Storytails

Nick will be reading an extract from his novel, Love and Mayhem, at Storytails on Sunday 26th June 2011.

Storytails is a free event featuring readings of short fictional stories from some professional, and some not-quite-so professional writers. Storytails is held on the last Sunday of every month from 3pm at The Drop, beneath The Three Crowns pub on the corner of Stoke Newington Church St, London N16 0LH.

The aim of the event is to give those who enjoy writing short stories the opportunity to share original tales in a relaxed and friendly environment.

For more information please visit: http://www.storytails.org/

Society Today – Why Are They Begging?

Society Today, Vol. 1, No. 2, November/December 2005

This is the question on our lips when we walk past a man or woman huddled in the doorway of a shop front like some desperate animal, wrapped in a dirty blanket clinging to it for warmth, hiding a face smeared with grime and shame, and clutching a polystyrene cup with a few coppers in it.

In one sense we are bloody foolish to even ask the question. Shelter is like food and sex – we need it – and if we don’t have it, then we’ll look for ways to get it. Let us be frank but the vast majority of us, if we had to endure a seemingly endless run of cold and hungry nights on the street, would do almost anything to relieve our pain and destitution: we would become this desperate person, we would beg.

The question we should ask ourselves is not why but rather how, how this person came to this, to a life on the street. And as soon as we ask this question, we realise that the answers are multifarious and complex. ‘Is it not just about drink and drugs?!’ I hear some of you say. ‘The destitute person begs in order to feed his or her habit.’ No, the addiction, if he or she has one, is normally the symptom of a far greater cause, be this domestic violence, the loss of a loved one, or a specific psychiatric disorder, to name but a few. It is vital to consider the human story behind each person huddled in the doorway of some shop front.

I have met and come to know two homeless people. Both of them were forced onto the street, but once there, responded in contrasting ways: one aspired to get off, the other to stay on.

First, there was Lydia in Kensington, a petite woman in her early thirties with brown hair and kind eyes. She had been in a violent relationship. One day after a beating she left her flat with just her purse, which held nothing more than small change, and once outside, away from her boyfriend, decided not to go back. She immediately took herself to a hostel, but they would not admit her because she had no proof of who she was. She then considered asking the police to escort her back to her flat where she could at least retrieve some of her possessions including her identification, but no, she didn’t want to do this because she was scared that he, her partner, might find her afterwards when she was on her own and punish her. And so she was forced to spend her first night on the street. The next day she applied for social security, but again her efforts were in vain because she now had no permanent residence. Only after a full week did she manage to get herself on an emergency housing waiting list, and even then she would have to wait until her new paperwork came through, until she could prove who she was once more, and this could take up to two months. I met Lydia after she had spent almost seven weeks living rough, and though she might have been clutching a polystyrene cup with a few coppers in it she had immense courage and dignity: she did not openly beg but rather just sat quietly, head bowed. ‘I find it so difficult having to rely on the generosity of others,’ she said to me, ‘but I realise that if I’m to survive I must accept whatever I’m given, and that once I get housing I might then find work, and soon be back on my feet.’

Second, there was Brian in Victoria, a man in his late fifties with a mass of wild grey hair. An academic, he had taught and lectured in English literature at a high profile university. He had married in his early forties to a woman he loved deeply, she was pregnant, and they were due to have a child. But she died during childbirth, and the baby was stillborn. Torn apart by grief, Brian found it increasingly difficult to cope, and the bereavement counseling he received did not help. He developed depression, struggled to go to work, started drinking heavily, and was eventually made redundant. Unable to meet his mortgage repayments, he soon found himself homeless. I met Brian after he had spent some twelve years on the street. ‘I’m okay now, though,’ he said, after concluding his life story. ‘In fact, I’ve no desire to go back to the way things were. That was then, this is now. People think I must be mad, deluded or institutionalized when I say this, but I’m not.’ I got the sense of a man who was a little eccentric maybe, but was certainly none of the above. Rather, he had accepted his fate, what life had dealt him, and had found some peace. Now he spent his days in public parks and libraries, and his nights sleeping under a church alcove. And why disrupt this life and force him into public housing? I thought. He is content, and the least we can do for him is respect his decision, the way he has chosen to lead his life.

Lydia is in hostel accommodation now and looking for work. And Brian, well I imagine he is still pottering around Victoria. And so to the question one last time, Why are they begging?, well … we respond to what life throws at us in different ways, and get by as best we can.

Roof – The Broken-Hearted

Roof, Shelter’s magazine, September/October 2006

The plight of the homeless first really dawned on me when I was twenty-one and living in America. My friend, Justin, and I were fast running out of money and needed work: we’d prepaid the rent on a short-term let – a poky studio flat just big enough to swing a cat in – and had just a few weeks remaining before we were out in the cold. Well, at least we were in Los Angeles, we told ourselves, the sun nearly always out in southern California. But, thankfully, work came in the nick of time.

We were hired by a pushy, blonde and busty LA girl – yes, the bosoms had, of course, been surgically enhanced – who was willing to take a chance on two young Brits (I doubt she would have hired us were we Mexicans), with no work permits, who needed money. However, it must be made clear that her motives were not entirely philanthropic: she knew she could pay us bugger all because we were working illegally, and it wasn’t as if we could throw the worker’s rights book at her. We had no rights … we were ‘aliens’ (according to the US Immigration and Nationality Act)! She also happened to have a bit of a soft spot for Justin: she couldn’t resist the English accent.

And so it was that we came to work for Balloon Celebrations, a business that made its money from selling latex, albeit latex balloons rather than condoms. The company was housed in a small retail complex that consisted of several shop units, and there was a common area at the rear which provided access to a large parking lot. It was there that I first met Lennie.

He was the very antithesis of the person I was working for. Not only was he not busty and blonde but also was someone who would have refused point-blank to cater for the excessive and ostentatious whims of the wealthy, and this was not just on account of his socialist principles. We had customers who spent tens of thousands of dollars on their own birthday party, and this was just the cost of the damn balloons! Lennie, rather, was someone of modest and humble disposition who lived a life on the streets, and had done for many years.

I heard him before I saw him, a man with a gravelly voice reciting John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. His recital immediately piqued my interest, not least because it was strange to hear the words of a nineteenth century English poet being spoken by a tough-sounding American guy in an ugly car park – though I’m not sure there is such a thing as a beautiful one – against a noisy backdrop of slamming doors, honking cars and moaning dump trucks.

Immediately I went looking for the source of this recitation, and with the closing words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ I finally came upon a man in his mid-fifties with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick beard with streaks of grey in it, slender, and of average height it appeared, though I could not be sure as he was sitting down, leaning against the side of a dumpster. He wore a threadbare jacket, check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. By his bare feet there was a plastic bag full of old books and magazines.

The first thing I did was to offer him money, a dollar bill, which he refused with a gentle shake of his head. Had he not been homeless then I surely would have done something else first, perhaps said hello, introduced myself, asked his name. But no, on account of his appearance I assumed he wanted money and nothing more. He smiled, his eyes a radiant blue, then said, ‘I don’t want your money, but if you’ve finished with that sandwich in your hand then I’ll have the rest of it.’

I promptly gave it to him, and so it was that I came to know a little of the life of Lennie.

In many respects he was a man of great dignity, and such a quality does not come easy when you’re sleeping rough, when your clothes are ragged and filthy, your body foul-smelling and dirty.

Lennie had taught English literature at Penn State University. He had married late, to a woman he loved very much, and expected to spend the rest of his life with her. However, she had died suddenly, in the blink of an eye, in a car accident: the driver who hit her had been drunk.

During the months following her death, torn apart by grief, Lennie found it increasingly difficult to cope: he struggled to hold down his job, struggled to find a reason to get up in the morning. In the end his mental collapse was swift. One day he was simply unable to get out of bed, and just lay there in a fetal position. He spent three days like that until he finally summoned the will to call for an ambulance: he was immediately hospitalized.

His story was familiar to me – I had also suffered a mental collapse, though not on account of grief – but I had been fortunate enough to have someone there to pick up the pieces. And once I had got through the initial period of crisis, where the symptoms of anxiety and depression were most acute, I had the benefit of continued support: a roof over my head, free health care, someone to talk to. But Lennie, after he was discharged from hospital, had none of these things: he was simply bundled out of the door with a few pills in his pocket, some Prozac (an antidepressant) and Xanax (an anxiolytic).

It was a broken-heart that had rendered him homeless, that had changed the course of his life irrevocably, and I only discovered for myself what a broken-heart could do a few years later when a relationship I was in with a woman I loved very much fell apart.

It was with this experience and with Lennie in mind that I began work on my first novel, Love and Mayhem, a book about love and what can happen when it is lost.

Lennie’s story is sadly typical of many who live on the street. He wasn’t a drunk, he wasn’t a junkie, and he wasn’t just plain lazy – far from it in fact, he walked miles every day and was an avid reader (an activity which often requires significant thought, concentration and diligence, that is unless you’re reading The Sun newspaper) – but he had suffered a mental collapse, had then not been given the necessary care to help him back to work, back to mainstream society, and so had been left to muddle along on its fringes, in the shadows, behind dumpsters or in shop doorways.

Marginalized, life on the street had slowly become a way of life for him, and by the time I met Lennie he was almost committed to this renegade existence. And why not, part of me thought. If this life he now led gave him some measure of peace and happiness after years of pain and heartache, then why not just let him be.

Writing about Lennie makes me think of the plight of someone closer to home, Anne Naysmith, who lived for three decades, until 2002, in an old beat-up Ford Consul parked on a wealthy residential street in Chiswick, west London. A former concert pianist, she had suffered a nervous breakdown after a failed love affair. She subsequently took to living in her car, and had become quite content there. However, an argument slowly began to rage between the street’s residents until those who were most concerned simply about how her presence might affect the value of their homes finally won the day: they promptly had the council remove the car, and she was forced into public housing.

It does seem, when it comes to people like Lennie and Anne, that we are often too quick to force others to live as we do, and struggle when they cannot or will not conform. Perhaps we would sometimes do better to merely listen, to remind ourselves of what a broken-heart feels like. Or maybe it is just that our heart is yet to be truly broken?

Love and Mayhem, from Chapter 3

The bus he gets on is packed. He scans the bottom deck for an empty seat, then goes upstairs. As he reaches the top, he glances round and spots a vacant aisle seat two from the back. He sits down and almost immediately finds himself drifting into warm reflections about his time with Catherine in Morocco. The passenger sitting next to him suddenly grasps the seat rail in front with both hands and begins to rock to and fro in his seat. This action is accompanied by a hypnotic hum, as if it is some kind of alcoholic’s mantra; Jack smells the stale stench of beer coming from his mouth. The man is in his mid-fifties, with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick black beard with streaks of grey. He is stocky, thick set, big. He has a rugged, pock-marked and leathery complexion, which looks like it has suffered years of abuse and neglect as a result of heavy drinking and exposure to the winter elements. He wears an old threadbare tweed jacket, a check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. There is a plastic bag full of books and newspaper cuttings between his legs.

Jack has encountered this man a few times before; he is difficult to miss. The last time was a few months ago, in Notting Hill not Shepherd’s Bush: Jack was getting off the bus as he was getting on. He remembers this because the man almost knocked him over. Jack had to grab hold of his shoulder to stop himself falling. The man clasped his arm, he had big hands, wore an old gold wedding ring. Jack looked at him closely then, searchingly, but the man did not reciprocate his observation. He just hurried away, as if fleeing the scene of a crime, and Jack was left to wonder how he might have ended up this way, so broken and destitute. He recalled that he talked to Sam about him the night it happened, who typically ridiculed him for his fascination with desperate strangers. It is his ‘little idiosyncrasy’: this is how Sam referred to it. Now, seated next to the man, Jack begins to speculate again about his fate. He finds himself, rather uncomfortably, staring at the man in the frankly curious manner of a small child observing a strange spectacle – an exposure of the tragic side of life, someone condemned to a life of eccentric pursuits and painful neuroses – something he must fathom. The man does not seem conscious of his inquiry as he continues to rock and hum…

View the book Love and Mayhem


Love and Mayhem, a review by S. Modi

“This is a remarkable first novel written by Nick Taussig. In short, if you want to experience life through an emotional, intellectual and an almost hidden soul, Nick has managed this with pure perfection.

‘When fate’s got it in for you, there’s no limit to what you may have to put up with’ (Georgette Heyer). Fate and love are apparent parallels in Nick’s world. A riveting read.” M. S. Modi