tagNovels and NovellasNo Future Ch. 61

No Future Ch. 61


Sinners, Poor and Wretched

"Is it true that you were once a gardener?" asked the affluent woman whose conscience had been sufficiently pricked to shove a few sizeable notes into the collection box chained to the counter.

"Not only a gardener," Roland admitted. "I've also been a teacher and a hospital nurse, but I guess this was the kind of work I was always destined to do."

"You're like a modern-day St. Theresa of Calcutta," the woman continued. "I don't know how many times I've passed by your relief centre and never thought of stopping and making a donation. Are you sure my car is safe here?" She nodded towards her ostentatious battery-driven vehicle beside which her chauffeur was standing.

"Absolutely," Roland said. "I also have a form here if you wish to make future donations. Any donation you make is totally tax-free. It's the only assistance we get from the government."

"I don't think I need to bother with that," said the woman who nevertheless took the proffered form. "Taxes are so low these days that it's basically not worth the effort to fill in a form. But tell me, why did you choose to leave the quiet contemplative life of gardening to work with the vagabonds and scum of London?"

"I haven't totally given up gardening," said Roland with a beatific smile as he gestured towards a flower bed just outside the relief centre that was somewhat incongruous on the dust-blown, pot-holed streets of East London. "And anyway, not all the poor wretches who come here for food, shelter and medical attention are either scum or vagabonds."

"Well, I guess there are some diamonds in the rough," said the woman as a parting comment as she walked back to her plush Indian-manufactured car.

"They don't make cars like that in England anymore," commented one of the men who regularly took advantage of Roland's centre. He wasn't just old, he was riddled with scars from the recent smallpox epidemic. "We used to make cars in England, you know. A long time ago. Before I was even born that was."

"Country's gone to the fucking dogs," said an equally old woman who had no teeth and wore ragged clothes that were several sizes too large and hung off her spindly frame. "Britain used to be Great. It's not Great anymore."

"It's not even called Britain anymore if you haven't been paying attention," said another man whose sagging skin was evidence that he'd once been plump or even obese. He now resembled a deflated balloon. "When's the soup coming?"

"It'll be here soon," said Roland. "There's a stew today as well. All vegetarian, I'm afraid. Meat's far too expensive."

"It's not proper meat anyway," said a thin woman who was probably in her fifties, but whose grey hair was already falling out in clumps from a combination of malnutrition and the ravages of a life spent evading life's little problems through drugs. "You wouldn't want to eat what they call meat these days. It's fucking diseased. It's like Frankenstein food."

"It's still food," said Roland diplomatically. "When there's not much of it around we have to be grateful for what we get. Now, if you'll excuse me I've got other things to do."

Roland walked through the door at the back of the reception area which, when it was a supermarket in more prosperous times, had been where shelves of goods heaved under the weight of affordable provisions. Now the public space of the abandoned shop was put aside to provide shelter for the most needy of the many hundreds of poor and homeless who relied on the relief centre for sustenance. The sad thing was that there was no genuine choice any longer, except starvation or death. There were no jobs. There were no government handouts. There was nothing. When you hit bottom, there was literally nowhere to go except ever deeper into the mire.

"We need some advice," said Osama, a male nurse whose dedication to the drop-in centre over the years was almost as great as Roland's. "We've got a case that we can't really tell whether it's genuine."

"We should give succour to everyone in need," said Roland not so much as advice but as a reminder to himself of the ideals that had persuaded him to leave his relatively secure job as an English teacher for an uncertain future of doling out soup, medicine and shelter to the desperate people he'd walked past every day on his way to the poorly-funded high school where he used to work.

"We've also got to prioritise," said Osama.

"What's the problem? Are you seriously considering turning someone away?"

"This woman is just dreadful. She swears constantly. She's rude to everyone. And when she's not abusing other people she's forever looking for ways to abuse herself. She's already stolen some morphine and found a vein to inject the stuff in. But she's also desperately ill. I'm not sure but I think she should be hospitalised."

"I take it she's got no health insurance," said Roland who was as aware as anyone that there was no free health provision without an insurance policy. Few people could afford to pay the cost of medical care unless they were properly insured.

"I'd be surprised if she's ever worked a single day in her life."

Roland followed Osama into the makeshift ward upstairs which would have once been a store-room. There were two rows of metal-frame beds where between tattered foam mattresses and polyester duvets were nestled patients who, if they'd been able to afford the expense, should really have been in a hospital. None of the patients were in a condition to care about the quality of either the mattress or the duvet. The most distressing aspect of the work Roland had chosen for himself was the need to dispose of dead bodies when there were no friends or family to take on the responsibility.

It was easy to tell which the troublesome patient was. It was in bed 15, marked Olive: which may or may not have been the woman's real name. She was still less than thirty years old, but drugs and other forms of bodily abuse, not to mention years of sleeping rough, had added many extra years to her apparent life. Her cheeks were drawn in. Several teeth, especially at the front, were now missing. One of her eyes was half-closed and was persistently weeping. Her frame was emaciated. Needle-marks scarred her arms and legs. Much of her thin hair was splitting apart and falling out. Once upon a time Olive might well have been a pretty woman, but now she would attract very few punters if she tried to make a living by selling her body. Roland suspected from the health problems that beset her that this was something she'd relied on rather too often.

"AIDS?" asked Roland.

"HIV Positive, but not AIDS," said Osama. "She's suffered from gonorrhoea and syphilis in the recent past, and she's got Chlamydia. She's also got a heroin addiction which is aggravated by some other past addictions for which heroin was a kind of remedy."

"Shall I speak to her?" asked Roland.

"You're welcome to try."

"Olive," said Roland as he bent down. "How do you feel?"

The woman glared up at with a frighteningly malevolent glare. "What the fuck is it to you how I feel," she said.

"This is a relief centre," continued Roland. "We give care and attention to the needy. These are people who are in such desperate straits that even sleeping rough is no longer a choice."

"Yeah, so what?" said Olive. "It's a dumping hole for the fucked and shat on. I know all that."

"If you're not in genuine need I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Olive," said Roland. "There are many others who require help and assistance, and you're taking up precious space."

"Are you gonna kick me out, you cunt?"

"As I said there are many others who'd very much like the benefit of a warm bed for the night..."

"You're a cunt," said Olive whose repertoire of expletives was far from exhausted. "A fucking cunt. You can't do that!"

"I'm afraid I can," said Roland. "So I'll ask again. How are you feeling?"

"I feel like shit," she said and just to demonstrate the truth of her words she broke into a coughing fit which brought up some blood-specked phlegm.

"I see," said Roland who was now convinced of the truth of her words. "Well, I'd advise you to rest. Don't stir yourself. Just close your eyes and try and sleep."

"It's not easy without fucking morphine."

"I'll see what I can do," said Roland.

He wandered back to Osama. "I might have been a nurse once," he said, "but I was never a doctor. What do you think?"

"Difficult to tell," Osama said. "Those who've developed a kind of immunity to illicit drugs are often so used to suffering that it's hard to tell what they're really feeling. But she's distressing the other patients. What should I do?"

"Move her into my bedroom," said Roland. "Move anything out of the way that she might wreck or that she might use to damage herself."

"Where will you sleep?" asked Osama who was rather more concerned for his colleague's welfare than Olive's.

"I'll find somewhere," said Roland. "I could stay with Maggie, my girlfriend, if she'll let me. But you saw Olive. She's an absolute mess. Do you think she'll even survive the night?"

"She's got enough energy and spite in her to live forever, wouldn't you think?" said Osama. "I've heard enough bad language in my life, but she's probably doubled it. If she's got the energy to swear, you think she'd be all right."

"I'm not sure," said Roland. "I think she's kind of on autopilot. Her reflexes are so conditioned that swearing is just natural to her. And in fact what I do think, besides the fact that I should put those in dire need ahead of my personal comfort, is that she might very well not be troubling our relief centre for very much longer. And we have a sworn duty of care for those most in need."

"What do you mean?"

"You saw the blood she spat up. You can see how dreadful she looks. I think it'll be a miracle if she's even alive tomorrow morning."

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