“Suicide” – a Story of Two Worlds Colliding

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The library is full of stories but not just in the books.  While I’m having a warm or doing the crossword or writing, I’m also listening.  Today there was a toddlers’ group singing songs like “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”  Nearer to me, however, there were two men in their sixties whispering hellos.

“How are you?” asked the first.

“Not so good,” said the second, “my Grandson took his own life yesterday.”

The first man said nothing, not because he was being rude but because, though there were millions on the shelves around him, he couldn’t find the right words.

“24,” added the second man.

That’s all I heard, a tragic and tear-jerking blurb that as a writer got me wanting the rest of the story but as a human-being wanting to know what’s wrong with this world the little singing children will grow up with.

As they continued to warble “If you’re happy” I wondered what drove the 24-year-old to suicide, what made a man with the years stretching out in front of him end his days?  What can be done about this awful state of affairs where the suicide rate seemingly continues to rise?  If you read the Office of National Statistics it’s a very grim tale in this regard.  And finally it got me asking grave questions of myself: though I sometimes think I have nothing to live for, is my life really so bad?  And if it isn’t, should I be ashamed of myself for being depressed and writing such downbeat prose over the past six months?

So in sparing a thought and lighting a candle for this young man I never knew and his grieving family I will never know, I should also be grateful for the gifts I do have and the thing I do know; that despite it all I am still happy.  I know it, and I would really like to show it.

 

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Tales of the Riverbank

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While the Ottermobile’s been static I’ve been doing a lot of walking, which is supposed to clear the mind.

I’ve rambled along miles of the Shropshire Union Canal and many more of the River Weaver, and still haven’t seen an otter.  I’ve also failed to meet my old friend Alfie, who I hear has been worried about me and hasn’t been able to get hold of me.  He and I used to trek for miles, or fish, on canals and rivers back in the good old days and I know he still likes to take a constitutional for leisure.

My walks are for leisure too, but they’re also to fill the time for I am now the archetypal tramp.  If I’m not seen tramping along the waterways or huddled in a corner of the library for a warm and a nap, I’m to be seen on a bench in the town square, watching the world go by or writing or pretending to do a crossword I’ve already done.

It’s hard not to feel self-conscious at times because though I don’t (I think) look like a vagrant, if I meet someone’s eye it feels like they’re judging me; they see a man on his own whiling away his day, a man with nothing to do, an “idle spectator” of the world.

But that’s not true.  My mind isn’t empty at all, it’s always abuzz with ideas, many of them good ones.  It’s brimming with story and character, it’s still searching for new words and raring to put them down lest someone should be impressed enough to dare to give the author a job.

Talking of new words, one of the friends I made on the road, Trevor, offered me this:

Gongoozle – (v) to idly spectate, especially canal boats and canal activities.

I suppose that given the amount of time I’ve spent on the canals of late, and the miles I’ve covered and the many boats I’ve seen, I am your tramp and gongoozler.  Yet as I say, I don’t idly spectate, I talk as well, I introduce myself to those I encounter, in the search for new friends and more importantly a story.

The other day I came across Harry, a 70-year-old who calls himself a boater.  Hailing from Manchester, he retired from the police force fifteen years ago following the death of his wife.  He sold his house, bought a barge and has lived on the cut ever since, meandering from Audlem to Wrenbury and beyond and back, loving the wildlife and the back of beyond.  He has the biggest garden in England, because his garden is England.  He likes to visit real ale pubs and favours The Wickstead for its goat curry.  He knows everything there is to know about CAMRA pubs and everything there is to know about the ales they have on tap.  Most important of all, his time will run out before his money.

He asked me what I do and I said I’m very similar – I enjoy the freedom of tramping, I deeply love the back of beyond and I have taken very much to gongoozling.  I have often wondered how different life would’ve been had I chosen a clapped-out boat rather than a clapped-out van.  Knowing my luck it would’ve probably sunk.  But unlike him, my money ran out before my life.

“Do you like a pint?” Harry asked.

“Oh yes,” I said.

“You look like you do,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Next time I’m in this neck of the woods I’ll buy you one,” he promised.

“Thanks,” I said again, swapping numbers.  Harry the boater in his green beret keeping the warmth in his head because he’s as bald as the coots that bob in his wake.

And as he chugged away it felt good to make a new friend.  It also felt good to know that Harry isn’t lonely.  I asked what he’ll do for Christmas and he said he’ll be happy to celebrate it by himself – he’ll go to church, he’ll have all the trimmings and he’ll get quietly pissed.

“And will you stay warm?” I asked.

“Oh aye,” he said with a mischievous grin, ” I’ll have me log-burner going and me chestnuts well and truly roasted.”

The Cup of Human Kindness

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Today is a very significant day in personal terms which will remain private, but also in the following terms which won’t… For the first time in my life I begged, or at least accepted a charitable cup of coffee, on the grounds of being homeless.

The Nantwich Bookshop and Coffee Lounge has a sign outside saying an anonymous charity has made it possible for one to have a free coffee if one is deserving or needy.  So I went inside to do some writing and ordered an Americano.  When this was down and dried on the inside of the cup, I realised it was time either to pay up and leave or order another cup.

I chose the latter (not the latte) and asked the waitress for replenishment, while plucking up the courage to say the words “I’m homeless.”

It’s tremendously difficult to explain how that felt, but I’ll attempt to do so as honestly as possible, with as much dignity as possible, and as little pathos as possible.

It felt shameful, embarrassing, terrifying and humbling.

The shame is probably obvious for an educated man who not too long ago had a high-up job in TV.

The embarrassment is inevitable, probably for the same reason but also lest someone I knew could be within earshot and think how the mighty fall.

The terror was palpable lest the waitress weighed me up and questioned the validity of my claim – see I think I don’t look homeless, but then again what is a homeless person supposed to look like?  Unwashed?  Scruffy?  Drunk?  I’m none of those things, because though I’m no fixed abode I still have standards which I’ll never let slip.  I suppose many homeless people feel the same.

And finally it was humbling because the lady unquestioningly accepted my plea and proceeded to show great kindness, understanding and respect in quietly waiving the cost of not just the first cup of coffee but also the second.  It warmed my soul and fixed my heart as I explained as a disclaimer that I do have money owed to me but right now I’ve nothing, and I would return as soon as I was able to put some money over the counter or donate to the charitable cause.  She said there was no need, so I left the shop in tears.

Though this was potentially one of the most humiliating moments of my life, the simple act of human kindness made it one of the happiest and most memorable.

“The Trial” – a festive story of desperation and resilience

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Ho ho ho!

Franz Kafka wrote The Trial in 1914 and it was published posthumously in 1925.  For those unfamiliar, it’s about a man arrested for some crime he isn’t aware of and prosecuted by some remote and inaccessible system he doesn’t know of.  My story won’t be as ground-breakingly, heart-breakingly and darkly brilliant, but I cite it because it demonstrates how wonderfully portentous writers like Kafka were, and how horribly accurate were my own premonitions earlier this year about the lives of those just about managing.

My story is about a character called Mike – yes let’s call him that because that’s what someone called him.  For Mike, life is one long trial, and here I’ll tell his tale with some deliberation and respect for his feelings, because he writes a blog and has realised a large percentage of his readers seem to be lawyers, a fact which gives him pleasure and paranoia in equal measure.

***

“Mike is neither sure of the crime he might’ve committed nor why his life has turned upside-down, but he senses deep down that he must’ve erred in some wicked way for it to turn out like this, where life is just one bad thing after another, one trial, one tribulation, after another.  He searches his soul and recalls stealing a pork pie from Tesco when he was seven, and more recently signing an exemption from prescription charges because he was broke and needed anti-depressants, and he wonders if these are the reasons for his downfall and prosecution.  But in his defence and in more cheerful moments he sees himself as no saint nevertheless a decent, caring and honest man…

At this moment in time he’s claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance and has been dutifully and assiduously obeying the rules by applying – but not usually getting – jobs.  Then a number of weeks ago there was a miracle, when he was offered a day’s work.  The company who offered him the work will be nameless (given the legally eagle eyes are on Mike’s blog) but he gratefully accepted its contractual terms.  Honest to the last, he declared this miracle to the Jobseekers people knowing that legally they would dock his Allowance and legally he was bound to accept.  He did this because he is honest and he did this because he believed that while a day’s work wasn’t much, it might beget more work and soon he wouldn’t have to rely on the State and he could pay his taxes.  He also believed in good faith that a fair day’s work would beget a fair day’s pay come the end of the month.

But sometimes mortals like Mike are up against a system he can’t control, can’t challenge and can’t even understand.  And that’s why today he learned his invoice hasn’t for some reason gone through the system and he won’t be paid till the end of December.  Now some would argue that at least Mike will, eventually, be paid, but others would surely wonder how this can happen, how this can happen to a man like Mike who’s desperate and who won’t be receiving his Jobseekers Allowance because he’s been honest and will therefore have to go a whole month, the month where Christmas happens to fall, with nothing.  And there’s seemingly nothing he can do about it.

Again, because he fears the legal eagles are circling, Mike is nervous of having his story told, but decides to let me tell it because he’s nothing to lose and, after all, he’s only telling the truth.  And furthermore he’s feeling not a little paranoid and disappointed (it’s worth adding) that the company is one for which he’s spilled blood, sweat and tears over his working life.  So perhaps one could forgive his paranoia that somebody somewhere within this remote and inaccessible system is testing his limits.

One thing Mike does have is someone he loves.  She talks to him often about life and how it tries us.  He talks to her about depression and how it tries him, how he feels like an elastic band that’s being stretched, how he resists the tension but how sometimes, because he knows something about physics and even more about human feelings, he fears he’s going to snap.  In plain fact an elastic band, like a human being, can only take so much.

Mike knows she and others are there to love and support him, and he also recognises there are people much worse off – people who have nobody, people who live under arches, people who don’t even have a decent sleeping bag, a vehicle, a metal roof over their heads.  He knows it’s going to be harder for them this winter, and understands why they’ll resort to alcohol, drugs and crime.  He understands this because he knows they’ll become desperate.  And he now understands that being honest doesn’t necessarily pay, in fact it doesn’t appear to pay at all.  So what’s the point in avoiding alcohol, drugs and crime?  Why not let alcohol or drugs numb the pain?  Why not pinch a pork pie if you’re starving?  It’s the unlawful law of the homeless and it’s how they’re supposed to behave.

Mike’s done some research on the homeless problem.  He’s read a story about a man who was up for some petty crime and begged to be sent to prison so he’d have warmth and a roof over his head.  But the judge felt that would be too easy for him, so presided that more time on the streets was punishment more befitting; better to have the streets full of homeless people who can be moved on, than prisons bursting their seams with criminals.

And he’s read in the paper recently about people on Universal Credit who’re forced to live on cornflakes and tell their kids there’ll be no Christmas presents this year.  With this in mind, Mike met his beautiful daughter for a coffee and she was paying.  He told her there would be gifts for his grandchildren but they wouldn’t be much.  For that he was banking on the pay that was due for his honest days’ work.  But now, with today’s news upper in his mind, he’s going to have to tell her it will have to wait until the new year.  And it will break his heart.”

***

So that’s the story.  When I interviewed Mike he was at first reticent, scared even, to divulge.  But this was more than paranoia about the legal eagles reading his words – it was about dignity.  He doesn’t feel ashamed of his story and he certainly doesn’t want pity.  Why should he, he says, ask for pity from others when he refuses to pity himself?  All he wants, after some deliberation, is to tell his story, get things off his chest, tell it like it is and that will be that.

Because while Mike might be made of elastic he’s not one easy to snap.  With dignity he’ll go on displaying innate magnanimity, he’ll go on resisting the tension, he’ll go on being resilient, and he’ll go on believing that while he can’t fight the system and can’t understand why this has happened to him, he’ll get over this famine and enjoy any feast that’s put in front of him, come Christmas and beyond.  And yes, ho ho ho, he’ll manage, somehow, to laugh in the face of adversity.

Franz Kafka, arguably, might not have been so forthcoming with happy endings.

Merry Eczema & A Happy New Year

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It was three degrees on the Ottermobile last night, so with me and three beautiful women it was a tight squeeze.  If that were true, I wouldn’t have been much use to them; with temperatures like this your willy tends to disappear.  But I shouldn’t joke.  In fact I don’t feel very much like joking, I’m just aware that some of my writings of late have been downbeat and I want really to entertain.

Yet the truth is that this experience is becoming nigh-on unbearable, and I’m feeling very angry on behalf of myself and those even less fortunate.  I admit it, in the Summer months I was happy on the road, in beautiful weather and even more beautiful surroundings, soaking up the exercise and the stories, and not envying in the slightest those stuck in offices and putting up with the petty politics of back-stabbing.

Now, as we head into the festive season and more importantly towards my 54th birthday, and with the temperatures plummeting, I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching.  In other words, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life and what the hell it’s done to me.  Incidentally, am I alone in marvelling at the speed with which this year has passed us by?

Anyway, in the days around the corner when we’re supposed to be offering goodwill, I’ll be thinking less of myself and more of those I love and those I’ve met on these geographical endeavours, some of whom are unfortunate enough to be less fortunate than me.

Loyal readers will remember James, the homeless young chef to whom I offered a night’s sleep in my Ottermobile to save him temporarily from the streets, and I fed him and we played Ludo and he said he wouldn’t be coming on to me in the night lest I was worried, because I was far too past it.  I’ll be thinking of him and wondering if he managed at last to find some work, a home and a decent boyfriend of his own age with whom to share it.

Then the down-at-heel guy in Redcar who also lived on a campervan and had a bogie on his nose that fell dangerously close to my sandwiches which I’d kindly offered to share.  He was just like me (only less handsome) and I felt for him, and I’ll be hoping he’s made some hay since that red hot Summer’s day at the seaside when chips were down.

And the gypsy who lives on the motorways, to whom I gave food, tobacco and a ride to the next services and went ridiculously out of my way – a gesture of goodwill that dearly cost me in diesel and mechanical lifespan.  I’ll be thinking of him and hoping he’ll keep warm in his tent come the chill, or he’s made enough money to get him back across the Channel to find work in friendlier climes.

And Craig the youth from Newcastle who was chained bollock-naked to a lamp-post on his stag night.  I’ll be wondering if his lass still married him after that, and if they’ll be spending their first Christmas together in their nice warm home, possibly with a turkey and a bun in the oven.

And last but by no means least I’ll be sparing a thought for Steve in Saltburn, whose wife Tracy kept calling him a useless twat because he forgot the Ambre Solaire and she was worried the sun would exacerbate her eczema (or “exma” as she termed it).  He’d just lost his mother and their trip from Birmingham was supposed to be convalescence, but the sadness in his eyes was obvious, not just because of his bereavement but because he was married to Tracy, and because this was a toxic, flaky and inflammatory relationship that would take more than 100g of Betnovate to smooth things over.

I’ll be hoping he has a merry “Exma” and I’ll be hoping even more that he’s managed to get rid of that fat-arsed, irritable woman.  Because his story touched me most, touched me even more than that of the homeless men and women I’ve met, because I know what it’s like to lose a dear mother and I know how much one needs support through difficult times.  But given that many homeless people are homeless because of a broken-down relationship, I truly hope that if Steve does do what he confided, and leaves Tracy, he manages to keep his job, his home and his kids.

And then there’s me, who suffers from eczema himself but doesn’t make a song and dance about it because there are worse and more dangerous afflictions, such as depression.

But I’ll be trying not to let that get to me as I look towards a new year with someone I love and fresh hope.  I’ll be remembering all those who’ve helped me through difficult times and I’ll be remembering I’m still blessed with talents and the contortionists, like the dog, won’t win.  The contortionists, by the way, will be remembered too, and I’ll be hoping the poor rich bastards don’t lose too many nights’ sleep because of what they’ve done to me.

I turn 54 in the next couple of weeks and I think it’s time to face up to the fact that living in a van at my age in these temperatures will ultimately kill me.  I’ve lived in this thing now for 200 days and I always said it would be 365, yet I don’t look on this as failure.  I believe I’ve recounted many tales in this diary that are proof that what I’ve done has been successfully lucrative if not in the financial sense then definitely in the literary sense.  I firmly believe I’ve collected so much great material for my writings and met some great friends, and rekindled many old friendships too.  I firmly believe I’m a better writer.

In the coming days it’ll be cards I’m writing, but while I’ll know exactly where to send them, I wonder where people will send theirs when I’ve no address to address them to?  I like receiving cards, especially birthday ones, and that’s something I do make a song and dance about – I often joke to my kids that it’s important I reach double-figures.  Sadly, I can’t see that happening this year so I want to do something different and ask simply and politely that instead of buying me a card, would you please make a small donation to Shelter?

Anyway, while I’ll be offering goodwill at this time, because that is my wont, and while I’ll be doing a bit more soul-searching, I’ll also be doing some praying.  Some of my friends will be incredulous but it’s true.  I’ll be praying for all those I’ve mentioned and many more who’re homeless or unfortunate, and I’ll be praying for a brighter future for me, because I know it’s possible and I know it’s just around the corner.  I’ll also be praying that these frosty mornings don’t flare up my eczema!

But if there is a god, I should remember a god is for life not just for Christmas.

The Price of Being Penniless and Lonely

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This is a story about a man who arranged to meet a friend, but first bumped into an older friend who surprisingly bought him a drink, then chatted about old times – games of Crossfire, Monopoly, Striker, Bar Football, Ker-plunk.  The man, then a child obviously, miraculously persuaded a marble to balance on a single stick without falling and won the game, and they both fell about laughing incredulously at the improbability of such a feat.

Then the friend the man had originally planned to meet turned up and it was nice.  They talked about writing and how to inspire and got inspired.  Then the friend left and the man was alone again, naturally, with his wine.

He nursed this and watched the football on TV while listening to the drinking throng that years ago would’ve been randy teenagers hoping to pull at the nightclub down the road come chucking-out time, but now it was just locals quietly imbibing.

The man drank alone at the bar, wobbling occasionally and ordering more often.  He talked to himself and when someone caught his eye he pretended to be in conversation with imaginary friends because he felt self-consciously friendless.

Someone asked for the football to be turned down and for background music in its place.  The man who was watching the football didn’t mind or even care, until Twist and Shout came on and that was his cue to leave and get a Chinese if he could scrape enough together.

Next morning he checked his receipts and realised he’d been charged for a bottle rather than a glass of Pinot Grigio.  He berated himself for careless profligacy and vowed to return and quibble, knowing this would be unremunerated after the event.  And he hadn’t quite stretched to his Chinese after all.

So he spent the morning hungry, out of pocket and kicking himself.  And come the morning I’ll be bruised.

Black Friday and Thanksgiving

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As it’s Thanksgiving and I should enter into the spirit, I offer heartfelt gratitude to all those who’ve noticed I haven’t written anything for ages, and especially to all those who say they’ve missed me.

The reason for my silence is that I’ve been busy feeling depressed and applying for jobs and not getting jobs and getting depressed about it and losing sleep because I had to throw out my pillow because the Ottermobile roof leaked and it went mouldy and getting depressed about it.

Please accept my apologies along with a promise that normal service (if this desultory rambling could be deemed normal) will resume next week, because tomorrow is Saturday and I will be cheering up.

Today, however, it’s Friday and I’m depressed, not least because they call it Black Friday.  So for now I’ll wrap up with a depressing statement about how I feel today in this ball of shit called the world:

Black Friday (n) – a sickening carrot dangling in front of the starving homeless.  And if I get one more email offering me superlative Black Friday deals, I’ll break my promise to resume normal service because my clapped-out laptop will be following my mouldy pillow into the wheelie-bin.

And in the spirit of Thanksgiving I’ll thank the cold-callers for not saying “No problem” when I explain I’m homeless and skint.