I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas wandering around watching all the hurly burly as usual. People dashing around, pushing and shoving each other, banging into each other with huge bags of shopping and generally showing a great lack of goodwill. Sometimes if I was tired I just sat on the steps around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly. People stampeded past without a second look at me or any of those sitting there around me. I remembered a teacher in the lock-up saying he always kept his eyes down when he crossed the ‘Dilly’ in case there was any body there he didn’t want to see. Somehow I guessed he wouldn’t want to see me. He would not think I was one of his successes. He probably wouldn’t recognise me. I had deliberately made it hard to tell if I was a man or a woman. I found it was safer that way.
When I first started living on the street, I was still presentable, and it would often be hard to fend off the leerers and gropers, although they usually cleared off when I aimed the odd well-placed kick. Then I went weeks without a bath and even longer without a change of clothes.I supposed the rough sleepers’ places would be opening up soon. At least then there would be food and warmth and sleeping would feel safe. There was hot water and soap and shampoo. Even some clothes on offer. But I usually picked men’s clothes, or big, baggy things. It felt safer dressed like that.
I looked at the lights and the shop windows. I got up and walked about a bit. The cold had been seeping into my behind through the big anorak and my legs were feeling numb.
I thought about some of the Christmases before. Funnily enough the best ones had been when I was in care. Before that my Mam was usually out of it, or just out, and Dad was always a bit of a mystery. We used to think he would turn up, mainly because Mam always said he was working away and would be home soon. She would tell us about the things he would bring for us. But somehow another job always came up and he never made it to the Post Office to send our presents off to us.
My first Christmas in care was in a foster home, where I had arrived a week or so before what they called THE BIG DAY. It was a big day as well. There were decorations everywhere, and friends and neighbours seemed to come in all the time, to be given booze and snacks.
That’s where I first saw an advent calendar, went to a candlelit carol service and learned about the Christmas story. Since then I’ve often thought about the Virgin Mary. Sometimes I think, “Who was she kidding?”. But then I think about being out in the open with a little baby and nobody to help, and I think I know how it felt.
I woke up on Christmas morning to the wonderful smell of cooking. I yawned and stretched and something fell off the bed. I got up to look and found a big red felt stocking with all sorts of bits and pieces, all wrapped up. I went to find out what was going on.
The rest of the family were having a picnic breakfast and everybody had a stocking full of presents. They had been waiting for me to wake up. Sweet or what? We all took it in turns to open something. Then the Dad said, “We’ll open the big ones after lunch.” For the first time I saw a huge pile of things under the tree. I could see my name on some of them. I felt terrible. They had got so much for me and I had got nothing for any of them. I dashed upstairs and hid under my duvet. I remember the lovely clean smell of the sheets and pillows. Something we never had at home.
Somebody came in. It was the big sister. She stroked my foot, the only bit she could see. She decided that I was missing my Mam (HA!) and said they were planning to take me to see her later in the day. I wanted to fling off the duvet and hug her and say, “I don’t want to go to see HER. I’m happy here with you all. I’m just so ashamed I bought nothing for any of you, not even the baby.”
If only we could get out the good thoughts that are often in our heads. If I could have said that then, I would probably have stayed. I had no reason to want to leave and I think they all liked me. But I didn’t say anything, so when the social worker came round, talking about moving on to a longer term placement they thought I wanted to go and I thought they wanted me to go. That started the trail of moving on that led me to sitting on the steps by Eros, watching all the others busy with their Christmases.
Another good Christmas I remember was the one in secure. You’d think it would be awful wouldn’t you? All locked up and nowhere to go. But actually being locked up was better than being in an open place. You didn’t have to think about running away, so there was no pressure from the other kids to join in and get in more trouble. And the staff didn’t have to keep worrying where you were. Everything was very relaxed, so long as no-one made jokes about snatching keys.
People came in from one of the churches and played carols and tried to get us to join in singing. But I got all choked up, thinking about that foster home and the carol service and not getting them any presents. So I sat at the back and didn’t join in. One of the old ladies came up to try to jolly me along, but I was rude to her, ‘cos you couldn’t cry in front of the others. She patted my hand and said, “I know you must be missing your family dear.” What was there to miss? If only you knew lady.
But my ‘sulking’ got me a bad reputation and when they had conferences about me, very few of the staff had anything good to say about me. So next it was in to lodgings and a rubbish job. If only you could get out words like ‘Sorry’ or ‘I really want your help’, life could be a lot better.
It didn’t take long to lose the job and then, with no money, to get thrown out of the lodgings. The next easy step was to drop out altogether. Trust no-one, talk to no-one, just try to keep safe until the soup run and then the burst of good will that opened up the Christmas shelters for those few days each year.
If I ever have a baby I’ll make sure he or she can talk to people properly and tell them what they are thinking so that they have more than a couple of good Christmases to think about and never have to walk around on Eros’ steps because their legs are getting numb from the cold, while they watch the lights and the shops and the people enjoying the festive season. HA!