No jacket or factory reset required

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve just returned from a 24 hour break, which I needed to open my eyes again. I’ve been among nature and handled a snake, I’ve been to London to be reminded where my heart lives, I’ve helped the aged, and I’ve been touched by beacons of humanity. I’d become trapped in my own home and I needed to escape, so I took my notepad and made some notes in the field…

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My main purpose was to help transport my dad to London for a consultation with his neurologist. For the uninitiated, he’d developed signs of senility but had fluid on his brain. This was drained and he seemed to be making a good recovery before complications set in. First an infection, then a long course of powerful antibiotics meant that his improvement slowed, and he even looked like he might be declining for a while.

Long story short, his recovery is now picking up where it left off, and we’ll know if any further invasive procedures will be needed in a few months’ time. The most recent prognosis is that his condition isn’t degenerative, but he’s of a certain age and any full recovery will take time. For now, he’s a bit slow on his feet and in his mind, but he has my mum as full-time carer. Yesterday I got to drive the wheelchair around London, in a role-reversal of all the times dad wheeled me around in a buggy as a kid.

As someone who’s become gradually more withdrawn over recent months, I wondered how my social anxiety and paranoia would cope with a return to the capital. Although I was there in sensible mode, providing practical help to a wheelchair user, I couldn’t help feeling drawn to stay. Looked at another way, I was fulfilling a duty which I’d have to complete, but London didn’t take long to let me know I’d be welcome back any time.

There’s the well-known saying, that you can take the person out of London, but you can never take the city out of the person. It applies equally to others in places all around the world, but London is where my heart is. Although I wasn’t born there, I’ve spent more than half my life living and working in London, and I believe I’m from the place where I feel at home, rather than my birthplace.

An early start to the day had skewed my internal clock (I was up at 8am, when normally I wake around noon), so by the time we got to dad’s appointment at a part of Great Ormond Street Hospital in Holborn, it felt like evening (it was 2.30pm). Mum went in to the consultation with dad, and I was free to explore. I quickly spotted a pub.

Unlike five years ago, I can go to a pub now for a single or social drink, and it won’t be the first of however many are needed to prevent me functioning. A pint of cider came in at just under a fiver, and I sat at a table outside on Queen’s Square to contemplate the cold, frosty glass. Then I took out my notebook and wrote this blog entry: everything to here in fact, as my glass sits almost full beside me, and an occasional droplet of condensation runs down the side. That pint cost me a fiver, so I owe it the respect of savouring the anticipation before I actually drink it.

Before I got there though, I’d travelled from my home to my parents’ house, and then to London. I had nothing to fear of any extra stress involved in travelling with a wheelchair user, and even though we were travelling on a group discounted ticket, we were given a little public transport red carpet treatment.

Our train was held so that a wheelchair ramp could be provided, and a train guard asked some young people to move from the wheelchair priority area of the carriage. Once dad was installed, seatbelt on and handbrake applied, I enjoyed a personal journey to London I’d not made in a while.

When I visit my kids every month, I only pass through London, hardly pausing on the way to Milton Keynes. The journey from where I live in West Malling, takes the rail line through the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, before docking at London Victoria. On this trip, I was returned to travelling from Tonbridge and into London Charing Cross, a route I’ve not taken for over two years.

I like many things, including trains. I like all transport and the infrastructure which surrounds it (I love airports), and I like architecture, building and construction. I was keen to see the new London Bridge station and the progress of various tall buildings in the Square Mile. We were just passing through, but I vowed to return and explore the new London Bridge further, perhaps on a future visit to ride on Crossrail, The Elizabeth Line and the Battersea underground extension.

We were provided with a further ramp for alighting at Charing Cross, and with time to spare, we decided to walk to the hospital. On the way, I gave a running commentary on places and buildings of note, including Savoy Place, the only road in the UK where motorists drive on the right (it dates from an age of carriages setting down outside The Savoy, and now modern cabs, where the driver opens the driver-side passenger door to disgorge patrons). It was shortly after that I decanted myself into the pub.

A further ramp was provided by an obliging cabbie for the return journey to Charing Cross, and again by South Eastern staff at both ends. Local mini cab drivers had provided a similar assistance service (without the ramps), so my dad spent the entire day on wheels.

I stayed over and we had fish and chips for dinner. I decamped to the garden every time I needed to smoke, and with dad’s condition preventing him from keeping things as he’d like, it’s become somewhat overgrown. While I was smoking in the evening, I saw many species of birds, insects and spiders. Later at night, I heard the familiar rustle of undergrowth as a hedgehog foraged. My dad loves nature and he dotes on his garden, but he may decide to retain a bit of the wilderness now that all these new visitors are popping in.

As I smoked my last at around midnight, I was surprised at how clear the skies were above mum and dad’s home. Theirs is a suburban setting with street lighting, but despite the pollution, I could clearly make out the main planets, the obvious stars and constellations, and some more distant bodies in the night sky. It was as I wondered at my place in the universe that the familiar sound of mating urban foxes curdled the air, so I wished them well and retired.

I was physically and mentally tired from the day, so I turned in a couple of hours earlier than usual. At my parents’ house, there’s no danger of footsteps outside the door with the comings and goings of social tenancies, so there’s no need for a fan to provide drowning ambient white noise. Instead, I fell asleep to the sound of chirping insects and the occasional hoot from a distant owl, before floating through the universe.

My parents are off to another appointment for dad today, this one more local and not requiring my help. I got up early to spend a couple of hours with mum and dad, and their snake: a seven-year-old four-foot royal python, adopted from me when I fell apart (and he was my son’s snake: a birthday present, staying with me (another story on this blog somewhere)), but never returned because they were too attached to the little guy. Now their priorities are more with each other, and with my life far more settled and as secure as it can be in social accommodation, I could do with a companion. I need to check the specifics of the “No pets” rule with the landlord. Snakes don’t make a noise like some dogs, but attitudes towards them can be somewhat different among those who don’t take the time to educate themselves.

FordMy arm, with bracelet

It all started with a Facebook post (and a picture of a snake), after I’d written the last blog entry: I tend to post less personal stuff on here nowadays, and save my sentiments for the blog…

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had good friends phone me to see how things are. It’s like the Facebook post led them to the blog and they took the time to read. If so, then I’m grateful. Because that last blog post was a quiet cry for help, and the help found me when humanity functioned.

It was nice to have a whole day and night, to relax and not worry about people wanting my material possessions. It was pleasant to spend time with different people and to see humanity and nature, briefly in the same view.

This post has rambled all over the place, just like me with my notepad in the last day. I needed to write it all down before it faded, because the depths and messengers of depression will return, as they always do. For now though, I’m restored, and I plan to venture out of the darkness again. Better to restore functionality than have to resort to a factory reset.

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Missing persons outside my comfort zones

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

This story begins with me sitting on a bench, much like I did in my homeless days, when I wrote many of the stories in my anthology. But I wasn’t homeless this time, just out of my comfort zone, away from home and on my way to see my kids in Milton Keynes. Now that I have what every human craves – a secure base – being away makes me somehow paranoid that I’m going to lose it. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s firmly nested in my own insecurity. But then some not entirely unexpected things happened, as I began to plot a new story in my notebook, about a cat from Catford.

Catford CatCatford: This writer’s spiritual home

First, was a phantom train. I plan my journeys to Milton Keynes well in advance, bearing in mind Network Rail’s rather splendid work on London Bridge Station, Thameslink, Crossrail, and HS2, all of which have affected my journey via London. In the midst of many weekends of engineering work, there was what appeared to be a new or ad-hoc service running into Victoria from my village station. I’d had plenty of time to ease my paranoia about this unknown quantity, by simply walking to the station and asking a human what was going on, rather than trusting everything to a website. But anxiety and paranoia prevent all but the most necessary of brief outings, once every day or two to Tesco, two minutes away, and the monthly trip to Milton Keynes via London. The latter is exhausting, and only possible because of what awaits (my children), but it’s at least a known quantity, so I’m able to plan, but for that ghost train. Long story short, in the month since I last travelled, the timetable has changed. And so have the fares (albeit, not much). I needn’t have stressed, if I’d followed my own advice and checked. Me, who believes that being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome (because it doesn’t), but the optimist has a better time leading up to it (because they do). Welcome to my world, and the idiosyncratic way my brain can work.

It was mainly that unnecessary (and ungrounded) fear which kept me awake on Saturday night, so that by the time I went to bed at 3 o’clock on Monday morning, I’d been awake for 44 hours. I normally roll in at about 3am, it’s just the way my body clock has settled. It’s said that when your day isn’t dictated by anything much, a natural sleeping pattern will emerge. I struggle to understand what’s ‘natural’ about mine, when sometimes I simply can’t switch my brain off, even at 3am, and even with prescription sedatives. It’s the time of day truly in the twilight between the last and the next. At 2am, the previous night is still unwinding and straggling home. At 4am, early morning workers and services are waking up. But at 3am, the least happens, but not in my brain. In there, 3am became eternal.

So I dream lucidly, which I’ve been writing a lot of lately, as I’ve embraced it in favour of fighting it and trying to get some actual dead time sleep. My sleep seems to be more subconscious than unconscious, in that zone between wakefulness and proper REM sleep (where ‘They’ exist, in The Paradoxicon), and where I’ve found that I can take some degree of control of my dreams. If I’m getting all spiritual about it, I’ve learned that it’s like talking to the universe (from this blog). And that can be complicated and confusing, but better to embrace it and learn from it, than to fear it and flee. In the same article, I wrote of how others think the universe talks back. When it’s explained in the way I wrote that I get it, it makes sense at least to the superstitious and those who believe in luck and guiding spirits (and to an extent, me). Some would call these universal interactions signs from God, but I’m an atheist. ‘God’, extraterrestrials, a higher intelligence, the universe: they’re all interchangeable. I’m a scientist, not an agnostic though, so I appreciate ‘The force’ as that of the universe. I certainly witnessed messages and signs on Sunday, as I deliberately set out to look out for them (they tend to be only as obvious as necessary, sometimes not even occurring to the less observant).

The first interaction came early on, as I boarded the train to London. There were two particularly unpleasant, well-to-do looking people on the platform. It is said that one should not judge a book, and I’m an advocate of that, as I don’t wish to be judged for what some see as my cover. But I believe it’s fair and accurate to base an initial general opinion of someone on the newspaper they read. And in the vast majority of cases, I will confront potential conflict with dialogue, to encourage debate, so better to understand an opposing point of view. But this vile couple, probably in their 70s, were reading The Hate Mail on Sunday, and the Sunday Pun. I was quite prepared to change seats, carriages, or trains to avoid them. But they travelled in First Class, like the fascist capitalists they are. The universe had stepped in, and saved at least one life.

The train journey to London is quite pleasant when all runs smoothly, with full-length, on-time trains, as was the case on Sunday. Then it’s 50 minutes into London Victoria, via the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, and then past my favourite London structure, Battersea Power Station. On Sunday, the journey was even nicer, albeit ten minutes longer, as engineering works diverted my train onto a different line for a leg of the trip. I was jotting notes in my journal, and happened to glance up to see Catford outside. Having lived there for ten years, SE6 is where my heart still beats.

A further treat was provided at Victoria Station when I alighted from the train, as a load of Pullman carriages parked up on the adjacent platform. Unfortunately for those privileged enough to travel in those on Sunday, the steam locomotive was out of action, so they got a diesel engine instead, which for me was just as nice (I like trains).

A quick trip through London’s light blue vein (the Victoria Line), and I was at Euston, where I’d hoped to meet a street girl called Zoe.

I first met Zoe five weeks ago, as I was smoking a cigarette outside Euston Station, and she asked me for a roll-up. I was happy to oblige, because I can’t roll for shit, so she rolled them both. It was obvious the young lady was on the streets, and naturally, I can empathise, although I submit that it’s far worse for a lone and vulnerable female. So we chatted for about ten minutes, about life on the streets and the world at large. That’s what it’s like out there. You find humanity in people who are only there because, for whatever reason, their lives fell apart, and most are judged as having brought it all on themselves. Trust me, it’s no-one’s greatest wish, and it’s not something people deserve. I know that addiction can transcend all other needs, I’m an alcoholic (sober now, but always with Alcohol Dependence Syndrome on my list of doctors’ diagnoses). When you’ve been there, you form a bond with that community, and it’s one which you can only get if you’ve been there, as others would confirm. Trouble is, few people ask them. There’s a deep human connection with someone in that situation, past, present and future. Lest we forget we are human.

I left Zoe to catch my train to Milton Keynes, leaving her some money and a promise to meet her four weeks later. As far as I was concerned, she could spend the cash on whatever she needed or wanted, I can hardly preach about feeding an addiction, and I wouldn’t. If a can of cider or a joint helps her to ease the fear of the streets, so be it. She’d asked what I do. Seeing as I’ve got used to it now, I told her I’m a writer. I don’t know of many occupations which illicit the kind of intrigue or amazement in people that being a writer does, and it had been just such a ‘WTF’ moment as usual. She asked me what I’d written, and I told her. She was especially intrigued by the concepts behind Cyrus Song, so I promised her a copy when I next passed through Euston, four weeks from then.

Come the time to plan ahead for the usual (routine, after 18 months) trip to see my kids, two weeks ahead, I checked the National Rail website. Unfortunately, the Sunday I was due to return to London was one of those when multiple engineering works conspired together, to make the journey all but impossible. Even if I was prepared to change trains five times and trust all connections, I wasn’t going to make it to Euston at the time I’d said: about 10.30. So I put a request out on Facebook, asking anyone who lived or worked in the area to keep an eye out for Zoe, as she’s regularly around Euston Station. It was a simple message to say that I couldn’t make it, but that I’d be there the following week (I’d checked that I could, aboard that phantom train at the top). The message was shared a few times, and I placed my trust in social media and humanity.

Was I being presumptuous or having delusions of importance? Did I consider myself so special that this girl would make the effort to meet me again? Who the fuck was I to foist a copy of my book on her, like some self-important evangelist giving a starving person a bible (‘Gee, thanks. This looks delicious’)? Well, she’d asked for the book, as she said she liked to read, as I did when I was out there. It’s the only affordable distraction. But again, I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like to crave human contact, and to have so little that you pin your thoughts on some distant promise. I remember how nice it is to have a ‘member of the public’ (because most homeless people don’t value themselves as such, and neither does much of society) simply give you some time, to talk and listen, not of your life and your problems, but of hopes and dreams. Invariably those people are financially generous too, but the monetary is not the greatest value the homeless place in their contact with others. Anyway, I couldn’t make it, and when I arrived on Sunday, I’d had no confirmation that she’d got my message.

Before setting off with the book, I’d looked on what3words, to find Zoe an address. The concept is the brainchild of Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam and Chris Sheldrick:

what3words provides a precise and incredibly simple way to talk about location. We have divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3 word address.

Better addressing enhances customer experience, delivers business efficiency, drives growth and supports the social and economic development of countries. With what3words, everyone and everywhere now has an address.

And it’s that social element which is one of the most important, because the system is being adopted by national and international address databases. The upshot of this, is that ‘everyone and everywhere now has an address.’ Having an address is essential to gaining some sort of foot back into humanity, because with an address, you can apply for a bank account and for any benefits owing. I came up with what I thought was a radical plan to solve homelessness, a universal basic income, financed by a social tax on personal data. But for as long as such a solution is a slow political plod in the distance, and while attitudes of the homeless deserving their lot are still only too common, those people remain downtrodden and forgotten. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t crave a base, somewhere of their own. While that’s just a plot of land or a park bench, that place can be used as an address, recognised as such, and allowing those of otherwise no fixed abode to make a start on rebuilding their lives. It would take a particularly humanitarian postman to actually deliver a letter or a parcel to these three-word addresses, but there’s nothing more practical to prevent such an act of humanity, as to deliver something to someone who has a place where they belong, even if that address is a tent. Traditionally, the homeless have made use of the charity afforded by most churches offering to serve as a postal address (for the purposes of bank accounts and benefits etc.) The what3words system gives more of a sense of belonging, even if that’s a patch of concrete, grass, or woodland.

So I found Zoe an address, assuming she’d be unaware of what3words, and in case she needed it (as I didn’t pry into her personal affairs any more than she was prepared to tell me in confidence). Then I waited at engine.dice.cheek (her place) but she wasn’t home, and she didn’t return in the 20 minutes I could hang around. Of course, she may not have even remembered we’d met, let alone arranged to meet, but I thought at the time that she would. Equally, she might have been housed. But although I try to remain optimistic, I know what it can be like out there, so I just hope she’s okay.

I’ve kept Zoe’s copy of the book (I can’t give it to anyone else, even if I wanted to (I don’t), as I’ve signed it for her), and I’ll take it with me next time I’m passing through, in the hope that I can find out she’s okay. And if not, the months after that…

The final leg of the outward journey has coping mechanisms in Virgin’s Pendolino trains (The tilty ones: I like those) to Milton Keynes. I was amused for a moment, by a young lad, seated on the other side of the aisle with his parents. Probably about my own son’s age (12), he was saving family numbers in what I assume was a new phone. My own kids are fortunate to have both sets of grandparents still intact, with my parents and my ex-wife’s being ‘nanny and granddad,’ and, ‘nanna and grampy’ respectively. I didn’t catch the train boy’s paternal grandparents’ names, because I was so enamoured by the nans’: ‘Nanny’, and ‘Granno’. Granno: The images it played out in my mind were many, based only on the genius of a family who call one of the parents’ mum’s ‘granno’. My social anxiety and paranoia are eased when I witness such human thinking.

I met the kids at Milton Keynes, and there was no foreword, no caveat, nor addenda from their mum and step dad, so we were free to gallivant. First, to the pub (with the full knowledge of mum and other dad, because I can do that now, even with kids in tow) for lunch: a ‘spoons, so a known quantity. The food, company and ambience were fine, but it was in the pub that things unravelled a little: I paid cash for lunch and drinks, and my change was 43p. Can we see where the problem is? The three of us ordered exactly the same as we had the last time we were there, but something had reduced in price by a penny. Because the change last time was 42p. It wasn’t planned the last time, and even though I keep an eye out for 42, it’s not an obsession, apart from ‘mild’ OCD. But there was now an imbalance in the universe. Salvation came later, in the unlikely form of McDonald’s, when we later went for frappés, and ours was order 41.

Shopping and further gallivanting kept us busy for another couple of hours, then it was time to leave. I always get the most painful separation pangs, when I give the kids a hug, and we descend to our respective platforms to wait for trains in opposite directions. I’m in the habit of just walking away and not looking back in those situations, I just have to keep going. ‘Trains pass at high speed and can cause suction on the platforms,’ the signs read. Sometimes I look at my kids over the other side of the rails, with their mum and other dad. Sometimes I just spend some time in the gents, then sit against the wall, far from the platform edge. I like trains, but I don’t want to play with them any more. But I did get a little reassuring sign from the universe, when my 16.41 train was a minute late: It’ll be okay.

The return journey is a reverse of the first, but lighter of wallet and somewhat heavier in shopping and heart. I stopped for a while at Euston to smoke, but still no sign of the person who lives around engine.dice.cheek.

I get home and I’m exhausted. I used to commute to London every day for 25 years, but nowadays, even a leisure day is mentally tiring. It’s the best day of the month, the one spent with my kids, and with life all rather good for everyone now. But when you have depression, you may have all of your wishes granted, yet still there will be times. It never goes away.

I’m home, I’m dry, and I’ve worked hard to get better. I smile, but I can never be complacent. The reminders and the guilt remain, including those who still judge but lack the confidence for confrontation.

It’s life-long, every day, and it’s personal. The Catford cat looks down, watching over the people and frozen. I miss my kids, and I apparently deserve the pain. The only way I have of exorcising even some of it, is to write it down.

Thanks for listening.

Zoe is probably in her mid-twenties, about 5′ 3” and slim, with blonde / ginger frizzy hair. She’s often around at the front of the station, in the retail square. It’s always nice for a homeless person if someone speaks and listens to them. Human contact is what the lonely and lost crave the most.