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Angela stood in the doorway. Black jeans, nice coat, expensive trainers. I thought she was one of the posh wives with a donation: a Waitrose carrier bag full of green tea, fresh fruit, and muesli. But she wasn’t.
“I have this voucher,” she said, in a worn-out voice. “They said to come here.”
The other volunteers looked up at the neat woman with a posh accent, who had arrived at our door, somehow. Most our clients had kept just above the poverty line for as long as possible, but had now succumbed to high rents, missed social security payments, low or no wages, or the increased cost of just staying alive. Angela was different. She’d fallen further, and a long, long way down, to be here, with us today.
“Good to see you,” said Liz, sitting at her computer, “I’ll process your voucher, have a seat, it won’t be long. There’s tea and coffee, and biscuits on the table.”
Angela sat straight backed with legs crossed, neatly eating a wheat-meal digestive biscuit.
“Do you have water?” she asked.
“Yeah, sure.” I leaped up and poured her a cup. We normally encourage clients to help themselves. It’s too easy to stop looking after yourself, not washing, going hungry, not because you have no food, but because the labour of opening the can just seems too much. So clients make their own tea, pack their own food into their own bags and get their own water, normally.
“Thank you so much.” She took the cup. I was expecting delicate beautiful hands with red nail varnish. Her nails were bare and stumpy, and her hands were solid and puffy.
“Nice day,” I said, “bit of sunshine at last.”
“It’s gorgeous,” she said, as though I was showing her a painting. Her face was alive and her smile broad and open. It was disconcerting, to have someone put so much passion into a conversation about the weather. Her focus was intense, and on me, I liked it, I liked her, and wanted to know her. Alarm bells rang loud and long in my head, as her smile washed over me. I knew it was a smile that had served her well, got her what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. The glassy shimmer of her slightly unfocussed eyes suggested she’d been given too much for too long. I left her with the water and didn’t chat. I was far too intrigued by her story to want to hear it. There was a broken sadness about Angela and I stepped carefully and respectfully away.
I picked up the next voucher.
“That’s me, yes, Leonard, call me Len though.”
You don’t see many men in raincoats these days and Len looked like a man out of the 1950s. Somebody’s husband in a sitcom, just back from the office where he works in insurance. Grey hair, grey coat, grey face but a rather beautiful pastel blue jumper. And he held a small plant with beautiful red flowers in a pot.
“Come downstairs Len, we’ll sort you out. Is that a fuchsia?”
“Yes, who knows, could be. It’s for a friend.”
We sat downstairs together as I unpacked Len’s single person foodbank bag of tins and packets. Len had bought a beaten up wheely-bag, so he was prepared.
“Yes, now that’s nice,” he said at each tin of beans or packet of tea.
“You can swap the tea for coffee if you’d like, or the pasta for rice.”
“Yes, no, tea’s perfect,” said Len, “yes, and rice, lovely. Whatever you have, gratefully received.”
I noticed there was a grubby label tied to his fuchsia, it was cut out of silver wrapping paper and tied on with an elastic band. I could just about read it, so I did.
To daddy. I am happy and running free with the dogs in the street. Don’t worry about me. I will always love you. Scarper.
Len could see me reading.
“For a friend,” he said. “He died.”
Len quietly packed his biscuits in his wheely-bag, arranging them neatly alongside some razors he’d found in the extras box.
“We were in the refuge together for a bit. Then we both got a flat at the same time, we were neighbours, yes, for a bit. I managed, with some help. He…well he didn’t manage. Not at all.”
“What happened?” I asked. Len seemed keen to talk.
“Painted his door with the Irish flag. We laughed at that. But he wouldn’t paint it back again, so the council did. Painted it back to red. He didn’t like red. So he painted the whole flat, on the outside, all green and orange and white, big stripes. Said it was a shame to waste the paint. They came to talk to him, the council, nice people, but he didn’t get on with them, he set fire to the curtains so he got evicted. I used to visit him under the bridge at Finsbury Park, he found a stray dog, called him Scarper. That dog stuck by him, thick and thin, all weathers. I used to take food for Scarper, and for him sometimes. He got moved on, ended up in Charing Cross. And that’s where he died, in the doorway next to Nat West bank. Some of us, people who knew him, knew he wasn’t all bad, we’re taking flowers down today, put them by the doorway. A bit of a nod, you know, so he knows we know. He loved Scarper, and he’d be worried, so I thought I’d do my flowers from Scarper, let him know it’s all ok, he can rest easy.”
That night I thought about Angela and her dizzy river eyes, and about Scarper, happy and running free with the dogs in the street.