This is a story that I wrote during idle moments during the MMC/MTAS debacle last year when I was wondering if I should get another career.
In those first weeks without a job I felt shifty and aimless. Despite waking early, in the mornings I could not get out of bed. The flat was very cold; I had been forced to economise by switching off the heating. To keep warm I would lie with my head under the covers and my knees folded up into my chest. For lunch I’d eat soft white cheese on semi-stale bread and afterwards spend the hours browsing the shelves of libraries, sometimes visiting several over the course of an afternoon. I almost never cleaned my teeth.
In time I grew restless such that only the longest walks taken during the brief winter sunshine would exhaust me enough to sleep that evening without ruminating on my situation. Despite residing in distant Dalston, I would walk into central London, taking in Oxford street, a hateful place, Regent Street, where you could surf the internet for free in the Apple Store, and Piccadilly Circus, where I would try and kick pigeons by luring them toward my foot on which I had placed bird feed. I walked home in the dark my arms folded tightly across my chest my eyes focused on the ground.
Then as time passed I ceased to sleep at all.
At first I put this down to the number of cigarettes I was smoking throughout the day. They provided entertainment for my hands and I reasoned it was justification enough in my smoking them that at least one part of me was occupied. But I cut down and this made no difference. Late night television hurt my eyes and my head and the neighbours politely complained about the floorboards creaking as I, in sleepless desperation, paced up and down on the bare wooden floor in the early hours of the morning. Having once been sued by the residents committee as a result of unenthusiastic recycling, I knew that for my own safety I should spend at home as little time as possible.
Central London after dark is different to during the day. As my evenings progressed I would pass the same people night after night, as if all of us were involved in a sponsored walk. With this over the weeks an embarrassed and unenthusiastic ‘hi’ evolved into a cadged cigarette and then eventually something resembling friendship. It was difficult at first; if you don’t talk all day, sounds do not pass easily from your mouth; your tongue cannot make the words. Of the people I met, an unusually high number introduced themselves as ‘Dave’. I cannot say whether such a name predisposes to either misfortune causing insomnia, insomnia de novo, or whether in losing the structure in their lives my fellow street walkers also lost their ability to create interesting pseudonyms. Whatever the reason, my name was soon ‘Dave’ too; it seemed to make things easier.
On coldest nights we ‘Daves’ would gravitate towards places of warmth. These were provided by some of the larger buildings that had hot air outlets that discharged onto the street. We kept these havens scrupulously clean. For example one night we discovered a drunk Arsenal supporter vomiting liberally across our favourite spot. Chasing him off, we all clubbed together to purchase a 65p bottle of thick bleach and some jay cloths from Tesco Metro; then only after some furious cleaning did we settle down as usual to our habitual positions, standing as close to the hot air as possible, completing discarded cryptic crossword puzzles and swapping stories concerning the origins of our various gradations of misery.
Another place of warmth was the hot dog stands. There were several that dotted around the area, drawn to the financial opportunities presented by thousands of tourists, drunks, clubbers, lovers and assorted street life hungered by sight-seeing, lager, ecstasy, lust and chronic malnutrition. At four in the morning, my feet cold and hurting, I’d stop and have one with onions and mustard, or a burger in an unsavoury bun. Sometimes I’d buy a tomato and add it in, cutting it with my scouting penknife now blunt and worn.
When they weren’t too busy, the men at the burger stalls were eager to talk, most of them happy to take the opportunity to brush up their English with a conversation beyond simply the desire of their customers for brightly coloured condiments. They would show me pictures of their families – most often very geographically distant – and I was often offered a place to stay should I ever find myself in Bagdad or Kabul. Their trade was fugitive, their carts illegal and liable to be seized, and so it was not unusual to find my conversations curtailed by a customer who was actually a council official, with a stall requisitioning van in close pursuit.
So the turnover of vendors was swift, and with the passage of time I found myself on the other side of the fence; a user-turned-dealer, if you will.
Despite its illegality, the dog burger trade is run rather like a private company. There’s an interview, a period of assessment, payment by the hour. That is where the similarities end of course, as I am sure that stealing from McDonalds results in disciplinary process, rather than repeated kicks in the face. Not that I would have considered jeopardising my new job in any way as I wheeled my cart into Soho at 9pm for my first shift.
It was on this night with my new career, and every subsequent, that I witnessed with paternal consternation, the bacchanalian drinking of today’s youth. Although it was by then a year since the NHS had no longer needed my services I couldn’t help looking on my customers as future patients, such was their disregard for their health. And alcohol distils out idiots; one such fool made this painfully obvious. I had turned my back on my cart, its sausages sizzling gently and their smell far too enticing to be anything other than chemically synthesised, to talk to some plump girls in short skirts. I was feeling the best I had done in months, not actually good, but for the first time in a long time I thought that perhaps there might be, for me, a future ahead. My intoxication by this rare positivity would not last long as I heard a loud yell from close vicinity. It seemed that the girls were flirting with me simply to distract a lonely man. Meanwhile, behind my back one of their friends was gaily relieving himself only my hotplate; I had wondered why the girls seemed to be laughing so keenly as I spoke. Alas his heroic turn in front of the ladies was to be short lived. His no doubt substantial alcohol intake had given him an advanced sway and this to his penis sustaining gave a nasty looking burn. I was too astonished to be cross, and for reasons of economy was unable to discard the twenty or so sausages he had soiled, serving them without discount to a batch of gurning clubbers ten minutes later.
The nights passed quickly: I’d sometimes set myself challenges – one night to talk only in Shakespeare quotes, another I would invite every third customer to a party on a road that didn’t exist. Over time I grew to have an established clientele, who were becoming the closest things I had to friends. Unfortunately this was at the expense of my previous buddies. There had been some friction between us as I had neither the permission nor inclination to give away free produce. It didn’t bother me much; I was happier now and could remember more than one name.
Three months on and I had begun to sleep again. At first not much, perhaps 45 minutes during woman’s hour, but soon I was able to sleep from half way through ‘In Our Time’ until the closing minutes of ‘You and Yours’. My ‘manager’ – although I am sure that the title would amuse him – a Pole called Rudolf, had moved from a position of initial distrust and suspicion to regularly reminding me that I was his most trusted employee. Although I was pleased with this accolade I found his hearty back-slaps disabling. They were however an accurate indicator of his gratitude as I was making him money, and not just from the burgers: the probity of his staff meant much to him as it afforded him more time to deal drugs to wealthy Kings Road kids during the day.
I have one last tale to tell: with my job there’s always was a lot of standing around and not always all that much to do. I would wonder about stuff, like how radio waves travel through walls and how long it takes for every cell in your body to change. It was during one such reverie when I turned to serve a customer who happened to be one of my old colleagues, who had treated me so carelessly.
’£3.50’ I said, adding an extra 50p on the price. It was a hotdog that he wanted
He looked at me in a puzzled way. ‘Do I know you?’ he said.
‘Don’t worry’ I replied. ‘I have one of those faces that looks just like other peoples. Perhaps I’ve sold you one of these before?’ I handed him the hot dog.
He still looked disturbed. ‘I don’t think so’, his face relaxed and he handed me a five pound note. ‘You must meet a lot of people out here’ he said conversationally.
‘Yes’ I said.
Do you know the way to ‘Soho House?’
‘Yes’ I said and provided him with instructions that would send him in entirely the wrong direction. I even drew him a map.
‘Enjoy your day’. I called after him as he left. These special moments come all too infrequently.