8 o’clock. I’ve just realised how dark it is out there. I’m buttering bread. Slicing cheese. Wondering what possessed me to think of venturing out at this hour. It’s raining too. Hammering on the kitchen window. Couldn’t I just curl up and watch Supersize vs Superskinny instead?
Cheese sandwiches wrapped and bagged, I’m outside. It’s emptying down. The umbrella’s inside out before I reach the kerb. Come to think of it, I’m not sure these boots are waterproof. I avoid the first puddle, then plunge my left foot straight into the next. I was right about the boots. I scan the pavement as I weave through the traffic outside one Bristol’s dodgiest pubs. I don’t want to be first to arrive. You’re pretty much invisible in this part of the city, unless you’re obviously well-heeled or up to your neck in something nasty. Happily, I’m neither. I still don’t like waiting outside the building alone though.
I’m quite new to all this. One25’s van has been cruising the city by night since 1996. In that time, they’ve offered care and support to hundreds of street sex workers. Their drop-in has been operating since 1995. I arrived on the scene less than two years ago. I’m part of a dedicated team of around 120 volunteers. I go out on the van about once a month. I also work in the drop-in most weeks.
The rain shows no sign of easing up as we edge the van past a flashy sports car, parked in the narrow lane behind the Grosvenor Centre. The box in the back is stuffed with hats, gloves and scarves. We’re out of umbrellas. You have to be mad to work the street on a night like tonight. Or desperate. Our first stop is not far from the main shopping centre. The girl on the corner ignores us, intent on a potential punter in the park. Another woman gets into the back of the van. She says she’s starving and pleads for socks. Crying with the cold. Her canvas shoes are wet through. There are no socks on board tonight. My co-worker makes hot chocolate. My soggy boot doesn’t seem so bad all of a sudden. Then the first girl rattles the door. The punter’s lost his bottle. She’s stick-thin. I could probably encircle her upper arm with my thumb and index finger. She won’t give a name. Not even a false one. Avoids eye contact. Doesn’t join the conversation. She takes food and melts into the darkness. We don’t see her again.
I lived more than half my life in rural Wiltshire. Inner-city Bristol was a massive culture shock when I arrived. I had coffee with my daughter one day. Back then she was working for a drugs project. The funding for their work with women was about to be axed and she was livid. The big money was going to the men’s work. They’re the ones who push up crime statistics. The women are invisible. Nobody cares. I can still feel the passion in her voice.
But I didn’t get it at first. The school I worked in had a sign outside. Kerb crawlers will be prosecuted. I still didn’t get it. About 8 o’clock one morning I was walking into work. One of the parents – a big man with dreadlocks – ran past me like a bat out of hell. He started effing and blinding at a woman who was getting into a car. She was tiny. A puff of wind could’ve taken her out. I remember she had glasses. Held together with sticky tape. He called her all the names under the sun. It’s always the woman who gets the blame. What was the first thing Adam said when God caught him with that apple? She gave it to me. It’s not my fault. The car drove off.
One of the scariest places in the city is underneath the motorway. It’s full of shadows. You could hide a body under here for weeks. No-one would know. We pull up sharply. The driver’s been doing this for years. The rest of us didn’t even see the woman. She makes conversation while I make tea.
Aren’t you scared out here at this time of night?
Scared? We’re in a secure metal box. You’re out there all alone.
She points out the description of her most recent assailant on the ‘Ugly Mugs’ board. She’s quite matter-of-fact. Makes it sound as if it’s normal to be beaten, raped and robbed. I guess it is in the world she’s inhabiting at the moment. I used to think it was normal to be shouted at morning, noon and night. If you didn’t wind me up so much I wouldn’t be like this. ‘Normal’ doesn’t mean ‘okay’.
Blaming women runs deep in the psyche of our culture. Not long after the ranting-parent incident, a colleague was driving me to a meeting. It was rush hour. He knew all the rat runs. In a narrow back street we met another car head-on. I’ll never forget the girl in the passenger seat. Thin face. Dark hair scraped back. She was cringed against the door. As far from him as she could get. Her whole body screamed that she didn’t want to be there. He was old enough to be her father. Grandfather even. I was horrified. My colleague was disgusted. He muttered under his breath as we drove off.
If it wasn’t for scabby men, there wouldn’t be any.
The response came, clear and unbidden, from a place deep inside me. He looked at me. Startled.
I’d never thought of it that way before.
The woman in the red coat’s drinking Special Brew through a straw. There’s a strict no-alcohol policy, so she leaves the can on the step of the van. The booze keeps her warm she says. Gives her the courage to do what she has to. I’ve not seen her before. She says she used to be a regular. She’s clean now. Got her kids back and everything. But it’s tough living on benefits, and now she’s been sanctioned. She’s doing this to buy Christmas presents for the kids.
Across the road, another woman gets into a car. To be honest, seeing that is still a step too real for me. I struggle with the men in this equation. Not the punters so much, although they’re bad enough. It’s the partners. I can’t get my head around a man who’s willing to sell the woman he says he loves. I used to think ‘pimp’. But the word implies distance and detachment. At least to me. There’s a kind of fierce co-dependence on the street. A woman got on the van a few months ago, not far from where we are now. She had a can in her hand. Refused point blank to part with it.
No. I’m not leaving it. He’ll have it if I do.
My bloke. He’s over there. Keeping an eye on me. He cares about me. Really he does.
How sweet. Do I believe he was there out of concern for her welfare? The hell he was. He was worried she’d run off with the money. You can’t trust anyone out here. Especially if they say they love you.
If it’s a grim picture I’m painting so far, I’m sorry. But it’s real. In a society that chooses to criminalise addiction, instead of dealing with the pain that causes it, this is the inevitable result. To add insult to injury, we blame the women for surviving by the only means open to them. 99% of the women working the streets of Bristol are addicted to Class A drugs or alcohol. Or both. 100% of those receiving intensive casework support from One25 were abused as children. If it were all sunshine and roses there’d be no need for One25. I could watch Supersize vs Superskinny every night. I could be blissfully ignorant. But I don’t want to give the impression it’s a hopeless situation. That every woman who works the streets is a hapless victim and there’s nothing to be done about it. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is possible to get free. To ‘step away from the streets’. In 2012 / 2013, thirty-nine women did just that with the support of One25.
We’re heading back towards the shopping centre on our third or fourth circuit when I see something that breaks me. I thought I’d caught a glimpse of her earlier, but she faded into the shadows before I could be sure. I hoped I was wrong. There’s no doubt this time. She struts in front of the van. High head. High heels. Red lipstick. Yesterday we were stacking cupboards in the drop-in together. Discussing her progress in recovery. Tonight she’s back on the street. She won’t come onto the van. I’m having a bad day, is all she’ll say.
The quality of heartbreak that comes from seeing somebody you care about relapse is like no other. For a split second I’m back with a man I love. Watching him neck three bottles of red wine. I’ll cry myself to sleep when I get home. In the morning, something strange will happen. The thing I’ll remember will be the sheer attitude with which she stepped out of the shadows. This woman has been to hell and back. Lived nightmares most of us never even have to dream. In the face of all this she can still stand up and defy those who’ve used her. I wish I had half the guts she has. Three months from now all this will be forgotten. She and I will be walking on fire to raise money for One25. So will the woman who cried because there were no socks. We don’t know that yet. All we have is hope.
I fled my second abuser nearly seven years ago. One of the things that led me home to Bristol, after a five-year exile, was watching The Secret Millionaire. I saw One25 in action. I remembered that conversation over coffee so many years before. I thought I might make a difference for someone who’d suffered far worse than I had. I could become a kind of Lady Bountiful. Dispensing wisdom and charity to those in need. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, One25 has been crucial to my own recovery. I’ve met, and grown to love, so many amazing women. They’ve helped me to face the truth about my own demons. Some of us are still struggling. Some are on the way. Some are further along the path. But we’re in it together. And it’s only by the grace of God that I’m the one sitting inside this van tonight.