It’s cold and damp out but I’m warm and safe indoors. All I need to do is turn the heating up a bit, or have a warm bath. Others are not so fortunate, but I do believe in miracles.
Memories of last year crept into my thoughts; sneaking her present under the Christmas tree, the smell of the turkey basting in the oven, the booze in the Christmas pudding and the fairy lights casting their magic.
How much had changed in just twelve short months. When I went back to work after the Christmas break it was to unexpectedly receive my P45. The company had gone bankrupt and I was out of a job. At first I attended the job centre every day, eager to get some money coming in after burning up the credit card for the celebrations.
Although we weren’t rich, the mortgage and bills had been paid, the cabinet held a few bottles for when we had guests, and we had two week’s holiday every year. I was thankful we’d put off having children until we had some savings. Imagine having kids and not being able to put food on the table.
Was I the only one signing on every week actually trying to find a job? I despised the bums just looking for a hand-out and not interested in working for a living. That wasn’t my way, and I was prepared to take anything to put some money in my pocket.
Gradually I began to understand the flawed system. Being on the dole opened up other benefits; a contribution towards the mortgage, relief on council tax and more. Despite my accountancy experience, it took me a while to realise that with a minimum wage job, by the time I’d paid my fares and taxes there was not enough left to cover the mortgage, let alone anything else.
Debts built up, compounded by interest charges on the commitments, until repayments made no impact on the amount originally owed. I sank into depression, lost interest in sex, and saw no point in shaving or bathing just to lie on the sofa watching daytime TV and worrying about the future.
My wife left me, and somehow I found the money to buy bottles of whisky and to hell with paying the gas bill. Eventually the house was repossessed, and I was out on the streets with a drinking problem and just the clothes on my back.
That was scary. You’d think the people with nothing would understand and respect others with nothing. It didn’t work out like that. A sleeping bag was a prized possession which would be stolen if you didn’t hang onto it. There was a hierarchy of who grabbed the best pitch, and God help you if you tried to muscle in on a reserved spot.
I got used to being hungry, and feeling cold, wet and dirty became the norm. What was worse was the loneliness. Even when I tried to clean up a bit in the public toilets, the attendants often chased me out for fear of upsetting their other customers. Having no clean clothes and no way of washing them, eventually I gave up. I didn’t blame people for keeping their distance, and with the media forever talking about the scammers begging on the streets, then going home to their luxury mansions, it gave all the genuine homeless a bad name.
The hostels were full to bursting at the best of times, and although more were open over the Christmas and New Year period, it seemed the number of homeless also increased. Perhaps some were just lonely people who took advantage of the hospitality and a decent meal. Whatever the reason there was no room at the inn for me, and I realised I would be spending the holiday alone as usual.
Most people imagine London as a hub of industry, full of financial buildings, grand stores and tourists, but there are parts which are almost rural. Thoughts of the Christmas manger reminded me of the disused stables I had stumbled across on my travels, and without conscious thought I made my way towards them.
As I pushed open the heavy wooden door, the warmth and comforting smell of fresh straw welcomed me in. There was even a tarnished bath sunk into the ground which would act as a comfortable bed, and someone had left a pile of old but clean clothes and blankets. Just outside, a burst pipe sprayed hot water into the air. Soon Thames Water would make emergency repairs, but for now it was a greater gift than Gold, Frankincense or Myrrh.
Clean, warm and comfortable for the first time in nearly a year, I settled into my makeshift bed and realised it was Christmas. Although it was still dark, a ray of light reflected through a tiny gap in the wood and woke me from a restful sleep.
I could hear voices singing, and just by the entrance was a hamper with a range of easy to open foods, soft drinks and toiletries. Some say it was carol singers from the nearby church, and charities distributing goodwill, but to me Santa had visited and given me the present I needed most, my self-respect.
It wasn’t easy, but early in the new year I got myself a job as caretaker in a block of flats for a half-way house near the stables. As it was live-in I had a roof over my head, my own apartment, and was able to relate to the people who turned up, scared and alone. I discovered I had a natural aptitude for maintenance, both broken objects and broken humans.
When the council planned to pull down the shed to build yet another supermarket, I started a petition and got the local churches and community involved. I was interviewed by the newspapers, at first just the provincial ones but then the nationals picked up on it. The project appealed to the public interest, and word spread until eventually we were able to purchase the whole site. The units we built weren’t luxurious, but the Charity foundation pays for heat and light, there are public showers and washing facilities, and the community centre is normally open 24/7.
Tonight is Christmas eve. It will be closed for a few hours while the volunteers and other staff attend the traditional ceremony at the ‘Stable of Hope.’
All are welcome. We’ve even got space for the reindeer if Santa decides to pay us a visit, as he did on the night that changed my life.
© Voinks November 2017
Books by Voinks
Please contact the author if you have any problems in purchasing copies due to current changes in publication. http://www.Voinks@hotmail.co.uk