Just thought I’d say- I know very well that living on our nice warm boat is nowhere near comparable to living on the streets, but you understand my point. For all I know, Eric might love the adventure of it, the fact that it enables him to set-up camp wherever the devil he chooses, the freedom of it all. And if you ask him, he defends his lifestyle choice, and resists the alternative ‘solutions’. Which is very much fair enough. And that’s all I have to say for now.
We’ve been away for a while and now it’s back to normal life and work. Over Christmas, when we came back, we looked for Eric and were delighted to see that he wasn’t there. Good- he’s taken himself to a “nice” shelter for some turkey. But alas, the next day he returned and we were presented with our usual problem. What the hecky-peck do we give him/do to him/say to improve his predicament? So Pat went off with the hot-water bottle at around 11.00pm and found Eric shuffling around a piece of polystyrene, in his usual outfit. I imagine he was pleased to see Pat as it had been a while- over a month in fact. Pat questioned him about the polystyrene, and Eric told him it had been given to him by a nice man called Roger. We know Roger, he lives on one of the boats next to us, and he is indeed a nice man. When Pat told me about this, I was a little miffed that Eric had accepted Roger’s polystyrene but not the ‘arctic-ready’ sleeping bag we had offered him a few weeks before. Maybe Eric likes Roger more than us, I thought. Maybe Eric thinks we neglected him by going away for so long. Probably he just didn’t feel the sleeping bag was a necessary addition. I guess he’s better equipped to decide which materials best suit his needs. And I guess polystyrene is probably a very good way of keeping yourself warm, and it offers some ‘squish’/comfort underneath you.
So Pat and Eric had a chat, and it turns out that Eric has a store unit where he keeps his things, somewhere in central London. And when it got REALLY cold before Christmas he took to sleeping in there secretly. Phew. Because being outside during that cold spell, well, it wouldn’t have been advisable. Eric told Pat more about his work, and what he did over Christmas and Pat took a secret mental note of the company that Eric said he worked for.
To be honest, I think we both imagined that Eric didn’t really go to work at all in the day, but just pretended to. Although, when I’d spoken to Eric about it he sounded very convincing. I definitely wanted to imagine him waking up in the morning, getting on the train with the rest of the work-force, grabbing a latte on the way and arriving fresh-faced for a day at the office. With his rucksack, sleeping back and polystyrene. But I kind of thought it very unlikely.
Happily enough, I was wrong. Pat made a call to the alleged company and spoke to a nice lady who knew exactly who Eric was, and expressed grave concern at his situation, which she already knew all about. Pat explained to her that he’d been worried about Eric, but that actually, it was reassuring to know that at least he did have somewhere to go every day, that he could therefore probably afford to eat, and even rent somewhere if he really wanted to. Which then made the whole situation even more interesting, because he really is choosing this way of life. Which I’ve said before, but the difference is that now, I KNOW he is. Because he could get himself out of it if he wanted to.
Last week I went to a ‘Zumba’ class near the boat, (don’t know what I was thinking- and I’m not even going to explain what it entailed. Use your imagination) and I was terrible at it. There I met some well-heeled local ladies, who told me about what other classes they’d done and what leisure centres they frequented. When I told them where I lived they looked a bit baffled- not excited or curious, just plain confused. No- not confused, SUSPICIOUS. Yes, they eyed me with suspicion and changed the subject for a while (presumably to let the information sink in a bit). Then they came back with a string of questions, which I attempted to answer without making myself sound like some sort of freak. But the general gist was- “WHY? Why, on earth do you choose to live in such a way?” Without, of course, actual saying that. More in a “so what’s it like not having any utilities?” or ”and what do you do about sewage?” (Which could be translated as ‘so what’s it like to to be dirty?’ and ‘what’s it like to poo into the river?”. (It’s quite normal to ask these questions but they shouldn’t be the very first/only questions asked to someone living on a boat.) So anyway- in a roundabout way, what I’m thinking is- I AM ERIC! In this situation. In this very specific situation.
So, now I feel it is not my place to question Eric’s choices. They’re his. And in the meantime, we can just keep an eye on him- as we would any neighbour.
Last night when I was walking home from the station I saw an old man shuffling across the road in front of me. Eric, of course. Now that I know his name its hard not to keep using it. So I walked up to him and said… ‘Eric?’ and he looked up at me from under his fleece hat (his eyes were barely out) and said ‘Yeaaays?’. I introduced myself and he seemed pleased to be talking to me. So. He’s old, has a grey beard, speaks the queen’s english and wears two pairs of trousers, a jersey, a shirt a jumper and a coat, a hat, big boots and carries a rucksack with a tatty old sleeping bag attached to it.
I walked back to his spot under the bridge with him and he told me about how he once climbed Mont Blanc and was very resilient and handled the cold quite well. (I knew all of this already because Pat had told me). But, he said, he was older now and he was finding it increasingly difficult to move with ease. Yesterday in the day I had called up a few places to find out whether we’d be able to take Eric to a shelter or whether someone in the council could help. I found a couple of good organisations, including Spear, a local hostel and they also told me about churches that open their doors in the winter for people to go and sleep in.
So, once I’d had a bit of chat with Eric, I asked him whether he knew about this Spear place. Of course he said he did, and that he wasn’t a ‘big fan’ of those shelters because they were full of drug pushers and drunks. He liked the idea of the church more, but wouldn’t let me drive him to one. I told him he had to look after himself, and he said he did, and that he would. I told him that it was going to get very cold, and he said ‘yes, around-3 they say, but actually it’s a bit warmer here by the river, and under the bridge’. I told him that I didn’t want to find him frozen to death in the morning, and he laughed and told me it wasn’t that cold yet, although last night it had been a bit colder than the night before. I told him he needed to take this seriously and that he was ‘no spring chicken’,and he said ‘I’m glad I’m not a spring chicken because I saw about 3 foxes last night, and they would have had me’. This made me laugh a lot, and then Pat appeared and said: ‘Right lets take you somewhere warm’. And Eric said ‘No, no, no no not tonight. Please don’t put yourself out for me’.
The thing about Eric is that he’s clearly very clever, and is choosing to live in this way to some extent. He lost contact with his family when he first became homeless. He looked sad when I asked him about it. Weirdly though, I felt very comfortable taking to him, he was very gentle and I didn’t notice anything volatile or strange about him. I know that probably sounds stupid, but I guess he just seemed a bit lost, a bit misty and nostalgic, but also strangely cheery, like he was just living, and it wasn’t big deal that he was sleeping on the streets. So perhaps he is not entirely aware of the situation he is in, or perhaps it genuinely isn’t that difficult yet. The truth is, we don’t know whether he is able to look out for himself. Physically he is not at all strong, but mentally he seemed pretty hardy.
In the end we had to compromise by getting him the hot water bottle again, and also giving him Pat’s amazingly warm arctic sleeping bag, which I forced him to take (he didn’t want it at first). The problem now is, what happens next? He left the sleeping bag and the water bottle outside the boat again this morning. Will we do this every night forever now? I don’t want him to get into trouble, and he’s old so at some point he needs to get proper housing. In the meantime, I guess we do this until he’s ready to go to a shelter…. Crumbs.
Pat met Eric two nights ago when he was taking his cousin to the mooring entrance on her way home. It was a cold night and Pat spotted a small white heap under the bridge, came back into the boat and promptly decided to go back out and check if the heap was ok. I said some nonsense about ‘being careful’ and Pat marched off. Then I sat twitching in front of the TV for a while, cleared up, and then thought maybe it would be best if I went to check what was going on.. just in case. I put my coat on and wondered out, saw Pat wave in the distance and then grumbled off again. It was late and I was practically asleep and a little bit unfriendly in general.
Half an hour later Pat returned bleary eyed and told me all about Eric, our newest neighbour, a 77 year old man living under the bridge next to the river. Pat wanted to bring him in, but he also didn’t want to. He offered him food, blankets but Eric didn’t want any of it. It was confusing. It was also almost freezing that night and we didn’t know what we should do- put him in the wheelhouse? Make him tea? I did actually make him a thermos while I waited for Pat to come back- having decided that would be a sort of half-effort, kind of helpful but not fully committal. As it turned out he didn’t want tea because it made him need to wee in the night. And he didn’t want money or biscuits of gloves or an extra sleeping bag. But he did graciously accept a hot water bottle, which Pat took out to him.
I didn’t go out to meet Eric because I thought it would be like Cheepy again, only with a full-grown human and massively more complicated and also I wouldn’t be able to call the RSPB and ask them for advice. So I hid in my little warm shelter (boat and head) and had a weird night’s sleep, and so did Pat and we wondered whether it was right to leave him out there, or whether we should have brought him in, but if we’d brought him in then when would we stop- and is that even appropriate, and would I sleep with a stranger in the house? But does that even matter because surely he can’t be sleeping a wink out there in the cold with 77 years behind him and arthritis, so my sleep situation is neither here nor there. Then we thought we could offer him the back of our car to sleep in, but Pat remembered he had to go to a client’s house to edit the next day and turning up in our battered old Volvo is one thing, but turning up in it complete with hobo asleep in the back is maybe taking the whole bohemian lifestyle thing to the extreme.
So anyway. Pat had to go the next morning very early to work and when he left in the dark he found the hot-water bottle perched on the entrance gate, with a little note attached. ‘Property of Patrick , Seahorse, many thanks, Eric’.