The sign at the entrance to the park always brightens my morning. Spray painted. Cream streaks down the rusting metal to a smile. You look nice today. Amazing how something like that can produce a grin. Even on the wettest Thursday morning.
Lucy can’t see the sign from where she’s standing. She’s bent double over the bin behind it. Fighting to breathe. Brian has a better view. It’s not making him smile though. In spite of the sunshine. His face contorts as I pass. He can barely manage a grunt. I didn’t want to speak to him anyway. Lucy seems on the verge of a full-blown asthma attack. All he’s bothered about is meeting the dealer on time.
To be fair, it would be all she cared about too. If oxygen hadn’t suddenly become a major issue. We exchange pleasantries. Nebulisers. F***ing useless inhalers. She doesn’t want to talk any more than he does. She’s just too polite to say so. I go on my way. Suppressing the thought that crack cocaine probably isn’t all that good for asthma. Slightly ashamed of my self-righteousness.
I felt threatened when the drinkers first moved in on the space under the railway bridge. Replacing the enormous crocheted doily that hung there briefly last summer. I seriously considered changing my route. Not for long. For a start, I’m more or less invisible to them by the time they’re half way down the first can. And anyway, why should I be intimidated? I’ve as much right as they have to enjoy this oasis of green space between the M32 and Stapleton Road. Why let them drive me out to walk along a street once called the most dangerous in Britain by a well-known national newspaper? Oh, and a lawless hellhole by another.
Funny how a place can get such a reputation. OK, it’s not the loveliest part of our green and pleasant land. There’s no doubt some dodgy stuff happens here. A lot of it in plain view. It definitely doesn’t look nice. Today or any other day. But a lawless hellhole? That’s taking it a bit far.
I fell in love with this city about eleven years ago. I was living in a small Wiltshire town back then. I came to work in an inner-city primary school. I had no idea you could suffer culture shock barely thirty miles from where you’ve lived for more than half your life. When I eventually moved here a couple of years later one of my colleagues wrote in my ‘new home’ card. Home is where the heart is. Yours has been here for some time. Welcome home.
A few months after I moved in, Tony Blair came to visit. Not me. Bristol. It was a hot afternoon. Getting towards the end of the summer term. I was lugging two large bags of shopping home from Tesco’s when I noticed three people loitering outside Lloyd’s Bank. With a TV camera. They saw me. Homed in. I’m not sure what they expected. Whatever it was, they didn’t get it.
“Living round here, I expect you worry about going out after dark.”
“Of course I do. I’m a woman. I’d have to be careful wherever I lived.”
“And you’d prefer to live somewhere nicer of course.”
“No. I love it here.”
I watched their faces fall as the interview progressed. Downhill. I wasn’t giving them anything they wanted. Despite the leading questions. Needless to say, I didn’t make my debut on breakfast TV the following morning. They lost interest. Switched off the camera. Walked away without so much as a ‘thank you’.
At first glance there’s nothing much looks nice about this part of the city. Rubbish in the gutter. Run-down shops. Broken people. All too easy to run with the image. Especially if you’re a journalist in search of easy prey. I recognise one of the men under the bridge. He doesn’t see me of course. As I said. I’m invisible. Except to the sign by the entrance. He doesn’t look nice today. He’s staring at a can. Too weary to hate it properly. He’ll be in the community café later. Coffee and a toasted sandwich. Not much of a life. Lawless for sure. Hellish too. Quite likely dangerous once upon a time. Who knows? Later, he’ll be cracking jokes in the café. The mask back in place. Trying to look nice. Right now, he’s just plain human.
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 http://www.one25.org.uk/. You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=JeanMutch where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.