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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Place Saint-Sulpice

Stood beside the fountains, in the shadow of a roaring stone lion, I watch.

A gentleman sits at the farthest tip of a bench. He wears a pale blue and white striped shirt beneath a black trench coat, stone coloured trousers and brown sandals. He has very little hair, but a bushy grey moustache, and he stares in contemplation into the middle distance. He flicks baguette crumbs from his coat and trousers to the floor, stands, then takes his contemplation elsewhere.

A tourist thumbs through an A-Z, stopping at Île de la Cité. She studies the page thoroughly.

Two cyclists, a couple, arrive on hired bicycles. They stop, dismount and stare at the grand façade of the church across the square. Having shown their appreciation, they mount their vehicles and depart.

Two ladies prepare to take photographs, one with a camera, the other posing, pretending to hold in her palm one of the stone columns from the church’s double colonnade. The camera flashes. They inspect the picture, laugh and resume their positions. Several flashes follow, each with the lady’s palm in a slightly different position. They inspect the new pictures. Satisfied, they laugh once more, then embrace.

A man leans against a bollard, cigarette in hand, earphones in his ears.

A single pigeon descends from the eaves of the church, three or four storeys above the square. Slowly it falls, a tiny moment of movement dwarfed by the immovable grand eighteenth century stone building behind. At the last moment the bird lifts its wings, converting the fall into a glide. It reaches the ground, where it has spied breadcrumbs.

And then, chaos.

Suddenly, a hundred other pigeons swoop in. Unsighted mere seconds before, the air is rife with birdlife, eager to share the spoils of the solitary breadcrumbs. Some tussle and fight, others jostle for position. Some are quick to give up. It is not long before all have returned to their distant perches and calm returns.

A lady walks past with her dog, both neatly presented.

A homeless man sleeps with his back against the church door.

A lady sits on a bench, waiting. Another sits, talking on her phone.

Teenagers sit on the church steps, smoking and texting. One rises, armed. With one fell swoop, the bread arcs through the sky, out into the square.

A single pigeon descends from the eaves.

Chaos, however fleeting, returns.

Lunchtime continues in Place Saint-Sulpice.


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Churchyard

AFTER a ten mile walk along the river, it was time for a rest. I turned the corner past the church, saw a bench, and took a moment to recoup my energy. That’s when I heard him.

“Hello again,” he said.

“Sorry?”

“I saw… didn’t I meet you earlier?”

This he hadn’t, for I had been miles away building bridges, traversing rivers and exploring woodlands. Undeterred, he decided to join me on the bench. His head was shaven, his face battered by years of smoking and hardship; dried blood patches dotted his cheeks and neck after shaving with a blunt razor. He wore a dark blue padded coat, with tips of other clothing protruding from beneath, compressed and limp from being worn for days.

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” he said. “Can I be honest with you?”

I nodded.

“I mean… you won’t tell anyone?”

 Desperation was apparent in his eyes.

“Of course not,” I reassured him.

“You know, I haven’t got a home. I… I left my shelter two days ago, didn’t know where to go.”

This was horrible, of course. Where was he sleeping now, I asked?

“I… I slept in a field last night. I woke up at 7 o’clock. It was cold. This is between us? You promise you won’t tell anyone?”

Once again I reassured him. I saw no reason, particularly given his appearance, to disbelieve him. He certainly looked like he had slept rough the night before.

“Someone gave me this…”

Shakily, he reached into his inside coat pocket. With some effort he eventually handed me a piece of paper, a print out from the website of a homelessness charity based in Watford. Slowly, he explained.

“I wondered… what you thought? Should, should I go there? I mean, I’ve got to tell you something — I left my last shelter two days ago, now I’m sleeping outside. I just got desperate, yeah? I couldn’t take it anymore, I felt like I was… trapped. Every time I went outside they told me off, told me I had to stay in my room.”

His speech was slow, affected perhaps by the cold of the night before and years of chequered history.

“I’m forty six. I can’t live like that. Why can’t I be free? Why can’t I go outside and… try to be something? They can’t make me stay in there.”

I agreed the centre in Watford sounded like a good idea. He smiled.

“You’re the first person to speak to me. Everyone else is so rude, they… they won’t listen to me. This city is bad for me. I’ve got to get out.”

He paused.

“What’s your name?”

“Simon,” I replied.

“You’re a good man, Simon. My name’s Pete.”

“That’s my name. I’m called Pete too.”

A second voice had joined to our left, on an adjacent bench. Here was a man in his twenties, wearing jeans, a sweaty old black polo shirt beneath an open black jacket, cropped black hair and scruffy beard, cigarette in hand. His face bore the hallmarks of a friendly soul, yet weathered and aged before his time. He had just joined us on the nearby bench, having been kicked out of the church (where he had been sleeping against the radiators) because of a funeral.

And then a peculiar thing happened. With me as witness, the two Petes became friends. The younger Pete had spent 16 years moving between foster homes, then homeless shelters, churned around by the system – he understood completely what the older Pete was experiencing and offered advice from a place of experience but great wisdom.

Older Pete recounted, several times more, his woes.

“Can I be honest with you? You… you’re not going to tell anyone is you? I… I don’t want to go back.”

“I don’t tell nobody nothing,” assured younger Pete. I nodded also.

“I just left the home a few days ago. They made me feel like a prisoner. I slept in a field last night. I woke up freezing. I can’t go on like this. I got to find a new start, get away from this city.”

Young Pete more than understood.

“One shelter they lock the doors on you at 8,” he recounted. “They turn everything off by 10. You’ve just got to waste the time in the dark until breakfast the next morning, then they kick you out into the cold for the day. That’s all your life is allowed to be.”

“I’ve got to be honest with you… wait, what’s your name?”

“Pete, just like you mate.”

“Pete, yeah.”

He threw the same question to me.

“Simon.”

“Simon. Simon Says!” Younger Pete giggled. “Simon, Simon, Simon. Didn’t I meet you earlier?”

“Not me,” I replied. 

“I met a Simon today. He was with my mate Dan. Dan the Man. ‘Simon Says’, that’s how I remembered his name.”

Younger Pete giggled: older Pete interrupted.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Younger Pete recounted his varying sheltered and couch surfing experiences, recalling the locations and names of suitable shelters older Pete might like to try. He spoke of strategies for protecting your possessions when there’s nowhere to hide them. And slowly, but surely, he lifted older Pete’s spirits, giving him hope and, most importantly, a plan. Older Pete should go to London, they decided, to Shelter in Kings Cross. There he could have a new start, and would be allowed to pick himself up.

Younger Pete’s story was torrid and convoluted. He had three younger brothers, each brought up by his parents. Yet he was thrown to the fostering system, with only his grandfather still in contact. He loved his grandfather. They’d even been to the Royal Albert Hall together, to see Katherine Jenkins. Somehow, however, he was now sleeping rough, banned from various shelters for being “a bull in a china shop”.

He giggled. “You know that expression, don’t you? ‘Bull in a china shop’? They kept me locked up when I’d done nothing wrong. Every man snaps eventually when they do that.”

Younger Pete, just like older Pete, just wanted to be treated like a human. He’d acquired scars striving to achieve it.

Older Pete looked worried once more.

“London. They… they won’t turn me away?”

“Not unless you cause problems,” he was reassured. “You got nothing to worry about.”

“What was your name again?”

“Pete, just like yours mate. We’m in this together.”

“Pete, yeah. I… I’ve got something I need to tell you. You won’t tell anyone will you? I… I run away from my last home. I slept last night in a field.”

“Nobody can keep you locked up if you’ve done nothing wrong. Don’t you worry. Kings Cross is where you need to go. Get the train to St Pancras, and it’s just over the road.”

“Kings Cross. Yeah. London. You think I’ll be safe there?” A pause. “So I get the train to Watford…”

“No, no, St Pancras. Kings Cross is just over the road. It’s called Shelter. Big red logo. That’s right isn’t it?”

They turned to me, I nodded, speaking as positively as I could about Shelter and its work.

“What was your name again?”

And on it went: the forgetfulness, the nervousness and the camaraderie. By the time I left, younger Pete had become a mentor and father figure to older Pete. A plan for them to go to Kings Cross (not Watford, eventually) together was afoot. I wished them well and offered to help with a train fare.

And then they were gone.



Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Wootton Wawen

I sat on the floor, legs hanging over the edge of the northbound platform. It felt like the loneliest train station in England. The sun shone, the sheep in the field next door enjoyed their plentiful supply of grass, and all was quiet. There were no waiting passengers. There were no ticket machines. There were no train times scrolling on screen, no recorded messages warning of unattended luggage, for there were neither screens nor speakers. A few houses opposite the line sat with their windows open: no train noise was expected.

It was thirty minutes before a train came. I could see it from miles away, the station elevated above the nearest lane, the line flat and featureless. Arcing slowly towards me, the train was an alien mechanical creature in a quiet pocket of countryside. It took a few minutes to approach, and I rose as it came nearer, startled by the spectacle. It arrived. It beeped its horn. And it didn’t stop.

Its successor an hour later would not stop either: trains don’t stop at Wootton Wawen on Sundays. They barely stop on weekdays either, except by request. One must flag the train down, or stay stranded on the platform for eternity, alone.

Silence fell once more.

Soon bored with playing on the line, I descended the ramp and passed under the railway bridge towards the village. I passed villagers walking dogs, but nobody said hello.

A parish noticeboard listed village meetings, contained police notices and advertised a local bee keeping association. Some hikers were gearing up in the pub car park opposite, but they, too, failed to say hello.

I crossed the main road that bisects the village, taking countless vehicles from Stratford-upon-Avon to Henley-in-Arden without stopping to look around. Opposite, a field rose up to a beautiful church, with lichen-covered stone walls, adorned with set-back buttresses and a tower, all decked with a castellated parapet. A red-roofed adjunct, the Lady Chapel, provided colour to the scene, along with the daffodils and forget-me-nots that lined the footpath. The church sign introduced St Peter’s as the oldest church in Warwickshire, and implored passing readers to “THINK GOD”, with a crucifix printed inside the O. The church sat atop the tallest hill in the village, surrounded by gravestones and a lone, nervous horse. Many of the graves were old and worn, names only half legible: memories long forgotten. A dog walker passed. He raised his head to greet me, then changed his mind.

On I walked, through the cemetery and into a country lane, shortly — and unexpectedly — arriving in a very different world. Just minutes from a 1300-year old site of worship, its current physical form dating to the sixteenth century, were hundreds of static caravans: an entire community residing in metal homes, each a car’s width from their neighbours. Row upon row of mobile homes, long since grounded, were crammed into the tightest of areas. Neighbours here, I thought, must know every little detail of one another’s lives. Attempts had been made to forge unique identities, of course, with miniscule gardens tenderly attended and landscaped, trellises sealing the structures in place, and there were more porcelain statues per square metre than I seek to ever see again — some had opted for animals, others cherubs. The proximity of each structure and the manicured nature of each decorative feature served only to make it ever more unreal, like a residential Disneyworld but without the rides. The community felt intensely private and I felt uncomfortable walking though. I strongly suspected I was being watched.

A mallard crossed the road, enchanted by a porcelain bird guarding one of the homes. It approached and quacked in interest, awaited patiently for a response, then left dejected, the statue having failed to reciprocate affections.

I descended the hill to receive yet another shock: I was in the grounds of a stately home. Wootton Hall, it transpired, was a stately home with its own trailer park and, at the time I was visiting, a caravan trade fair. I later learnt that the home was saved from demolition in the 1950s when it was purchased by Bill Allen, who founded Allen’s Caravans and constructed the mobile home park, in doing so revitalizing the community. It was a truly bizarre fusion of styles.

I reached the edge of the grounds, a stream marking the perimeter of the trailer park and leading in one direction into private woodland, towards a weir in the other. People passed. Still nobody said hello.

Handmade signs lined the path, containing ever more menacing messages. Dog mess, it would seem, had irked certain residents.

Dogs must be kept on leads, they said.
Dog mess must be picked up and disposed of, they said.
Repeat offenders would be reprimanded, they said.
Not picking up dog mess is ILLEGAL, they said.
Despite warnings, they said, dogs were “STILL FOULING THESE GROUNDS!”
“ACTION WILL BE TAKEN”, they said.

By the end of this ever-maniacal laminated tirade, not even cats were safe to roam unattended.

It was time, I strongly felt, to leave. So I returned, past the lovely church; past more dog walkers and hikers, still not saying hello; across the busy road, under the bridge and back up the ramp to sit, once again, on the platform of the loneliest station in England.