Life on the streets: rough justice at Christmas
A story for our times from John Healy, who wrote about his early life as a rough-sleeping street drinker in his autobiography, The Grass Arena, which is now published as a Penguin Classic
21 December, 2018 — By John Healy
THE light that comes slowly and coldly to a shop doorway in winter woke the man, who began coughing his guts up as he reached out to feel for his bag as if that was the most he had to lose. He took a stale crust from the bag and began trying his teeth out on it. Afterwards, when he had finished his breakfast, he continued sitting among the crumbs. A smell had begun to arise from his frail body stripped of flesh by hunger and human resentment, it was not possible in the congested doorway to avoid the smell of piss.
But how can a man sleep in this condition when he knows what he faces when he awakes? How can he slumber on the edge of a doorway? Where does his peace come from?
Outside the post office the Christmas carol choir were singing of redemption.
As he began contemplating his future investing the most unpromising situations with hope it started to rain, which turned to sleet but the man continued to sit in the dripping doorway. Whatever might happen next could not be worse because homelessness had been imposed by man.
His little dog had died from the cold some time ago, then his mate who had occupied the space opposite him had died, he had watched his heels jerk as they dragged his body away. All afternoon the man continued to sit there. Now and then he held out his hand. It was more of a mechanical gesture to beg passers-by – to be involved in the business of living rather than to bother with strangers.
But he was too lonely to care and too bitter for home and he sat in the doorway with his memories and his hand held out.
He was once a married man with children, a house and a job. But cuts had cost him his job then his house and finally his wife and children. When government policy alters the meaning of life this is what is arrived at.
The carol singers were still in full voice singing of how Christ’s coming would bring happiness to each and everyone. But the man knew different.
As the night turned into morning once more, he was still sitting there in his cardboard house with his hand out and his eyes wide open staring into the white dawn but he saw nothing out of those eyes – he had frozen into that position during the night.
When the early-morning street cleaner came by he stopped to gaze at the man but had no means of removing the body.
It seems the government had overlooked what to do about the dead in revising its homelessness policy?
• John Healy lives in Dartmouth Park. After an abused childhood, he spent years living rough and drinking heavily before finding a new addiction that saved his life: chess. The Grass Arena was turned into a feature film and the book is now a Penguin Classic.