ANDREW LEE-HART - HOMESICK
Andrew was born in Yorkshire, England many years ago but now lives in Cheshire where he writes stories and contemplates his deteriorating faculties. Andrew's stories have appeared in the Scarlet Leaf Review and other magazines both online and in print. For many years Andrew was a librarian but now works as a support worker.
I am running, escaping from the horror that I have left behind. There is a monster in my house, a monster covered in blood, with fangs and claws ready to bite and to kill. I run through the empty suburban streets not daring to look around, or to stop, and now behind me I can hear his footsteps, purposeful and unrelenting.
I wake to the stench of piss; mine or somebody else’s? For a moment I am dazed and unsure who I am. Slowly I look about me; there are two sleeping bodies close by, both covered in blankets. I think for a moment and start to come round and leave my nightmare behind. I realise that I am Samuel, although that name doesn’t feel right, but that is what people call me, and that I am in the underground car park where I live.
My stomach feels empty, but then it always does, even when I have something to eat I know that I will be hungry again soon. It is always there at the back of everything else; when I am talking to people, walking, begging I am always aware how hungry I am. I stir and start to realise how cold I am, and I rub my arms and legs vigorously under my blankets, trying to rub some sense into me.
Gripper stirs close by me and mutters to himself briefly, whilst slightly further away I can hear Johno snoring. As usual Rosa is up and gone by this time, presumably she is at her usual spot near Covent Garden begging, stealing or talking to her friends. I feel a little warmer now and I push off the blankets and shake them before folding them up and leaving them with the rest of my pitifully few belongings in a dark corner, and going out to face a new day.
The car park has been my home for, well since I can remember which is not long actually; it looks and sounds like a cave, it is grey and green and every sound that we make echoes strangely. Everywhere there is the smell of petrol and rubber whilst in our dark corner this is merged with the odour of sweat and sick. Even this early in the morning there are a few cars above us, but none will venture down here until later when the rest of the car park is full. I do not remember even how I found this place; one morning I awoke and realised that I had been here awhile and I have gradually come to accept this place as my home.
Rosa and Johno have been here the longest, though both are vague as to how long that is, but then time does not mean much when you are on the streets. Recently Gripper joined us, an older man who I am very fearful for, he is so vulnerable and frail and spends much of his time drinking any form of alcohol that he can get his hands on. I am sure that he will die soon, and I hope that I do not wake to find him stiff, perhaps choked on his own vomit. Occasionally I see these, my companions when I am out and about in London, particularly Rosa and then we talk, but most days I only see them late at night when we chat between snatches of sleep.
Before I set out I make sure I have my book with me, tucked into the pocket of my big army coat that someone gave to me. The book is John Betjeman’s collected poems, a hardback edition which I try to keep as neat as possible and is the most precious thing that I own. I don’t know why I have it, but it has always been with me, and I seem to know the poems off by heart so that when I start to read one it as if I am reciting something from memory. The poems conjure up a different world; churches and guilt, wealth and Oxford, but somehow this consoles me, as if there is something better out there just waiting for me.
It is cold and I just keep walking. Once out on the street and away from the car park I try not to retrace my previous journeys, that would be foolish, and London is a large city and there are plenty of new places to go and to beg. My shoes are the worst thing; they look quite chic, well they did once, but they are now old and very uncomfortable so that I stumble along in agony, an agony almost as strong as my hunger. The shoes offer no protection when I walk through puddles or in the mud, so that when I get back at night my socks are wet and stained with dirt and blood.
I like to walk by the Thames and look out along the river, imagining what is out there. I want to leave London, leave England, get on a boat, and travel to some distant country but I just don’t know how I could do this. Gripper lived abroad, he told me of his travels in the Middle East but when I asked him how he got there he confesses not to remembering. I imagine guiding a small boat down a river, a boat with a large white sail, the sun hot and yellow, and there in the distance are fishermen hauling in fish, absorbed in their work. I am on my own and free so that if anyone finds me I can sail away to a harbour, safe.
I find a spot and for a few hours try to beg, but I get no money, not even food. Later I see an older woman wearing jeans and a duffel coat, she reminds me of someone, although I am not sure who, but I feel compelled to follow her, and anyway it is something to do. My mind is full of these half-remembered pictures which send me off here and there trying to capture what it is that I have forgotten. She walks fast and determinedly perhaps sensing that she is being followed, but I stay a couple of paces behind her just wanting a glance of her face which might help me to discover something. She walks into a small café, and as I have no money I wait close by, sitting on a damp bench.
When I come to myself it is getting dark and the café is closed; the woman must have left some time ago. So often I realise I have been in a trance and that hours have gone by; this is dangerous, I could be picked up and taken way, unresisting. I find a small park and sit on another damp bench. I have not eaten all day and so after awhile I go to a shelter I know where they give you food and don’t ask questions.
I sit on my mattress unable to sleep. Johno has found lots of newspapers and earlier he and Rosa sat reading them. I grab a pile and start to look through them. Sometimes when I am looking through old newspapers I see something, there is a flash and my mind briefly works before closing down again. This time I see a photograph of a woman and a boy, he looks like me, or as I would have looked three or four years ago. He has a happy smile and looks well-cared for. I start to feel upset and shut the newspaper without reading any of it, and then I put it on top of my damp mattress and soon I fall asleep.
I hear moaning and there is something in my hand that I cannot let go of. I feel fear inside me, there is somebody that I am frightened of and I need to hide from him. There is blood on me and I start to cry. I wake up feeling wet, at first I think it is the damp, but then I realise that I have wet myself. I take off my trousers and pants and hang them to dry and then shivering I cover myself in my blanket and watch the shadows.
There is a grey car that somebody has left overnight, I look at it and think of getting in it and driving. But I am not sure that I can drive. Gripper says that he can drive, that he used to have a fancy car, and for a moment I have a vision of us driving off somewhere, beers in our hands and music playing, but I doubt Gripper could drive anywhere now, that he could not even start a car.
Rosa gets up, slowly and quietly and disengages herself from Johno. They are lovers although they barely talk to each other. She told me that she was once a housewife and had a fancy house and a child, but things went wrong and in the end she just left. Her accent is Scottish, but she won’t tell me where she is from, or why she left. Johnno looks after her, he used to be in the army and nobody would mess with him. I hope that if they came for me one night that he would protect me too, but I don’t think that he would. You have to be selfish in this world, and to look the other way.
Rosa feels my eyes on her and she gives me a smile. There is still something pretty about her even though she is skinny and unkempt. I can imagine her wearing expensive clothes and a stylish haircut, she would be one of the people you see on the street who won’t give you any money because they think you will spend it on drink. There is only a small space between normal and us, and it is so easy to go from one to the other, well in the downward direction. Rosa turns her back on me as she alters her clothing and then I hear her eating something, chocolate probably. She is a good thief and it is chocolate that she likes to steal. She will leave some for Johnno, by the time that he eats it she will be long gone.
“Kind o’er the kinderbank leans my Myfanway,/ White o’er the play-pen the sheen of her dress,/ Fresh from the bathroom and soft in the nursery/ Soap-scented fingers I long to caress.”
I found some money, I don’t remember how. I just became aware that it was in my pocket solid and damp, so I went to a McDonald’s and bought a burger and a milkshake, I ate it so quickly that I had no time to taste it, but for a moment I felt warm inside and satisfied. Suddenly there is a man sitting next to me wearing a uniform.
“Hello friend” he says, “you look hungry.”
I nod, I distrust all people but people in uniforms most of all. He looks elderly and he is not a policeman. He disappears for a few moments and then returns with two packets of fries and pushes one over to me. I resist for a few moments then start eating.
“Have you anywhere to sleep?”
“Where?” I just look at him.
“I am sorted” I tell him at last. I must smell terribly, after all I wet my trousers (was it last night?) and have I been out in the rain all day so that I am very damp. I have been thrown out of libraries and another McDonald’s because of the way I smell, although the young woman who threw me out of the MacDonald’s did give me some more food and as she did so, kissed me on the cheek.
“You look lost” the man tells me.
“I am lost. I don’t know who I am. I have nightmares.” Then to change the subject I show him my book of poems.
“John Betjeman” he smiles approvingly and then he recites the lines about Joan Hunter Dunn playing tennis in the noonday sun.
“Come with me.” The man tells me. “I won’t hurt you and I will try to help you”, his eyes are grey and they look kind. I notice that he looks tired and it might for that reason I say yes. Should I go back to the car park? But the only thing I need are my clothes which I am wearing and my book. I should say goodbye to Rosa and the two men, but who knows what time they will be back. I finish off the fries although I am feeling sick, and then I set off with this man who I don’t know, but who for some reason I trust.
It is the singing that I like best in chapel on Sundays. Many of the hymns I recognise: “Amazing Grace”, “Our God reigns”, “Make me a channel of your peace”, although I am not sure where from, perhaps I used to go to church in my previous life. I sing along gustily, singing a hymn of thanks to God, but also to the Salvation Army and to Phil who rescued me and who has given me hope.
I had seen members of the Salvation Army on occasion when I was on the streets, or half-noticed them, part of the background to my struggles to survive, but I had not spoken to them as they made me scared. Phil says that perhaps I was not ready yet and that God had put him in the right place when I was. When I went back to the chapel with Phil that night I was shaking, wondering whether I should run back to the car park, to my friends. I could have easily, but something kept me walking.
They found me an older lady to live with, Betty Gray and then to my surprise they found me a job working in a Tesco. I could not remember my name, I was just known as Sam, but Phil sorted it out; got me a National Insurance number and a surname. I even got a bank account. I wondered who the real Samuel Phoenix was, perhaps one day he would come to collect my identity and money, but for the moment that was me.
The job was not difficult, going through the frozen food section and deciding what needed replenishing, and then down into the basement and into the big cavernous freezers and loading boxes of food onto a big trolley and bringing them up. At first I worked with a lady called Wendy, a little younger than me and very abrasive, but once they realised I was doing my job well and was honest they trusted me to work on my own. The only problem was my lips, the cold in the freezer made them peel, but I did not mind and one of my colleagues gave me a stick of lip salve which helped.
“I did wonder if you would come back that first day.” My manager Liz told me during my first supervision, “many of you brought by the Sally Army don’t.” She sniffed slightly, she smelt of mint and was pretty although rather skinny for my taste. “But you have done well, you don’t talk much, but that doesn’t matter. Continue to work hard and you could certainly get promoted. Well done Sam.”
I do not really want promotion, I had only been there a few months and already I was getting a little bored. Yes I am proud that I have maintained this job, that I get there on time, have never phoned in sick, that the other staff regard me as one of themselves, but I miss the excitement of the streets, and I feel a little trapped, that there is no way to escape. But this is a start and somewhere I feel safe. But then it might all come crashing down; some days I walk in and expect them to ask who I am, what am I doing in the staff area and then to telephone the police, whilst the staff look at me uncomprehendingly.
In the staff room they question me, so I put down my book of poetry and try to respond without giving the game away that I am not one of them.
“What football team do you support?”
“Forest” I reply surprisingly myself, who are they? Forest? But it seems to pass muster.
“Are you from Nottingham then?”
I shake my head, “I just like them.”
Then there follows a conversation about someone called Brian Clough who I gather is their manager and Teddy Sheringham who plays for them. I just nod and ask questions in turn so that my ignorance lies hidden. Some of the lads tease me in a good-natured way if Forest, my team, have done badly, and I try to follow their results so I can join in these conversations. Perhaps when they play one of the London teams I will go and watch them, it would be something to tell the lads at work.
I dream of a woman, an older woman with thick black hair and glasses. She is holding me, and I can feel her large breasts against me. “Andrew” she calls, “Andrew”, but that is not my name, and I am feeling smothered and scared. I wake up my heart is beating fast, and I am hot. I have wet myself again. I slowly get up, unusually I have remembered where I am. I hope that I have not woken up Betty with my nightmare.
Betty is a kind woman and one who does not talk much. We often watch television together barely speaking, and she never asks me anything more personal than what I fancy for dinner or whether I am warm enough. I am very grateful for this undemanding love but then I suspect that she has done this before and knows what people like me want and need. She has two sons, both of whom visit most weeks and treat me with respect and kindness when we bump into each other.
I gather up my sheets and pyjamas and as quietly as I can I walk down the stairs and put them in the washing machine. The house smells of air freshener and pot pourri; I hope that the smell of urine and sweat does not spoil things. It is three o’clock in the morning and I stay up reading some John Betjeman.
“Now with the bells through the apple bloom,/ Sunday-ly sounding/ And the prayers of the nuns in their chapel gloom/ Us all surrounding.”
Later I put on the washing and then have a shower. I eat some toast and go to work, just another man in the South London suburbs on his way to earn his crust.
“Do you want us to get in touch with your parents?”
Phil is in his office sitting in front of an overloaded desk, he looks as he usually does, tired as if almost overwhelmed with all the misery that he sees around him.
“No” I tell him. When I think of parents nothing comes up. Are they somewhere in Nottingham? But I have no desire to see them. I shiver slightly and blackness swoops down upon me.
“It is okay” says Phil, “don’t cry.” And he finds me a cup of tea, strong and black.
There is a service every Sunday morning in the chapel. It is quite a distance from where Betty lives but I don’t mind the walk. Different people from the Salvation Army lead the service, quite often it is Phil, and when he preaches he speaks quietly as if it is just you and him in the chapel. This morning the windows are open which is fortunate because many of the people smell, a few months ago I would not have noticed it, but now with my respectability has come fastidiousness and whilst I often talk to those being helped who have come in, swap tales and laugh at their jokes, I do not feel the same as them, I have become something better and I pity these people.
“You seem happy.” Phil says to me after the service, he had not lead today, but even so he had been surrounded by people afterwards, but he had looked at me, so I knew that he wanted me to wait for him.
I shrug, but at the moment I do feel happy, I have eaten and feel full and more importantly I know that I will eat again once I get home and this evening and the next day and so on.
“Yes, and I am very grateful.”
“You don’t have to be grateful, I am grateful to you for letting us help. I still remember you in that MacDonald’s so unhappy.” He smiled in fond remembrance. “Do you still have those nightmares?”
I nod, although they are less scary on a Sunday morning than when I face them at night and wake up wet and crying.
“Have you tried prayer?” he asks. The room feels warm despite the window being open and it is small or seems that way because of all the books, boxes and other junk that litter it. I can smell Phil, a whiff of aftershave or perhaps it is holiness.
“I try, sometimes when I am in bed at night, I try and I read that bible you gave me but I feel as if there is something blocking me.”
“God’s grace is open to all” Phil tells me, “no matter what you have done.”
There is a chair next to me and Phil comes over sits in it and bows his head.
“Please pray with me.”
I bow my head as Phil speaks.
“Dear father, please help this our brother Sam. We thank you that he is safe now and with people who care for him. Please show him the way to you in your infinite mercy. Show him that whatever he has done that your arms are open just waiting to receive him into your embrace.”
Phil then recited the Lord’s Prayer and after he had done he squeezed my shoulder.
“Thank you” I said, and I was grateful to him, grateful for trying, but there were no waiting arms for me. I felt that I was the same person that I had done a few moments before; I did not feel bliss or a sense of grace and love, nothing at all. I walked out of the chapel and said goodbye to a few people. Curiously I felt let down by Phil, perhaps I had discovered that he was human, that he could not help me with everything, that he could not save my soul.
I am putting items in the freezers at Tesco, bags of chips which we are always running short of. It is hot and I long to be outside going for a run on Clapham Common or maybe just along the streets. Still an hour to go, but I am happy. The job is quite physical which I like and I had a rather flirty chat with Marie a girl who works in the bakery. Perhaps I should ask her out somewhere, although I am not sure what Betty would say if I brought a girl back.
“Excuse me”, the problem with this job is that you are always being interrupted by members of the public asking where something or other is. There is a young man looking at me, well-groomed with smart jeans and a shirt with an understated flowery design.
“Do you know where the lentils are?” he asks, and then he does a double take, “its Andrew isn’t it? What are you doing in London?”
I look at him, not knowing what to say. Do I know him? I don’t think so, but so much is a blank. He continues to look at me, and suddenly his look changes, and he looks very scared indeed.
“It is okay mate, it can’t be…. Someone I used to know.” He hurries off and out of the shop.
I dream that I am going home, to a house with red bricks and a small garden at the front. I am glad to be there, I have been away for such a long time. The door is ajar and I push it open. I feel scared as I look in the dining room which is laid for dinner and the downstairs toilet. I know there is something in the kitchen so I go upstairs to avoid it, I look at my bedroom with rows of books including my John Betjeman poems. There is a room next to mine, I open the door, it is dark and there is a creature in there, and I am overwhelmed with terror. I wake up and rush to the toilet and am sick and sick again, and then I howl. The bathroom window is open, and through it I can see the stars, and I continue to howl, not knowing why I am doing it or why I feel so desperate.
It is similar to being on the streets; always looking, being aware, noticing anything that is not right. But now I have a rifle and armour and I am on the side of law and order, well that is the theory, but I am not sure that I feel any safer.
I went into the army recruiting office one day, just a whim really. I did not tell anyone, not anybody at Tesco and not even Phil, especially not Phil. They accepted me and I left Phil a note and was gone. I needed to leave, meeting that bloke in Tesco had scared me, I was getting too comfortable, and when you get comfortable then you are vulnerable, and I felt that I had got all I needed from the Salvation Army.
Yes I did miss Betty and I still think of Phil on occasion, but I have learned to let go of people and to forget them. Once I left the streets I rarely though of Rosa and the other two, never went to try to find them, they were the past and now so is Phil and his friends, no doubt he is helping somebody else find their way in life and has forgotten me.
Within a few months I was fully trained and then I was posted here to Northern Ireland. I became friends with my fellow soldiers; they were a tough lot, did not give much away, but we were loyal to each other and when large numbers of the population hate you and want to kill you they are precisely who you want on your side. I do not tell them much about myself, but I have constructed a personality of sorts which I can hide behind.
For a long time after I joined the army my dreams started to fade. I was so tired with all the training that perhaps I forgot them as soon as I was awake. I would stagger onto my bunk at night, try to read a poem and next moment I would be being woken up the morning light glaring into our dormitory, and some jumped-up officer shouting at us. I loved tiring myself out and learning how to survive. Only once after we did hand-to-hand fighting did I dream; I dreamed I was fighting, punching out at someone who refused to surrender, and then there was that name being called “Andrew, Andrew”. Fortunately we changed our own bed linen so nobody knew what had happened.
And now we are in Belfast, in Ulster marching the streets or driving in our armoured vehicles, watching the people on either side of us, knowing that someone could be planning to kill us; fire a gun, toss a bomb. I do not want my last moments to be lying on the ground surrounded by jeering mobs who can think of nothing better than kicking and spitting at a dying English soldier. I am scared much of the time, but then fear can be healthy.
I see a woman as we drive along; she is walking slowly towards us and as we get closer she catches my eye. She looks about forty; it is October and cold and she is wearing a green army coat as if mocking our uniform. I cannot read her expression but as I continue to look at her she raises her hand and like a child playing pretends to shoot me, I feel like joining in the game and returning her fire with my finger, or my rifle…. We drive past her and I continue to scan the streets, but the woman stays in my bed, and I hope that I will see her again, although I am not if I would love her or kill her.
“Had I kissed and drawn you to me,/ Had you yielded warm for cold,/ What a power had pounded through me/ As I stroked your streaming gold!”
There is a house I recognise in front of me and I am walking towards it. As I go through the door there is that same woman I saw today, she is making a cup of tea, and she smiles at me as nervously I sit down, and there is someone else there, but I cannot seem them properly.
“Is it poisoned?” I ask her, and then I throw it at her, the cup crashes to the floor, “stop trying to kill me,” I shout.
I hear her weep and walk up to my room and lie on my bed. Then I look out of the window but there is just blackness and suddenly I realise that everything around me is black, that I cannot see anything. I start to scream.
We are told to go to a house, it is in one of the Catholic areas of the cities; the house is part of a terrace and there is graffiti on it; “IRA”, “informers” and other words that I cannot read. I am with Matt, an older man.
“What are we doing here?” I ask feeling nervous. There are dribs of people about and most of them are looking at us hostile and mocking. Angel and Simon are close behind us, but I do not feel safe. We walk in, the door is open and there are members of the RUC there.
“Sorry” one of them says, “it isn’t nice but we need back-up”.
I can smell blood. The hallway is narrow and dark and the constable leads us to the back of the house, the floor is covered in muddy footprints and I feel guilty about adding to them. We walk into the dining room and in front of us there are four people sat round a table with something red on their clothes. It is a mother, father and two boys, the two boys and their father’s heads are bowed as if in prayer, but the mother is looking straight at me, her eyes brown and sightless.
I was on day release from the unit; my dreams had stopped and when my mum and my brother Danny had visited I had been calm and polite.
“Andrew if you start to worry, just ring me” my consultant said as he drove me to my home on the outskirts of Nottingham. There was the house from my dreams, I walked towards it and opened the door, my consultant watched me step in and hug my mother, and then I heard him drive away, he was going to pick me up that evening.
I followed my mother into the kitchen and there was Danny, we sat around the kitchen table just a normal family having tea. Danny was scared, I could tell and so was my mother but less so. We drank tea and ate Battenberg cake, my favourite. The kitchen smelt as it usually did of disinfectant and there were the same pictures on the walls; one of me and one of Danny, but the one of Danny was bigger. He did public speaking and there were a couple of certificates he had won, one of which he must have received whilst I was away.
“We are glad you are home” said the woman pretending to be my mother, and Danny nodded but not meaning it.
They watched me eat the cake and drink the tea, I knew that this was a mistake, this visit, that nothing had changed.
“It tastes funny” I said, after realising I had not said anything for awhile, and I stood up. Danny ran upstairs as he had been told to whenever I got upset.
“Poison” I said, “poison”. The woman ran for the telephone, but I had the knife I had stolen from the kitchens, and brought with me in case something happened, and I caught her before she could ring anyone, pulled her down onto the floor, and then I stabbed her over and again, something that I had wanted to do since I could remember. She had stopped making any noise and lay in front of me still solid and hateful. I wiped the knife on her dress, her best one that she must have worn especially for my visit. I felt calmer for a few moments and relieved that I had done what I needed to do. But I knew that I could not stop now, so I went upstairs for Danny.
I remember running out of the garden I must have grabbed a book of poetry before I fled, because there it was in my hand. And then nothing, until I woke up in that underground carpark smelling piss and sick and trying to remember what my name was.
My rifle is in my hand and I am sweating. I look at the people around me, the living and the dead, and realise that I am weeping. I push Matt aside and run out into the open where the air is clear and fresh and where I feel free. There are still plenty of people outside the house and they look at me and laugh as I stagger out and start to run whilst behind me I hear my name being called, fading into the grey Belfast sky.
At first I just run, to escape the house and my memories, but soon I start heading towards the docks, they are nearby and there will be boats from all over the world and perhaps someone will let me come aboard and take me to where I wish to go, somewhere safe and hidden, somewhere faraway, a harbour.
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