There but for fortune

Emily made me cry last week. Makes it all the harder seeing her now. I’ve never seen her here before. But there she is at the counter when I turn round. Stick-thin. Eyes half closed. Skin taut across her chiselled cheekbones. She looked like a death’s head the last time I saw her. Didn’t think she could get worse. The girl she’s with I know less well. Can’t remember her name. She was sitting on the wall by the kitchen window when I went to butter the next round of sandwiches. Ubiquitous pit-bull-staffie. Its paws on the wall beside her. Begging for attention. Getting a perfunctory push for its pains. Almost khaki-coloured. The dog. Not the girl. She’s more yellowish. Matchstick arms. Scabbed. Pitted with bruises and scars.

I was talking no more than an hour ago to one of the young volunteers. New in the world. They always find it hard to understand the Emilies. In the end most of us do. It’s not a career option they tell you about in school.

“Excuse me, Miss. How many GCSEs do you need to be a crackhead?”

Kelly. The other girl’s name bubbles up. Not a spark of recognition from her though. Either she’s forgotten me or she’s too out of it. Likely both. Emily’s confused.

“What are you doing here?”

“I work here.”

She takes a few seconds to process this. Hugs me anyway. She can’t keep her eyes open.

A year ago Emily was hoovering the drop-in at One25. Within an inch of its life. Never seen the floor so clean. She was excited about her new flat. Her recovery. Maybe seeing her kids again. She was two stone heavier. Still slimmer than I’ll ever be. Still beautiful. Despite years on the streets. Everything she’d been through. She’s beautiful now. With the terrible, wraith-like beauty I’ve also seen in an out-of-control anorexic. Raw. Naked. Life-and-death. Larger than either will ever be for most of us.

Seeing Emily come so far and then go back was what made me cry of course. Specifically it was the moment when she dropped onto a chair. Temporarily defeated. Her leg purple-red. Angry. Throbbing. Almost double the size it should have been. She had one of the world’s most effective painkillers coursing through her veins. Russell Brand says he cannot accurately convey … the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain. He should know. She was in agony.

I’ve done heartbroken. Furious. Confused-and-not-understanding. None of it helps. Russell Brand says addiction is an illness. Peter Hitchens thinks it’s self-indulgence. Who’s to say which of them is right? Russell certainly seems to have the edge in terms of personal experience. And I’ve met people who thought illness was self-indulgent. Until they became ill themselves.

I know which way my heart tends, but I have neither the experience nor the political acumen to judge between Russell and Peter. By the same token I have no right to judge Emily. Kelly. Anyone whose life’s been ripped apart by drugs. Or alcohol. I don’t know what kind of pain they need to neutralise. How they took the first steps that led to this. Or why. I do know it’s all too easy to be smug. Self-righteous. Look down on ‘poor lost souls’ who ‘couldn’t cope’. To judge. Condemn. Or try to rescue ‘them’. But life just ain’t that cut-and-dried.

When I started volunteering at One25 I still had grandiose ideas. Thought I might one day save the world. I met Emily. Kelly. Alice. Susie. Faith. Elise. And all the others. I drank tea. Ate chicken dinner. Cheesecake. Discussed politics. Nail varnish. Childbirth. Marilyn Monroe. I discovered real women. With real lives. Not stereotypes. Victims. Or self-indulgent narcissists. Flesh-blood-soul-and-spirit human beings. Courageous. Resilient. Battling a world of horrors I’ll only meet in nightmares. A few months in, I knew I wasn’t there to save. Simply to accept. Wholeheartedly. Unconditionally. As I was accepted. After all, had the world turned differently by the tiniest degree, I could have lived Emily’s life. Faith might have lived mine. We can never know for sure. And I can’t help being reminded of a song



I’m blogging to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you can find out more about what I’m doing by visiting One25’s website at You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.


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