York – The Shambles by the Author!
I always knew there’d be a first time for someone to sleep the night with me in my van, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d be a bloke.
To give the backstory, just like many other towns and cities, York has a real homeless problem – in recent years it’s seen a rise of 40% of those officially considered to be in that category. I don’t include myself – my Ottermobile is my home, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a roof over my head with certain amenities so enough for me to call it that. But yes it’s only one small step away from the streets.
Which is where I met “Tony”. Normally those you encounter in shop doorways lie in a shambles of bedclothes with a paper cup in front of them, and they’re mutteringly asking if you have any spare change. But there was something noticeably different about Tony – well-spoken, smart but casual in jeans and anorak, clean-looking, he politely approached me and asked for help. Though homeless and penniless, there was something in his eyes that made me warm to him. I knew there was a story but I didn’t want it there and then so I invited him into a nearby cafe and bought him a tea and a bun. Gratefully he put down his bags and found a table, where I described my project and my own proximity to homelessness. Hearing this seemed to touch him all the more so I wondered if in return he’d tell me how he came to be here, joking that he didn’t get the comestibles for free. He laughed and begun his tale, which here I summarise.
Originally from Blackpool, he left school with nothing to write home about and drifted through dead-end jobs and relationships, finishing up in a fairground burger van. Eventually he managed to save up and get himself to Brussels, where he studied catering with dreams of becoming a restaurateur. Suddenly he heard from his brother that his parents and Auntie had been killed in a car crash. Returning home to see to the funeral, he met a guy who’d become his lover. They settled in Blackpool where he got a job as a waiter while setting up a bistro with his brother, using their small inheritance.
The hikes in rent hit him hard and he eventually lost the business, and when his boyfriend deserted him and he was duped by his brother, he went into financial and mental decline. Since then he’s drifted around our cities to find work.
It was a story far from unique I supposed, and heartbreaking, but as with Aline (see Land of a Thousand Hills) there was the air of “that’s how it goes” pragmatism – Tony doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though he is at times baffled as to how this happened, how he got here, how rapid was the journey.
But don’t suppose either of us were down in the dumps; Tony was a very funny young man of 30, good-looking, bright, friendly and hopeful; all he wanted, he said, was to get a full-time job, save up and get back to Belgium.
Impressed with his positivity and warmed by his wit, I asked how this is possible when sleeping rough – isn’t it dangerous? Does he encounter violence etc? With a shrug Tony said this and other things come with the territory. He’d been propositioned for sex, which he’d never lower himself to, he’d been attacked over a cup of tea, and he’d been offered drugs though he’s never so much as smoked a spliff. Sleeping rough is a last resort, he said, he sometimes gets casual work and can afford a hostel, but finding a full-time job is difficult.
I really liked Tony and felt for him, especially when he said he’d slept rough the night before and got drenched; he’d spent his last pennies on getting his clothes laundered. Though the weather had improved I couldn’t bear the thought of him kipping in a doorway so wondered if he’d prefer a roof over his head, just one night…
So I found myself in a lay-by near Murton, setting up stealth-camp. Knowing he was hungry, as was I, I vowed to rustle something up, explaining I love cooking for people and don’t get the chance nowadays. He was the chef and I was the novice but with meagre provisions I managed to make a meal which he seemed to enjoy. Beggars can’t be choosers, he said! There was no wine to go with the dish, but we didn’t need it because we were laughing like drains at how bizarre all this was; total strangers, sharing food, sharing jokes, playing Ludo (!) and bonding in ludicrous adversity.
Though the Ottermobile claims to be a two-berth it’s a tight squeeze, but I managed the awkward and funny manoeuvre of the seats to bed down – not before I’d declared some ground-rules:
In the morning he must be gone before I do my ablutions, and
No funny business.
Responding in order, he said he doesn’t fart, he’d get breakfast elsewhere, he’d no desire to see me “ablute” and as for funny business he wouldn’t touch me with a fucking barge-pole. I said I felt a mixture of amusement, offence and comfort from that peroration. Tony laughed, telling me I was a lovely bloke, if a bit mad, he’d had a great time and I’m crap at Ludo.
Next morning, after a quiet night’s kip he made a sharp exit as promised, with a quip that I could now shit in peace. He also took my number and promised to stay in touch. Whether that will happen I very much doubt, but that doesn’t matter. He was a fine young man; he was good company, he made me laugh, but most importantly he made me think about what’s important. “We Stand Together” went the mantra after recent terrorist attacks. What more can we do but help each other through? We’re human beings and that’s what we do, or most of us. I’ve always championed the underdog, it’s in my make-up. If I can help I will, and I wish I could do more. I’m no saint, God knows, but I like to think and I like to know that whatever happens to me and if I end up in Tony’s shoes, someone will be there to help me. I’ll think a lot about Tony and marvel at his cheer in dark days, I’ll hope he’ll get back to Brussels, and I’ll forever be saddened at how it got to this. We all roll the dice I suppose, but only some of us score a six.
Right now though I’m concerned about getting to the Filey coast and up into Scotland. Time for me, like for everyone, is running out.