The Stray

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Dog Training in Redcar

I was right; Steve didn’t turn up for that pint.

In other news my stars for September read well.  Apparently I’m going to be moving house, and as long as the Ottermobile’s wheels turn round that’ll be true.  They also say I’m coming into money, so I guess that translates as a few quid to buy a new bucket to shit in.  If I’m lucky.

***

After two days in Saltburn I wanted a long walk, so I packed a lunch and set off down the sands to Redcar.  It would be another tick, another postcard for the mosaic and another lungful of fresh sea air.  It’s a fair old trek and by the time I got to Redcar I was gasping, so decided to get a bottle of water in a cafe.

It was a bustling little place and as I queued for my beverage I noted one of the ladies serving had two black eyes.  There was obviously a story here, but I dare even the most intrepid reporter to ask how she got them.  Well, the Otter is the most intrepid reporter.

“You’ve been in the wars,” I said.

“That’ll be a pound,” she said, unsmilingly, of the water.  As I coughed up, knowing I wouldn’t get any change out of her, I left the cafe and found a bench seat on the prom, known locally as The Stray.  As I sipped my water and rolled a ciggy, mulling over the possible story behind the woman’s black eyes, I was joined by a man of about forty, dressed not unlike me in combats and T-shirt.

Bidding me good afternoon, he asked if I minded him joining me for a smoke.  I wasn’t apt to say no and, though I was a little nervous at first, we soon got into conversation and I mentioned the woman with black eyes.

“Yea I’ve seen her,” he said, “Looks like there’s an husband handy with his fists.”

“I thought the same,” I said, “but when I asked I got nothing.”

“You asked her?!”

Confirming, with a touch of shame, I explained I’m writing a blog and needed stories.

“You’re a writer?” he said, “Well if you want a story I’m your man.”

It always amazes me that when someone learns you’re a writer they want to give you material.  Like if a comedian reveals his profession, the listener wants to tell him a joke.  So how come it’s not the same with other professions?  For example would a carpenter be offered a piece of planed four-by-two?

But I digress.  My new friend did indeed give me his story, which I’ll condense here.  Hailing from Doncaster, he’d never married but for many years lived with his girlfriend and two sons, he thought happily, until the day she told him to move out.  He’d suspected for some time that she’d got someone else, then found a text on her phone to prove it.  She confessed and said it was over.  He had a job at the time but spiralled into drink and drugs.  One day he went into work and they smelled alcohol, sacking him on the spot.

“I pleaded innocence,” he said, “told ’em what had gone on and asked for compassionate leave.  They said no.  Even Human Resources turn their back.”

“Human Resources are only as resourceful as the humans in charge of it,” I said.

“I said exactly the same,” he said, unconvincingly.

I confess that while I listened with interest, I couldn’t do so entirely because throughout, there was a bogey hanging off his nose.  This had happened to me before and I remember not knowing what to do.  Does the intrepid reporter tell the person?  Does he try not to look and find it impossible?  Or does he just wait for it to drop off of its own volition?  Anyway, his story went on, bogey or no bogey, and I was moved to hear he’d fallen into debt and was now just drifting.

“Are you homeless?” I asked.

“No.  I live in my van.”

I was amazed – at last I’d met someone very much in the same boat as me.  Or at least the same van.  Shaking my hand, he said exactly what I was thinking; that it’s nice to know you’re not alone, it’s nice to know there’s some normality to this, and it’s reassuring to know you’re not completely barking mad.  Plunged into this newfound camaraderie, I opened my packed lunch and offered to share.

“Just cheese and bread,” I said.

“You’re a gent,” he replied, “I’ll return the favour some day.”  But I knew that wouldn’t happen.

So there we were, a couple of strays, a couple of tramps, he the Estragon to my Vladimir or vice versa, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that we’d each found a kindred spirit, someone to bounce ideas and story off, someone in whom to confide the bouts of loneliness, depression, laughter and hope that there’d be more to life than this.  And amid the shared lunch and halved optimism, the bogey finally dropped into his lap and bounced away, to where I’ll never know.  I could only hope it missed the sandwiches.

He was a nice guy David, as I learned was his name, and we swapped numbers.  Like Steve the night before, I wasn’t entirely sure this would happen, but you never know.  David was certainly genuinely grateful for a bite to eat with me.  And he was genuine when he said I was a nice bloke and I’d be OK.

When we parted, I returned to the cafe and sat outside to write up my notes, and saw that the lady with two black eyes was still working, and now smiling.  I only hoped that David and I were wrong about the violent husband handy with his fists – perhaps the door she’d walked into was real.

As I sat, thinking about a couple of strays on The Stray, a couple of women began a demo of how to train dogs.  I watched, fascinated, thinking how wonderful an animal it is.  I’d never been a doggy person but had met a few on my travels and even wondered if I should consider a canine companion.  How obedient they were, how responsive, loyal.

“This one was a stray,” said the lady.  “She was starving when we found her.  We fattened her up and trained her.  She’s very happy now aren’t you, Lucky?”

“Woof,” said Lucky.

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Fortune Favours the Bold

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The Otter’s Tipple – Whitby

I’m turning back the clock from my bout of thuggery on Tyneside to my one-day stop in Whitby, where I was pleased to get an eponymous pint of Otter.  My welcome wasn’t entirely warm, however; parking was a pain and I had to risk a ‘coaches only’ section, where an officious car park attendant looked at me like she’d clocked a slug on her kitchen worktop.  After I’d squeezed in elsewhere and paid my dues, one of her colleagues confided that the woman is notorious for her anger and you wouldn’t think she used to work for the Samaritans.

“I can only wonder what was the mortality-rate,” I quipped.

I do like Whitby, it holds happy memories that I wanted to chart in my novel.  Today the sun was shining and I relished a long walk over the sands then a climb up to the Abbey for a personal slice of Stoker, who I look up to as a traveller and author.  Then among the jet shops, Steampunk regalia and fairground buzz I reminisced.

Jayne and I came to Whitby often, once with my son Dom when we sailed on a boat.  One time though we had our fortunes told, for a laugh as much as anything, given my scepticism of clairvoyance.  Reading our palms, the lady said that Jayne drove a blue and silver sports car.  True, though I suspected she’d seen us drive in.  She said I’d never find a truer friend than Jayne.  Probably true.  And she read that my father was ill but was being well cared-for and would be OK.  Mostly true except two months later he was dead.

I shouldn’t mock.  Some people put great store in such things, whereas I believe in chance.  Like it was chance that determined I’d be attacked in my van…

I’ve had a number of welcome responses to Friday’s diary (The Night I Was Attacked) most from people who were obviously concerned.  It was great to know that people cared about me, and even better that my kids and other loved-ones were among the well-wishers.  One very loved-one asked “Why the hell are you putting yourself through this shit?”  It’s a very simple, very fair and very valid question and one I’ve asked myself many times since the start of this project.

I’m a writer.  I can’t do anything else.  Some say I can’t even do that!  But that’s my chosen field, the profession for which I trained for years, my calling from which I can’t run.  And if I’m not employed or indeed employable given my age and mental health (see Don’t Rain on My Parade) I can’t just do nothing but wait for the phone to never ring.  I’ve got to get out in search of story, in search of some things and some people to write about.  I also have to get through each day, ideally without harm or prejudice, and live with the little that chance has given me.

But although the question is valid, it’s valid also to flip it:  Why the hell do I put myself through this shit?  Or, Why the hell have I been put through this shit?  Is it fate?  Is it the cards I was dealt?  Or just chance and that’s just the way the stick of rock crumbles?  Whatever it is and whatever life throws at you, you have to fight back, you must be brave.  My Latin’s a bit rusty shall we say, but I think it’s audentes fortuna iuvat – fortune favours the bold.  Sometimes though, we’re emboldened with the help of others.

Like the otter is making a comeback, in part with the help, support and effort of humankind, I will make mine, either on my own or:

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Homeless – My Night with a Down-and-out

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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:

No farting

No breakfast

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.

Ludo