I got to work that morning and went straight to the homeless drop-in we ran for street drinkers, people with mental health problems, drug addicts, and others who just needed to avoid the cost of food in the mornings. A big breakfast of toast and cereal sits as a good base for a days soak in alcohol and the summer sunshine. For some, this was the only food they’d consume all day before starting out on the never-ending treadmill of finding money then scoring. Afternoons in opiate or alcohol bliss, sometimes both. Littering the sofas of a squat or the grass in the park. Take a couple of hours out of the mad rush and try to forget the impending crush of fear when the next rattle starts to kick in like an old bastard friend. Avoid thinking at ALL costs!
There was no pity in here, just the sound of sore throats, sore heads, and the slurping of sugary milk being drunk from cheap plastic bowls. Copies of The Sun were being leafed through, the stories poured over and weary heads mouthing words and shaking in disgust. I had, by then, given up trying to even pass platitudes with my work colleagues. I fucking hated every single one of them. Instead, I sat with the customers and swapped anecdotes and jam. Thirty Five grand a year to enjoy myself; and that’s what pissed my colleagues off more than anything I had ever said to them in any meeting or in any one of the dingy corridors: that I actually liked helping people. It went against their fakery. Their barely disguised revulsion was a shitty joke, if indeed it had been a joke at all: from the arrogant middle-aged receptionist who kept two cans of air freshener next to her to squirt into the waiting room at every opportunity, to the clock watching Police Workers who sat with bail paperwork already filled out and ready to be faxed off for an arrest warrant – issued to unsuspecting clients if they were so much as 15 minutes late to an appointment. Phrases firing off from the hips of gung ho middle class and clueless drug workers – “I’m going to enjoy sending him back to jail”, “Ten minutes until the pen of justice pots this one”. Modern day gunslinging Sheriffs in the shittiest Wild West parody conceivable. Sometimes I questioned my reasons for swimming against the tide of it all. But I kept on swimming, maybe for no other reason than to sleep at night. My colleagues wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. A takeaway, a bottle of wine, shout at the kids, recount the days stories of collapsing lives with a smug feeling of safety. Not me. I took it all back home in my heart, and it hurt. My clients were people, human beings. It was simple, surely?
I didn’t really give the day before much thought, despite the tears and the drama. Glen was, in my opinion, going to be ok after his tearful suicide admission to me at 4pm. I’d known him for a few years. He was predisposed to that kind of outburst anyway wasn’t he? I’d done the very best I could, like anyone would, and sat with him for an hour offering help, solutions, and trying everything I knew to take his pain away. I offered to leave work and spend the evening with him, maybe sit in a cafe and wait until he’d poured out enough pain to tip the balance. But he turned me down and left, still sobbing, with the words “I’m just going to find someone to split the cost of a bag with and then that’s it Ben.” We both knew what he meant. He had zero tolerance to injecting heroin at the time. IV use of that amount would kill him more surely than stepping out under a bus. I never thought he’d do anything about it. Glen was simply saying ‘please help!’ Most people just don’t act on the pain signals when the button has been pushed, people informed, a point made. Why would Glen be any different?
When I spoke to Glen’s keyworker – James – after Glen had staggered tearfully out of the building, his response was a typical one from the morons who I worked with: “So fucking what?” I felt my heart beat faster as rage grew, but over the years the cut-off point had only gotten further away and more solid. Getting wound up in that hell-hole was like taking off your clothes and trying to run to the to the moon. It bounced off the thickest skins known to nature. I was already known as a loose cannon and as someone to avoid. “Ben’s fucking crazy…”. Too many angry outbursts only re-enforced my diagnosis to the amateur psychiatrists and, fucking weeping Jesus, I didn’t need more of that kind of talk.
Rage wouldn’t have helped me, or Glen.
A sex worker came in to the Drop-in at 8.30am and walked straight up to me “You heard about Glen?”
Silence. All around the room, a sharp intake and awkward quiet. “How?” I asked.
“He went over last night in the alleyway off Thomas Road. The binmen found him just now. They said he was cold and blue.”
I stood up and walked out of the building. The early morning sunshine promised a decent day, a day I’d see out, and I walked back to the main office panicking that perhaps I could have done more for his pain. Was it my fault? God, Glen…you were worth more than this.
You doubt yourself if you have any empathy in your body when something like this happens. You find there is just a singular thought rampaging around your mind: you could have done more. James had been tipped off, ditto the boss, and the two of them were pouring over Glen’s casefile when I got into my office. “Just sort it out,” she told him, before glaring at me and swishing out of the room in her low-cut dress; all tits and ass. James hadn’t written a thing in the notes despite six months of work with Glen. “Hear about Glen then?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, scrabbling for casenote paper and a pen. “Fuck him,” he added. His sentiment was echoed almost entirely throughout the building as NHS keyworker after NHS keyworker offered their own foul take on the worth attached to the life of 43 year old Glen Howarth. It amounted to almost zero, just another junky off the books, out of jail, and away from the straight folks. Soon forgotten.
He was buried a few weeks later and the local heroin community turned out in hardly any numbers at all. It rained that day after weeks of sunshine. Back at the office nobody knew about his funeral, and nobody cared. I lasted about seven more months.