Mark thought Christmas was a dreadful time to be homeless. Reminders were all around him of what he was missing out on; people buying presents, friends, family, and parties.
The parties were the worst. Huge numbers of drunk people spilling out on the street could spell trouble for someone like Mark. Indeed, this explained why he was laid flat out on his back instead of curled up in a ball for warmth, as he wanted to be.
There was nothing between his back and the hard, granite, shopping centre floor than a thin sleeping bag. It was inadequate for a night like tonight and Mark was very cold, although he’d been sleeping rough so long he was immune to it.
Mark was flat on his back because he had been assaulted by an office party goer a few night previously and had cracked ribs. The culprit was a drunk, 23 year old estate agent. Fired up on tequlia and lager, he’d thrown a pass at a 30 year old work colleague. She was a divorced single mother but in this young man’s eyes was simply a “fit bird who was gagging for it.”
When she rejected him, the petulant youngster stormed out of the party. He took his frustrations out on the first thing he could find to kick, which turned out to be Mark, who was sleeping at the time.
Confronted by two other rough sleepers, the estate agent ran off into the night, never to be seen again. The other rough sleepers called an ambulance and Mark spent the night in hospital before being discharged the next day, back out into an unforgiving world.
Mark’s journey to homelessness began three years previously. He’d been the manager of a small convenience store and, he thought, happily married with a one year old son.
The hours in the store were demanding. He spent every moment he could in there, earning money for the family. In doing so he was unwittingly ignoring his wife. She had an affair and when it all came out, she insisted Mark leave the flat they called home. He reluctantly agreed to keep a roof over his son’s head.
Mark went into a spiral of depression. First he went on anti-depressants, then booze, then booze and anti-depressants. He became unreliable at work and lost his job. With no job and no way to pay the rent, he was soon evicted from the small, grim bedsit he had rented following the break up.
The son was now at school but Mark hadn’t seen him for 18 months. He didn’t want the boy to see what had happened to his father.
With his eyes closed, Mark was drifting off, in and out of a light sleep. He thought he heard something overhead.
Cautiously, he opened one eye. Crouching over him was a man in a dog collar, about forty years old, and a young, blonde haired woman. Mark couldn’t help thinking she looked rather attractive.
“Do you want a bed for the night, son? It’s too cold for you out here. We’ve opened the doors to our church hall. We have food, tea and coffee. Actually, go for the tea, the coffee’s instant and pretty poor.”
The vicar smiled at Mark. He seemed friendly enough and this wasn’t the first time a church had given him shelter on a cold night.
“Ah, yeah, that’d be great if you have the space. Can you help me up please, I’m in a bit of pain.”
The vicar and his colleague helped Mark up. Introductions were made and it turned out she was a student doctor volunteering to help with any urgent medical needs the homeless men and women in the area may have.
Mark explained about his ribs and what had happened. The vicar tapped away at a Blackberry. He was instant messaging colleagues at the church hall, making clear they had “one on the way who was walking wounded.”
The medical student asked Mark a few questions and took a quick look at the bruising on his chest.
“Oh yes, that would be painful,” she said.
“Reverend, I don’t think we can send Mark out again tomorrow. He can’t even get himself up off the floor.”
The vicar thought for a second.
“Mark, listen to me. We’re supposed to provide accommodation for a maximum of 24 hours on a first come, first served basis. Exceptions are made if
there’s an urgent medical need. Think carefully how you answer the next question.”
“Okay,” said the homeless man.
“Are you in agony and would several nights rest help you?”
“I am in agony and I need several nights rest to get back on my feet.”
“Correct answer. I’m just sending a message to my colleagues at the hall, make clear you’ll be with us a few days.”
The vicar tapped away on his mobile phone while the medical student helped Mark collect his few possessions. She led him away to a people carrier that already had two homeless men and a homeless woman in it, all of them on their way to the church hall. They all knew each other, the homeless community being a surprisingly tight one.
The vicar joined them shortly afterwards. He got into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. Before driving off he spoke to Mark.
“Good news Mark. I’ve had a message through from the gang at the church hall. We can sort you out for a few nights until those ribs of yours are less painful.”
“Thank you reverend, I appreciate it.”
Mark was tired and in pain. He rested his head on the vehicle’s window and watched the world go by.
Like many people, he didn’t know what to make of organised religion. On this night, however, he was thankful for this vicar, his faith and the respite it would bring.
Copyright John Adams, London, November 2014.
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