But for the grace

I emerge from the freezer with a box of sausages. I’ll swear I’m going to find a body the day I get to the bottom of that machine. Back out in the cafe, the atmosphere’s tense. Most of the food bank staff are by the door and there’s a lot of shouting going on outside.
“Don’t go out there. There’s a fight.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Ben and Izzy.”
A couple of women are standing in the porch. One I don’t know. The other I can’t help but wish I didn’t. She nicked a customer’s phone last week, then demanded twenty quid from the owner before she’d give it back. She caused no end of a headache on a busy morning when I was in charge. Why do these things always happen when Anne’s not there? Anne’s nowhere to be seen now. Everyone’s jumpy and the fight’s moving closer to the door. I’m going to have to get assertive with someone, although I can’t help thinking my supply of assertiveness ran out around two hours ago.

It’s more than half dark outside. Don’t you just love December afternoons? There’s a bright green bike chained to the drainpipe, and it’s blocking the fire exit. The dog that’s running round the garden looks a lot like a pit bull. On the pavement opposite, Ben and Izzy are hurling abuse at each other. Ben’s strutting and ranting and reminding me an awful lot of Charlie. The dog’s lead’s getting a few mentions, in between the effing, so I guess the unfortunate creature must be theirs. They can’t find the lead, or one of them’s forgotten it. I can’t quite make out which. Maybe they don’t know either. The dog makes a bolt for the road. I grab her harness as she passes. There’s a length of parcel string attached where the lead should be. She seems unfazed at being restrained by a total stranger. In fact, she’s altogether the least worried of the lot of us, but I suppose this is more or less normal for her.

Woman-I-wish-I-didn’t-know’s in the cafe now, and altogether too close to the till. Maybe I should have cashed up before I started excavating the freezer. Not for the first time I wish I had eyes in the back of my head and Inspector Gadget arms. I know her of old. She’ll have anything that’s not nailed down. Ben’s in my face. He grabs the dog, and heads off up the road. Izzy starts screeching. He’s going the wrong f***ing way, she says. He needs to take the f***ing dog home first. He lets go of the dog and tells her to take the f***ing thing home herself. She can’t, she says. The f***ing string hurts her f***ing fingers. Suddenly, they’re walking off into the sunset together, in quite the opposite direction from the one Sam was headed just now. The dog comes back to me. Even she looks confused now, although less so than I feel.

It’s worth it just for the stunned silence that follows. I’m not noted for raising my voice. Ben comes back, tail between his legs. I swear the poor dog sighs.
Back in the warmth of the cafe that woman’s still far too near the till for my liking. I pin on my smile. Sometimes the only option left is to be nice.
“Are you all right?”
“Is there any food left?”
The cafe closed two hours ago, and I’m not in any mood to be generous.
“Depends on what you want.”
“Anything you’ve got really. I’ve got nothing in the house.”
Great. It’s not my problem after all. This is a job for food bank. Sue bustles up with her clipboard. The woman slumps onto a chair and starts answering her questions. All of a sudden, I hear myself offering her a cuppa. Two minutes later I’ve collapsed onto the chair opposite and we’re drinking tea together.

I’ve learned more than I ever needed to know about the world in the past ten years or so. You might imagine I’d be hard-nosed, and I admit that sometimes I’m more so than I like. Mostly, though, it’s more difficult than ever to turn my back. Jane, who’s in front of me now, has just lost someone she loved. If I’m honest, I’ve known that for the last three weeks, but I’ve chosen to ignore it because of her behaviour. And also because of who he was, if I’m going to be even more honest. Yes, I still have to wrestle with my judgmental streak from time to time. Faced with her tear-stained face across the table now, I have to admit that, although he was quite literally her partner in crime, her heart’s no less broken than mine would be. She’s hit the bottle hard. She’d known him since she was seventeen she says, between gulps of sweet tea. My cynical side thinks he was likely the one who introduced her to this murky half-life. He’d done the same for a goodly number of young women by the time he keeled over with a crack-induced heart attack, barely an hour after leaving the cafe on a Thursday morning. Anne wasn’t here that day either. Was ‘pimp’ a conscious career choice, I wonder, or did he just drift into it after a stint on a Youth Training Scheme?

Jane’s got just enough booze inside her to loosen her tongue. She’s not yet reached the stage of being abusive or mendacious, or at least no more so than goes with the territory. I’ve learned to take drunken tears with an awful lot of salt, but I can’t help thinking she means most of what she says today. She’s got nine children, she tells me. All of them taken from her.
“I go to my daughter’s sometimes. But I’m a drinker. I always run away in the end.”
I’m struck by her fatalism. It’s as if she’s long believed she deserves this nightmare she lives in.
“Do you have a support worker?”
“Yes. But she’ll shout at me if I call her.”
She tells me the worker’s name, so I know I can say this next from my heart.
“She’ll only shout because she cares about you. She knows you’re worth more than this.”
She shakes her head and changes the subject. Next week she’ll steal the soap and toilet rolls, as usual.

The following Wednesday I’m late for work. I’ve been to a meeting and had to wait for a bus. I know Anne will be gone by the time I arrive. As I steam up the road towards the cafe, I can see a small crowd gathered on the pavement outside. Why is there always a queue when you’re running late? John and Alan are besieged inside the building. Anne’s left them strict instructions not to let anyone in until I arrive.
“OK. Let’s get these tables outside and get going.”
Pat and Joe are at the head of the queue. I try to commandeer them quietly, while no-one’s looking, it’s never going to work though. Suddenly, the whole queue’s in the café, dragging tables and chairs into the garden. I’ve barely got my apron on before they’re lined up at the counter, ordering toasted sandwiches. Pat grins at me from half way down the line. He and Joe are in the midst of a monumental battle to kick the booze. He’s got a can of energy drink in one hand, as usual, and a herbal teabag in the other. He loves the Three Ginger ones.
“How’s it going?”
“Seven weeks.”
He doesn’t sound as thrilled as he ought to.
“Only now all the stuff that started me on it in the first place is coming back.”
He’s not keen to talk. I take fifty pee from the till and he goes off to the shop to buy a newspaper. At least it’ll block the demons for an hour or so. To this day, I know nothing about Pat’s past. I met him first a little over two years ago. He and Charlie were drinking partners back then. They’d lived together on the streets for a while. He was three stone lighter, and could twirl a drum major’s baton like a pro. I now know he’s possessed of dignity, courage and a generous heart. Of all of us, Pat was the only one with the guts to stand up at Charlie’s funeral and pay tribute to his friend. Had I known this was one of our last conversations I’d be saying something different.

Two weeks to Christmas. Yesterday, Pat and Joe were telling everyone about their Christmas dinner. They’d bought everything they needed, right down to a frozen turkey. They’d been worried about Christmas before that. It’s the worst time of all when you’re trying not to drink. This morning they’re not here, and come midday we’re worried. The cafe’s quiet. Susie says she’ll go round the corner and check on them. She’s gone two hours. The moment I see her face, I know. In the middle of the crowded cafe we hang onto one another and sob. There’s going to be one hell of a lot of people doing that over the next few days. Pat had more friends than he knew. He and Joe had bought some pills to help them through the cravings. The pills and the energy drinks hadn’t mixed well and Pat was gone before Susie got there. The paramedics did their best, but he wasn’t coming back. Susie probably saved Joe’s life, but I’m not sure she’ll ever forgive herself for missing Pat.

The thought comes to me as we’re locking up to go home. Pat and Charlie will be together for Christmas. Some party that’s going to be. And do you know what? I really don’t care whether it’s true in any literal sense. It makes Susie and me smile through our tears and that’s what matters. There are times when we all of us need to believe that the universe is a kinder place than it appears to be.

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