Saturday, 14 December 2013

Tam, Tea and Christmas

Charlie stood on the bridge looking down at the cold, grey river Clyde below him. The freezing drizzle of a Scottish December trickled down the neck of his thin jacket and he had never felt so cold or so alone. He glanced to his left where he could see the bright lights of the city centre and hear the distant echo of music. Buildings here and there twinkled with Christmas lights but there was no cheer for him. He looked at the dark, brooding sky, his eyes beyond tears, he had finally hit rock bottom. Stupidity and drugs had robbed him of his youth, his friends and everything that was good in his life. Doors had closed to him one by one and the blank looks on strangers faces told him all he needed to know.  As a train rumbled overhead towards Central Station he turned and walked towards the city centre. He knew the places to go to get what he needed though he had no money to pay for it. The hard hearts who sold their poison would probably give him nothing but he could try, he could even beg if necessary.

As Charlie trudged up Sauchiehall Street looking for the tell-tale signs that the regular dealers were about. He ignored the people who frowned and crossed the road to avoid him.  Some sneered, a few others gave a small encouraging smile which suggested they weren’t judging him. A crowd of drunk young men poured out of a pub by the Garage night club. One of then, a stout red faced young man laughed and pointed at Charlie, ‘Here, check this skinny junkie oot!  Mate, you allergic tae soap ya fuckin tramp.’ He rolled a pound coin along the ground towards Charlie, ‘Get yerself a bath ya clatty bastard.’ Charlie, too devoid pride to be offended, stooped to pick the coin up. He kept walking as their laughter echoed in his ears. As he turned down Holland Street, Charlie looked at his reflection in the rain stained glass of a closed shop. He was dirty, thin and pale. His shoes let in the cold Glasgow rain and his face was sunken. He looked ten years older than he was.

As he reached the corner at Bath Street he saw a familiar face. ‘aw right Chas,’ grinned Davie in his unique gap toothed way, ‘Where ur ye off tae?’ Charlie patted Davie on the shoulder, pleased to see a friendly face. Davie was 2 years clean but he understood the dark roads Charlie was walking. ‘Nae where mate, nae-where at aw, whit aboot you?’  Davie smiled again, ‘Mon get a bit of grub then, there’s a place doon here.’ Charlie nodded, ‘Skint mate, doon tae ma last pound.’ His friend explained that the meal was free and led him to a door at the side of a tall steepled church. They were greeted warmly by a smiling middle aged man who led them to a dining room without questioning their appearance or ability to pay. ‘Have a seat chaps and I’ll get you some tea. Fish and chips tonight is that ok?’ Charlie nodded, ‘Aye, cheers mate.’ The room contained about a dozen tables and around 30 people sat talking quietly or eating. Charlie looked around the room. The clients seemed mostly poor people, perhaps homeless, certainly hungry. A few men and women moved between the tables collecting dishes, delivering food and tea, smiling. Charlie had missed that, people simply smiling at him. A tall man in a nice suit was talking to two men at the next table. Charlie recognised one of the men from the drug scene. He had the same haunted, hollow look Charlie had seen in the glass window of the shop when he had looked at his reflection. After a few minutes their food and tea arrived and it instantly warmed Charlie. He hadn’t eaten at all that day. He smiled at Davie, ‘Thanks for showing me this place Davie, need a wee feed.’ Davie nodded, ‘Good people here Charlie, they don’t judge ye.’

Just as Charlie was finishing his food the tall, slim man with the nice suit approached their table. ‘How are we tonight lads?’ Davie smiled, ‘Good, pal, glad tae get in oot the rain.’ The man then smiled at Charlie, ‘Not seen you in here before friend?’ Charlie, who was nervous around strangers and acutely aware of his bedraggled appearance didn’t look up from his tea cup,’ ‘First time the night mate. Appreciate the grub. The man touched Charlie’s hand, ‘Good, plenty more where that came from, you eat up pal.’ Charlie was encouraged by the man’s seemingly genuine warmth and looked up, ‘It’s good of you folk tae dae this.’ The man smiled, ‘Listen pal, I’m lucky, got a nice house, warm clothes and a lovely family. Some folk haven’t got that so this is the least we can do.’ Charlie nodded, ‘Thanks anyway.’ A voice further down the room called out, ‘Van’s ready Tam,’ and the tall man answered, ‘With you in a minute.’ He stood and looked at Davie and Charlie, ‘Don’t you two rush off, I’ll be back in a couple of hours for a gab!’ With that he smiled and turned and wandered out of a door at the back of the room.

Charlie took a long sip of his tea, feeling its warmth spread through him. ‘Nice guy that,’ he said to Davie. Davie smiled and nodded, ‘Ye no recognise him then?’ Charlie shook his head, ‘I’m that spaced oot a widnea recognise the Queen if she served me ma tea.’ Davie nodded and let the topic drop. The two friends enjoyed the warmth and acceptance they found that night in the church centre. As they talked quietly, Davie avoided asking Charlie if he’d try again to go clean. He knew his old friend had reached the bottom and he also knew that Charlie was aware of the choices facing him. Outside they heard a scream, as some other addict struggled with his demons. Soothing voices calmed him and the noise abated. Davie looked at Charlie, he didn’t have to speak; his friend knew he wanted him to quit the drugs for good.
The friends parted with a smile outside the church centre. Davie headed back to his hostel and Charlie back towards Sauchiehall Street. To what, he wasn’t quite sure. The rain had stopped and but the bitter wind chilled him to the bone. He wandered aimlessly around the city centre until a voice called him, ‘Here pal, come and get a cup of tea,’ Charlie turned, unsure where the voice had come from. It had emanated from a large van parked by the side of the road. Three men were serving soup and tea to any who requested it and a small group huddled around the van. Charlie saw one of the men was the guy he had met at the church centre. He took the warm cup from him as the man smiled, ‘The centre shut now? That’ll warm you up, it’s still freezing out there!’ Charlie shivered and returned his smile, ‘Thanks Pal, I didnea catch yer name earlier?’  The man extended a strong handshake, ‘It’s Tam, Tam Burns.’ Charlie shook his hand. ‘I’m Charlie, thanks for the tea Tam.’  Charlie felt he knew this guy from somewhere but his mind was confused, still he’s a decent guy he thought, whoever he is.

Later as Charlie wandered through George Square, the Christmas lights glistening and reflecting in the puddles, he thought of the events of the day. There were some decent folk left perhaps he should try one last time to give up this lifestyle which has slowly killing him?  He looked at the glittering decorations around the Square. ‘Yon guy wi the soup has mer tae dae wi Christmas than aw this crap,’ he said to himself. He turned and wandered off into the darkness, determined to try again.

                                                         God Bless Tommy Burns

Should you wish to learn about or support the Charity Tommy helped you can find them here...

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