Steamboats - Chapter 7
At Salvations Door
In the real world it is not a pretty place for some , but one thing about being here is sharing it with others . I write about real people in real places . Awareness gives us the ability to measure right and wrong , good and bad , what we have and what others have not . I experienced this after moving in to live at the peoples palace in Blackfriars run by the Salvation Army . At this time, inside the shelter, there were about two hundred and fifty men . Some were the regular dregs from the docklands . Many of the steamboats in here had enough hellfire in their veins to keep them fuelled up for an eternity . In their lives they had walked over the very coals of hell itself to end up here at the Sally Ann’s. Within the walls of the shelter were some of the hardest men I’ve ever come across . Total savages with no conscience . There were also old men with no families to care for them . There were punch drunk boxers retired from the ring , young runaways who had experience domestic violence , Christian evangelists on a personal mission to convert and deliver souls from going to hell , ex-prisoners returning to community , a Canadian Mountie and myself . I will tell you about some of these people as honestly and precise as I can .
Within these walls were a large group of very bitter angry men of the highest criminal degree who slept by night and woke up like the wild dogs of hell to prowl the streets of London . These men were castaways of life and they were not happy and they did not want anybody to be happy . Bad to the bone . Then were the innocent few who had fallen through the mental health safety net . Let me explain my first day at Blackfriars so you can gauge the environment . I was in a bit of a haze after being robbed and bashed and I recall when I awoke I felt hungry , cold and half conscious on a single bed upstairs in the refuge . After my initiation and welcome to Sally Ann’s I was told the people responsible had also thrown the Captain of the Salvation Army down the stairs causing him some broken bones . Thankfully these residents were evicted and barred from returning to the shelter .
My bed was right next to the bathroom and toilets and frequently I could hear the shuffling of feet drifting past as residents made their way to and from the bathroom .
I was surrounded by a sea of single beds in a dormitory that stretched as far as I could see . When I was strong enough to stand on my feet I made my way down stairs to the canteen . In an over crowded room , a few sat on chairs while most wandered around , asking for a cigarette . Lucky I had one and gladly obliged . The man who I gave the cigarette to was called Gabe . He spoke with an accent and I guessed right, he was a Canadian . Gabe and I spent half the day taking about where we had come from and why we ended up in the Sally Ann’s . Gabe was a steamboat . Left the Mounties to help his sick Mother but his drinking problem made it too hard for him so she sent him away to deal with his problem . He had family in the UK but they couldn’t cope with his drinking so he ended up at the Sally Ann’s . I told him about the book I was writing and Gabe told me about the book he published that made him a lot of money . It was a find a word book . I thought how easy that was and was amazed that he made money doing it . Gabe was worried about his Mother but he knew he couldn’t help her until he helped himself . He asked if there was an empty bed near where I slept and I said there was someone moving out later that day so he said he would try to there . It was interesting that the very first person I spoke to was a steamboat . Gabe was living a slow agony that I could empathize with . The daily torture of his existence was a torment so many had learned to live with . Unsure and unable to do anything about we spoke in conversation that pushed away the reality of what really needed to be addressed . Not understanding what had happened to him and not knowing where to begin I waited for him to tell me . Late that afternoon Gabe moved in a spot near my bed . After he put his few belongings there he said he was going out for a while and left . I realized he had probably gone off somewhere to get a drink . I heard this thumping sound and went to see what was going on . I peeked through a curtain that was hung up on a wooded dial between two wardrobes and saw a young man on his hands and knees praying and every so often he would bang his head on the wooden floor . I waited a while before entering and asked him if he was all right . He spoke with a Welsh accent and told me his name was Hugh and that he had come to London after a fall out with his family . I could see there was some kind guilt factor going on there and asked if he wanted to talk more about that situation at home . He never did and just for now here we were in Sally’s Ann’s at Blackfriars and nothing could change that . As night fell I went to bed and hoped to get some rest so I could start to heal from the pain I felt all over my body Just as I was about to go to sleep I heard someone trying to come up the stairs . Now and then he went back a few before trying again to reach the top . Eventually he arrives ion the landing . It was Gabe, He stumbled over and fell head first onto the bed . He lay there for a while until he started to gurgle and then vomit . I went over to where he lay and put him into the recovery position , resting his head to one side so he would not choke on his vomit. Then I went back to bed and fell fast asleep .
The morning came early with the parade of shuffling feet across the floor as men made their way to the bathroom followed by the thumping sound of Hugh at morning prayer . Gabe was unconscious but alive and I was feeling hungry so made my way downstairs for breakfast in the canteen . Downstairs a long line stood in a queue with an empty bowl in their hand waiting for breakfast . I joined them with my head down like a man looking for treasure through a crack in the floor . The man in front of me kept murmuring something and as I listened closely I could hear he was counting out numbers over and over ,” 22, 4, 21, 33, 22 ,.”
I though what’s all that about . Hugh arrived in the canteen and got in the queue. Iwent and got a bowl for Gabe and joined Hugh at the end of the queue . I asked Hugh of he knew anything about the man counting numbers . Hugh said ,
“Oh yeah, he used to be a boxer and he’s counting the time in the corner still waiting for the bell to ring for the next round. “
“Awesome, who told you that?” I asked and High replied.
“The Captain told me that he has brain damage because over the years in the ring he took too many blows to the head .“
“Sad “ I said and Hugh asked .
“After we have porridge do you fancy going for a run ?”
“OK I’m up for that .“ I replied .
So after we ate , I went and shook Gabe and gave him the bowl of porridge . Then Hugh and I went for a half hour run along the sidewalks to Buckingham Palace and then we ran back again to the Sally Ann’s . Hugh wanted to go and have some prayer time and I went to get my thoughts together .
As the weeks passed the more I discovered about the people there and all then goings on at Sally Ann’s . It was an education living under the same roof with those who had no where else to go .
Jim was lost in a world with no way out and no hope and found it hard to cope . Everyday he sat in a wheelchair with his transistor radio with flat batteries . No one cared to get him some new ones . The transistor was never switched on . No one there visited or even bothered to talk to him . He was unable to identify with who he was anymore and I wondered if he had family somewhere , who cared about him .
There were so many other residents who had no idea of what was going on around them They had lost control of their minds and could no longer do any thing to help themselves apart from staring into a TV set that was rarely switched on . Many of these people were disliked and unwanted by everyone , including themselves . They were bums and boozers , tossers and loser’s . For them life was just a cheap excuse for their existence on earth . If anyone didn’t agree with them or if you didn’t accept then as they were or how they lived , then you would be told and scolded for your ignorance of that .
In a cruel kind way to end up in life inside this crazy community who had a code of their own with no right or wrong . There were top dogs and ringleaders that ran the circus who used and abused their victims like prisoners of a system no one could change .
Rules were made by the cruel rank and file and one of those in command was an uncontrollable monster by the name of John . A hard and vicious dictator of the underprivileged . Leader of this pack of unfortunates who could not stand up to him and his bully boys . He punished others because of the way society had pointed their finger at him . He was tagged and bagged an established criminal alcoholic . Anyone who looked sideways at John was in danger of being mutilated . John was a man without conscience with an evil look in his eyes . He never smiled and his face bore the scars of hatred that ran along the wrinkles of despair . He wore glasses with thick lenses set inside a black heavy rimmed frame . These spectacles were free on the National health system and were more than likely as old as he was . John’s head was from another planet , somewhere out there no one could see or want to be . If you tried to look deep enough you would see the doorway to hell itself .
John never answered anyone , he only spoke and expected to have the respect of everyone who came near him . His words would come from a poison tongue and hit with blow deep that went straight to your heart . John was always surrounded by henchmen who had enough muscle to keep any threat at bay . His main minder was called Gerry and another was Joe who watched Gerry’s back . It was no secret that they carried guns and they could do whatever they wanted . The stayed at Sally Ann’s with the homeless keeping under the radar of the police who were looking for them on the street At the Sally Ann’s John was in control . The entire place was living in fear of being punished by him and his alcoholic hit squad . This mob had manipulated their muscle and everyone towed the line . This fear was the driving force behind the friction of all who lived under the roof at Sally Ann’s in Blackfriars . John was counted among those most wanted by Scotland Yard and ranked as one of the gangland leaders of London . John collected debts and terminated those who couldn’t pay up . He had a way of inflicting pain on anyone and at anytime he chose .
Apart from Hugh and Gabe I realised I was a resident who was not liked at all . I had been judged and a sentence had been given . I felt out of place among them and like a cancer it spread over me . In this great big ocean of life I was on board a ship of death with no where left to go . The reasons were many , I was Irish in London and I was straight . I wasn’t an alcoholic and I never used drugs which made me an outsider , someone who never fitted in . I had received a few warnings already and found it hard to sleep for fear of having my throat cut . Nights without sleep were starting to wear me out I couldn’t keep this going for much longer and decided to look for somewhere else to live Hugh and I were on the same page and every day we could escape running through London’s busy streets .
It was getting cold in the shelter now and I hoped that somewhere warmer would present itself . A safe place where I could live and continue writing my book . One morning on the corners of Covent Garden a man came towards me and reached out his hand ,
”Merry Christmas “: He said .
‘Merry Christmas to you too “ I answered .
God I thought to myself ,was it really Christmas already .
“Come on and I’ll buy you a pint .“ The stranger said .
I followed him down through the crowd into a pub full of people . He sat down at a table with a group of people who seemed to know him and ordered two pints . Then somebody sang a song . We all joined in a few bars of some Christmas Carols and the atmosphere was warm . After each song another pint arrived . The day turned into a great night and when the pub shut everyone made their way out on to the footpath . I followed the crowd that gathered into a queue waiting for a taxi cab. The cabbies were pulling up and taking off at regular intervals . I was a stranger in their midst but somehow I had a weird connection there with them . The Christmas spirit was there and it felt great to be alive and although I had no place to stay except for the Sally Ann’s just for a moment I felt at home there in the company of the local lads and ladies . As the night wore on the queue got smaller and smaller until I was standing there alone with no money and no hope of catching a taxi . So I headed off down through unfamiliar streets into a part of town where I had never been before . It was Christmas and the pubs had closed . I wandered along by the River Thames with the snow falling softly on my head and coming towards me was a young man was standing up on the ledge of the wall around the Thames and he was having great difficulty keeping his balance . As he started swaying back and forward it looked as if he was going to topple over into the water so I ran and grabbed him before he fell into the Thames . I placed my arms over his shoulder and assisted hom back to the ground and said ,
“I’ve got you .“
I lay him on the ground of the South Banks of the Thames and he muttered something getting him home . He was well and truly stotious drunk .
I walked beside with him and helped him up the steps to Westminster Bridge . I looked for his a wallet and for some ID or an address and he shouted .
“Hey what are you doing ?”
“Its ok . I’m going to get you home .“
His wallet had a home address and some money . Luckily enough just at that moment a black taxi came along and I waved and flagged it down . I gave the cabbie some money and an address and asked him to the take this guy home to his flat and said .
“There now . You’ll be back safe home tonight then , ok ?”
“Where are you going now “ He asked .
“I don’t really know .” I said .
“Well you’re just like me then . Come home with me ” He answered .
I accepted his offer and we both made it home on Christmas . I fell asleep and I awoke in the morning in the warmth of a council flat .
When he awoke he emerged from his bedroom and asked ,
“Hi . My name is Martin . Who are you ?“
I replied , “Just a friend who brought you home .“
“I had a great night . Didn’t I ?”
“I think you did . I’ll be on my way now then “ I said , getting up to leave .
“Where are you going .“ He asked .
To get back to the shelter .” I replied .
“Over there at the Sally Ann’s in Blackfriars “ I answered .
“You’re kidding aren’t you .“ He said
“No . That’s where I’m staying .“
“Listen , you did me a favour . I like to return the favour . Why don’t you come in and stay with me. I have a great big place here with two bedrooms . You can stay as long as you like “.
I was so grateful of the offer . It was a real Christmas present . Finally I had a place other than a bed in the dregs of the London .So I returned to collect the little that I had from Sally Anns and brought those back to Martins flat . Bow I had a large bedroom .with warm blankets on the bed and a soft pillow for my head . That first night was special and I was so thankful of this new place where I could sleep with both eyes shut .
Just before I went to sleep my flat mate knocked on the bedroom door .
“It’s Martin .” He said .
“Come in Martin .“
“I forgot to ask , What’s your name ?”
“Oh , I’m Paul . Thanks for letting me stay at your place .“
“Good night “ he said .
“What’s the time ?” I asked .
“Time to have a sleep . Tomorrow I’m going to visit my family down south . I’ll be gone for a few weeks . Make yourself at home Paul and I’ll see you when I return “ He said .
“Thanks again Martin .”
He closed the door and I lay there and closed my eyes . It felt like heaven . A roof over my head and no more shuffling feet or snoring and shouting . I wanted that moment to last forever . I held each second tightly and as I floated off to sleep . The wind and rain was howling outside and I smiled and thanked God I was alive
End Of Chapter 7
Link to Chapter 8