Friday, 25 June 2010

A Tragic Age

Everybody's flying and no one leaves the ground
Everybody's crying and no one makes a sound
There's a place for us in the movies you just gotta lay around
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Strange days indeed - most peculiar, mama
John Lennon (Nobody Told Me)

IN THE LAST FORTNIGHT I have had three separate interactions with three long-time friends that, some days later, on reflection, have a connection and, taken as a whole, allow me to address a curious period in my life that I have touched on only briefly, and hardly openly to all. I dare say that anyone interested in therapy, incoming or outgoing, would make a note on this page I am writing, perhaps even two notes. (1) He faces his past. (2) Will he come to terms with it?

A friend of mine, a little older than I am in the record books, but who has reinvented himself to such an extent that when we were colleagues at AIG in Bermuda, when I was certainly in my early twenties, he would have been quite unborn (truly a trick of the light!) offered this opinion on my life. “Ross, you’ve had a pretty unhappy life. It’s no wonder you suffer from depression.” Pretty unhappy is another way of saying miserable, disastrous, awful, crushing, unsatisfying (and unsatisfactory), and failed. But the good news is that one can blame it all on having a father who buggered off when one was still in short trousers. That (sort of) makes it all right. And, as some wit noted, the consultant psychiatrist will tell you: “If it ain’t one thing, it’s your mother.”

Days later, I had a message from the wife of a friend who wasn't really writing on his behalf, who was not so much baring her teeth as her own suffering soul. The friend’s wife remarked on the good life I lived, with the inference that this was not something new. Inferred because she said that (while I was living my good life) her husband had had to struggle to support and bring up his family. He’d had to work hard. And I know he did, for a fact. Blessings on him. My friend came from a more privileged background than I did, but our lives followed the same route for a time. So far as I know he remained on that particular path and I did not, and my divergence is, I suppose, the sin that his wife sees: my unexpected and unearned good life.

Less than a week ago I sat down to talk into the night with an old friend I have known longer than my AIG colleague, as well as the other friend and his wife I’ve mentioned. This friend, who attended the same grammar school that I did, knows my story, as much by direct observation as by hearing it related on the telephone or on paper; he has seen the ups and downs, the lines growing deeper and longer on my face, the greying and whitening of my hair, and, I think, my delight at living where and when and how I do. We have walked along Horseshoe Bay Beach in Bermuda at night, the waves booming on the soft sand and the rip tide pulling silently in the dark. We have walked in a cold, howling gale on the Northumberland coast, and we’ve sat in the chapel in Durham Cathedral dedicated to the Venerable Bede amongst soft and warm whispers. That friend always sees the good in things if at all possible. He remembers funny moments with both of my parents. I'm fine with my parents. Parents, and their children, should just do what they can. This is not to say one should do the very least one can get away with when the boxes are being ticked. One should reach out, up, down. One should gather, and set free, with enthusiasm. That third chapter in Ecclesiastes must be one of the few in the Old Testament that should not be fed to the fires, for it is poetry and poignant and pointed.

Listen, I did not have an unhappy life. It’s still wobbling along and it’s still not an unhappy life. However, I have had unhappy moments. I have had times that were a real struggle, but I’ve never thought to top myself. Indeed, I have survived days and nights and weeks and months that some people might not manage.

When I was awfully young, perhaps six-years-old, my mother was taken ill and had to go (from Bermuda) to Montreal, Canada, for treatment related to her grand mal epilepsy. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, and probably never shall, my younger sisters and I were farmed out individually for a spell. I was taken to the home of strangers, who talked loudly to me, as adults without children tend to address youngsters, and had to live there, go to and from school by bus and on foot as their very small, very young lodger. I can still recall (I have an astonishing memory) the walk from the bus stop, up a winding road to the strange house. My hosts would not be there, they both worked, their maid would let me in. I remember lying on my bed in their very nearly empty, small box room, and closing my eyes against the brightness. I wasn't even sure what I was supposed to call these people, best to try to avoid them.

John Lennon pressed buttons for me in 1967 when he sang: “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” John was farmed out to his Aunt Mimi, his father had buggered off, his mother had buggered off. His suffering was revealed in his music. I managed somewhat better than John Lennon, but had to make do without the genius that can come with the pain. I did share some traits with Lennon: a very bad temper, the use of and growing dependence on drugs, difficulties with relationships. However (and this essay might be called “However”) no end of teenage lads in the 1960s were shirty and shitty and shit-faced. Truthfully, George Harrison was my favourite Beatle. George went singing “Om” and I went singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints”.

I went to parties, I went to dances, I went to clubs and discotheques, and I went to pubs and restaurants with live music. I made lots of really super friends. I skipped school and took the train to London and walked for days in museums and galleries, usually by myself. I did not study very much, but passed my courses, usually with good marks. I went to the movies when I could, and to cathedrals and castles. I read so many books and was blessed with the longing to read more. I chain-smoked (didn’t we all?) and drank fruity cocktails till religion had to be investigated, tried, lived and then discarded. Curiously, but I'm grateful for it, I emerged from religion fairly sober and not smoking.

I had a go at painting pictures and writing poetry, and was not terribly good at either. I believe I could write a pretty good letter in the days before email and text-messaging.

I travelled a fair bit, despite health problems. I confess I self-medicated and sometimes took wing and even with my astonishing memory I lost time, and have no recollection of the journeying. Arriving usually meant sleeping for a few days to burn off near-lethal doses of drugs. But I felt driven. I have seen some remarkable places on my travels. I’ve met some terrific people.

So, my critic, the one who thinks I’ve had it too easy compared to some (her husband), could almost take these words above as my own confession that I’ve had a pretty good time of it. Surviving is good once one has survived, but getting there can be bumpy.

About six years ago I was wakened in the night by strange sounds and smells. I opened my eyes. I was in a room, in near dark, which was just eight foot square. There were three cots in the room, each six feet long, two feet wide, a thin mattress and a mix of raggedy blankets. I was waking up on one cot, my head was almost on the feet of someone in a cot at right angles to mine, and the third cot was empty. In the small square of space in the middle of the cots, below a dim ceiling light, the elderly black man with an Islamic name who usually occupied the third cot was standing naked and having violent, noisy and thrusting sex with a very large black woman. Really, the most obvious thing in the room was this woman’s heaving backside as my skinny roommate battered her.

I’ve forgotten the man’s Islamic name, though I’m tempted to say it was Abdul, but he had been Michael somebody, and he had twelve children by as many women (at least, he said), but no matter his faith, he was a dealer and user of drugs. I’d often be interrupted by his drug parties, which seemed to be held fearlessly, despite the rules of the Salvation Army which ran the Homeless Shelter stating that no drugs or alcohol (or women) were permitted on the premises. Michael Somebody (or Abdul) took a moment from his sex to announce to me that the girl he was with was willing to fuck any and all the men living in the hut that night. That would have been well over a dozen, in a wooden building with smashed windows, and broken plumbing that generally resulted in toilets overflowing so that faeces might be running down the central passageway between the tiny box rooms.

The night I was taken to the Homeless Shelter a bed, a cot, had become available only because the previous occupant had just died in it. Another resident was found dead in an open ditch behind the shelter not long after. Because I was white, I was threatened regularly. I understand that: the residents, all black, thought I was a spy for the Police Force. The Police did do searches from time to time, but the residents had advance warning and drugs and stolen goods seemed to disappear for a convenient period. We were all told to ride the buses till midnight (to keep warm and dry) and then to sleep in any park with an open gate. That meant only the park outside the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. I’d been to parties at the RBYC in my time, and now I was hidden under its shrubbery trying to sleep while noisy partygoers left the Club.

The day after Abdul’s friend serviced all those wanting it in the Homeless Shelter, I moved out. I slept in the cemetery where my mother is buried for a few nights, and went and raised a ruckus with a social worker, who suggested I move into an abandoned building (he suggested a former hotel dormitory awaiting demolition). Somehow, things fell into place and I was offered an efficiency apartment in a brand new Government project. It was very basic, but clean (I know, I cleaned my room and often others) and dry, though in a neighbourhood one could not be outside in after early evening, particularly if one was white. I started doing house- and pet-sits, and I got an evening job coaching a creative writing class at night school. It happened that I had the opportunity to leave Bermuda, and I’ve rebuilt my life. Well, it’s still under construction, as any life should be.

So, why was I suddenly homeless six years ago? It happened rapidly. I had moved from a cottage to an apartment, with my little dog, Aleks, and two days later I went out for an hour. When I got back, Aleks was gone. As he was micro chipped the story came out: Aleks had been taken and used as live bait for fighting dogs. A tiny dachshund to give pit-bulls the taste of fresh blood. I have been able to survive, to get through, many things, many trials and upsets, in my lifetime, and my life has been a good one, but I could not believe, accept, understand, and cope with the murder of my beloved little dog. (I still have dark hours when I miss Aleks terribly). I broke down. I went walking. I walked away from everything. I fell down when I could walk no more. This went on for about a week. Then I walked into the Police Station and said: “I’m homeless. What do I do?” I was put in the back of a police car and, siren blaring and lights flashing, we roared through Hamilton to the Shelter.

It was a horrible experience living in that shelter. Over the months I was there I lost about four stone, my only food was at the Salvation Army soup kitchen five evenings, or the Seventh-Day Adventists’ kitchen two nights a week. I'd guess we ate spaghetti five times a week. If you are homeless in Bermuda, you must keep moving. The authorities keep anyone they suspect of being of no fixed abode on the trot. My God, but I walked a good deal! One thing I hated: At the SDA kitchen the preacher referred to me as “Pops” because, I suppose, I looked old and tired.

There’s probably a good quotation that would explain that I would do well to give back on account of the good fortune I’ve had for five years now. From Savage Garden: “I believe in Karma, what you give is what you get returned...” I’d like to be putting something into the system. Perhaps writing this down is a start
. (1) He tells a rather strange story, and it's true, and it might be entertaining. (2) He might just shame the Bermuda Government over its handling of homeless people, and make a difference.

NOTE: I looked online for a photograph of the Homeless Shelter owned by the Bermuda Government, and operated by the Salvation Army. There was nothing to be seen. The Shelter was built many decades ago and has been in a state of disrepair for many, many years, and the Bermuda Government is yet to replace it, though funds have been found, easily, for golf courses and for captive dolphins, for world travel, and for cars for the Party faithful. Shame! Shame! Shame!


Ruth L.~ said...

Of this entire post, and it is poignant and touching, it is the paragraph about Aleks that makes me cry. I can say no more... It would be nice to have a button that erased memory, wouldn't it. I guess there are ways to delete memory, but not good ones.

Unknown said...

Hi Ross,
You have an incredible memory and have filled in major gaps in mine. We went to Warwick Academy together, same class as I remember. Used to go swimming with you and your sister Karen at Tamarind Vale dock every summer. I went to boarding school in England in '62 then migrated to Australia where I met one of my best friends here, your cousin Richard K! We were both helping in Frank and Marie Eldridge's sports shop over Christmas. Small world!
I enjoy all your blog.
David Purcell