Fragments: Snapshots of Brighton's dispossessedBy Nell Grey
This is a city on the edge. Squatting on the shingle with her skirts spread out over the South Downs like a raddled old duchess who has seen better days - and worse - and seen it all too. Sooner or later everyone comes here, if only for the odd dirty weekend. From the day Prinny raised his pseudo-oriental folly, still floating in all its elegant complacency within sight of the sea, Brighton has proved irresistible to those on the fringe of so-called 'normal' society and beyond - the quacks, the charlatans, the pickpockets, con-men, drug-dealers, gamblers, artists, writers, actors, pop stars, the sexually alternative, the dispossessed and the merely eccentric. There are others here too, but they're easier to overlook. A walk through the Lanes, North Laine or along the promenade, the tragic West Pier a skeleton of burnt matchsticks waiting for the next fatal storm, and your brain's overloaded with enough snapshot portraits to stamp the peculiar atmosphere of the city on it for ever. If you stay here long enough you'll see and hear everything. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry. But if all of the above characters still inhabit the city - and they do - the ones impossible to miss today are the dispossessed.
At the southern entrance to the Lanes near where Doctor Brighton opened the first shampooing vapour-massage bath in England a girl sits cross-legged on the pavement, a few coins on a scarf in front of her. She can't be more than eighteen, and is dressed as all the youngsters seem to dress these days, homeless or otherwise, in shapeless layers of black and grey. This is not an unusual sight on the streets of Brighton . What is remarkable is that perched on her shoulder and leaning out to taste the air, its long shiny whiskers quivering, the expression in its brilliant eyes one of unmistakable intelligence and interest, is a large brown rat. Such is this city that people pass without a second look, but I wonder about the rat. It's clearly not the sort you find in pet shops, but the variety that those who know these things inform us that we're never more than six feet away from wherever we are. I've seen them from the top of the bus, running from flowerbed to flowerbed in Preston Park like mercenaries on a mission. Was it found motherless in some dark squat and adopted, a companion, a love-object for a friendless young woman? Or does she imagine that like the many passive and sometimes dejected dogs that share the vigils of those begging on the streets, that a rat will elicit extra sympathy and thus more cash? A youngish man approaches. The girl smiles a greeting.
'Are you coming to Macdonald's?' he asks.
She shakes her head. 'I can't take Ratty in there,' she says. 'Can you get me something?'
The cast-iron shelters that line the promenade, and used to allow our Victorian ancestors sanctuary from the prevailing westerlies whilst taking the sea air, now provide rough beds for those who find the hardship of a dry night at the Sally Army hostel too much to bear. These homeless ones seem older than the kids who sleep rough in shop doorways - perhaps the alcohol has aged them. Cheap cider is the favoured beverage - Diamond White more often than not - and some can be seen with a bottle tilted to cracked lips on waking first thing on a misty morning. It can get cold at night, even in summer, and at first sight these figures strike one as large, if not corpulent, until you realize that they've lagged themselves against the frost with all the clothes they own. Once, on an impulse I left a book beside a sleeping figure. It was George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London . Afterwards I walked quickly away, wondering if my action had been crass, but the motive behind it had been pure enough. I'd hoped it might inspire him, give him something to identify with or at least provide an hour or so of mental sustenance. He probably sold it later for a few pence towards some grog. Perhaps I'd have done better to leave him a sandwich and a cup of tea.
Early morning, a doorway near Brighton station. Commuters flow past towards the curved splendour of the arching roof, their schedules timed to the minute, minds already intent on the office and negotiating the day's obstacles as painlessly as possible. A figure lies unconscious, an empty bottle beside her. She looks at least sixty, but living on the streets is not conducive to preserving youth, and she could be younger. A plastic Tesco's bag is squashed between her head and the glass door, and the upper half of her body is encased in a huge tweed overcoat. The lower half is completely exposed, the bilious legs spread wide, the sparse hair parted to allow a trickle of yellow liquid to pool beneath her buttocks before running in a thin stream towards the gutter.
A man stops. 'Disgusting,' he says, and gets out his mobile, dials 999.
He speaks into it for a moment. 'Supposing she's dead,' he says, voice raised, 'would you send someone out then?'
'They wanted to know if she was drunk,' he says incredulously. He shakes his head and hurries on towards the station.
Five-thirty, an October evening. The day has been warm for the time of year but as the sun drowns in the sea and that odd luminosity spreads over the water a chill seems to creep along the darkening prom. A young girl walks barefoot near the cast-iron railings, inadequately dressed in a tee-shirt and cotton skirt and carrying a large plastic bag and a single trainer. I can't pass her without saying something, although since reading Mark Twain's theory of altruism - that there is no such thing as a truly selfless act, as we do these things because not to do so would cause us discomfort - I can't say my motive is anything but one of preservation of a little peace of mind.
'Are you all right?' She stares at me, but seems almost to be elsewhere.
'I need to get rid of these.' She holds up the plastic bag which I now see is full of clothes. There's a woollen jumper with a Fair-Isle pattern, and what looks like a warm coat.
'There's a bin further along the promenade,' I say, 'but it's getting cold - you'll need those to keep warm.' She looks at me from vacant brown eyes.
'But they're stinking,' she says. 'They smell of shit. I have to get rid of them.'
My brain races ahead - how can I help her? I'm not carrying any money, and it looks as though she's on something. I've no idea which direction to point her in for help, and I can hardly take her home with me. It's as if she's labelled 'victim', and there are enough predators in this city to make her survival doubtful. But she's made the decision for me.
She's already moving on, and I catch her parting words. ' Brighton 's not the same as it was the last time,' she says, drifting away from me. I stand and watch her go. She doesn't look back. She haunts me still.
'Big Issue?' A vivid and eclectic mix of people frequent the quirky shops here in the North Laine . It's late October, Saturday midday , and progress along the pavement is slow. I hesitate, but carrying one will at least provide immunity from being asked again this morning.
'Why not,' I say getting out my purse, hoping I've the right money - £1.20 at the current rate. Big Issue vendors are trained in unwavering politeness to the public, and it seems to work, as I've never experienced any behavior that made me uncomfortable - rather the discomfort is self-generated and tends to make me wave away the proffered change. Then I walk on wondering if I've been patronizing. The man must be in his thirties, with a ready smile, but there's a cold wind today and he's only wearing a denim jacket and a tee shirt.
'Have you got somewhere to stay?' I ask.
'It's not just me,' he says, 'it's the pair of us - me and my girlfriend - and they won't let us stay together, otherwise we'd go to the hostel. We sleep in the car-park round the corner from here.'
He sees the surprise on my face and grins.
'S'okay,' he says, we keep each other warm.'
On the north side of the by-pass on the outskirts of the city begin the footpaths that cross the Downs . Exiting the concrete tunnel under the vibrating tarmac above I'm confronted with an ancient coach hand-painted dark blue and green. The windows are piled high with clothes and odd objects that I can't identify, and wrapped in some purple material a white moon-like disc that could be the face of someone lying among them and looking out. I try to bring it into focus, to identify it as human rather than a life-sized doll, but it's disembodied among the garments, and perfectly, surreally still. I pass on towards the gate to the hill, the face an image in my mind's eye as I walk.
Later, returning on the footpath that runs high along the top of Sweet Hill a figure approaches. I've been reading Wuthering Heights again, and it's as if Kathy has stepped from between the pages and is walking towards me across the moors. She's dressed in a long black skirt, boots - thick socks showing above the tops - and is wrapped in a large purple shawl. Her dark hair moves slightly in the wind. For a moment I almost doubt the evidence of my eyes. It's as if I've stepped back in time. The image is so powerful that I have to tell her. As we draw close I can see that the purple shawl is in fact a blanket, and that she's not beautiful as I'd originally thought from the way she moved and some trick of the light or the sight, but plain bordering on strange-looking.
'The way you appeared so suddenly, looking the way you do,' I say half-breathlessly, 'I thought for a moment you were Kathy from Wuthering Heights !'
Surely she must think, Oh shit, a mad-woman. But no. She turns on me a smile that should have dazzled. But all her teeth are misshapen and discoloured. It doesn't appear that she's ever visited a dentist.
We meet under the soaring arch - one of twenty-seven - of the great brick railway viaduct that crosses the London Road . She's at least fifty-five, maybe sixty, dressed in a thin cotton skirt with a pattern of tiny flowers and a loose black vest-like top over naked breasts. On her feet sandals, her hands protected by fingerless gloves - green, a contrast to the strawberry-blonde hair, which stands out electrically around the face, heavily wrinkled and brown as old leather. She's in charge of a child's pushchair loaded with plastic bags filled with clothes. Additional bags hang from the handlebars.
'Excuse me please, could you direct me to the library?'
I tell her she's going in the right direction, but she seems to want to talk. There's a trace of Oz in her voice, as if she were one of the sixties wanderers who'd never made it back to the sunshine, and she seems like an educated person. I can't help wondering about her life and ask if she's visiting the city. She tells me that she's left her council flat in London and has walked to Brighton, but 'I don't want to live amongst gangs of crazy kids - that's why I had to get out of the estate.' Then she begins to speak of the countryside around Brighton - is it safe? 'Safe?' I ask. It seems she's read stories in the newspapers - 'Some time ago now - maybe nineteen-fifty' - of witchcraft and ritual murder. 'I don't want to be jumping the frying pan for the fire now, do I? I need to get to the library to look it up.'
I leave her pressing on towards the city centre and the library. Later I describe the encounter to my brother who's staying for a few weeks, confiding to him that at one point in the conversation, before I began to suspect that she was quite loopy, I'd almost asked her home for coffee. He fixes me with a long assessing look before making his pronouncement.
'You need to get out more,' he says.
© Nell Grey 2004
First appeared in Citizen 32 'Home and Homelessness' issue and was add to The Deckchair website on 11/12/2006.
This page was added on 09/06/2011
|Fragments: Snapshots of Brighton's dispossessed|