A man with problems wanders the streets. At the end of the street he sees the bright lights of a homeless shelter. A neon sign attracts his attention - Homeless welcome, sinners welcome, ALL welcome. Come inside and choose your fate. Underneath the sign a group of vagrants stand around eating pies supplied by the shelter. They look content, they look wanted. The man looks on as a woman walks among them. She notices him and gestures for him to come over. He wants this help, he needs this comfort.
There was a sign. Homeless welcome, sinners welcome, ALL welcome. I saw it as I turned the corner and it held me there captivated by its brilliance. It shone out like a beacon piercing the dark, dank back streets of nowhere. This side of the city was a ghetto, a hybrid of human activity. Kids roamed the alleyways tooling themselves with bottles and sticks. Some had knives, others guns. It was well known that most of the cities criminal societies habited this place. In truth this side of the city needed a health warning placed upon it.
I had been warned as early as a young boy never to set foot in this labyrinth of evil. But there I was, standing, enthralled watching the light as it turned through blues and purples flickering occasionally, disappearing momentarily then returning, once again, unexpectedly in all its glory. Several people stood around underneath it in front of a large door hugging together in the cold wrapped in blankets, sheets and anything else they could find to keep them warm. The underprivileged as my mother used to call them, the unwanted. They drank soup and they smelt and they did little else she had said. They were to be avoided. Yet here there seemed to be an infectious happiness that filled the air. It called me. It seemed to say ‘I can help’, ‘you can be saved too’.
My life hadn’t been so good lately, my wife had left when my redundancy had hit and my kids had gone with her. And, since I had been separated, I had lost my way as well. I was aware that people treated me differently. When I filled up my car with gas the petrol guy no longer stopped to have a jovial chat but plugged me up, filled me up then took my money without a word. The teachers of my kids avoided me in the street as though I was some sort of plague, even my family, though they did seem to tolerate me no longer sent me invites or ‘How you doing?’ messages. I was an outcast. These people, sitting under the sign were different. These people had something. These people had each other and I envied that. I was about to turn away when a voice stopped me in my tracks.
‘Hey dude. Where you going? You need some love? You need hope? You want a helping hand. Well swing back this way brother because the lord has led you to this place. The lord has decided that this night, you, my sad brother, tonight is your time to be saved.’
I saw the woman that was speaking, a tall woman of African-American descent. Her hair sprung out dreadlocks in all directions, her skin was dark and smooth. She smiled and her face was empty of the aggression or pity that I had recently become used to. I smiled back and she held wide her arms as though opening herself up to me as she beckoned me across the street.
‘You want some of this love brother. You want this?’
I nodded. I did want it. It seemed something I wanted all my life. I crossed the street and took her hand. As she walked beside me I noticed the bright clothes that she wore and the numerous bangles on her left arm. We made our way to the entrance under the neon sign and stood outside the door and at that particular moment, it seemed to me she was leading me to freedom, she was leading me into the light. She never did tell me her name. From that moment on though I thought of her as Bangles.
Inside the door was a large room. In the room were beds, some taken, some empty. It was the smell that hit me first. It hit me the minute I entered, a combination of urine, sweat and something else. Something nice. Apart from the bed there was very little in the room. A cross in the centre of the room towered above us as it hung from a large main beam that passed centrally across the ceiling. There was no electricity just a collection of candles lit in various parts of the room that cast crazy shadows back and forth across the walls. At the back of the room were two doors, one of which had a large ‘keep out’ sign scribbled across it. Vagrants shuffled back and forth often stopping to speak to each other. They seemed to stop and wave in unison as I entered. In truth I had never seen a group of vagrants so pleased to see me. Bangles led me past them into the centre where there was a table placed directly underneath the cross. I looked up at the figure of Jesus who seemed to look directly back at me. Around the table were six chairs. Bangles pulled one back for me and ushered me to sit.
‘You had something to eat bro?’ she enquired. ‘I’ll get you something.’
She shuffled off reappearing a few seconds later with a tray containing a plate of fries and a pie. I thanked her and tucked into it greedily. It seemed not only was my soul hungry my stomach was hungry also. The pie was awesome, the pastry crisped to perfection, the meat diced into thick chunks and swimming with gravy. I took a large bite, then another cramming the rest of it into my mouth. It was good. Here with my people I had no inhibitions, I had no misconceptions of who I was. Here I was with my people, I felt at home. They watched me silently as I ate. I finished another pie I had been handed feeling guilty when I spilled some of it from the side of my mouth in my haste to eat. I looked around and saw honesty, loyalty, friendship and generosity. For what seemed the first time in a long time I felt amongst friends, amongst comrades.
Bangles sat up and chatted to me for an hour. She enquired why I had been walking the streets so late and listened intently as I told her of my problems. Nodding occasionally as I spoke of my financial worries, she questioned me when I explained my loneliness, she empathised when I described my bitter marriage break up, the messy divorce and how I missed my children terribly. It was good to talk and feel that someone cared and wanted to help. It was a weight off my mind, a weight off my shoulders. It was good not to be told to be quiet. I told her everything from the beginning to end and then, when I was spent, she told me something of herself.
I learnt that she had worked in the shelter for over a year, she had lost her own family and began her work there as a means of creating a new one. She explained how she sought out like-minded people, people at the lowest point of their lives and how she took them in and helped them. It made her feel like she finally had a purpose, it made her happy to see smiles appear on sad faces. She pointed around the room at some of the people she had taken in and briefly told me their stories. As she did she smiles appeared on the faces one by one around the room. I was captivated by her tale and asked her to continue.
he said and that plenty come and go in that time. Some of them came as sinners and repented she said, some of them didn’t. She enjoyed her work although it meant she wasn’t able to get back home very often which seemed to upset her. Respectfully I listened to her as she had done for me. A tear coursed down her cheek as she spoke about her country. Her face grew angry when she described how she felt about the state of the country she lived in. The talk drifted into politics. The hospitals were in disrepair, the education system a shambles. Labour had promised everything yet given nothing she ranted. I wasn’t sure I agreed but as she got louder and a little fanatic I made the decision that I’d keep my opinions to myself. It wasn’t that she frightened me, far from that. She was a passionate woman, with a strong point of view and a heart that cared. That was all. All I could do was apologize for the little knowledge I had of politics but I didn’t need to. Bangles did all the talking and for some reason when she had finished I felt like I understood. She came to the end like a hurtling train. Her voice got louder and louder and then it was over and she sat in front of me smiling.
‘I’m sorry about that bro. I suppose you could say I got issues.’
‘Haven’t we all.’ I agreed.
‘Suppose so and believe me I’ll let them out don’t you worry bout that. Maybe once in a while though, I should just goddarn keep them to myself. What’s your name bro anyway? I’m sorry I just got such a head of steam up there I lost all my manners and forgot to ask.’
I gave her my real name; something that never happens when it comes to strangers, especially in this part of town. It was like I couldn’t lie. She had taken me in and it would be disrespectful of me to abuse her hospitality.
‘Pieter,’ I replied, ‘Pieter Ingellson. I’m from Finland.’
She leant across the table and shook my hand.
‘It’s nice to meet you Pieter. I have to go for a little while now bro but as Arnie would say I’ll be back.’
I laughed at her joke as she stood up. It seemed like I should do.
‘Don’t worry about these lot bro she said. They don’t bite.’ Then she walked across the room and exited through the ‘no entry door’ leaving me sitting there on my own at the table wondering what was behind it.
I waited there eagerly but she didn’t return. There were noises behind the door. After a while, as my ears adjusted, the noises became a conversation. Because of my distance to the door I couldn’t decipher words or sentences but I could tell they were heated. There were three voices., Bangles voice and two others. Bangles voice was the loudest. She interrupted the other two frequently and when she did her tone was snappy and aggressive. Maybe somebody else was getting the political speech. I was suddenly glad she had finished with me when she had.
Ten minutes later the voices died down. I could hear footsteps falling away into the distance yet still as I watched the door intently willing her to appear she didn’t. The door stayed shut, the ‘no entry’ sign written across it taunted me. Around me the folks that had been sleeping moved in unison. The arguing had probably awakened them. I prayed that they would go back to sleep but they didn’t. Instead, straight out of a Boris Karloff film they sat upright in their beds and looked over at me. I looked away as though I hadn’t seen them. I did feel guilty but deep down the last thing I wanted to do was attract their attention. They got out of their beds and moved towards me. As the vagrants closed in I began to feel compromised, almost claustrophobic. The door stood there in front of me and in my curiosity I wanted to know. What was behind it? Who was speaking with Bangles? What had the argument been over?
I left my seat and pushed through the crowd towards it. They groaned as I passed by like zombies. Two seemed to turn and follow me as I went. It was quite unnerving. By the time I reached the door I was panicking. I scrambled at the handle but it wouldn’t turn. Then when I seemed to have managed I felt an arm tug me back. My imagination ran wild. I pictured the two vagrants clawing at me, dragging me backwards spreading their foul smell and diseases. I looked round in dread and instantly I felt ashamed of myself. It wasn’t two mind crazed zombie vagrants pulling me. It was Bangles. Her face held an expression that said ‘you’ve let me down.’ Then it softened and she seemed concerned. The smile reformed in her lips and she looked at me straight in the eye and scolded me like a child.
‘Now Pieter, ’she reprimanded, ‘don’t let me see you try that door again bro. Youcanread can’t you? You only go through that door when you’re ready. You only go through that door when God calls you.’
And with that she turned me back round and I was amazed to see the room behind me, the room with the table, was full of people.
They seemed to have come from everywhere. The seats and beds were full of them sitting looking towards us staring. The walls were lined with them also. I thought they were looking at me at first but then I realised they weren’t. They were staring at her waiting for her to speak to them.
When she did start speaking their faces lit up in unison. She welcomed them, each and every-one of them. Then she recited a chapter of the Bible I can no longer remember. The vagrants took in every word she said and so did I. There was a way about her that was for sure. Her voice drifted around the room. Ten minutes later the door opened and more people drifted in along with it. When the last had entered Bangles stood up. The light from the window shone down upon her. It was bizarre seeing her standing there with the colours of the sign dancing about her. She looked surreal, almost godlike. She held up her hands and her audience sat down.
They began to pray, different prayers, different languages. The room filled with noise. She walked round the room shaking each persons hand, bending down to them and nestling their heads in her breast. After speaking a few words into their ears she moved to the next and then as I watched in a trance she was back and once again she was talking to me.
‘You believe in God Pieter? You believe there’s someone up there, someone looking over your shoulder, someone judging you?
I nodded unconvincingly. Bangles saw this and pressed me further.
‘You seem uncertain bro.’
‘I’m just cold.’ I answered, ‘I haven’t thought much about it. And it was true I hadn’t. I had led my merry life without questioning almost without conscience.
She took this in tilted her head as though she was thinking then grinned. She seemed happy but, listening to my own answers, I knew they sounded lame. Bangles pointed.
‘See these people Pieter. God has sent them to me. God has made it my mission to help these people. God has found them lost in a world that no longer cares for them and He has brought them home.’
Her words were deep and, in my past existence I would not have listened. I would have been out of that room in a flash. Long gone. But, as she looked me directly in the eye I could feel the power of her sentiments, I could see the belief and I wanted to be there, I wanted to listen, I wanted to take in every word she spoke. The prayers continued and, wanting to be part of everything that went on here, I bowed my head and said my own.
She left me for a while, locked in my own thoughts. I sensed she was looking at me as I confessed my sins and prayed for guidance and forgiveness. Then as I finished and looked back up at her she smiled once more and reached for my hand.
‘Come with me,’ she said, ’I have something to show you.’
We left the room with the chants and the prayers and as we left it died gradually till, by the time we were at the end of the corridor, it seemed the occupants of the room behind me were silent.
Pointing to the only bed in the room she turned and spoke to me.
‘It is late. Stay the night as there are many dangers outside.’
I thanked her. I noticed in the faint light a man lay in the corner of the room. He turned as I entered and lazily acknowledged me. I lay my bag on the bed and sat down. Bangles sat beside me.
‘I think now God has spoken. He knows your purpose.’ she said. ‘Don’t worry. You can sleep here bro but I’m gonna need you later. These folk don’t get fed on their own man. The bins are arriving at dawn and I need this place clean. I’ll wake you up. It’ll be nice and early but I can’t be helping that. A woman’s work is never done. God’s work is never done. Remember Pieter, God has a use for us all.’
And with that she left closing the door behind her leaving the room in blackness. By the snoring that was coming from the corner I surmised that my roommate was asleep. I pulled the sheets over me, said goodnight then closed my eyes. A weight had left my shoulders and the ache that burned within me was gone. Not long after Bangles had left I heard her talking to someone in the hallway. Not long after that I fell into the deepest sleep I had in a long time. My dreams that night, well those I can remember, were warm, friendly and untroubled.
I felt the tap on my head about four in the morning. I wasn’t expecting it to be so early but hey, they had taken me in and offered friendship so who was I to complain. Pushing the covers off me, I stepped down onto the cold floor and stretched.
Bangles handed me a see through plastic shawl and, though it offered me little warmth I put it on as requested. It was two sizes too big and my arms fell long short of fitting through the sleeves.
Bangles pulled the hood over my head, laughed at my new appearance then smiled a little gentler.
‘Hurry Pieter. We haven’t much time.’
The hood, again too big, fell down a little in front of my eyes annoying me. I went to take it off but Bangles laid a hand on mine
‘You’ll need it on bro.’ She said ‘It’s raining outside.’
We went to the door. We went to the door with the sign that said keep out. I was glad as I walked there. Finally I was accepted and was one of them.
The door opened and behind it I saw the kitchens. In the kitchens were three kinds of people. The first were the regular crew. They pottered in, dressed in rags and placed their left hand out in turn to receive their pie. Once their food hand been handed to them they shuffled out again some waiting to eat their treat outside, some lifting their hands to their bearded mouths and sucking the meat out of their pies greedily. There were others dressed like me. They lay in the far corner. There were a few of them but I could not see their faces as the kitchen work surfaces barred my view. All I could see were there legs and besides them were piles of clothing. The third type of people were dressed in the traditional black and white chef clothing worn by kitchen staff. They stopped working as I entered and stared at me. It felt a little unnerving but I guessed that happened to everyone, it happened to every new recruit so to speak. I waited for them to break their gaze and continue rolling pastry, continue stirring the gravy, continue firing the ovens. They didn’t and then in a flash of inspiration I finally worked things out.
I looked at the tramps feeding on their pies. I looked at the people sleeping in the corner. I looked at the kitchen staff staring at me expectantly. I understood the questions, the talk of religion. I understood why she had forbidden me to go through the door. I understood the single bed and the man lying on the floor in the corner. It was a test and I had failed. Miserably. I remembered the pies in particular the huge chunks of meat spilling from the pastry. I understood the need for the shawl, the piles of clothing. I could hear her voice in my head. God has a use for you Pieter. God has a use for you. Looking up I saw what I expected to see. The blade, fashioned like those used in the French revolution, came crashing down.