I think a great deal about, and of, my home town though I don’t live there now. Today, a lively discussion on Facebook on the subject of homelessness reminded me of Colchester High Street. I don’t think it’s ever been a kind place at night; peopled through history, as it has been, by a noisy cast including rioters, dissenters, siege victims and frustrated off-duty soldiers. Now, continuing that inglorious troublesome tradition, as night draws in, the High Street is increasingly colored by vomit, piss, and blood and peppered with the sounds of fighting, screaming and rutting. So established are the rituals of (self) abuse in that area, that an SOS bus is set up there every weekend, staffed by volunteers who try to help those who’ve rendered themselves helpless. It’s an attempt to take some of the pressure off an already overloaded local hospital.
Anyway, back to the subject which started me thinking along those lines. Homelessness, it is.
Some years ago, in the middle of winter, I was walking down the High Street late at night setting out on my way home. I hadn’t wanted to go out, it was freezing cold and the High Street’s a weekend nightmare. However, I’d promised to meet a friend for a drink before she left the country and that’s where she wanted to be. We passed a pleasant evening; though I felt very tired, meaning we said our farewells earlier than planned. I made my way outside intending to walk home – my apartment was only 20 minutes’ walk away after all. The night air hit me and that was it. I felt like shit – I’d suddenly developed a fever and nausea. Everyone stepped clear, probably thinking me drunk (a reasonable enough assumption given most of those around me were seriously inebriated).
From the shadows outside a shop a man emerged and started walking briskly towards me. My immediate reaction was fear. I was under no illusions that anyone would come to help me if I were attacked. Quickly, I realized that the man was sleeping rough on the street with his dog. Maybe he needed my help? I moved towards him. He smiled and shook his head at me. ‘You look terrible’, he said. ‘You’re very ill and shouldn’t be out in that state.’ I was so weak and so overwhelmed by this expression of concern I nearly burst into tears on the spot. He promptly wrapped one of his blankets round me, sat me down with his dog (which also appeared to decide I needed looking after and lay on top of me and the blanket) took my phone, called me a taxi, waited with me until it came, then saw me into the cab (while telling me off for not taking better care of myself). I offered him money as a ‘thank you’, he turned it down – said I needed it to buy meds. A kind man in a less than kind place. He, as are so many others in my home town, was an ex-soldier.