8 January 2021
Watching an old repeat of Jimmy and Jamie’s Friday Night Feast (also referred to as 'Friday Night telly twats') after a excellent takeaway I’d waited all week for. Not the food, specifically. I just couldn’t wait to not have to cook, or raid the freezer, or invent a dinner on that in between day where we’ve not got the click and collect Big Shop yet, and have used up the previous week’s veg box delivery, and a week of wrestling a website and a child, neither of which really seem to want to listen to me.
We feel obliged to watch this show because it’s filmed here, but G can’t stand Jamie and the other one reminds me of an offensively hapless boss I had, who also happened to feature on an episode once. So, Friday night telly twats they are. They’re showing one of those little films about community projects and are interviewing the Sikh charity who serve food to those who need it. I had read about them just last week, as they fed a lot of the lorry drivers who ended up stranded at Dover waiting for negative tests before being allowed to cross the channel (or maybe to come into the country?)
They correct Jamie’s use of language: “we don’t feed them, we serve them food” - it’s important to care for all humans, and that’s a considerate way to remind yourself of the humanity of anyone in need. Feed animals.
Serve food to people.
Rough sleepers fill disused docklands office space during the Christmas of 2010. “All these people are our guests”, we were reminded during our induction session. “Be mindful of the language you use. Ask our guests their names, let them talk to you. If they thank you for what you’re doing, acknowledge it - don’t brush it off, because it does matter to them that you’re here”.
On my first day, I lose a game of connect four to a guest who slips me a note she writes on a torn slip of paper before leaving the table. It says “blessed be the cracked, for they let in the light”. I still have it. I see her later coming out from the room where guests can have haircuts and dental checkups. “Say you look ‘good’ - don’t say ‘better’” whispers a volunteer leader with a wink on his way past me.
On the second day I take a shift manning the stairwell with the friend I signed up with. “It’s just to have an eye on security really. Sit on these chairs, say hi as people come and go for fag breaks, make sure guests have their name badges on, no trouble - we’ll swap in an hour or two”
Guests smile, some say merry Christmas as they pass, some say hi or ask how we are or read our name badges and call us cheerily by our names. A tall guy in a puffer jacket pauses in front of our chairs and presses his hands together in a thankful prayer. “All of you. Thank you so much. Thank you for your hard work”.
He was so quick. He must have used his arms to swing his long legs over the railing in under a second. I was already holding onto the wrists of his jacket with my friend calling for help by the time I realise what he’s trying to achieve and and the weight of what’s happening in my sweaty hands as a swarm of other volunteers and guests panic and rush to the banisters and edges and bottom of the stairs to catch him. I can’t hear anything. There’s no sound. He’s somehow lifted back over onto the stairs on the opposite side of the well.
I’m sat on the floor of the volunteer induction room in a blanket, shaking as I clutch a black coffee.
My friend is next to me taking long deep yogic breaths with her eyes shut. The same woman who had taught us to say “guests” the morning before was reassuring us that he was ok and on his way to hospital.
“What will they do to him? Where will he go after that? What will happen to him?”
“He’ll be ok. They’ll help him. He needed some help and he’s in the best possible hands. I promise”
We’re staying on the sofa’s at my parents house, so phone my mum to ask if she might be able to save us the tube journey and collect us because something has happened. We talk it through with her in the car, and at home. “Nobody would blame you for not going back. It’s only voluntary.”
On our third day, we take a shift in the warehouse, sorting clothes and bags of donated food to serve to our guests.