabbing a torch, she led him to the garden tap as he chatted, with a pleasant educated voice. He looked a bit untidy, dishevelled, but not dirty. She was more puzzled than anxious as he said goodbye and once he was out of sight she followed him down the drive, about sixty feet into the hedged lane. There was no dog filled car nor was there a mother, young man or a single soul to be seen in either direction. Mystified and wondering if her post work crumpets by the fire had sent her to sleep, she ‘phoned her husband who told her to give the neighbours just along the lane a call. Brian, a retired police officer put his investigating hat on and with friends responses deduced that the water carrier was possibly a rough sleeper who could be bunking down in the copse across the road.

Slightly less retired local community police were called and apparently came out to shine a few lights into the copse but found no-one.  Friend made sure that her keys were on the right side of the locked door for the next couple of nights. She couldn’t forget the young man though, it wasn’t particularly cold but there had been quite heavy rain.

The weekend came and friend and husband decided to walk over to the copse to check. It’s not a place that gets visited, it’s too small to be a woodland walk but they go in the spring when it’s carpeted with bluebells. Their lack of faith in the local police investigation was confirmed when a couple of hundred yards in they found water carriers lair. Just two pop up tents, a washing line tied between the trees and not enough belongings to be a mess, but no one at home.

They didn’t linger, it felt intrusive somehow to be looking at his hidden world. But they were concerned about his well being. They thought about returning with some hot food, but in the end decided that unless they could keep it up for the entire winter, it was best not started. When he’d knocked on the door requesting water she had told him ‘No problem anytime’ but there were no further visits so he may have moved on. The weather remains mild, 10-12 degrees, no frost but quite a lot of rain since he was there. But who was he? And what brought him there? It’s Christmas, would you want to be in his shoes?

I can’t help wondering about him.

Around the Charity in Thirty Minutes

There was a middle aged man sat on the ground outside the post office when I walked past on my way to the cemetery with the dogs. Scruffy, unkempt, unwashed and down and out. I made eye contact because I hate ignoring people – but maybe doing so was patronising? His eyes saw me blankly before we both looked away. He had a bottle of supermarket white cider half empty beside him, it was 9.45 am. I had never seen him or any other homeless person around my neighbourhood before but times are hard and services have been cut.

I went on into the graveyard, pulled the dogs away from the squirrel hunting spot just inside the gate and headed towards the 1887 theatre fire monument. There behind it I saw a fresh grave with the biggest, most ostentatious pile of wreathes and bouquets I had ever seen. I was instantly stuck by the contrast; our society’s caring more for the dead than the living. I did a quick calculation, there were about 25-30 lots of flowers there, some very expensive, others less so, but about £500 must have been spent. Enough to feed that guy, put him in a hostel for a month and get him some new clothes.

When I die I want a cardboard box coffin or better still a silk sleeping bag liner. I do not want anyone to bring more than one white lily to my funeral; if they want to spend money then they can give it to a charity. How do you choose which charity is most needy these days? They say that charity begins at home and if so then that homeless man and many others like him are right on the doorstep. Alcohol though, many would consider that he does not deserve charity. It’s easy to judge isn’t it? He’s brought his troubles on himself, he’s hit the booze and pissed it against the wall hasn’t he? How often do we stop to ask the cause? Who knows what despair has brought him to the gutter by Ladysmith Road Post Office?

I will always give to cancer charities, like many people I have lost family and friends to the creeping devil disease. The NSPCC have benefited recently when my friend and I had a craft table at a country fair and I regularly get caught for sponsorship at work. One of my pet hates is when teenagers, some as young as sixteen are ‘raising money’ so that they can spend two weeks in a third world country to help build a school or plant a garden, you know the kind of thing? These trips usually cost a thousand pounds or so and no doubt they struggle to get the cash together – sitting in a bath of baked beans, abseiling from somewhere high or eating fifty hot dogs in an hour – but who really benefits? Maybe they realise how privileged they are, they mean well, but do they make any difference? Do they have any skills of any value to offer? Most often they come from middle class families whose middle class friends happily chip in so that said offspring can go on the adventure, but wouldn’t they do better to just send a cow? Or some seed and tools?

One of the craziest projects in recent years has to be the aid programme that decided to help the Turkana people in Northern Kenya by supplying them with equipment to fish and a huge freezing plant. The plan was to both improve nutrition locally and provide an income. The Turkana cooperative allowed themselves to be taught to fish and a new food mountain grew. It’s unfortunate that no one did enough homework to discover that the Turkana are nomadic pastoralists and DO NOT EAT FISH!

Seeing that man with his cider bottle sent my thoughts on a roller coaster, all on a thirty minute stroll through the cemetery. I might have popped into the shop and bought him a pasty, but he was gone by the time I walked back. I hope he found some appropriate help.