As my time as an undergraduate drew to a close, I felt an overwhelming need to experience what I thought of as the real world. I exchanged Oxford’s ivory towers for a night shelter for homeless men in Leeds. It was there that I received my second education.
I spent a lot of time in hospitals during my year in Leeds. Not on my own account—not even when I thought an early-evening headbutt had broken my nose—but on behalf of the men I was supposed to be looking after. Men like Sammy, a heavily bearded Glaswegian whose broad-brimmed hat was several sizes too big for his head, which meant that he had to tip it back to see who he was talking to.
Sammy was a chronic alcoholic and a really friendly guy. As his health deteriorated, I was given the task of taking him to the Leeds General Infirmary to have his liver checked out. What I hadn’t appreciated was how complicated getting him from the hospital entrance to the actual clinic would be.
Sammy had perfect manners. He could not let a clinician pass by without a warm “good morning,” often accompanied by a double-handed handshake and always by that distinctive backward tilt of the head. Doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, receptionists: Anyone wearing a badge or dressed in medical uniform was subjected to the same cidery greeting. We had met at 9 a.m. for a 9.30 appointment, and I was beginning to wonder whether I had seriously undercooked the timing.
Eventually we arrived in the bright, white, scrubbed clinic where a well-heeled, middle-aged lady was also due to have a blood sample taken. She was fretting.
“I know I should have fasted,” she said, “but I had a small yogurt very early this morning. Will that be acceptable?”
Before the nurse had a chance to answer, Sammy intervened. “Miss, miss, I’d drunk two bottles of cider by five o’clock this morning,” he reassured her.
I was constantly amazed by Sammy’s ability to hang onto life. In fact, surprisingly few of our clients died during the time I worked at the night shelter, which was something of a minor miracle considering how badly they abused their bodies, how chronically alcoholic so many of them were.
Peter was an exception. His liver was in such a terrible state by the time he was admitted to hospital that he became a showpiece for one of the consultants. To Peter’s great delight, hordes of medical students clustered around as the consultant did his ward round: For the first time in his life, people were taking notice of him.
A few weeks later, I went to his funeral. A couple of other tramps managed to get there on time. Someone from the Salvation Army was there, too. It was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.
Perhaps the bleakness of the men’s lives and the monotony of the job meant that I looked forward to Christmas Day more keenly that year. My colleagues and I prepared a huge meal for the local down-and-outs, surprising ourselves with our mass catering abilities.
We relaxed the shelter’s rules that Christmas Day. No one was turned away because they had been drinking. No one tried to attack us. No one tried to smuggle in weapons or drink or glue. It was Christmas, and everyone was determined to have a good time.
Then Billy turned up with a broken arm. He was under the influence of some substance or other and had no idea what he had done to himself. Someone had to take him to hospital, and the lot fell on me.
As we waited in casualty, I realized that we were going to miss not only Christmas dinner but the film show afterwards, too. The men wanted to see Porridge, a classic British comedy set in a prison. That is to say, it was a great comedy for us but a documentary for many of them.
We waited for hours in the infirmary until Billy had his arm set, then rushed back to the shelter to find a scene of quiet devastation. There were chairs everywhere. Food was strewn across the floor and at least one table had been overturned. Apparently, two of the men had got into an argument during the film show and, in the darkness, the fight had got out of control.
Fists were thrown, followed by chairs. All you could see, my colleagues told me, was chair after chair flying through the projector beam. I had missed the fight on Christmas Day.
“How was your day?” my parents asked when I phoned them that evening.
“The usual,” I replied. “Just a typical Christmas Day.”
Roy Peachey is a doctoral student at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne and teaches at Woldingham School in the UK.