A story of sorts….a prologue maybe…
Bert knew things. It wasn’t always apparent though, since for most of the day he did little more than sit in his chair at the back of the home, waiting for someone to pass by. Years of drinking had slowly stripped him of his ability to remember the everyday details. These days he couldn’t always tell you what day of the week it was, or what he’d eaten for breakfast yesterday. It also wasn’t entirely clear whether he’d chosen to stop drinking or whether he’d simply forgotten. But ask the right questions and he could tell you about his life on the road or recount in great detail stories of his time working on trawlers in the North Sea.
I’ve known Bert (not his real name) for a good thirty years. He’s been in and out of most of the hostels in Southampton, but more often than not he slept rough under one of the bridges which spanned the Itchen River, tucked out of the way. You could never tell with Bert where he was going to get his head down…it all depended on whether it was pay day, whether he’d been barred from a particular hostel, or more realistically how much alcohol he’d had to drink and how far he could manage to walk.
The Seaman’s Mission was a useful starting point…Bert had his ticket which got him through the door, but sometimes the problem was payment. The Salvation Army was ‘dry’ and so that was often ruled out straight away. The ’Spike’ was a little more accessible, but you had to take your chance with everyone else and it was a good two or three miles walk out of the city; after which there was no guarantee that you’d get a bed.
Even when the dormitory accommodation was ended, the idea of a single room in a hostel with 50 or so other drinkers, panhandlers, madmen and other assorted chancers wasn’t really so much a choice, but a matter of necessity. Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of men who said they’d sooner sleep rough than spend a night under the same roof as ‘all them fucking lunatics’. And in truth why would you, when sometimes the only shared experience that you had was an ability to drink yourself into oblivion; you wouldn’t choose to have most of them behind your front door when you went to sleep.
It’s funny how quick people are to label men like Bert and to dismiss them as little more than “just another drinker”, as if nothing else really mattered….
To be continued…
[Change the name, but don’t change the story….]