Who Will Bring Us In From The Cold

Imagine being out in the pouring rain, chilled to the bone and having no one to turn to. Do you ever find yourself having that sort of thought? It’s on days like today – when the rain has been almost relentless with the wind hurling all sorts of things around, paying no heed to the status of anything – that I do find myself pondering such questions. Cheerful soul, aren’t I? Well actually, homelessness can and does happen to people from all sorts of backgrounds and social strata. A manager of a shelter for homeless people told me that in recent years he has seen many more middle-aged men, who once had high-flying careers, having been made redundant and lost their homes, sleeping rough – often in their cars (all that is left of a ‘better’ life).

Sleeping rough has been increasing exponentially in recent years. In one year, records released by the Department of Communities and Local Government show a 23% increase of people sleeping rough (from 1,768 to 2,181 on any one night). http://www.housingjustice.org.uk/news.php/35/press-release-rough-sleeping-up-by-23-in-england.

Don’t get me started on the reasons underlying this increase! For now, I’m just thinking of the hopelessness of having nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. That overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do next; that there is no place you can put your head.

 

You see, when I’m out walking, especially on the very worst of days, there is something so reassuring about the knowledge that, whatever it feels like now, there will be an end to it – a place that will be warm and dry; where there are towels to dry your hair; somewhere you can shake out your coat and hang it; a hot cup of tea and maybe even a bowl of soup! These things, small as they seem, are the things that drive you on; like twinkling lights in the distance.

 

When we did the Trailtrekker earlier this year (100k in 30 hours, walking with no sleep, across the Yorkshire Dales), the sight of the water-stations and checkpoints at regular intervals along the way rose up like mirages. We’d be hobbling and aching and just about all done in, then we’d see a sign “500m to next checkpoint” and suddenly our feet could move faster, our legs propelled us on with renewed vigour. From somewhere, because we’d been given hope, we found an inner cheerfulness and we could go on.

 

It brings to mind the story of Janet Dempster (‘Janet’s Repentance[1]’) who is married to an abusive husband,  who is also the town’s lawyer. She is a proud and beautiful woman, but has turned to drink to help her cope with her disastrous marriage. We’d say today that she was alcohol dependent, but then her neighbours talked of her being ‘unwell’ or ‘having headaches’ – this is a Victorian novel, you see, so the actual ‘issue’ is never really mentioned! The nearest we get to it is in reading that her beauty ‘is enhanced by the faint physical traces of her addiction’.

 scenes of clerical life

Matters come to a head when Dempster comes home in a drunken rage and violently turns his wife out in the night, wearing only a nightdress. She has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. At one point she finds herself sitting on the freezing cobble stones and contemplates simply staying there, letting the night take her. Then, from somewhere, comes the memory of a kind, elderly friend and she makes her way through the streets to her house and manages to wake her:

 

 

‘It is I, Mrs Pettifer; it is Janet Dempster. Take me in, for pity’s sake.’
‘Merciful God! What has happened?’
‘Robert has turned me out. I have been in the cold a long while.’
Mrs Pettifer said no more, but hurried away from the window, and was soon at the door with a light in her hand.
‘Come in, my poor dear, come in,’ said the good woman in a tremulous voice, drawing Janet within the door. ‘Come into my warm bed, and may God in heaven save and comfort you.’
The pitying eyes, the tender voice, the warm touch, caused a rush of new feeling in Janet. Her heart swelled, and she burst out suddenly, like a child, into loud passionate sobs. Mrs Pettifer could not help crying with her, but she said, ‘Come upstairs, my dear, come. Don’t linger in the cold.’
She drew the poor sobbing thing gently up-stairs, and persuaded her to get into the warm bed. But it was long before Janet could lie down. She sat leaning her head on her knees, convulsed by sobs, while the motherly woman covered her with clothes and held her arms round her to comfort her with warmth. At last the hysterical passion had exhausted itself, and she fell back on the pillow; but her throat was still agitated by piteous after-sobs, such as shake a little child even when it has found a refuge from its alarms on its mother’s lap.

 

A friend who needs so little explanation; who asks no questions, but instantly responds to this desperate need: isn’t that the kind of friend we would all wish for? To know there is someone who can offer a ‘warm bed’ without hesitation or concern for themselves, must surely offer the most beautiful beacon of hope. Yet, how many of us can be sure that we have someone in our lives who we could call upon when the going gets really tough, or the night is most dreadfully cold? When I first read this, only two years ago, I recall stopping and thinking about this. Did I have that person, that one person, who could be relied upon to open the door no matter what time of day or night it was? And would they offer a spot in their own warm bed for me if I really needed it?

 

I consider myself truly blessed, because I didn’t have to think for too long and was able to list a number of people who I could confidently turn to in such a situation. Of course, we don’t want to face this really, do we? It isn’t going to happen to us. Really?

 

Sadly, many people do feel completely alone and have no one to turn to. Mother Theresa said that loneliness was the worst disease that anyone can endure and I read in the Guardian today that the “number of men over the age of 50 suffering from severe loneliness in England will increase to more than 1 million in the next 15 years”. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/13/men-face-future-loneliness-problems

 

 

Loneliness doesn’t only affect those who live alone; you can be lonely in a crowd, but also in the context of a relationship. I guess Janet had become increasingly isolated, partly due to the shame of what was happening in her marriage and of her (mistaken, but understandable) self-perceived blame in how she was handling things. She was a desperate woman and that’s seen so clearly in the way she responds to this overt display of affection from Mrs Petifer – she becomes ‘convulsed by sobs’. I just love how the older lady covers her and holds her until her sobbing subsides.

 

Sometimes that’s just all we are called to do. Offer a hug, some warmth and our nonjudgmental, but comforting silence. So, to finish, a second question – who would turn to us in their hour of need?

[1] Eliot, George, Janet’s Repentance, in Scenes of a Clerical Life, first published 1857 (Penguin Classics)

The Terrible Truth in the Telling

 hardy

“They came, the brothers, and took two chairs” (Thomas Hardy)

It’s the foulest of days! After one of the mildest Septembers ‘since records began’ (why do they insist on saying that all the time?!!), we are shocked to wake and find havoc being wreaked on our road networks by strong winds and driving rain. It doesn’t take much, does it? To shock us, I mean. The weather even made the news this morning. Have we so little interesting stuff to talk about that we have to have the weather conditions commented on by journalists? There he was, the journalist, hanging on to one of those huge fluffy covered microphones (they always make me laugh – I mean, could you really talk into one of those and not think you were whispering sweet nothings to a dead squirrel?). He was on the bridge across the M62 at Ainley Top, Huddersfield, letting us know how windy and terrifying it was for motorists. Well, I guess they hadn’t noticed that themselves, had they? They hadn’t woken this morning to find billions of wet leaves being hurled around, making it slippy- slidey and obscuring vision and the rain lashing their windscreens; they hadn’t dealt with the spray from large vehicles; they hadn’t dashed from their houses to their cars and got themselves drenched? No, they were all completely oblivious to these conditions until the BBC very kindly and sensibly went to the trouble of reporting on them for us. Bless them for that!

I shouldn’t mock, but we are as a nation, seemingly obsessed with the weather. We can’t even stand in a bus queue without longing to share our opinions on what it’s doing today. One of my favourites has to be “Can’t make its mind up, can it?”. Of course, “it” can’t make its mind up! “It’s” not a person! “It” hasn’t got a mind! “It” is simply the prevailing conditions! “We can’t grumble” – this usually said after a cold wet day following on from two consecutive sunny days. Apparently, we have no cause to complain if we have had at least one day of summer when the temperature rises above 2°C. We must not upset “It”, in case “it takes umbrage and refuses to allow the sun shine again!

Being tickled by the idea of the change in the weather making the news, I was browsing through a book that I’d used to collect together quotations and scraps of reading to return to one day. My attention was drawn to a Hardy poem – “The Announcement”[1]

They came, the brothers, and took two chairs

In their usual quiet way;

And for a time we did not think

They had much to say.

 

And they began and talked awhile

Of ordinary things,

Till spread that silence in the room

A pent thought brings

 

And then they said: “The end has come,

Yes: it has come at last.”

And we looked down, and knew that day

A spirit had passed.

It’s the way the scene is set with the ‘waiting’. Something is known to the tellers that the listeners don’t yet know, and even as they wait they hope to be wrong. But a sense of something is created in the mood of all as they wait – and it’s that, to me, that makes the poem so beautiful. The stillness of it; the wanting to hold on to the moment where that telling, and its implications, has not been told, yet knowing, really knowing that it must be told; that there is something that will happen. In all of that, there is a soft tension that can be felt by all but never spoken of.

It’s the “usual quiet way” that perhaps leads those watching to hope. So things are the same as they’ve always been, are they not? Surely nothing can be wrong? But then comes the talking “of ordinary things”. There must have something extraordinary in that ordinariness to create that tension that becomes the silence that spreads in the room that a “pent thought brings”. A thought we try to hold back from having – because once thought, once tripping delicately through our mind – we cannot take it back. Thoughts we have thought take on a life of their own and begin a chain of events that often we do not want to set in motion, but we must.

It brings to mind a memory of watching a documentary about the Hillsborough football disaster, when 96 people were killed and over 700 injured in the most horrible way. One of the mothers of two teenage girls was talking; her daughters had gone to the match with their father and she had remained at home but had watched the horror unfold on the TV screen minutes after the whistle had gone. The girls had been in the central pens but their father was in a different part of the stadium along with a friend. He tried desperately to find out what had happened to them amidst the ensuing chaos but it was hours before it was confirmed that they had been killed; their bodies taken to the school, acting as a temporary morgue. He had to return home without them and tell his wife this most dreadful of news. She tells on the documentary of how she saw him climb out this friend’s car and look towards the window where she was standing. “I ran out of the house and down the drive, but saw his face and knew what he was going to tell me. So I ran up the street as fast as I could. I thought ‘If I can just get away he can’t tell me, then it won’t be true.’”

As though she could push away the telling and hold back the horrible impact by not hearing the words. Reality cannot begin as long as she has no confirmation of the worst possible news.

There’s something of a horrible tension between wanting to know the truth but yet not wanting to hear it vocalised. When we have been feeling ill, with symptoms we cannot explain, it can be something of a relief to finally receive a diagnosis that means we can begin to manage or treat. Having a name for a condition can be helpful and at least give us something to focus our energies on. Now we can feel less helpless and get back in control.

I saw this all too often too with parents of disabled children. They would know something was not right and when someone eventually could name a condition, or identify a particular impediment, it was as though they could begin to move forward once again. For a time they had been circling, feeling as though they were going mad; feeling isolated from all those families of ‘normally developing’ children. There were differences that couldn’t be sufficiently explained. In cases of illness or disability, one has been living ‘in the dark’ quite often for so long that an announcement, although in some ways dreaded, is also welcomed, as it marks the end of what has often been a nightmare of not-knowing.

There is a difference when the announcement is about death. This is about the end of a life and there is no going forward for the person whose life it was. Where there was once a person, there is now a gaping hole. Whatever our beliefs, there is that moment, that we would rather not face, when we are told; when we come to know. For the Hillsborough mum, the ‘pent thought’ made her scream and run to attempt to stave off the terrible truth. I remember my mum’s face when she had to tell me my grandfather was dying of oesophageal cancer and had only days to live. I didn’t run or scream, but there was a mad moment where I almost covered her mouth to stop her telling me. As she was speaking I was uttering words of denial. As though only in the telling will the truth emerge.

“The end has come…at last”. Life endings are inevitable; we will all share that experience and yet none of us will be able to recount it to another and thus give the comfort that all of us, if truth were told, really desire. As each person leaves the life we know now, there is a moment that has to be marked “And we looked down, and knew that day – A spirit had passed”. Somehow it seems fitting that that is what we do. A collective sign of acknowledgement – ‘you have gone and I remain’ – and also of our helplessness. This last thing we cannot explain or control, yet must one day face ourselves.

[1] The Announcement by Thomas Hardy: p428 “The Collected Works of Thomas Hardy” 1994 Wordsworth Poetry Library Press