In December 1976, me and my best mate Ray were squatting in a disused terraced house in Hanbury Street just behind Brick Lane in East London. The whole area was a dump back then, a place that had changed little since the end of the Second World War. The Irish and the Jews had moved out and been replaced by the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community. Bomb sites, derelict buildings, littered streets and the smell of curry are my main memories of that time. Oh yeh...and the cold. It was bitter cold. The scorching summer had given way to one of the coldest winters on record. Most days in December the temperature didn’t get above freezing and the nights went as low as minus ten.
We called it the place that God forgot.
Although there was running water, there was no electricity in the squat, so to keep warm we broke up wooden crates we pinched from the local fruit market at Spitalfields and lit them in the old Victorian fireplace in the big room downstairs. Each night we’d take it in turns to stay awake and make sure the fire kept going, scared that if it went out the cold would kill us in our sleep.
Five of us shared the house. Me, Ray and three guys from Leicester.
Like over a million and a half other people in the country we were all unemployed. Our Giros were sent to the local Post Office because we were of NFA (No Fixed Abode). Wednesday was the best day of the week. We’d pick up our Green Giro cheques, cash them straightaway and then go off and buy cheap cider. We never bought food, the market at Spitalfields was just over the road and there was always plenty of Veg laying around on the street to pick up and make soup with. We’d found an old Copper pot on one of the bomb sites and this became our soup making machine. Basically, we’d fill it with Veg and water and place it in the fire for a couple of hours. Hey presto...Soup!
So our staple diet was Soup and Cider. Apart from Ray...
Ray was a live wire, a nineteen-year-old kid who had no fear. If it could be swallowed, sniffed or injected, Ray would try it. Most of the time he was off his face. While I went off to buy Cider, Ray was in darkened doorways buying gear from blokes who looked like characters straight out of a Dickensian novel.
On Christmas Eve the three guys from Leicester announced that they were going home. They were planning to hitchhike all the way and stay with a mate until New Year. Me and Ray wished them luck and walked with them to the start of the A1 at the Barbican. We saw them jump into the back of a Transit Van on its way to Milton Keynes. All going well, they’d be home by the end of the day.
As we started to walk back to the squat Ray said he had to go and get some “Special Gear” for his Christmas treat. He wandered off in the direction of St Pauls and I decided to spend what little money I had on a half bottle of Whisky.
I got back to the squat first and made up the fire. We had plenty of wood stacked up in the corner of the room to get us through the next few days. There was also a large stash of Veg ready to make our magic Soup. Ray got back about an hour after me. He had the biggest smile on his face. He’d scored his “Special Gear.”
A few hours later we were sitting round the fire waiting for our pot to boil when we were suddenly aware of a figure at the door. It was a young girl, maybe twenty, asking if she could join us for a few days. She had a posh sounding name but suggested we call her Gabby. Her only belongings were a sleeping bag and a toothbrush.
We couldn’t refuse, it wasn’t our house after all and besides, we welcomed the company. She sat down and we gave her some soup.
She said she was from “Up North”. But she never said where and there was no trace of an accent. She was wearing an old Army Trench coat and Dr Martin Boots. Her hair was dark brown and cut short in “Punk” style. She wore no makeup yet she had a stunning natural beauty. I think secretly we both instantly fell in love with her.
She had the strangest tattoo around her wrist. Like a bracelet made of heavy chain. Each link was a different colour. It must have taken hours to do and yet when we asked her about it she said she couldn’t remember it being done. How weird is that?
She had a wicked laugh, like she’s just been told the dirtiest joke imaginable. It was infectious when Gabby laughed, we all laughed.
Within a couple of hours it felt like we’d known her forever.
At midnight we wished each other a Merry Christmas and I opened the whiskey. Ray took a mouthful then rolled up his sleeve and tied his leather belt tight around his bicep. He found the vein he was looking for, slipped the needle in and pressed slowly to inject the lethal formula. I’d seen him do this hundreds of times so I took no notice but Gabby looked horrified.
Within a few seconds he was away with the fairies. Slumped back, eyes rolling, in a place where Ray loved to be. His own world.
Me and Gabby finished the Whisky and I fell asleep.
I awoke three hours later. What I saw has stayed with me for over forty years.
Gabby was standing over Ray, she was holding the ends of her trench coat up high and with the glow of the fire behind her it looked like she had a pair of golden wings. She was speaking softly in a language that I didn’t recognise, it wasn’t a chant or a song but it had rhythm that was mesmerising.
For some reason that I can’t explain, I couldn’t move. I just sat and watched as Gabby continued to speak and then slowly, and maybe it was the whisky because this is gonna sound weird, began to rise off the ground. She looked like she was floating!
There was a flash, maybe something on the fire exploded, I can’t be sure, but Gabby was gone.
Ray sat up straight and took a deep breath. He looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. Utter bewilderment on his face.
“What the fuck just happened?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not sure what to say.
“I have no fucking idea.”
We sat there in silence for what seemed like ages. Then Ray stood up.
“I’m going home. My mum wants to see me.”
And he was gone. He just walked out of the house at 4.00am on Christmas day.
Me? I took my time. At 7.00am I walked just two hundred yards to Spitalfields Church. I’ve been there ever since. And now, forty-one years later I’m the Minister there.
Ray? Well, he’s a big wig in the City. But he donates a large sum every year for our homeless shelter.
And Gabby? Well here’s the thing... the posh name she mentioned when we first met her was Gabriel.
I don’t believe in Angels but maybe...just maybe.