The first time I saw Graeme was in mid-December in the centre of Twickenham in front of KFC. He was shouting at someone in the street and waving his hands around, making a big scene. He had black-rimmed glasses and a short grey beard, and I could tell by the crumpled plastic bags and the rucksack leaning against the wall behind him, that he was most probably homeless, and more than likely mentally ill. I walked on as quickly as I could. I don’t recall what he was ranting about.
On the Tuesday before Christmas Ella started limping. This had happened many times in the past so I knew the drill: short walks around the street and plenty of rest. Instead of a long walk to Marble Hill and back I started taking her to the tiny park at the end of my road.
And this is where I met Graeme again. He had taken shelter on the porch of the local bowling green. As I walked around the park I could see him pacing back and forth. I made a point of not walking past his shelter.
After Christmas we returned from Dave’s Dad’s house in Barnet full of cookies and gingerbread trifle, with our dog still lame, fed up with her short walks. We took her to our little park where we found Graeme, still pacing in his shelter, still bundled in his big black coat. I don’t know where I expected him to go but I hadn’t thought about him over Christmas. Now that Boxing Day had passed and he was still there I became uncomfortably aware that he was sleeping in this place, a fact which should have been obvious.
On the way home to our flat I suggested we bring him a flask of tea and some leftover Christmas cookies. Dave agreed it was a good idea. We took Ella home and then set out with our contributions. I remember feeling a mix of excitement and fear. What if this man was truly crazy? I pictured him taking the flask and smashing it to the ground, mumbling to himself as he paced back and forth, ignoring us. I thought about leaving the tea and then backing away as if I was feeding some fierce animal in the zoo.
That day I met and befriended my first homeless man. He introduced himself, thanked us for the tea, pointed to a plastic shopping bag in the corner of his shelter that was apparently full to the brim with mince pies that other concerned neighbours had donated. He said he was grateful but that you could only eat so many mince pies. I had to agree.
I was not at ease when we were talking to Graeme. I could smell the alcohol on him and he had a can of beer in his hand as he spoke with us. He was a short man with cloudy blue eyes and seemed to be in a constant state of agitation. The pacing, however, was just a method of keeping warm. After a bit of chat and some tea he told us that he was feeling shaken up after an incident the previous evening, at around 12ish. He had been woken from a sound sleep, no doubt alcohol induced, by a giant German Shepherd biting his left arm. It turned out it was a police dog. Graeme pointed to the scratch marks in his shelter and gently squeezed the part of his arm where the dog had clamped down. Apparently the police had had to pull the dog off of him, and it had scrabbled like mad, leaving claw marks in the painted wood. The police told Graeme that they had been in pursuit of a criminal that they believed to be in the park. Not surprisingly they couldn’t stop apologising. They offered Graeme £5 and some beers if he would keep it quiet. They checked his arm with a flashlight and said there wasn’t any blood and he was likely to be fine.
Dave and I said goodbye to Graeme and promised we’d be back in the evening with something for dinner but all I could think about was calling the Independent Police Complaints Commission and reporting this incident. Graeme had been understandably shaken, and so was I. I was furious at the police, not just for their negligence with the dog but for their crude cover up. When I mentioned complaining to Graeme, however, he said he’d been in scraps with the police before and didn’t want any trouble and was pleased that they’d offered him an apology because it was a rarity. Dave said I needed to get Graeme’s consent before I complained to anyone, and in the end I never took it any further. This was my first exposure to what it means to be homeless, not just putting up with the cold or a lack of a bed or an empty belly, but being treated as an utterly worthless human being.
For the next couple of days we brought Graeme flasks of tea and bundles of hot food. We arranged times when we could meet, as sometimes he went into town to play his harmonica and beg or to sit outside a pub and drink and listen to the music. For a few days my life took on a different routine. Before Ella and I left on her walk, I made a flask of tea for Graeme.
On New Year’s day, Dave and I brought Graeme a dinner fit for a king, with leftover curries and homemade bhajis from the night before. I bundled it lovingly into my special tiffin, a stacking contraption with plastic pots that Dave’s sister Natalie had bought me several Christmases ago and which had only been used a few times.
The next day, Dave went off to work for the first time in a week and Ella and I headed to our little park with a flask of tea and a Tupperware of hot porridge, and a bag for dirty dishes. As we approached Graeme’s shelter I could see him rearranging his bags. He walked out to meet me, shaking his head and telling me from a few metres away that he was sorry.
It turned out that the previous evening had not been a good one. He’d had a lot to drink and had been visited by four policemen after some local people complained about him being there. Graeme started ranting and shouting and kicking the wood in the shelter. Where’s your dog? he said. What are you going to do about it? Somehow my tiffin had gotten in the way, and the plastic pots had been smashed to bits, the metal clamp bent and broken.
I reassured Graeme that everything was fine. It was only a bit of plastic, nothing to worry about. But Graeme just shook his head, told me he could have lied about it but wanted to tell me the truth, and that he often went a bit crazy in the evening from the drink and the cold and the sheer loneliness and not knowing what to do with himself. He said he was so sorry and that he’d buy me another one. Don’t worry I said. It’s fine.
And because he was so agitated, I stayed with him while he ate his porridge and drank his tea. I had spent the entire Christmas period cooking food for family, which is one of my joys, and yet nothing could have prepared me for how good I felt when Graeme made a fuss of my porridge. I’d brought him a separate Tupperware of walnuts and raisins and cinnamon and a spoon of brown sugar because I didn’t know if he liked it plain or with accompaniments. And he stirred it all up and told me he loved porridge and this was the best he’d ever tasted. We spent 40 minutes talking, in which he confessed to having been in prison for getting into a fight with the police when he was drunk, and told me how he’d worked in a restaurant that provided accommodation but functioned more like slavery than a job. He told me about the people that had helped him in the past and some of the ones that had betrayed him.
If you could have anything you wanted right now, I asked him, what would it be? He took a few seconds to think about that and then he said he’d settle for a bit of tranquillity because his head was always in knots. And I thought about all the things he could have said like a bed or a home or a wife and some kids. But Graeme didn’t talk about family. He talked a lot about God and about his belief that he could make things happen for other people by praying for them really, really hard when it was cold and he couldn’t sleep.
I walked home with Ella, feeling numb. Graeme had put the broken tiffin in one of his blue plastic bags. I went through the contents to see if any of the pots had survived. One of them had. As I washed it in the sink all I could feel was a terrible dread creeping over me. I had had plans for writing and drawing and taking a trip into the centre of town but all of that was put to one side so I could sit on the internet. I looked up every homeless charity I could find and started to make phone calls. I called our local council, our local homeless charity SPEAR, Shelter, a Christian hostel that took in homeless people without a referral, and the Crisis centre in the centre of London. I filled out online questionnaires, and looked into Graeme’s assertion that no one helps him because the first question on every application is whether or not you are ‘local.’ He said if you aren’t local there isn’t much money or help that they can give, and people don’t care about a 52-year-old drunk when there are homeless families and women and people under the age of 25 who need to be helped first. Some of what he said proved to be true.
By the end of that two-hour period I felt shattered. I was wound up in the bureaucracy of looking for help and I wasn’t even sure what I was hoping to achieve. Each time I picked up the phone I was praying that the person at the other end of the line would say: Hello, why of course we can help you. Tonight we will give Graeme a bed, and tomorrow he will have a bath and a shave and we’ll look at his arm. Over the next couple of weeks we will enrol him in a program for his alcohol at the end of which we will help him find a job and a permanent residence with his own bathroom and a small balcony overlooking a park. Excellent, I’d say. My work is done here.
But I only managed to speak to one human being in two hours, who said she couldn’t help me. What I felt as I prepared Graeme’s dinner that evening was the desire to be free of him. How long, I wondered, could I go on feeding him? Or more importantly, how long would I be able to stomach everything it was bringing up inside of me? The helplessness. The discomfort. The guilt.
As it turned out, Graeme saved me the trouble of finding answers to these questions. That night as Dave and I set out to a dark park to give him his food, I felt truly afraid. All I could think about was the tiffin and the violence and I wondered if Graeme was capable of turning on us in a drunken moment. As we approached his shelter he called Ella to him and gave her a pat. He was very drunk. He began by apologising to Dave for the tiffin to which Dave gave the same response. It’s alright mate. These things happen. It isn’t a problem. Everything is OK.
And then he told us that this was going to be goodbye because he’d decided to move on to Watford, just outside London, where there was a church someone had told him about. After a night of thinking, he said, God had told him where to go next.
We squirmed through the next twenty minutes as he talked more about his life and the people he’d met in Twickenham, and his memories of Brighton where he’d been asked regularly for sexual favours in exchange for money, and had reacted with violence. His sorrows dropped from his mouth like boulders. We’re human too, he pleaded, as if Dave and I were judge and jury. It’s really hard out there, man. There’s none of that here, referring I suppose to Twickenham and the cushy life of Popes Grove.
Graeme thanked us again and again and seemed teary as we said goodbye. He kissed both of our hands and offered us one more gravelly God Bless You. I staggered back to the flat feeling so relieved I wanted to cry… no more dinners packed into tupperwares, no more flasks of tea… no more responsibility.
And it has taken me until this moment to write about my feelings. What stands out is my inability to cope with the magnitude of Graeme’s problems. That first day when I brought a flask of tea I was giving something small, something easily managed, a comfort to ease a difficult lifestyle. But my desire changed when I got to know Graeme, when I looked him in the eye and talked to him. Then, I thought about him at night when I got into a warm bed. I wanted a permanent place for him to sleep, and a reliable source of food. As time went by I wanted more. I wanted him not to feel so lonely and angry and sad. I wanted him to stop killing himself with drink.
What do you do when a flask of tea will not put out the fire inside you?
It has taken nearly a week for me to understand what I was doing that day I spent trawling the internet. It was an attempt to push away the hopelessness of Graeme’s situation. If I could find him a place to stay, if I could get someone else to step in and help, then he would be off my conscience. And what was it that weighed so heavily? It was Graeme’s sadness and his fear and his anxiety, that grandiose wish for tranquillity. It was all those things that connected him to me in a way that made me increasingly uncomfortable. Every time I looked at Graeme I was unable to throw up the ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ Hadn’t I felt lonely and afraid and helpless? Hadn’t I felt at times that I was up against the world? The only difference between this dirty man with greyish teeth and a big black can of K cider was the cards we had been dealt. That and the fact that my safety net for the moment is much more secure.
Beware of those walls that keep you safe, those walls that tell you not to make eye contact with beggars. Because there is something truly astonishing in allowing the discomfort, in connecting with our shared human vulnerability.
Feeling helpless in the face of something big and ugly like homelessness or alcoholism doesn’t feel good… Perhaps this is the reason we all hurry by the people who need the most help. Deep down we know that what we have to offer will never be enough to make the problem go away entirely and we don’t feel strong enough to endure someone else’s sorrow, let alone our own.
But we must practice giving again and again despite the discomfort, even if the only thing we are capable of is a cup of coffee and a smile. We must practice giving without the expectation that our gift will achieve some end. My friend Jess who works with the mentally ill told me Graeme will remember the fact that we didn’t yell at him when he made a mistake. He will remember how good it felt to be forgiven, instead of shamed. I am pleased that we could offer Graeme that gift, amongst others: our eye contact, and a listening ear while he shared his story.
We must learn to give despite the hopelessness and the helplessness because the discomfort is temporary but the connection is forever. That is what we gain when we let down our barriers and allow life to be messy – sometimes happy, sometimes painful – but blissfully real.
Wherever you are, Graeme, I’m wishing you a bit of tranquillity and a warm bowl of porridge with cinnamon and love.