The wind rattled noisily along the almost deserted high street. It rustled the plastic on the rows of black bags waiting for collection and whipped up the discarded take-away wrappers and empty beer cans into a wild frenzied dance before depositing them in untidy heaps along the dirty pavement. The icy blast of easterly wind carried with it more than a hint of snow and the man lying in the shop doorway shivered. His sleeping bag gave him little protection from the elements despite huddling as close to the door as possible.
The wind also tortured him with the sounds of the ‘normal’ world, the world he had once belonged to, but was now so isolated from that he struggled to remember how it felt. The town centre at night: people laughing and chatting, music growing in strength and then returning to a low indistinguishable hum as the doors of pubs and clubs opened and closed. Every now and again these noises would be punctuated by the distant echoes of TVs, reminding him poignantly of family nights spent watching ‘corrie’ with the wife or comedies with the children. But that world was closed to him now, as remote and inaccessible as the bodies of his comrades on the cold windswept battle field so many miles away. It was here that the long slow path to alcoholism and homelessness had begun. It was here his mind had begun the tortuous journey that had led to him sleeping in a shop doorway.
The snow was light at first, the flakes tiny, melting on impact, gone before he had really registered them. But the menacing fingers of the snow laden wind sought him out and before long he was covered in a light blanket.
His first thoughts were that at least the snow might provide some protection from the freezing wind but this hope was soon dispelled. Despite the cold his body was slightly warmer than the air around so as soon as the wet snow landed it began to melt. Within moments he could feel the dampness seeping through the layers of newspaper he had used to line the sleeping bag. It found its way through the layers of clothing; his coat, jumpers, trousers, through to the underwear that he had worn for weeks without changing until it reached his skin. He closed his eyes but then rapidly opened them again. There was no peace in sleep, no peace anywhere. When he closed his eyes he was back there, back to the killing fields back to…
‘Look what we have ‘ere’ the voice was harsh and grating, the words slurred and laden with alcohol. But at least it broke into the flashback and distracted him from the terror lurking deep within his mind. But within seconds his relief turned to fear as a second drunken voice joined the first
‘Fucking scumbag’ a foot caught him sharply in the stomach leaving him stunned
‘Yeah, fucking loser’ the first voice responded before lashing out with his feet catching him in the side of the head.
He tried to call out, he tried to curl up to protect his head, but the layers of newspaper that were cushioning the blows also restricted his movement. He realised he was helpless to either protect himself or fight back. Instinctively he raised his arm to protect his head. Unable to reach his head the attacker changed direction and the boot crashed into his chest forcing the air from his lungs. The world around him began to swim hazily and he fought to remain conscious. But it was no good. Darkness enveloped him and he realised this was probably the end.
He could no longer feel the boots smashing into his body, no longer hear the shouted insults. Instead he saw himself as a young man, smiling proudly at the camera his mother held as she took a picture of him in his freshly laundered uniform. He recognised the picture. It had been taken on the day he before he had gone to war. As he stared at the young man smiling back at him he wondered how it had all gone wrong. How had he ended up homeless and at the mercy of mindless drunken yobs in the country he had sworn to protect?
The doctor looked at him and waited for him to speak. Keith hesitated and then said
‘I’ve been having trouble sleeping.’
‘Do you drink?’
Keith shrugged and then nodded
‘It’s the only way I can sleep’
‘Are you worrying about anything?’
Keith shook his head. The doctor sighed
‘Do you have any idea why you can’t sleep?’
Keith opened his mouth to explain but the words wouldn’t come. He closed it again and then, realising he would have to try he said
‘I keep having nightmares.’
‘Oh what about?’ the doctor sounded mildly interested now and this gave Keith some courage.
‘When I was in the army I….. I saw…. I was…..’ he struggled to say the words so he looked at the doctor for support. The doctor’s face was expressionless and Keith’s courage deserted him.
‘I don’t know’ he mumbled. ‘Can you give me something?’
‘I can give you some sleeping tablets.’ The doctor replied cheerfully. ‘They’ll block out the nightmares and once you start getting some proper sleep you’ll be as right as rain. Come back and see me in a month’s time. Oh, its best not to drink with them.’
Keith took the prescription and left. He went to the chemist and collected his tablets and went to work.
That night he managed to avoid drinking any alcohol and, carefully following the instructions, he took the tablets. He fell almost instantly into a deep sleep.
‘KEITH! KEITH! WAKE UP! IT’S JUST A BAD DREAM!’
Keith could hear Sally shouting, but her voice was coming from a distance and he couldn’t reach her. His way was barred by the men with bayonets who were trying to kill him. He tackled one to the ground and drew his knife.
The long high pitched scream woke him with a start and he found himself kneeling over his wife with a knife at her throat. He dropped it in horror and looked into her shocked, terror filled eyes.
‘I’m sorry I was dreaming’ the words sounded inadequate even to him. He focused on her terrified face ‘Oh my God, have I hurt you? Please tell me I haven’t hurt you?’ Despite her fear her heart went out to him and she shook her head. Taking a deep breath and trying to keep her voice steady she said
‘I thought you went to the doctors today?’
‘I did’ he replied as he sat back. He still felt sluggish and he realised it was the sleeping tablets. ‘He gave me sleeping tablets.’
‘You need to get proper help Keith’
‘I did’ he said defensively. I went to the doctor and he gave me some sleeping pills and said to go back in a month.’
‘We can’t go on like this’ Sally said softly. She was still shaking from the fear of waking up to find a knife at her throat and her husband’s crazed terrorised face inches from hers.
‘I won’t take them anymore. It must have been the sleeping tablets, I’ve never done that before.’ He lay down on the bed and pulled her towards him.
‘I’m so sorry darling. I have no idea what’s wrong with me but I’m sure it will sort itself out.’
Sally allowed him to cuddle her and said nothing. She had no idea how much more she could take. And what if he hurt the children?
Keith lay back and stared at the ceiling. What was happening to him?
He had been out just over three years now and since his discharge everything seemed to have gone wrong. He had signed off because his wife had grown tired of the continual tours and the lack of a settled family life. It wasn’t just the tours of course, it was the weeks away pre tour training, then the exercises once they had come back. The final straw had been the persistent rumours that tour lengths were to be extended. Even though they hadn’t happened he had been forced to finally make a choice, between the job he loved and his family. He had chosen his family, signed off and begun his life as a civilian.
To start with everything had been fine. The job had been quite boring, but he kept telling himself that at least he would get to go home to his family each night. But with the boredom had come sudden flashbacks and nightmares. They had started out of the blue, and he kept hoping they would go away, but they didn’t. So he began drinking a little more each night so that he slept better. It worked for a while, but he didn’t want to relax too much in case they came back, so he drank a little more.
Sally kept telling him to go and see someone, but he couldn’t do that. They might make him relive it all, and that would make the nightmares and flashbacks worse. In any case he wasn’t a nutter. Nutters were weak and he wasn’t weak. He would sort it himself, like he’d been taught to. It was probably best to try and block it all out and pretend it wasn’t happening, then it would stop. Talking about it with some shrink would only make it worse. So that’s what he did. Only if he was honest it didn’t work, not really. So he had finally taken all his courage in his hands and gone to see the doctor and look where that had got him. It had made it ten times worse. He’d throw the sleeping tablets away in the morning. It would be safer to go back to drinking.
‘I’m homeless’. The words sounded strange to Keith. He had never considered himself one of those people who needed state help. Yet here he was, standing in the local council offices, saying those words.
The girl behind the desk appeared to be in her late teens, early twenties from what he could judge and she looked bored. He tried smiling at her but she ignored him, instead indicating he take a seat and saying someone would be out to speak to him. He did as he was told without question, the training was still there, something his ex-wife constantly complained about.
Best not to think about his wife Sally, his ex-wife as she was now, so he looked round the office wishing he could see a friendly face. There wasn’t one so he went back to his thoughts, trying to work out how it had come to this. How he’d ended up having to rely on the state, something he’d always sworn he’d never do. That was for losers, not men like him who’d done things. He was proud of serving his country and he knew his country would help him now he was in need, so he sat back and waited patiently.
The drinking had helped for a few months and then he’d had a flashback at work and lost his job. They said he was drunk, of course he wasn’t, but they wouldn’t listen. Sally had gone berserk, said she’d finally had enough and thrown him out.
Fortunately one of his old army mates, Taffy, had said he could stay on his sofa so he had moved in with him. To start with it had been great; boozy nights out, rolling in at the crack of dawn, dunk as a skunk. But then Taffy’s girlfriend had got fed up and issued him with an ultimatum. He’d expected Taffy to tell her where to go, but he hadn’t. He’d looked sheepishly at him and told him he needed to go and sort himself out. He only had until the weekend and then he would be completely homeless, hence the reason for the visit to the local council.
‘Mr English’ the voice broke into his thoughts and bought him back to reality. He looked up in time to see a middle aged man pointing to a seat in a small booth.
He sat down opposite the housing advisor, taking in the unshaved stubble on his chin, the small deep set eyes and the pot belly that protruded over the top of his trousers when he sat down.
Without really looking at him the man began asking questions: name; date of birth; National Insurance number; ethnic origin; religion; sexuality; is your gender the same as it was at birth? Keith answered automatically. It didn’t occur to him to question what his sexuality, religion or ethnic origin, had to do with being homeless.
‘Previous addresses?’ Keith began with his mate’s house and then the family home where he had been living since his discharge. The man waited and Keith realised he wanted more so he stated that he had been a member of HM Forces for the previous 10 years. There was no reaction.
‘Why are you homeless?’
‘I split up with my partner so my mate put me up on his sofa, but he said I’ve got to move out now’ he said
‘Any physical or mental health problems?’
Keith shook his head. He had no intention of mentioning the flashbacks or nightmares. He didn’t want people to think he was mentally ill. He shuddered inwardly at the thought of some of his old mates finding out that he was nutty. That really would be the end.
He turned his attention back to the housing advisor. He was saying something about being vulnerable, but Keith had missed some of the conversation so he asked tentatively if the man could repeat it. Sighing heavily the housing advisor repeated what he’d asked
‘I said do you have any difficulty speaking and understanding English?’ Keith looked at him confused. The advisor was starting to look annoyed. He shook his head slightly and said slowly ‘If you can’t speak or understand English it makes you more vulnerable.’
‘Oh. No, no problem.’ He shook his head ‘I speak English’ he added feeling slightly stupid. The man continued. ‘Do you need to be near anyone for support or to give support?’ Keith shook his head and then it was over. The advisor finished writing and handed him the form to read and sign. Keith did as he was told and waited expectantly.
‘Well on the basis of what you’ve told me you’re not vulnerable in any way so you’re not a priority. That means there’s not much we can do for you. If you find yourself without anywhere to sleep there’s a night shelter in King’s Road. It opens at 7pm. You’ll need to queue up with all the others.’
He stood up; the interview was obviously over so Keith stood up too.
‘Is that it?’ he asked incredulously ‘Aren’t you going to offer me any accommodation?’
The man looked at him as if he was mad. ‘We don’t just offer accommodation to anyone you know. You aren’t a priority so no I’m afraid there is little else we can do for you. Oh you could try the Royal British Legion they might help.’
Stunned by the lack of help Keith left the building and headed straight for the pub. He had just enough money for a few pints, then he’d think about what he was going to do next. He couldn’t see how the RBL could help, getting his drink a bit cheaper in once of their clubs would be useful, but it wasn’t going to help him get a roof over his head.
The following Monday he left Taffy’s house.
‘You sure you’ve got somewhere to go?’ Taffy asked awkwardly
Keith nodded ‘Yeah, my Mum has said I can stay there for a while, just ‘til I get sorted, you know’ he lied
Taffy looked relieved
‘Oh good, that’s alright then. I’d liked to have helped more but’ he indicated back to the house with his thumb ‘You know what it’s like.’
‘No drama mate.’ Keith slapped Taffy on the back ‘I’ll be fine, thanks for letting me stay here. See you around.’
He put his head down and didn’t look back. Taffy watched him for a few moments wondering if he really did have somewhere to go. Then he went back inside and tried to ignore the nagging voice inside his head that said Keith needed some help.
Keith headed towards the night shelter. It was shut, the notice proclaiming it didn’t open until 7pm. It didn’t look very welcoming and the thought of bedding down with a load of strangers didn’t really appeal to him. They’d probably all be druggies of alkies. No he’d probably be better off on his own. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t cope sleeping outside. He’d done it for long enough while he was in the army, long nights on ops spent sleeping in dug outs, nights waiting to advance……. An image of fierce hand to hand fighting came abruptly into his mind and he threw himself to the ground in terror, rolling over and over in an attempt to escape the bayonet that was coming relentlessly toward him.
‘What’s the matter with that man Mummy?’ the child’s high pitched voice broke through the terror and he opened his eyes. A young woman in tight jeans and cropped top was pulling a child aged about seven or eight away from him. Her expression was one of disgust and fear and her answer buried itself in his heart like a dagger.
‘Come away Natalie. He’s just drunk. It’s disgusting. Where are the police when you need them? People like him shouldn’t be allowed to ruin the town for the rest of us.’
‘He looks sad Mummy’ it was a girl he realised belatedly, a girl about the same age as his daughter. He blinked away the tears that threatened to form and he began to apologise.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean to frighten you…..’ but the woman had her back to him and was already walking away, leaving him feeling even more depressed.
He stood up and brushed himself down, relieved there was no one else about. He picked up his bag and headed into town. It would be fine. He just needed to make sure he had some food and drink and he could survive anything. At least it was summer and, looking up at the sky, it looked like it would be quite warm. As he entered the main part of the town he began to look for somewhere he would be able to sleep that night.
The first few places he thought of were already taken and those occupying them didn’t seem that friendly. Perhaps he would be better off sleeping out in the countryside. It was a bit of a hike, but out there he could light a fire if it got cold and he could make a proper safe place to live until he got himself sorted. Best to buy some supplies with what little money he had left then he could stay outside the town for a few days. The supermarket had a special offer on cheap vodka so he stocked up, bought some bread and cheese and headed purposefully towards the rolling hills that formed the backdrop to the picturesque town.
To start with it was quite good camping out in the hills. He got fed up with the incessant rain and developed a cough, but a few drinks helped with that. At first he continued to try and find work, but people seemed to shy away from him and he realised that he probably didn’t smell that nice. There wasn’t an awful lot he could do about that so eventually he gave up looking for work and signed on as unemployed again.
The people in the job centre didn’t seem that friendly and he had the feeling that they were laughing at him when his back was turned. He was also sure he was being followed so he always took a circuitous route on his journey in and out of town. It was much colder out now, winter was on its way and he wondered what he would do when it got really cold. But that was the future, it was still only October and despite the rain it was still quite mild. At least it was after he’d had a few drinks.
He knew he had to have some money, if only to buy drink, so he came into town every couple of weeks to pick up his dole money. He went into the local supermarket and bought whatever booze was cheapest that week. Sometimes he stole the odd bottle or packet of cheese or cold meat while he was in there. But after a little while he was sure the staff were watching him so he stopped, not wanting to get arrested.
The flashbacks were getting worse, so were the nightmares. He no longer tried to sleep, just drank until oblivion hit. But it was taking more and more alcohol to get him to that state. He was sure people were watching him all the time and he found himself shouting at people when they came near. He curled up in a shop doorway and wished people would just leave him alone. But the owner of the shop came out and asked him to move. She’d asked him politely so he nodded, took a swig from the bottle and got up.
‘Hasn’t he gone yet?’ the voice was also female, but older and more officious. Keith spun round to challenge her. But he lost his balance and fell, banging his arm on the door. As he sank to the ground he could hear them laughing at him so he lost his temper and started shouting. They called the police who arrested him and put him in a cell to sober up.
Without any alcohol he started to feel really sick and then, without warning, he was back in the killing fields. The bearded man was coming towards him. This time he had a knife. He was so close Keith could see the fear in the man’s beady eyes and smell the sweat on his body. He tried to escape but something was holding him, something wouldn’t let him get away from the killer. Keith lashed out, bringing all his training to bear. He could hear his assailant grunting as he tried to kill him. Then it was all over, strong arms were pulling him off, he was punched in the stomach, the ribs, the side of his head hit the floor and he blacked out for a moment. When he opened his eyes he fully expected to see the bearded man leering over him ready to deal the lethal blow. But instead he found himself staring at a slightly portly policeman who had blood on his mouth and a large bruise appearing on his cheek.
‘What happened?’ he started to ask, but the policeman snarled at him
‘Don’t give me that you drunken bastard. Lucky they pulled you off when they did or I’d have killed you.’ Even in the state he was in Keith thought that was unlikely, but he was sober enough to realise it might be best not to say so.
‘I’m sorry. I thought……’ he stopped. How could he say that he’d thought he was back in…….. he snapped off the thought, terrified it would open the door again and he would find himself back there. Back beside the dead mutilated bodies of his friends, alone and facing death. Instead he began to cry, great heaving sobs wracking his body and the policeman looked at him in disgust.
‘Scum like you should be locked up but it’s not up to me’ he spat. ‘Get up and get out you great oaf, we haven’t got room for you in the cells.’
Keith looked at him blankly
‘You’re free to go’ the policeman said slowly. To Keith it sounded as if he was speaking to a small child or someone who was a mental case. He shuddered, maybe he really was nutty, perhaps he should ask for some help. But the moment passed, he was given his bag, minus the alcohol, and he found himself back out on the streets and alone.
The wind rattled noisily along the almost deserted high street. It rustled the plastic on the rows of black bags waiting for collection and whipped up the discarded take-away wrappers and empty beer cans into a wild frenzied dance before depositing them in untidy heaps along the dirty pavement. The icy blast of easterly wind carried with it more than a hint of snow but the man lying in the shop doorway no longer shivered.
He had tried to call out, he had tried to curl up to protect his head, but the layers of newspaper that were cushioning the blows had also restricted his movement. He had realised he was helpless to either protect himself or fight back. Instinctively he had raised his arm to protect his head, his fist closed as he held onto his most precious possession.
Unable to reach his head the attacker had changed direction and the boot had crashed into his chest forcing the air from his lungs. The world around him had begun to swim hazily and he had fought to remain conscious. But it was no good. Darkness had enveloped him and he had realised this was probably the end.
He no longer felt the boots smashing into his body, no longer heard the shouted insults. Instead he saw himself as a young man, smiling proudly at the camera his mother held as she took a picture of him in his freshly laundered uniform. He recognised the picture. It had been taken on the day he before he had gone to war. As he stared at the young man smiling back at him he wondered how it had all gone wrong. His last thoughts: How had he ended up homeless and at the mercy of mindless drunken yobs in the country he had sworn to protect?
The policeman looked at the lifeless body lying on the filthy pavement. The body was bruised and bloody, the arm outstretched as if to protect himself. The policeman frowned as he looked at the hand. Although it was closed tightly he could just make out something inside the closed fist. Making sure he didn’t disturb any evidence he carefully prized the fingers apart and gasped. In the filthy hands of the murdered tramp was the highest honour that could be bestowed on a soldier, the Victoria Cross.