From A Shelter Story (with Chateau Mordant)
By Mark Eaton
Tuesday, March 25, 2003 – Some brilliant days in terms of sunshine and after two months I find myself staying at the night shelters in churches. Getting to a night shelter is problematic for me as I hate going to strange areas and having to find one even though I have the address. Asking directions is demeaning in a close neighbourhood. Once there the people, including the homeless, are usually friendly, though some are bad-tempered and scream at each other in the morning. We stand outside for an hour or so as we all seem to come early. Perhaps we have nothing left to do and are tired from walking the streets all day. Last night I was persuaded to accompany someone to Safeways on the King’s Road to buy cheap cider, and the 2 litre bottle proved cumbersome, if he was to re-enter the church with it unseen. He finally thrust it down his jean’s front and stretched his sweater over it. Entering the church, the security guard told him his friend (who had stayed in the church and was a friend of twenty years he told me), had a can of beer somewhere, though the guard couldn’t find it, and this was emphatically denied. We entered unblissfully. The friends of twenty years then went to the toilet to drink the cider. I wondered how long they could get away with this behaviour. He is half-Irish and becomes belligerent when drunk though his friend is worse: completely comatose. Hew tells me about his episodes during the day which involve begging, stealing and having altercations with other homeless men and gypsies. He seems to have a fondness for me though he has a passionate dislike of some of the other homeless people.
The dinner last night was very wholesome. Pea soup, liver and a desert of ice-cream and tart. One of the workers, a housewife, talked about the cruelty of children. I was unsympathetic to whatever point she was making. The Methodist church near the library on the King’s Road has a glass double door so it’s possible to see through to the reception area, but is so discreet that I walked by it several times before finding it the other day. How self-conscious one feels as the shoppers and workers scurry by. Do other homeless people feel like this? Perhaps some drink to assuage the embarrassment as I do, and did in New York.
Last week, in a church near the Fulham Road and World’s End, someone slit my bag when I was asleep and took an old and very important book I got from the Salvation Army in Victoria – a social biography of London society with malicious gossip about Mrs. Patrick Campbell and her ilk. I was furious and wonder how closely we are observed.
Yesterday I walked to Clapham in south London and entered an old house with a store front on Lavender Hill on the Wandsworth Road that I used to live in 1970-72. Now it is a furniture store with kitchen and bathroom appliances placed on the street outside. The present owner, a young man, smiled when I told him I slept in the top right-hand bedroom facing the street. I didn’t tell him I once got up in drag and played the piano in the store one Saturday afternoon for the customers. An old West Indian man was fascinated by my boobs which were balloons filled with water, blown up, and placed in a bra. He wanted to touch them.
Several people, including young people, seemed to recognise me on the road. Where have they seen me before? I was often called O.J. in New York. And Smokey Robinson. But perhaps it is just me! The fading sun in the afternoon gave the scene on Clapham Common a bucolic and nostalgic air, and I gazed at the ball players and
joggers, and to the southernmost side, where the trees and bushes are, that we used to walk at night, with a longing for familiarity. But in truth, I was not happy then. I yearned for America. Not seeing a place for over twenty five years gives it a foreignness that will never be relieved. It has changed and so have I. Prices in the shops are very different and they appeared to be upscale retail as to what I remembered them. I also think the people look happier. Am I happier having just returned? I looked for cider.
In early medieval times cider was the staple beverage in Britain, for everyone. Water was too dirty and risky to drink. It was later replaced by beer. Every village had at least one orchard and a distillery; though today, standards have dropped so that cheap cider is said to blind you. I must say that my eyes have started to falter though I can still see peculiar things at a distance with great clarity. Risk is part of our lives, whether to go blind or have blind rages and have a drink that is not unlike champagne and its effect.