Amazing grace

I got out of the city lock up at 7AM. I wasn’t sure why I’d been in the cells for the night but I knew they’d taken my box of pills and I didn’t have any money left to spend on booze, not even enough for some cheap plonk.

 

Crossing the street, just avoiding the only car on the road on a Sunday morning, I tripped and fell on my face in front of the GPO, a wall of dark squares stared at me, laughed at my staggering clumsiness.

The morning was cold and my filthy brown suit coat was full of holes like the almost soleless sandshoes on my feet. I fished out a crumpled pack of cigarettes — three left — and with shaking hands lit up, waking up the city with my first coughing fit for the day. It was then I noticed someone watching me.

I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I ignored them for a moment while the cigarette did its job, which wasn’t much, a handful of seras would have been better, at least they would have helped with the shaking. The person still watched. I could see them out of the corner of my eye. Slowly, not wanting to look threatening, I turned and faced the man.

He just stood staring at me, a skinny old man in dirty old clothes, if I didn’t stink so much I’d guess I would have been able to smell him. I’d been on the streets a while, couldn’t remember how long, didn’t even know what time of year it was, only that it had rained at some point and it was cold, and I didn’t know this man. I knew everyone on the street.

I yelled at the man and the man yelled at me. I shook my fist, he shook his fist. I stopped and stared. I don’t know what I really felt as I’d stopped feeling a long time ago, but the shock didn’t do my shaking much good. The man staring at me was my reflection in the GPO’s glass door.

There was no recognition, the man in the reflection didn’t look like "the me" I’d remembered, I didn’t know this person. Even waving hands and moving my legs to see if it really was me didn’t help. The long dirty hair, the matted, stringy beard and drawn and sunken face looked out at me as a stranger. Walking closer to the glass I tried to see the eyes, my eyes, but the glass was too dark and my eyes too deep in their sockets.

Kneeling on the steps of the GPO I lit up another smoke and stared, watched the slow movement of Not Me’s hand as it raised the smoke to my lips, as the Not Me blew out a stream of grey air — the air of a grey day, the sky heavy with low cloud. Where had the fit man gone, the sportsman, the footballer, the cricketer, the tennis player; where had the boy gone, the son, the brother — were all those things real or were they part of the dreams I had while sleeping in doorways and parks?

Not Me tried to smile, it looked more like he bared his teeth between thin lips; an action rarely performed by the sallow face. I was only twenty two, I thought, though I wasn’t exactly sure of that. The face, the skeleton in rags staring at me looked fifty; looked dead.

“Where have I been?” I asked Not Me in the glass. He didn’t answer and neither did my mind. I tried but I couldn’t find anything. I knew some names, a few addresses, well, locations I could find, but the rest of me felt empty. “What have you done?” I asked, knowing that if I had just got out of the lockup I done something illegal and it wasn’t just falling asleep in the street and the drugs I carried were prescription after all.

Not Me finished the cigarette the same time I did, he pulled at his hair and I felt the stickiness between my fingers. My scalp itched, he scratched. He put his hands in front of his face and I saw blackened finger nails, cuts and scars, I saw bones, knuckles and the wasting away of life; my life. The reflection did not change before me as I changed within myself. Something was wrong, seriously wrong with me. I didn’t know the reflection, I didn’t recognize him. It was then I started to cry, tears fell from my eyes and onto the wet steps of the GPO. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried and I didn’t know why I was doing it now, it just happened. Not Me wiped at the tears and I understood his frustration, we both shared a moment, something I hadn’t done with anyone since Cathy — the name I know meant hurt, pain, loss, but the girl it connected to wasn’t in my memories — it was just a name, something yesterday might have understood.

I sighed and cried knowing why it all happened. Like Not Me, the reflection, I didn’t know anything, but understood his pained look. I had forgotten my name — I didn’t know who I was. I was lost.

The contents of my jacket and pockets lay on the steps of the GPO, a police charge sheet had my name as Michael, but I didn’t recognize it, it said a lot of things but I couldn’t read all that well, so I guessed it was bad stuff. Amongst the collection of empty pill packets, rolly papers, a rag, I supposed was a hanky, I found a couple of phone numbers. One had no name so I threw it away; the other had the name Sue then the number. I knew that name but wasn’t sure why. There was a phone in front of the post office; somehow I knew Sue would help me.

Pulling the old ‘phone swallowed my money’ trick the operator put me through to the number on the card.
“Hello,” a woman’s voice said.
“It’s Michael,” I said, the name strange on my tongue.
“What’s wrong?” She sounded concerned; she knew me.
“I need help,” I said and started to cry again. I struggled with the tears, I didn’t understand, I didn’t want them.
“I’m coming to get you,” she said. “Where are you now?”
Through the sobs I told her where I was and asked if she could bring some food. I felt hungry and sick.

Sue picked me up. I think I recognized her but I didn’t know where from. She had a bag of fruit and I ate while she drove. She asked me what had happened and what I was going to do. It was hard telling someone something you didn’t understand, but she seemed to get the idea and told me everything was going to be okay. Sue drove for a while then stopped out front of a housing trust house. I looked at the building, its grey corrugated walls, the white windows and the small brown Ford in the drive.
“Where am I?” I asked her.
“Just go round back, there are a couple of people waiting to see you.”

I trusted her, another thing beyond my thinking. I got out of the car and she waited until I walked down the drive to the back of the house. I heard her drive off, obviously this wasn’t her place so whose was it?

A silver shed crammed the back of the drive and a lone clothesline filled the large backyard. I remembered something. I walked up the back step knowing this was a place I should be. Walking inside I heard the talk of two people. I knew this place, it was a safe place. Why had I left it?
“Michael!” a woman cried.
Again the tears fell as my mother grabbed me. I saw my father standing by a sink doing dishes. He smiled. My mum cried.
“I’m a drug addict,” I said through the tears. “Help me.”

That was the start of the journey that would cover seven years of further turmoil and heartbreak, but they were years that I could look back on and remember; they were also years where I knew my name was Michael.