I tried to think of something positive. I didn’t feel too much, just a high-pitched squeal. Bad frequency. The pace around me sped up, slowed down, all at once, like I’d entered my own space-time. Turning onto Oldham Street, the buses kept on, gassy carbon farts drowning out the hum of finishing time in town.
The letter had arrived, not wholly unexpected, but still a shock. There was always going to be another warning, but the size they’d printed AUTHORITY TO REPOSSESS jumped right off the page and through me this time. I couldn’t look, but I knew it was serious. You just can’t plan for bereavement and unexpected inheritance. Mother had passed in the night and the house was mine. Just sign here, sir, and we’ll take care of the rest. You’ll hear from us very soon. It should have been material consolation in the dry heat of bereavement. At first, it felt good. When I got wheels, I’d be ready for anything life threw at me. But before tires screeched on my street, things ground to a halt. It’s fascinating how quickly the dust builds up when you stay at home in the day.
Constructive dismissal was the one to get them with, Jizz had said, smacking his palm, dusting off a flurry of banknotes like he was lording a strip joint on some American sitcom. He’d won against his old firm after they replaced him with machines, but the money hadn’t lasted long with the time he had on his hands. Trouble was, I’d had my fill of solicitors and the curtains stayed drawn. One week rolled into another. Was I grieving? Maybe. How could I know? Not many people had been around in my life and the upside to that is, you don’t suffer loss. Mother liked to moan, but deep down I was aware she knew better than me. If she were still around, I’d admit it to her with a smile. They took a greedy cut to cover the fees, but eventually, the two-bed terrace was signed over to me. Not a lot left on the mortgage payments, but unemployment has a way of making them swell.
You think, there’ll be benefits and that, this is the UK after all, but when things are good, you never bother to find out where or how you access them. Eventually I did, there was so much paperwork and finding help with the forms wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Addict parents aren’t the best at helping with homework and an education didn’t show up in the will.
There wasn’t much to do after the letter landed. It sat there on the arm of the sofa for a few days whilst I tried to work out my next move, but the touch paper was lit. Knock at the door, big lads piling in, some of them looking at me with something that might have been sympathy, others mumbling under their breaths, ‘fucking waster.’ Jizz hasn’t called for a while and his phone goes straight to voicemail. I just watched the furniture vanish into the daylight, imagining mother making them tea, sorting it out, telling them she’d make sure I didn’t do it again.
£13.28. Picking the tissue scraps out of the change, counting it again, I get £13.23. Staring around, the world becomes a different place when you’ve lost. This one guy skates past me and kicks up his board, catching it without stopping, jogging around the corner and up to the door of a clothing shop. I follow him and watch through the glass and the rows of Vans shoes as he greets similar looking blokes at the counter, touching fists and half hugging. All three have a big beard and small wooly hat. Two of them covered in tattoos. Sit down. Shallow breath. Try to clear my thoughts. Coins hit the pavement in front of me, rolling in different directions and I look up to see the benefactor rushing somewhere, her heels drilling the flagstones with authority. Rage boils up fast in my guts and I climb to my feet, indignant. Launching the coins back in her direction, I’m spitting, shouting, “I’m not there yet you fucking bitch! Keep your change!” The g and e barely make it out my mouth, chased by a torrent of profanity, right in the centre of town for all to see. The tears start to well. The father tells the son not to stare, assuring hand on Pokemon backpack, keeping his eye on me. The skaters stare out, one shaking his head. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I’m embarrassed.
I used to get stoned and have these conversations with Jizz about what we’d do if we were homeless. He had this romantic notion that he’d live in the woods just off the motorways. “Where would you get food, you silly cunt?” He’d sit up and look genuinely offended that I’d even questioned it. “Back of the food deliveries at Tesco, or from the supermarket bins. Anyway, if it came to it, I’d go into Waterstones and revise them books where they explain how to forage and live off the land! I’m fast enough to catch rabbits and fish.” I couldn’t stop laughing and he’d throw stuff at me from the other couch. “Fuck off! What? What would you do?” I never did answer him.
“How would you keep warm in winter?” I probed.
“Easy, innit? I’d either run around at a really slow pace until daylight, or go and get blankets out of bins. People leave bags full of clothes outside of charity shops overnight, so there’s loads you can get from there while people are busy boozing or asleep.”
“What, then carry them back to the M6? You’re a fucking idiot mate.”
One thing we never really considered was the wall of emotional extremes that slams into you when it happens. Call it mental health. Call it distress or disbelief; it doesn’t really matter. All I know is I can’t think, so even if I were Bear Grylls, survival is a concept that isn’t so easy to pick up when you’ve existed in the system all your life.
Outside Fig + Sparrow coffee shop, there’s a bloke bent in half. He sways, hunched in his right angle freeze-frame, eyes pointing at the floor. Spice boys, they call them. Homeless people who wanted to go somewhere else for a while. The closest thing they had to a high. But the stuff is worse than smack and the lock clicks shut on reality the second you’ve entered. Then they’re face-to-face with hell. Jizz tried it once and I had to put him to bed. The visits got less after that. Maybe he was embarrassed that I had to undress him and turn off the light. Now my phone is disconnected too. I thought about walking out to the motorway. Maybe he’d be there, in his bunker.
The addict takes a step backwards and his trackie bottoms slide down to his ankles. People start crossing the road to avoid him. Human compassion washes over me like the orange glow from the shop window, but solutions pass me by. He rocks from side to side, just like he would have when he was somebody’s giggling son, before a torrent of puke cascades out of his mouth, some of it hanging there on his lips, strings of saliva like some mournful instrument. Exposed guts and exposed light bulbs separated only by glass. Behind the window a couple stare angrily, like he’s the villain, spoiling their coffee. Before my limbs turn to stone, I march straight through the door. Tears have broken from my eyes and I brush them away before anyone can see. From the back of the queue, I watch him try to reach up to clean his mouth and fail.
“Next please, what can I get you?”
Turning to a young girl behind the wooden counter, who smiles until she sees the solar red in my eyes, “Coffee and cake, please, as much as that will get me!” I shout, my voice wavering over the jazz music, dropping the £5 note and change down on the counter. Some of it rolls over the edge. Her hand is shaking as she gathers up the coins, having to count them twice before thrusting them into her till. “W…w…Where a…a…are you s…sitting?” I look over by the window and point to a table near the couple. She nods and looks relieved when I shuffle over to take my seat.
“It’s fucking disgusting”, the bloke says to his girlfriend, watching the spice boy as another victim wobbles on two widely parted legs, also with his trousers down. This one has soiled his pants. His hood is up and he too seems to mouth silently as the jazz climbs into a crescendo, like a dystopian score. They use each other to stay upright. “This sort of scum should be put down,” he hisses. They’re so transfixed by the spice boys that they don’t notice my guttural sobs, which have become uncontrollable, punctuated by giant panic breaths. Am I watching the last movie I’ll ever see? A trailer for the horror that comes next. The thing about becoming homeless is, people can only ever speculate about the reasons why. It’s easy to blame governments or write-off victims as drug addicts. That way we feel less guilty about enjoying capitalism. It takes a lot more to help. Jizz used to laugh at people’s justifications for keeping their wallets in pockets. “I’ll spend it on drink and drugs too! Fucking hypocrites,” he said to me once as he withdrew his wage one Friday after a day on the building site, handing down some change to the begging lady sat on some collapsed cardboard boxes, with her Staffordshire-bull-terrier under a blanket.
A bloke arrives at the table and sets down a bowl of something topped with chocolate sprinkles, shaped in a love heart and two plates with cakes on them. He sees me crying and just when I think he’s about to ask if I’m all right, he turns away and bends down towards the couple with his back to me, mirroring the spice boy’s stance. He mumbles, “If he bothers you, let me know, ok?” Something switches in my head and the sobs intensify, causing my whole body to shake violently. Everyone stares at phones, oblivious. A strange thought interrupts the darkness; through my tears, the girl at the back looks a bit like Darth Vader. Outside the first spice boy wavers and he goes down, hitting the pavement with his head, the other one landing on top of him. The bloke next to me stands up, putting on his leather jacket, his girlfriend tugging at his shirt. People continue to cross the road, wanting no part of the wreckage. “Just leave it, they’re not bothering you,” she whispers to him, but he’s halfway out the door and he draws back before kicking the newcomer hard in the stomach, slipping on the sick of the first lad in the same motion, going down on one knee. I’ve stopped crying, watching the scene with wide eyes, my despair replaced by a raw rage like I’ve never felt before. The second spice boy’s hood comes off and through the matted beard, even with nothing but the dead lights in his white eyeballs, I recognize Jizz, so frail compared to when I last saw him, so out of his mind that he barely seems to feel the pain as he folds like an accordion, knees to chest, his ribs now concaved in an unnatural fashion as he starts to cough up blood. Breaking out of my trance, I pick up the wooden table, sugar cubes bouncing, and drive it straight into the window, shattering the glass. Some gasp, others, even in their fright, lift their phones into the air to film and take pictures.
People in the street who ignored the spice boys just minutes ago are looking, drawn to the violence. The assailant jumps back to his feet, shocked by the shattering shop front, glancing momentarily at the vomit on his skinny jeans. I run through what remains of the window, slicing my cheek and hip, probably more. Something gives way as my trembling fist drives into his jaw and he goes down, arms already rising to protect the break, his girlfriend screaming for help. At first nobody moves, as we roll around on the floor, grabbing at each other’s faces, neither of us really sure what to do in a real fight. The bus creaks to a stop in the middle of the road and the Audi behind blares its horn. The driver is running towards me, but I’m crying again and I can’t be sure what he’s saying as he separates us and shoves me up against the wall, the girlfriend bending down to help her man, who is out of it. I’m screaming Jizz’s name but the bus driver is heavy-set and I can’t get past him. He isn’t moving and the distant wail of a siren echoes from somewhere.
More people arrive now and still nobody tries to help the spice boys. The tears come back, more fierce than before and the driver catches me as my legs buckle, now looking like he wishes he’d stayed on the vehicle. What feels like an hour, but must only be minutes passes as the police car and ambulance arrive. The paramedic holds Jizz’s head between his hands and shines a torch into his eyes, a colleague kneeling to talk to the attacker who seems to be having trouble getting his words out, his girl points an accusatory finger at me. Fig + Sparrow’s staff are gathering around the door, looking worried, keeping quiet. The police will take statements from them and it won’t look good for me. The rain starts to fall in big, menacing drops and I stare up into it, the blue police lights making some drops look more special than others, but they all crash against the floor the same way. By nightfall, the sick and glass will be gone and not too many people will talk about it over coffee tomorrow.