“Down The Tubes [Excerpt]” by Kate Rigby

On the street you’re your own boss. You don’t have to answer to nothing or no one. He thinks this as he pushes Woodstock around in the old sixties pram he nicked from outside some junk shop.

Woodstock and his worldly possessions: a couple of maggoty blankets, some holey socks, a stack of old newspapers and a few polluted vegetables scavenged from outside greengrocers or rich dustbins.

You have to overcome pride and taboo, raiding dustbins, and now it’s a piece of cake. Now he’s crossed that border into that other world. That colder, shadier side of life and it’s okay.

They stare at the pram. Some of them laugh. He barely speaks to a soul. He doesn’t want people near him, but has the pigeons eating out of his hand, three at a time. Or flapping about his shoulders in their hundreds.

Trafalgar Squareish. He comes here most days. Sits. Thinks. Walks to his bench. Comes over all sleepy. This is his sleeping time. Sleep by day, walk by night. Conserve your energy. Protect yourself from danger. Protect yourself from cold.

The weather’s getting warmer, but it never quite warms him. The wind still comes in. He’s always cold. Always damp. From the inside out. But the sun on his blanket defrosts him.

Just give us a bench in the sun, eh Woodstock? And we’re happy as Larry.

On his bench he’ll listen to the buskers playing their tin whistles. He wishes he could play like that.

Then he’ll lie down, Woodstock up against him, keeping him company, keeping him warm. He’ll close his eyes a while, the background coming and going like radio waves. Then he’ll lose it to sleep. Scrappy sleep. Then he’ll wake up, bleary, and the whole scene will have shifted, moved on.

On wet days, he finds places to shelter. Drop-in centres. Soup kitchens. Places where you can get a cheap hot meal with the pennies in your pocket. Places filled with folk like him. Surviving from night to night, café to café, shelter to shelter. Folk you can share a cup of coffee with, a fag, a couple of hours of your time. Because that’s something everyone’s got stacks of.

There’s that old Irish lady who’s going a bit dotty. Tells you her life story as she picks the fish out of her teeth and wipes them on the trousers she’s been wearing all winter long. Then there’s that Lottie woman with her fake fur and Mary Poppins brolley, her supermarket trolley full of cheap bright charity-shop clothes.

You can be who you like here. You can throw away your old self and get a new one. There’s folk out here got nothing but they’ll give you their last penny. They’ll tell you the best way to build your cardboard house, the best place. They’ll tip you off about the best loos or shelters to spend the night in and there’s another sort of folk who won’t tell you.

They’ve only got a little and they want to keep it for themselves. They don’t want to share. They hoard. It’s the law of the jungle out here. He’s like this. You get on with your life and leave me to get on with mine. He’s good at slipping between people. Strength is distance, the little dream-girl said.

Then there’s the folk hanging out in gangs. Just another society with codes, but they’ve got something he needs, so he hovers. Like a low-flying wasp, until he finds what he’s looking for. Drugs.

Speed enough to raise his spirits, to keep him awake at the right times. Speed costs money, but he can’t cope with signing on, with keeping appointments at set times. There’s a quicker and easier way.

Crouching down in a disused doorway with your ‘hungry and homeless’ card and black cap upturned, Woodstock in the pram. Woodstock brings in the pounds. Folk don’t like the thought of hungry dogs, even if they don’t care much for hungry people.

He never looks up. He says his quiet thank-yous to the ankles of the good-hearted, but today there’s this man squatting down to his level, right in his face. He’s wearing a bright-coloured open shirt. Hint of an accent. Australian? South African? Never was much good on accents.

“Hi, I’m Neil. Nice hound you’ve got yourself there. What’s his name?”

“Woodstock.”

“Woodstock, eh? You’re a bit young to remember it, aren’t you?”

He doesn’t trust this too-familiar stuff, all this petting Woodstock [stuff]. He wants Neil to [get] out of his face.

“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I? Can’t forget that pram. You live in cardboard city, right?”

“Don’t live in no city.”

“So, what’s worse than waking up in your own piss?” Neil waits for an answer, but getting none, answers it himself. “Waking up in someone else’s. I’d get pissed off if people kept pissing over my home.”

“Can’t do nothing about it. You just gotta get on and make another.”

“Hey, you’re quite enterprising you people, aren’t you? I mean, people say you lot don’t want a roof over your head but that’s bollocks, isn’t it? I mean, if I offered you one you’d take it, right?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“The catch.”

“If there was no catch.”

“There’s gotta be.”

“What would you say if I offered you a place to live as long as you wanted?”

“There’s gotta be a catch.”

“My friend’s looking for someone who’ll work for him.”

“What sorta work? I ain’t never worked.”

“There’s nothing to it and you get somewhere to live.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, you get to live in the flat above me,” says Neil, shiftily opening his tobacco pouch, just enough to flaunt the concealed little packages inside. “So? Still say no?”

He’s drooling. Neil’s got him this time. He can’t turn this one down. They want him to run for them most like – Neil and this other geezer – in return for a roof over his head and food in his stomach and enough drugs to see him through…

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About the Author

Kate Rigby has been writing for decades. She loves cats, photography and music. When she isn’t buried in books and art, she is campaigning online for social justice. Catch up with her on Facebook!

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