From the novel “Here Am I Sitting in my Tin Can.” based on the Ottermobile Adventures.
I always knew there’d be a first time for someone to sleep over with me in my tin can, but never did I think it’d be a man. The other night my woman was imaginary, but this is real.
Just like many other towns and cities, York has a real homeless problem – in recent years it’s seen a rise of 40% of those officially considered to be in that category. I don’t include myself – my tin can is my home, a roof over my head with enough amenities for me to call it that. But yes it is, and I am, only one small step away from the street.
I’m heading south to Leeds because I’ve had a call from my oldest friend called Tiddle and I aim to meet him there. After my trials and tribulations of recent weeks I need some love, but in the absence of that, company and laughter will do. But first this is York, where I call to buy a postcard, have something to eat, read the local papers, and where I meet Anthony.
Normally those you encounter in shop doorways lie in a shambles of bedclothes with a paper cup in front of them, mutteringly asking if you have any spare change. But there is something immediately different about this young boy – well-spoken, smart but casual in jeans and anorak, clean-looking, politely approaching me and asking for help. Though homeless and penniless I learn, there is something in his eyes that makes me warm to him. I know there is a story zipped in the baggage he carries but I don’t want it there and then, so I invite him back into the cafe and buy him a tea and a bun. Gratefully he puts down his bags and finds a table, where I describe my project and my own proximity to homelessness, so I wonder if he’ll tell me how he came to be here, joking that he doesn’t get the bun for free. He laughs and begins his tale.
Originally from Blackpool, he left school with nothing to write home about and drifted through dead-end jobs and relationships, finishing up in a fairground burger van. Eventually he managed to save up and get himself to Brussels, where he studied catering with dreams of becoming a restaurateur. Suddenly his life was shattered when he heard from his brother that his parents and Auntie had been killed in a car crash. Returning home for the funeral, he met a guy on the train who’d become his partner. They settled in Blackpool where he got a job as a waiter before eventually setting up a bistro with his brother, using their inheritance.
At first it was good, but gradually the hikes in rent hit him hard and he eventually lost the business, and when his boyfriend deserted him and he was duped by his brother, he went into financial and mental decline. Since then he’s drifted around our cities to find work.
It’s a story far from unique I suppose, and certainly heartbreaking, but as I can’t help noting that like is the case with many I’ve befriended on my travels who’ve unburdened their story, there’s an air of “that’s how it goes” pragmatism rather than “woe is me” pathos. No, Anthony doesn’t feel sorry for himself, he’s just baffled as to how this happened, how he got here, and how rapid was the journey.
“Guess it can happen to anyone,” he says, with a grin.
Anthony is a very funny young man of 30, good-looking, bright, friendly and hopeful; all he wants, he says, is to get a full-time job, save up and get back to Belgium. And he will get there in the end.
Impressed with his positivity and warmed by his wit, I ask how this is possible when sleeping rough – and isn’t it dangerous? Does he encounter violence etc? With a shrug he says this and other things come with the territory. He’s been propositioned for sex, “full-blown or a handjob for a tenner”, which he’d never lower himself to; he’s been attacked over a bag of chips, and he’s been offered drugs though he’s never so much as smoked a spliff or tried spice. Sleeping rough is a last resort, he says, because he sometimes gets casual work and can afford a hostel; it’s finding a full-time job that’s tough.
I really like Anthony and feel for him, especially when he says he slept rough last night and got drenched; he’d spent his last pennies on getting his clothes laundered.
“Least it looks like it’ll be clear tonight,” he says with another smile.
“You’re sleeping rough again tonight?”
“Less I get lucky!”
Two hours later I’m in a lay-by near Murton, setting up stealth-camp. Knowing he is hungry, as am I, I vow to rustle something up, explaining I love cooking for people and don’t get the chance nowadays. He is the chef and I am the novice, but I manage to make a meal of pasta, tomatoes and garlic which he seems to enjoy. Beggars can’t be choosers, he says, and I say he’s a cheeky little bastard. There is no wine to go with the dish, but we don’t need it because we’re laughing like drains at how bizarre all this is; total strangers, sharing food, sharing jokes, playing my Travel Ludo, bonding in ludicrous adversity!
“You really want me to sleep in this tonight?” he says.
“What’s wrong with it?” I say with faux offence.
“I mean, you’re actually sure?”
“Listen,” I say, definitively, “Dry night or not, I’m not having you on the street.”
Though the tin can claims to be a two-berth it’s a tight squeeze, but I manage the awkward and funny mechanical manoeuvre of the seats to bed down – not before I’d declared the three main rules of the house:
1 No farting
2 After breakfast he must be gone before I do my ablutions, and
3 No funny business.
Responding in order, he says he’ll try not to fart, he’s no desire to see me “ablute”, and as for funny business I’m old enough to be his granddad and he wouldn’t touch me with a fucking barge-pole! I say I feel a mixture of amusement, offence and comfort from that peroration and he laughs, telling me I’m a lovely bloke, if a bit mad, and he’s had a great time. “I’ve never played Ludo before.”
Anthony sleeps warmly and soundly in my spare mummy bag and I watch him in the streetlight, thinking to myself he’s about the same age as my son, and how would I feel to know he was homeless, living on the streets, kipping in shop doorways, being attacked over a bag of chips? And what could I do except give him a roof over his head in my tin can? That’s all I could do right now, because I am just one small step away from homelessness myself. The thought of this depresses me, but I shrug it off, preferring instead to imagine what my friend Tiddle would make of it if he could see me right now. Smiling at that, I fall asleep.
Next morning, after a quiet night’s kip and toast made on my camper stove, Anthony plans to exit as promised, with a quip that I could now shit in peace, but I insist on running him back into town. He also takes my number and promises to stay in touch. Whether that will happen I very much doubt, but it doesn’t matter. He is a fine young man; he is good company, he made me laugh, he is bright, but most of all he has made me think about what really matters. And what really matters is that we trusted each other. What more can we do? We’re human beings and we help each other. I’ve always championed the underdog, it’s in my make-up. If I can help I will, and I wish I could do more. I’m no saint, God knows, but I like to think that whatever happens to me on this journey and if I end up in Anthony’s shoes, someone will be there to help me. In future days I’ll think a lot about him and be impressed by his cheerfulness in dark times, I’ll hope he’ll get back to Brussels, but I’ll forever be saddened at how it gets to this for young men and women like him. We all roll the dice, but only some of us score a six.
“Take care young man,” I say as I drop him off near the city centre.
“You too Granddad,” he says with a grin, and disappears in my mirror as I drive away in search of Leeds. Time for another roll of the dice.