THIS IS WHY WE GO BROKE FOR THE BROKEN
As a child, I was the epitome of neglect, a neglect so all encompassing, so insidious and 24/7 total, that it felt absolutely normal, it was the water I swam in, the air I breathed, it was a violently toxic place, but nevertheless -it was my place.
Each morning I picked through a stinking congealed mountain of clothes on the bathroom floor, moth eaten, damp and rotten. The bath tub, long abandoned for its actual purpose now employed as the washing machine, a thick ring of encrusted dirt running around the rim, the toilet, caked down the back with excrement centimetres thick, hardened over years of neglect. It was occasionally scraped cleaned, like the base of my feet, with a knife.
I wet the bed each night without fail for 12 years, sleeping curled on alternate sides of a rotten stinking wet mattress. In the centre, a hole the size of a fist that you could see the floor through. The carpet beneath stained and sodden, floorboards water damaged after years of drip, drip, drip. The rusted springs digging and scraping and coiling into soft flesh throughout the night. Each morning I’d wake with fresh tetanus threatening scratches. The weekly pay packet barely secured food, let alone clothing and a fresh mattress. I bear the scars of a thousands nights of underwear drying taught on my skin like ship ropes hung in the Caribbean sun -tightening to turn sores into scars that I carry to this day. I would later learn that the Huguenots would employ the same method as a form of torture in their persecution of Catholics. Wet ropes secured around scrawny necks, left to tighten beneath the afternoon heat -squeezing the last breath from already beaten and broken bodies.
This is why we fight for the marginalised.
I avoided school as much as I could, skulking around the city centre shoplifting shiny objects until the bell rang. Too angry to care and too tired to comprehend the predicament I was in, I simply endured. A late 20th century street-urchin. Food was scarce, egg n chips most nights and when the electricity ran out — bread impaled on a fork and toasted directly in front of the gas fire, knuckles red raw from the heat of the open flames. One-sided toast, a comfort food I still crave. Wednesday’s were the worse, the day before payday, dry bread and water, occasionally potatoes, the only sustenance left in the house. I was a skinny malnourished child, violently feral and constantly hungry, for food as well as distractions. The treats I remember well, little rays of candy coloured hope shoplifted from the local supermarket. I recall sitting at a formica desk in a storeroom with my tearful mum, surrounded by towers of boxed goods -watched over by equally towering security guards waiting for the police to arrive, sugar and candy pulled from the pushchair whilst my kid brother lay sleeping -oblivious to the crime. I watched and I learned.
This is why we give hope to the hopeless
I didn’t have sleepovers for obvious reasons and no one was ever allowed across the threshold of our front door. Friends stood outside in all weathers. Communication with landlords, debt collectors, milkmen, electricity and gasmen was conducted through the letterbox. And then, only if they were persistent, had noticed the curtains moving and so refused to leave -“We know you’re in their Mrs Reed, we saw the curtains moving”. We’d crouch, backs to the wall -holding our breaths in silence, stiffling that special kind of laughter that only comes from fear. The power and lighting would be disconnected often, candles lighting the way to bed like some Dickensian drama. Heating was sporadic at best, we crowded around the gas fire or shivered under a mountain of parka’s and coats. I was an adult the first time I slept under a duvet. Violence between family members and friends alike was swift and brutal. To call it domestic is an insult to women the world over. We moved house -a lot. As crime turned to me, so I turned to crime -the only constant in a life of constant change, each day another adventure, an exercise in survival, securing some small victory over of a society that had plenty of space but no place- for people like us. I remember a house, but never really a home. Age 9, already an accomplished thief, I faced my first arrest, the social worker assigned my case said I was surprisingly bright -for someone who refused to go to school.
This is why we fight for the forgotten.
In order to avoid the truant officers that prowled the streets, “kid-catchers” as they were known, I hid out in the local library, more a safe haven for the destitute than a place of learning. It was here, hiding between the shelving from truant officers and the police that I discovered books. I read myself to sleep amongst pensioners, bums and madmen, books and libraries acting as a refuge, a safe space. Form and content perfectly aligned. Decades later and I still read myself to sleep every night, at least one childhood habit I’m thankful for.
This is why we give homes to the homeless.
I prowled the streets in flimsy plimsolls or too big clunking shoes, cardboard inserts cut from cereal packets to cover the holes beneath, sodden “Tony the Tigers” peering through— a hole in the socks to match. I explored and inhabited the margins of the wastelands I’d been forged in. I took to building dens from whatever I could find, car doors and tarpaulins -hideaways from a world often too loud or violent to bear, I longed for and built silence. I moved wraith like, wafer thin and dirt encrusted through abandoned industrial buildings and burned out houses, a smouldering fire never far away. On the estate, the council entered and emptied evicted properties with five man fumigation teams, covered head to toe in gleaming white spaceman-like boiler suits with backpacks and facemasks to match, each house a final frontier, a new space odyssey –they’d be boarded up for months -sometimes years after, we’d pry the boards off and explore the ruined interiors -stripped of copper and metals to be sold for scrap. We often wondered if that’s what they’d do with our house after our eviction -or if they’d require a larger team and something more robust, robots maybe -we laughed as we crushed bed bugs under dirty fingernails.
I grew my hair long, or rather refused to have it cut, fine and matted with dreads decades before it was adopted as a cultural signifier by the middle class. Feral and wild but funny with it, humour; employed as a shield or a cutting shark-like survival tool. I developed a rage so deep and yet so still -a stagnant pond of anti-authoritarian resentment — it rarely appeared, yet when it did, it happened with a brutality that belied my size and temperament. The pond had both depth and stamina. I knew I could not be beaten. Would not be beaten. Not by words, nor fists. Not by parents or teachers, policemen or social workers, not by borstals or youth custody centres nor jails. Of this I was and still am -certain.
This is why we give voice to the voiceless
I had no ambition to be anything other than that that I was. If I wanted happiness, I stole it. If I was angry, I broke it, curious, dismantled it, cold, lit it up. I was alone with friends, family and foes alike but never lonely. Charming and funny and wise beyond my years, or so the social workers reports often stated. The most memorable? -the phrase “Happy Birthday Martyn — a paragon of virtue” hand scrawled in a card by a kindly probation officer on my 13th birthday. I didn’t understand if this was good or bad, I skulked away to the library to look the word up. “Paragon” ; A person of preeminent qualities, who acts as a pattern or model for others. [from 16th c.].
I walked proud as a lion for days after.
School was a playground of toxic sludge, inside and out, I held the school record for none attendance in a single school year. I was dragged through the children’s courts — eventually the principle, the social workers and the magistrates relented, allowing me to sign in as and when I pleased. I suppose in the belief that it was better than nothing at all. From the age of 11 I only attended those classes I wanted to, mostly art class, occasionally History and English. At 12 I sniffed glue for the first time. At 12 I had my first tattoos. At 12 I don’t remember a voice that wasn’t raised. At 12 I joined my first gang. At 12…
We were 4 -soon to be 5 brothers from 3 different fathers –all different shades and sizes, a rainbow coalition of poverty. My older white brother took the brunt of matriarchal rage, I guessed because he looked like my father. Or rather I didn’t guess, it was stated often enough, like some twisted game of familial tag, slap -“pass it on”.
I became the special one, the “independent” one, surviving neglect seen as a form of freedom, the black sheep they said, in spite of the three black brothers. I’d started refusing to eat with the family. I refused the same food demanding my own, I ate alone in the kitchen, refusing to participate, refuse, refuse, refuse. Family became background noise. I refused to go to bed at any allotted time and was found each morning sleeping heavily in front of TV static. I was tired. My teeth went unbrushed for a decade or more, I don’t recall toothpaste ever been in the house -just a shrinking bar of soap that would be used until it would lather no more –if I could be found bath-time was dirty shared water, father to older to younger, topped up with water boiled in a pan. Hair was occasionally washed from the same saucepan in those rare periods of care, most often at the demand of the local GP or social worker, it rarely lasted more than a few days and head lice ran rampent through our estate. Forgoing the water, I cleaned between my toes with my fingers and rubbed sausages of dirt from my hands. Material goods, Christmas gifts, bicycles, TV’s, washing machines, even cookers, were all bought on credit, often to be removed by burly men the following month. The TV took coins.
So did I.
This is why we go broke for the broken.