When we see rough sleepers on our city streets we feel instinctively that something urgently needs to be done. Yet how far can our compassion stretch? What motivates some individuals to take action? How does it feel to be on the receiving end of compassion? This short story by Dermot Foster takes a peep at one set of experiences.
Trouble In Store
by Dermot Foster
'I tell you, he was living there....in his storage unit or somebody's unit. I saw him! He was scuttling out of the toilet at the end of the corridor, clutching a sponge-bag…. and a large towel!’
Steve had just ambled in from his lunchtime stroll around the surrounding streets This had included nipping into the medieval Cheetham's library. He hung up his jacket and listened in.
Anju was fielding questions from her colleagues in an excitable voice, barely giving herself time to draw breath.
'Yea, they have this large disabled toilet, oh, you know…. I mean….toilet and shower room which can cater for the needs of people with dis….’
'But where does he actually live?’, someone butted in. ‘How can he live in a steel cupboard Anj? Must be horrible...doesn’t bear thinking about.’
'Well, they're not exactly cupboards you know….more like…. tiny rooms without windows… about... two metres by about three and they're open to the roof and it's a huge hangar-type place... I don't know what the CCTV coverage is like but they do bang on about it being extensive...'
Steve, wanting to make his presence felt, lobbed in a comment :'Perhaps he's made a little den, well away from prying eyes …..a little hideout. Oh it sounds quite cute!'
Anju ignored Steve's flippancy and continued. 'Anyway, I was told by Francis in Housing that she has heard from someone that this sort of thing is happening, I mean that people are finding all sorts of alternative living places. It’s not surprising really, when you think about it….I mean look at the number of people sleeping rough right here in the city centre. Look outside this building!’
Two phones began ringing in the office – united in their attempt to remind the team that they ought to be working on sorting out the legal complexities and compliance demands faced by Manchester City Council. Steve's desk adjoined Anju's, but neither phone was ringing for them, so Anju asked Steve to report on his lunch break. She wanted steering away from her unsettling experience.
‘At least you’re not storing it up….you’re getting it out of your system! Sorry, only joking. Don’t look like that. I see now it has upset you. Anyway, at Chets Library they really do push the Marx Engels association. They are so proud of it, but it did feel a bit too much like a pilgrimage...the Chinese apparently...'
'Hey, I thought you would have liked all that and would want to see where the guys got it together. Didn’t you say once that it was the maternity unit of the manifesto!'
Steve grinned. 'Now don't go all cynical on me, or Karl.'
'Or Friedrich. Yes, well, I can at least speak with some authority on this, unlike you….remember I grew up as a child in a strong Naxalite community. I tell you it was scary hearing the comrades talk, reading the slogans on the wall, and then waiting for the authorities to do what they always threatened to do.’
What was that?’
‘To wipe us out, of course!' They were always arresting people and then you could never find out what had happened to them and in fact it wasn’t a good idea to even ask anyone. When I say ‘arrested’ them it wasn’t like here. They declared a State of Emergency you know and then used it as a cover for torture, imprisonment without trial and …. the usual totalitarian crimes.’
‘Apart from provoking the authorities then, what did these Naxalites do exactly? Were they a more moderate version of Naxals? No, sorry, only joking again ….so how did your family view them?’
‘We all thought they were ok, seriously….they were good guys, what was not to like?..they turned out to help when you needed help….say you were in trouble with a landlord, or needed food or money in an emergency...or wanted to go on strike but needed support. They also had literacy classes as well as political teaching. The government said they were worse than the mafia, that they terrorised communities, brainwashed children...you name it!’
Anju was renowned in the office for her steady, firm grip when faced with what their managers tended to refer to as 'challenges' rather than what were for staff stressful problems. Now her damp eyes appeared to show a state of both excitement and anxiety. At a hasty mid-afternoon break, she admitted to Steve that she was still thinking about the man hiding away in storage.
'I suppose it's a bit like a stowaway...except the ship’s not going anywhere,' she suggested.
'What was he like?'
'You mean, was he a cool white hipster or a frightened little Asian rabbit?'
Steve smiled. 'Well…. give me some idea. A picture.'
'Ok. A miniature! He was Asian. He was small, dark and probably Bengali or Bangledeshi. I suppose that's why I keep thinking about him. He seemed familiar in some way I can’t put my finger….I can’t work it out.'
A few days later, the storage man as she called him, was still playing games in her head as she described it, scampering along corridors in her mind. She asked Steve for a favour. She wanted him to accompany her to her self-storage unit. Her cousin, she said, was soon to start university and was to be given or loaned a variety of items from her store, including a bookcase, some books, a lot of empty files, a reading lamp and some small rugs.
'There's not a huge amount to carry, but...'
'You want me to play the teenage Hollywood, or is it Bollywood, male carrying your books and accompanying you safely home.'
'I know, it's a bit pathetic, especially as you have quite a grey beard and a lovely wife and two sweet children at home!'
'No problem, as the young say all the time these days...you know when you go into a coffee shop, as they call them these days, and ask for a coffee and they say...'
'No worries...We could go tomorrow lunch, if that's ok , and I’ll treat you to a mezze today!’
Steve agreed, but suggested a taxi back in view of the time-scale. Her cousin and his Dad no doubt would come in with Anju and collect the retrieved goods from the office on Saturday, she thought.
'It occurs to me though that if you are getting a taxi back you don't really need any help, do you? I mean I am more than happy to...and I like a walk with a purpose.... Oh, I see, you are worried about coming across that stowaway again!'
Anju nodded, slightly.
When they reached the massive security fence, Anju provided the handprint that released the giant gate to slowly roll back along its track and rather reluctantly let them in as far as the front door where Anju punched in her code and again, once they were inside the hangar, used the code to operate the lift which would carry them up to the second floor.
In the lift, as the floor button was being pushed and as the doors clanged shut, a man burst in to join them. They were taken aback as there had been no sign of anyone else around. He was short and stared up at them. He had what looked like a little map of India tattooed on his right cheek, an ink stain of a birth mark. It even featured a Sri Lankan blob. When the second floor was reached, the lift lurched briefly and Anju's ID badge swung forward. Their lift mate instinctively shot out a hand to stop the badge striking him and ended up holding on to it. Just as it appeared that he might yank her over towards him, he dropped the badge as if it were red hot and flustering gabbled out:
'I see you work for the council.....I wonder if you can help me?'
'We're on a break from work at the moment, mate,' Steve suggested.
Anju motioned the man to step out of the lift ahead of them.
'My friend, he look for somewhere to live. It is most urgent, you see. He has nowhere to live...nowhere to live at all. It’s impossible the situation he finds himself in. Most of need of help, my friend.'
He darted glances, not just at them, but up and down the corridor with its endless sequence of steel doors and white blank breezeblock walls. Steve and Anju looked at each other, both thinking that they knew the answer to the next question, but feeling that they had to ask it anyway.
Steve went first: 'Where is your friend living now?'
'Oh, he is in a tent in the arches....you know by the big library, near the council hall, in the big square. There are many living there.'
They both looked a little more relieved than perhaps they felt they ought to hearing this reply..
'Yes, it's shocking,' Anju muttered after a moment, 'where some people end up living.'
As quickly as they could, the two experienced professionals established the relevant facts concerning this man's friend and offered reasonable, practical general advice and then insisted that they had urgent business of their own to which they needed to attend and moved off down the corridor.
They just about had time to hear a thank you as they turned smartly and moved away around a corner.
The following morning, Anju was surprised to be buzzed by reception. A Mr Choudrey had an appointment to see her. Right now.
'I don't have any such appointment, but I'll come down and try to get shot of him for you.' Anju had sensed that the man met in the storage place might try to cross her path again and had sought advice in order to be prepared.
She managed to dispatch Mr Choudrey whilst deploying considerable amounts of professional charm, kept in reserve for just such an occasion. Sufficient eye-contact was made to appear kind and considerate, she felt, and she was sure that she managed to sound reasonable when firing off the key messages from her notes, supplied by a very experienced colleague. She tried to make the bullets points sound less brisk and eminently achievable. Towards the conclusion of the process, without touching him, she inched him over towards the automatic door which opened onto St Peter’s Square. He took an age to move forward far enough to trigger its opening. There might have been a hint of desperation in her closing remark: ‘Good luck and goodbye’. He crept out. She turned away swiftly, but glancing back, at the foot of the door to her stairs, she saw him standing stock still studying the leaflets she had supplied. Giant cranes were working silently behind him on the far side of the square in which a bright yellow tram slid across acres of new posh stone flagging. Before she stole out of the public lobby a last look made her wonder if anything she had said had registered with him.
At the Diwali party, organised as always by her mother, Anju’s cousin Berin was thanking her again for the psychology books, book-case, rugs, reading lamp and the various other items she had lent him which, she was impressed, he could list far more comprehensively than she could remember. She had simply been glad to have created a little more space in her storage area. He invited her to come over to his Cambridge Street Hall student room. His lair was to his liking thanks to her kindness, he said.
‘The books have already been useful….it’s not all on the internet you know!’
Of greater interest to Anju was the fact that Berin, whom she had always regarded as a somewhat spoilt individual, was now involved with volunteering, sometimes on a Saturday night of all nights, taking food and blankets to some of the homeless on the city streets. His mother had told her because she was worried about his safety. When she had a chance she wanted to know:
‘Don’t you miss going out with your mates on a Saturday night?
‘A bit, but it’s not every Saturday night and Friday night’s often our main night. You know, the party night!’
Anju took up his offer of visiting, a couple of days later, mainly out of curiosity about his life, especially the volunteering, although she was pleased to see that her offerings had made his room far more pleasing than her own had been in her varsity days.
‘How is your help received? When you go volunteering I mean.’
‘You mean do some see as it as patronising? Yea, it does feel a bit like that sometimes. Not usually though. Mostly they want what you are giving them. They don’t care who is doling it out or why. A few are a bit scary….strung out, or numb looking.’
‘There was this one guy, last time, a Bengali I’m sure, who shouted at me. Little guy, very loud and angry. First in Bangla, I think, then English.’
‘No big brotherhood scene then! Did he try to talk to you in Bangla?’
‘No. But let me tell you….it was ironic or something….but he had this birthmark, right here on his cheek which, well….it looks exactly like a map of the Indian sub-continent…!’
‘Hang on. Just say that again!’
Whilst Berin more or less repeated what he had just said, Anju put her left hand up to her face, responding to his description.
‘This must be the same chap I saw at my storage place...the man called Mr Choudrey who insisted he had an appointment with me at the Town Hall offices the other week about his homeless mate… looks like a tattoo doesn’t it?’
‘Right. Well, he was really mad with me. I copped for a lot of grief from him. He made out that it was entirely my fault that he was homeless and what use was soup when he needed a job and a roof over his head.’
‘Berin you’ve got a visitor,’ announced his mate when Berin arrived outside his room opposite the kitchen in his hall of residence. His mate had emerged from the communal kitchen to make this announcement and had looked non-plussed, and seemed hesitant.
‘He’s in there, having beans on toast and tea. I don’t know if I did right, but he said he knew you and looked in a bad way and I knew you’d be back soon.’
‘What do you mean? Who is it anyway?’ Why he asked this before he peered round the kitchen door, he wasn’t sure because he wasn’t at all surprised to see Anju’s Mr Choudrey eating furiously.
‘What are you doing here?’ was all he could think of saying, and quietly at that.
Mr Choudrey continued chewing for a few moments, then turned to reveal the familiar facial map, a reddish hue of Indian Ocean now lapped the shores of the birthmark. Berin was not sure whether this was due to embarassment, or more likely, the effort of eating quickly.
‘Like you I was a student here once you know, studying, learning….’
Some resentment had overtaken the surprise Berin felt. ‘What on earth...what could you possibly have been studying, Mr Choudrey?’
‘Ah good, you know my name. Well here in this country of much opportunity I study the business studies. That is what I study since you ask me.’
Berin had frowned. Mr Choudrey had continued.
‘At The Manchester Professional Studies College on the Thomas Street, if you must know. I study there for two years, but I could not obtain a worthy position even though I study and have the certificates from the MPSC of Thomas Street.’
‘Look, I’m sorry to hear that ...but what can I do about that. You need to see a…...’
Mr Choudrey, stood up suddenly, his jacket pocket brushing up against baked beans in the process and shouted:
‘No, no, no no! No I tell you! I need to see no-one but you! You are the one to help me! Not the council, the Jesus people, the this or that do-good people or officials people. It’s you….my family who must help me! You!!’
At this point he took something from his pocket with which he wiped his mouth and marched out.
‘But Anju, how can he be anything to do with our family?’
Anju had done her homework and explained at great length how, having been texted by Berin the evening before, she could now reveal the extent to which Mr Choudrey was or was not a part of their family. She had contacted distant cousins in Bengal and had gradually pieced together the picture. That man with the gift of the map of the Indian subcontinent imprinted on his face was apparently a cousin of a cousin of theirs.
‘How does he know we are related in this slight way?’ Berin wanted to know.
‘Well he must have found out that there was some family here when he was studying. He didn’t let on when he came to see me at work, too shameful perhaps…. but has become increasingly frustrated and is taking it out on you!’
Berin looked up into the corner of the student common room and then back at Anju.
‘I don’t know now what to think….it was easier to help him, in inverted commas, when he was just someone in the street...what do I do next time I see him?….I suppose it will depend….. where and when I see him, but it shouldn’t, should it?….. I can’t have him living with me here though can I?! He must be an over-stayer as well...here illegally….perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want official help….what do I do?’
Anju did not address his specific question but started instead to think aloud.
‘Yea, is it class, family ties….religious charity…..which takes precedence?...What should motivate us to help?…. our sense of community…..in the old days you helped the people you knew in your street ....practical help not all talking and theory….and you gave a little spare money you had or food to support strikers or those laid off...or those who were to ill to work….you are right, we can’t change the system overnight to help him. We could campaign against the cuts I suppose….’
‘I’m out of my depth …’
‘We all are! I can’t accommodate him either in my tiny flat and I’ve only just got rid of one guy….and that was bad enough cleaning and catering and running around after him and he was supposed to care for me! Our Mr Choudrey will just have to try and claim asylum….turn himself in to the mercy of officialdom.’
Sure enough, three weeks later, Berin on the soup run found himself face-to-face with that face, muffled up against the cold with the southern states of India obscured by, Berin was a little bit pleased to note, a very thick scarf.
‘Look, I’m sorry, but this is the best I can do for you, Mr Choudrey.’ He hesitated, thinking that maybe he should offer a meal once a week in the Halls of Residence kitchen, but instead he pressed on with his key message.
‘You need to see Mike, that guy over there in the red coat, he can start looking at options of official help with you. Do you want me to send him over? Mr Choudrey?’
Mr Choudrey, reached out for the soup, spat on the ground and looked as far away as he could.