On that particular night I was closer than ever to giving up my volunteer job at the homeless shelter.It was hot out, hotter inside and the smell of stewed vegetables combined with the sweat and alcohol fumes coming from the clientèle had my stomach turning somersaults.
My initial enthusiasm and romantic notions had long since abandoned me, nudged off the sofa by the fat-assed dichotomy of monotony on the one hand, and the constant threat of violence on the other. We have no truck with the gallant knights of the road, those picaresque rogues with their tall tales and hearts of gold. They do not exist. Instead we deal daily with the psychotic, the miserable, those who have slipped through the cracks and those who use the cracks for cover. The drug addicts, the delusional, those who hear the whispering and those who whisper.
It's not much fun.
Ben "Lost Dog" Burling is one of the quiet ones and reputedly harmless. Scarecrow hair, scrawny body buried under multiple layers of patched clothing, his boots are as scuffed and worn as his grimy, tanned face. He approached the line, a plate in one shivering hand, a twist of trailing string wrapped around the other.
"Still no sign of your dog, then?" I joked, just as I'd joked with him every Tuesday for the last two months. The frayed end of the piece of string hung limp from his hand, quivering slightly as his decrepit body shook.
He mumbled something in reply. I reached out for the piece of string. "Why not give me that to look after while you get some grub in you."
He snatched the string away, the plate slipped from his other hand, smashing on the floor. "No!" he screamed. "I mustn't let go or the world will get away. Where will we go?"
The supervisor, Gloria, pushed past me, waving her arms to keep everyone away from the broken shards of plate. The glance she assaulted me with told me squarely who she blamed for this calamity.
But there was worse to come as from the line Doug Catterly decided he had to help me. He was one of the worst of the creeps, fawning and obsequious, bubbling enthusiasm that swiftly turned to frustration and rage. He'd taken it into his head to help me with the recalcitrant Burling, grabbed the old man by the scruff of his jackets as he tugged and pulled at the string wrapped round the old man's hand.
Gloria looked at them, tutting as though they were children, but I could see old Ben's fingers squashed together as the string tightened on them. I rushed to his aid, grabbed at Catterly's arm and instantly remembered the warning from my first day's training. Never touch anyone. The results can be unpredictable. Spectacularly so.
Catterly had the strangest look on his face now. I dropped his arm and pointedly turned away, helping old Ben up from where he had fallen. The piece of string was no longer in his hand and there were tears in his eyes.
I turned to Doug and said, "Give him back his string. He's only an old man."
Catterly shook his head. "I must not let go or the world will get away."
Confused, I turned to look at old Ben, staring at his reflection in a darkened window, hands on his hair, on his beard, looking at himself as if for the first time in decades.