"Itíll be a doddle."
Thatís what Iíd said when I volunteered for the job. Three weeks, living rough, with none of the comforts of home Ė all in the name of research. Would I be able to stick it out?
Three days later and with another 18 days to go, I was beginning to wonder. I found a dry place under an overgrown mahonia bush, sat down on my sleeping bag and spoke into the dictating machine, the only evidence of my other life.
"Itís eight thirty on day three. Iíve spent another day doing absolutely nothing, just sitting in various doorways with an upturned cap in front of me. The boredom is indescribable. After ten hours I collected £3, just 50p more than yesterday. Iíve watched others begging, asking each passer-by for change but I canít bring myself to do that yet. Perhaps when Iím hungrier. What I canít understand is just how tired Iím feeling. After the hardest day at work in the office, I never felt as worn out as I do now."
I turned off the machine, wrapped it up in a carrier bag, then put it beneath my head like a pillow. The hard coldness of the ground shocked me as much, if not more, than it did the first night.
Many times Iíd lain on the floor at home, trying to relieve an aching back. Even with a deep pile carpet Iíd found that hard and uncomfortable, but compared to this it was a feather bed. It sounds crazy, but I never expected it to be so totally and absolutely unyielding. It wasnít much better than the doorway Iíd used on the first two nights. Every time I rolled over I knocked my elbows and knees bruising the skin again and again. I tried to sleep without fidgeting but then the cold crept up through the ground into my bones. I donít know how long I lay there desperate for, yet unable to sleep but I must have drifted off for a kick in the ribs woke me with a start.
"Oi, move along. This is my spot"
I peered up into the face of a Yeti, at least thatís what I thought I saw in my half asleep state. The monster pushed me again. I heard a dog yapping.
"OK OK, hang on a minute."
I struggled to my feet. My joints would hardly move. I felt old and very tired. At last Iíd moved out of the way. The Yeti moved in, laid out his few possessions, and sat down to drink from a dirty blue flask. I just stood there and looked at him, looked at the flask. I realised I hadnít had anything to drink for hours. He must have read my thoughts.
"Whatíre you standing there licking your lips for? Push off."
I made no reply. My legs felt so bad I didnít trust them to take one step, let alone walk the streets looking for a place to crash. And I was so very thirsty. It was all suddenly too much, With a groan I slumped against the bush.
I remembered the smell of damp dog and alcohol, then the taste of something vile but warming. The cider hit the back of my throat like a gunshot. I was sitting in the shade of the bush, cradled in the arms of the Yeti, his bull terrier licking my face with its long tongue. I couldnít help but laugh. If my dear husband could see me now. I took another long drink from the flask.
I must have fallen straight to sleep for when I opened my eyes again it was daylight.
"Time to get moving. Donít want to miss the free food, now do you my girl?"
I shook my head, and struggled to my feet.
"This is very kind of you MrÖ."
"Mr!" the man roared with laughter. "No-one calls me mister these days, just Bob, Barnsley Bob."
He answered my silent question. "I came from there, once, a long time ago. Now come along, get a move on."
I walked behind the big man like a second pet dog, pleased to have somewhere to go, someone, anyone to follow.
The soup kitchen was behind St Peterís church, a church IĎd gone past so many times before with no idea of its other, secret, life. On offer was a bowl of steaming lentil and tomato soup and a large white crusty roll. Nothing has ever tasted better, not the finest caviar or the lightest pastry. I hadnít eaten white bread for ten years, and Iíd forgotten just how good it tasted. Bob led me to a bench to eat.
"Youíre new to this arenít you?"
"I can tell. Your skinís too soft and your hairís recently cut"
He didnít press me for any more information, but I found myself telling him everything. He didnít interrupt or make any kind of judgement, he just listened, nodding his great hairy head every now and then.
When Iíd finished he asked, "So will you be sticking it out for the 3 weeks?"
"Iíve got to really, if I give up before then, Iíll never get the promotion Iím after."
He nodded gravely as if he understood exactly what I meant. From then on, I went everywhere with Bob and Bullseye. He knew the best places to beg, the cheapest places to buy food, where you could get a shower and change of clothes, and best of all, how to avoid the do gooders who wanted to convert you, but didnít want to feed you.
Often weíd just sit together with not a word spoken. At first I tried to make conversation but Bob made it clear he needed his time to think.
"What do you think about?" I asked him.
"Oh this and that, the beauty of the world. You know."
I didnít know . I tried to sit there with him but the thoughts that came into my mind were not of beauty or peace. They were worries and cares, thoughts of unpaid bills and memories of arguments. Iíd think and fret about all the million and one jobs I could be doing if I wasnít on this assignment. Finally Iíd get up and wander off, walking round and round for ages until my feet burned, only to come back and find Bob still lost in thought, the hint of a smile on his worn out face.
It was the third day of the last week. Bob found a place to sit in the park. I knew heíd be there for hours. The late September sun was so warm and everywhere around us the trees were turning red and gold, yellow and ochre.
Finally, after an hour or so, I began to think, not of my husband or my comfortable home but of the simple pleasures in life. The joy of eating when youíre hungry, of a glass of water when youíre thirsty, of an extra blanket when the night turns cold, of good company and of love. I realised as I sat there with my large salary, my company car, six weeks holiday and beautiful home waiting for me, just a few days away, that I felt more relaxed and at ease sitting on that old hard wooden bench than Iíd ever done on my hand made leather sofa.
As I basked in the companionable silence, I knew there was something missing from my life. Something no amount of money or possessions could ever make up for.
At last the three weeks were over. I had enough material on tape to write a book let alone a 3000 word article. I knew too that it was going to be a good piece, the best thing Iíd ever written. It would get me promotion to assistant editor without question.
Our goodbyes were short. I knew Bob wouldnít miss me for long. Heíd find another stray to take under his ample wing.
I met him again six weeks later. Bullseye welcomed me like a long lost bone.
"How ya doing Bob? I see Bullseyeís fit and well."
He looked at me with no sign of recognition.
"Itís me Ė Rachel."
"Good grief! What happened to you?"
He looked me up and down, his eyes lingering on the designer suit, the hand made Italian shoes.
"You look - " he searched for the right word, but didnít find it, " different, " he said at last.
"Iíve come here to thank you. If you hadnít looked after me I donít know what wouldíve happened. I certainly wouldnít have made it through the three weeks."
"Did yíget your promotion?"
"No, well yes, I did, but I turned it down."
"Why? I thought your heart was set on it."
"It was, but thatís all changed now. Iím gong back into teaching, leaving the rat race behind."
"Tch," he said.
I looked into his dark eyes. I could read his thoughts as he could read mine.
"Grahamís left me. Weíre getting a divorce, selling the house."
"Thatís terrible. "
"No, no Bob, itís not terrible. In fact itís rather wonderful."
I left him with a £20 note pressed into his hand, a puzzled look still on his face.
How could I hope to explain to him that heíd shown me more love and humanity in those three hard, cold and uncomfortable weeks than Iíd seen in many a year. I quickened my pace. I had a book to write.