No 67 - Spring 2006
The Saint of Hove Lawns
I knew a saint once. I did too. She used to sleep out in Brighton. When you think about it, really, it’s gonna be more likely that people like us, homeless and druggies and that, are going to meet saints, innit? I mean, we’re always here, we’ve got the time to talk ... any road up, I knew one. Iris, her name was. Silvery hair and all she had, just like on church windows.
I was on Hove Lawns, where the bowling greens are. It’s always a good place to catch the early morning sun. This one day, right, she came and sat down next to me. Normally when they do that, they’re God-botherers, trying to tell you that Jesus loves you. Well Jesus might, but no other bugger does.
‘Excuse me’ she said. ‘But I had the most extraordinary experience last night and I feel that I could talk to you about it.’
It’s a free country. I couldn’t stop her. Tolerance, you see, we’ve got to give it, to get it, kind of thing. So I just hitched along the bench a bit and sucked on my Special Brew. Then, before she sat down, she stuck out her hand.
‘I’m Iris’, she said.
I stared at her hand, then her eyes. She was smiling. So I shook her hand. What else was I going to do?
I didn’t really listen to what she had to say for herself – some tale about the theatre. I was just aware of her clean smell, and that she was sitting real happily next to me, like I smelled as good as she did. When she stood up again she said, ‘I’d like to know your name, if you don’t mind?’ and the funny thing was, I didn’t.
“Angela,” I said.
‘That’s appropriate,’ she replied, ‘I feel as if I’ve been touched by angels.’ And off she went. Well, so what, you say. Yeah, me too.
Thing is, she was back next day, smoothing out her creamy mackintosh before she sat down, smiling, asking how I was before talking about herself. Just good manners, see, but when you’re sleeping rough, good manners are rare. That was a miracle all by itself.
‘I didn’t go home last night’, she started. Well, that got my attention right away. She didn’t look pissed off though, as though going home had been a bad idea, like it was for me. She looked like somebody’d slipped her an E, to be honest. That kind of half-daft grin you get when the whole world is giving you a big smooch. So off she went with her story and this time I tried to listen to what she was saying.
‘Do you remember that I said I’d had an experience, a revelation perhaps, on Friday night? Well, no matter,’ she patted my hand. ‘What happened was that I’d gone to the theatre with a friend - she’s divorced too - and she became rather ill during the performance. The Front of House people were terribly good; she didn’t want any fuss so one of them ran her up to the hospital in his own car, just to be safe. But she’d left her coat under the seat, so I waited until the play ended, rescued it, and then realised that she had been going to drive me home. I didn’t want to cause any more problems; the theatre Manager had already been very good about letting me back in to collect the coat, so I just slipped out. I remembered the taxi-cab stand near the ice-skating rink and decided to walk up to it. I was a little apprehensive of course - I’m not used to being in Brighton after dark.’
Can you credit it? Taxi-cab stand, ice-skating rink, apprehensive? Real la-di-da, she talked, but she wasn’t putting it on, you know. She was just like that – posh.
So she went on about getting half-way to the rank and some bunch of bad-news louts piling out of a bar and surrounding her. And I’m going ‘yeah, yeah’ because, to be blunt, who gives a fuck really, about some silly old woman being roughed up by lager louts?
But it wasn’t like that, she said. They got around her, sure, and she was well scared, but then they sort of started laughing, and one of them bowed to her, sarcastic-like, and being nervous and all, she curtseyed to him!
When she said that, she smiled, like she was remembering, and shook her head a bit, like she couldn’t believe it either. I was paying attention again now, see.
Then, the way she described it, they did this kind of dance, her and those bevvied-up boot-boys. All smiles and silliness. Excellent vibes, the way she told it. And that was it; that was her big moment.
I couldn’t see it myself. I mean, so what? She must’ve seen that I couldn’t get my head around it, because she started trying to explain to me why it was so important.
‘You see, Angela, I’ve spent most of my life being a little bit scared. Scared of not getting married, then scared of ending up divorced, scared of being poor or getting ill. Most scared of all of other people: rough, or stupid, or mad, or strange people. All my life. Can you imagine that? No, of course you can’t, a resourceful young woman like you, living like an outlaw in Sherwood Forest, you can’t begin to understand how women of my generation were imprisoned by their parents, then their husbands, and finally by their own fears. And now, I’ve had the most unexpected exposure to... well, I suppose to another reality. I’d never even considered that young men who drink in the streets were human beings; they were simply objects of fear – nightmares grown up and made tangible. And yet they are just people, not bad and probably not good either, full of exactly the same hopes and fears and illusions as me.’
By now I was tuning in and out of all this. Stuff like the Robin Hood bit, I could sort of understand that, but the rest of it just made my head ache. She’d stopped though, and she was looking at me like I was supposed to do something. Making a contribution they called it at school: I always used to get lousy marks for it then, too.
"So you didn’t go home,” I said, just to try and keep my end up, like.
And off she goes, ‘Oh yes! That’s right, that’s what I came to tell you. How silly of me!’ And she dropped this little pat-pat on my hand, like she actually thought I’d said something useful ‘Last night, I caught the last bus, the open-top, up to Devil’s Dyke. Have you been up there recently, Angela?’
I’d never been up there in my life. Didn’t even know where it was, or what it was, but I shook my head anyway.
‘I had every intention of going home, I just thought I’d like to watch the sunset from the top of the Dyke; you can see for miles. I didn’t really have any reason to go home – those young men in the street had shown that reality to me, three years after my divorce became absolute. Three years of going home, cooking dinner and then sitting on my own to eat it. What a waste of all those evenings.’
And I’m looking at her, at this neat and tidy lady, imagining what it must be like to go back to a clean, quiet, empty house. Guessing how it felt to have peace, nobody getting you round the neck and shaking you.... And she must have seen something in my face. She stopped, see, and said, ‘Angela? Is something wrong, dear?’
Did I tell her? Did I buggery! Not then, anyway. But I’d got this picture in my head, of her sitting at a polished table and eating, with music playing in the background and a big glass vase of white flowers nearby. It stuck with me after that. Whenever I saw her, I saw gleaming wood and cool white flowers and heard ripples of piano music.
‘Well, as I was saying ....’ And off she went again. Half the time I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about; larks and badgers and God knows what. She was like a TV programme with a camera in some poor creature’s nest, filming its ugly naked babies. The bit I did understand was that she drifted off to sleep, all wrapped up in her coat, and woke up about three hours later with the shivers inside her skin, between her outside and her bones. Even in summer, see, Brighton’s not a warm kip. There’s a chill from the sea that you can’t escape if you’re sleeping rough. So she got up, she said, and walked around this Devil’s Dyke. There were sheep that snored like little dogs and looked like fallen clouds – scattered but still somehow connected to each other – in a green-grey field. I liked that bit.
‘And so,’ she finished, ‘I watched the sunset and the sunrise from the same place.’ And she patted me again, and off she went.
I saw a lot of her after that. But it wasn’t just me: Old Bert, Scadge, C.J. who used to cooch on Millets doorstep, we all sort of adopted her. Or maybe she adopted us. Looking back it’s hard to tell.
She wasn’t ever a real rough sleeper. I mean, she had a home - she just didn’t go there very much. And we all thought she’d quit as soon as the weather turned nasty, any home’s got to be pretty bad to be worse than a night of gales and rain. She didn’t quit though. She’d go home for a bath and a change of clothes but that was it, then she was back out in all weathers – with us. That’s not why she was a saint though. It wasn’t sleeping rough that made her a saint, it was giving it up.
One day, when she went home, there was this letter from her cousin. A bloke, of course. He’d had a heart attack or some such, and – like all men – he’d decided it was some woman’s job to look after him. She showed me his letter and he wrote like he’d had his fingers broken. I know, see, because I had mine broken once. Wiggly big writing it was.
Eventually she sighed and said ‘I shall have to go, Angela. It’s my duty.’
“Bollocks to that,” I said.
‘No, really I must. If I don’t, he’ll have to go into a home, and he’d hate that.’
A home. There’s thousands of poor sods on the street looking for one and thousands of other poor sods trying not to end up in one. I reckon if you didn’t laugh at that, you’d end up slitting your wrists.
So she went. But she took me up to Devil’s Dyke one night, before she left. You can get there on the bus. Seven years in Brighton and I never knew.
It was a cold night. Brass monkeys didn’t have a look in; it was totally meat-freezer weather. We walked around, which wasn’t as much fun as it sounds, with all the rabbit holes and stuff I kept falling into about every ten seconds, and then she made me sit down round the back of the pub, till closing time. Well, they wouldn’t let me in, would they?
When it was all dark and the last drunk punter had squealed his car out of the car park to kill himself on the way home, she took me round the front of the pub again, where the hill fell away really steeply.
I reckon a thousand stars watched me come round that corner and stop dead. I could see miles in the misty, misty dark. Fields and hills and vague dark faraways like mountains, or maybe clouds. It was too big and hard, too cold and lovely, and I felt smaller than ever in all that space. It hurt me.
Then I saw the sheep. Grey backs all pushed together like a big scared cloud, sighing and wheezing in the huge space like a little bit of hot, dirty reality. And I smiled then.
She said, ‘I’ve made a deal with him, Angela. I’ve said I’ll go, as long as he understands I’m coming back here, sooner or later. I told him I like the way I live and as long he doesn’t ask me questions, I won’t have to tell him lies about it.’
I couldn’t see her face, but I held her hand in the dark as she cried. She’ll come back, one day. When her cousin dies or has to go into a home after all, she’ll come back. And I’ll be here. Waiting.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The