Saturday, 10 February 2007

Patterns and People

The pattern of those days was always the same, and gave some shape to what was soon to prove an unstable existence.

Every day we'd rise, and head down the embankment into the town. The hut had instilled in us a false sense of security, so we left most of our meager belongings there and made our daily trek unencumbered. The first place we headed for was the Library Steps, where all the street people would gather. It was here that I received my name - the drinkers would always be found there, and although they were normally supping "Black Budgies" (Kestrel Super), every now and again there would be the odd bottle of a lurid sweet liquid thrown in for variety's sake. As an innocent pup, I didn't understand what Mad Dog 20-20 was, nor did I know why so many of them threw it up when it was imbibed on top of a belly full of lager. What I did know, however, was that it tasted good - first or secondhand - and that the more I was dragged away from those sickly green and orange pools, the more determined I became to get my fill. Up until this point, I'd just been known as "the pup" (but never "puppydog" - that was reserved for JD, even though he towered above me). One day one of the crowd started calling me Mad Dog after the vile liquor that I was so taken with. Eyes was young enough to think this was a great idea and the moniker stuck, much to my - and later, her - regret. These days, in fact I prefer to answer simply to Dog or Dogger...but then we have both grown up.

The man who made this fateful proclaimation was Scottish, and went by the name of Mick. There was always a tension between Mick and Eyes, and to this day I have a feeling something went on - something not good - between the pair of them before I entered her life. He was middle-aged and she was young, but his eyes roamed over her as a former possession, whilst she alternately leant towards him as an anchor and shrank away with disgust on a seemingly random basis. Man wasn't happy with this, I could tell, although the full story is one I will never be privy to. I suspect that's a good thing.

Mick had a dog called, simply, "Dog", an aloof black and shaggy thing who wore his Collie Alsation breeding like a threat. He paid no attention to anybody or anything except Mick, and the nearest he got to the rest of the dogs was to sniff us out every now and again to make sure we knew he was top of the tree. There were quite a few of us canines drifting about with our owners - Socks and Mutley stick most in my mind, the latter being the mother of the former, but there were others from day to day, depending on who was passing through.

After the morning's greetings we'd head off our seperate ways to earn our keep - Eyes and I worked alone, in the long tunnel which ran to the side of the Library linking it with the bridge over the river and shopping area behind. Eyes would get out her Flute and I would curl up in her cross-legged lap with my nose on her knee, keeping warm whilst she filled the rich and echoing acoustics of the passage with a well-rehearsed repertoire. There was passing trade plus regular visitors - many of whom got to know my name and brought me my favourite treats, which I would devour on the spot. We would make our money fairly quickly, maybe in three or four hours, so we'd pack up and seek out Man and JD. Man was a juggler, but only a very basic one, which is why they didn't earn like we did - although he swore it was simply because of my puppy face, a claim which was disproved later on when we swopped owners for the day as an experiment. I don't know why he cared anyway, as he always took our money from us and packed up his own pitch the minute we appeared. He'd then disappear with JD for an hour or two, whilst Eyes and I would wait with the others back at the library until he returned with lumps of spicy smelling resin to roll into joints. If we were very lucky, he'd give us some pennies back and Eyes and I would head across the square to the bakery, where she'd buy us something hot and steamy whilst I waited with my nose pressed against the glass.

The rest of the day would vary, the time passing with talk and sometimes fights. If Man was in a good mood he'd let us have money to buy fresh food, and we'd take it back to the skipper to cook on the one ring stove. More often, though, we'd wait in the town until late in the evening and then head across the square to a car park at the back of a row of shops, where a soup kitchen was run by the ladies of St Oswald's church. They'd ply us with cups of what was really more like stew, and fresh ham and cheese sandwiches - the leftovers of which us dogs were only to pleased to hoover down. They were always pleased to see us, and always had a kind word and a fuss for us all - especially me, being so small. Then we would return to the hut, light the candles, munch our dog food (one thing of which there was never any shortage) and crawl into the bed to keep warm, whilst the sleepy smoke curled and the trains clattered past in their usual manner. Sometimes others would visit and stay, but mostly it was just the four of us, waiting for the dawn to come so we could start to scratch our existence all over again.

SNAPSHOTS: The "Railway Skipper", Salisbury, Wiltshire. Spring 1994.

Packing up. Heading for town, just like a normal day but with more bags. After the day's work, we don't catch the bus out to Woodford as usual, instead heading out of town along the river. Scrambling through a hole in a fence and up an embankment, then dragging everything along to a small hut next to the railway.

I am set down on the ground with Yellow Dog, who I now know is called JD. We are told to "stay close". I have no idea what that means, but I won't go far from Eyes anyway. JD explores the ground, sniffing but never straying. I follow him and dip my oversized puppy paws in oily puddles, leap over chunks of wood, roll blissfully in clumps of wild grass inhaling even wilder scents.

The hut itself is small and brick built, about 8 feet by 12 feet in size. The inside was obviously painted in a cream colour at some point in the past, but it is dirty and peeling now. We are not the first to move in here - Eyes told Man about it's whereabouts, after past acquaintances opened it up last year, before I was born. It is known as the "Railway Skipper" - a "skipper" being an all purpose word for anything to do with the details of the homeless and their homes in this part of the world. We "skippered" together because we were all "skippering" in this "skipper", if that makes sense.

The door is in one end of the building, to the right-hand side, and is green and weatherworn. Weeds and nettles grow up around the door and the back of the hut, which is surrounded in long grass, dry from the previous year's growth. At a glance, it is impossible to tell that anyone has entered for years. With careful planning, it will remain that way, safeguarding our existence here. There is a window to the front, facing the line. It is small, and has a frame but no glass. A rusty stack pipe pokes out of the pitched roof, where a potbelly stove was once fitted to keep the men who worked on the line warm on winter nights. The stove has gone, as has the sink, pipework, and any other kind of convenience. The hut is just a shell, but it is now to be ours.

It is not an empty shell, however, for inside it is full with the bare springs that have been ripped out of the bench seats in Second Class carriages. I gingerly climb on top, and the whole room bounces underfoot. My paws slip between the wires, and I think I am stuck until Eyes hoists me up into her arms and we bounce around the room together, laughing. Man looks on from the doorway, a warm smile playing across his features, which peep out from under the top hat he is rarely seen without. Eyes removes her headscarf and the row of dreadlocks across the front of her close-cropped head flail wildly as she jumps, giggling with delight.

Eventually I am turfed back outside, where JD is still exploring. We both lap from one of the cleaner puddles, the water tasting a little brackish but cool and fresh in our parched mouths. Eyes and Man are dragging things about inside the hut, and I set up guard by the door, whimpering for their attention. Eyes hangs a pink blanket across the window, whilst Man stacks springs against one wall, leaving a neat rectangular pile in the centre of the floor to serve as a bed. Sleeping bags are opened out and zipped together. More blankets are spread on top, and at the foot of the makeshift divan. Dog bowls are set out and filled, and as twilight falls, candles are lit. JD and I are called in and the door pulled shut behind us, with another rag secured with more rusty, scavenged nails to block out the light. From the outside, no-one can tell we are here.

A single ring stove is lit and tins of food heated and eaten. Dog food is crunched, and long joints are rolled. Our breath warms the room, and the light of the candles is further softened by the smoke hanging lazily in the air. I curl up with Eyes, at first on top of the bed, then later inside it. I rest my head against the warmth of her body and absorb the beat of her heart and rhythm of her breath as her belly retreats and expands against me. The tiny flames sputter and die, and as I fall asleep a train rumbles by into the nearby station. I dream of her heartbeat, and only stir to check it is really there. It always is.

SNAPSHOTS. An explanation.

You have to bear in mind that all this happened quite literally a lifetime ago, and that I was very tiny at the time. Many of my memories are hazy, disjointed snapshots. The order of things is jumbled. Life didn't make much sense to me back then, never mind to a stranger trying to look back on it through my words at this sort of a remove. I sit down to post on this memoir and draw a blank more often than not, and the teasing out of detail is a long and painful process.

There are parts of the story where I truthfully cannot picture the detail at all, just a series of events. The reasons for those events elude me, but the emotions are as sharp as if they were yesterday. At those points in my story, perhaps the best thing to do is to simply offer up the aforementioned snapshots and hope that you will reach some kind of an understanding in whatever way you see fit.

This is one of those points....