If a child-free friend looked after my children for the day, I’d be pretty pissed off if she then went on to share with anyone who would listen her experience of parenting.
So, I find myself struggling to write about the sleep out I did on Saturday night. I see ghostly headlines above some imaginary heart-rending feature – “My Night Of Homeless Hell” – and rant at the editor for crass insensitivity before remembering that (a) it’s all in my head and (b) I am she. I chose to sleep on the streets for a night, which gives me about as much right to draw conclusions about homelessness as my putative babysitter would have to opine on parenting, and I have no intentions of trying to do so.
(And yes, before you ask, I am aware that the scenarios above both involve me becoming angry with imaginary friends. I have a vivid imagination and not enough adult company).
I’d blithely assured everyone beforehand that “Yes! It’s a charity organising it, we’ll all be sleeping together outside on the High St!”. I hadn’t thought to check, or paused to consider the practicalities. So I was thrown when, arriving to register, I saw small huddles of people already hunkered down in the shop doorways nearest the rendezvous point. I wasn’t the only person to have come alone, though, and one of the organisers took me on the strangest of blind dates to the shuttered entrance of Poundworld, where another mum of three and I amicably agreed to pool resources and body heat for the duration.
My new friend had fast-fragmenting pieces of polystyrene; I had an enormous off-cut of plastic sheeting and some empty Fyffes banana boxes. Between us, we covered the smelly and ominously stained concrete and steel of the doorway, and folded ourselves like crones into our sleeping bags.
The first part of the night passed quickly. Security ran off an impressively drunk stag party who were trying to antagonise a couple of our neighbours three doors down. We ate biscuits and drank tea from flasks and hid our giggles at tipsy girls walking like giraffes in heels. It poured with rain from the outset, and we pressed our backs against the shutters and folded our legs under the plastic, knowing that a wet sleeping bag this early on would be a disaster.
Since I came back home, everyone has asked “What was it like? Did you sleep at all?” Well, it was ok. It was just like you’d imagine it to be. The snow of 24 hours earlier was gone, but it had been chased away by a fierce gale which blew me almost sideways when I walked up the street to the loos in the pub. The doorway offered shelter, but the wind tugged at the plastic so that we lay with fists clenched under chins, bottoms pressed down onto the tucked-under edges, not daring to move while it whipped and cracked on top of us. It rattled the shutters along the parade and sent empty cans and rubbish clattering past in a monotonous, endless dance.
My pillow was the plastic bag I’d brought some essentials in, wedged tight into the corner of the cardboard, so my head was protected from the worst of the weather, but still I barely slept. Every so often, above the noise of the wind, would come footsteps or shouts, and each time I’d freeze, wondering if someone would see fit to aim a kick or an overfilled bladder at us.
Even with proper kit it was cold and uncomfortable. Even with my phone, and my car two streets away, surrounded by other people doing the same thing and with security men within shouting distance, it was scary.
By the time we gratefully received our free 8am bacon butties, my eyes were gritty and my mind hazy with lack of sleep. I drove home to cuddles and a blissfully hot shower, but still spent the day in that funny detached state I associate with the extreme tiredness of early parenthood, where words get muddled and simple tasks seem impossibly complicated. Trying to achieve anything would have been a waste of time.
To avoid straying into the equivalent of the babysitter’s guide to parenting, I’m going to link instead to this article about Michelle Conroy, who was tragically killed in last autumn’s storms when a tree fell on the tent in which she was sleeping rough. It is hard reading, but it says everything I would want to.
My children puzzled to understand my deliberately bland explanations of where I was going on Saturday, till they came to the conclusion that I was raising money to give to builders so that they could make houses for people who had none. Thanks to the huge generosity of an awful lot of people, I think my Big Night Out will have raised somewhere in the region of £600. I just hope that it helps to buy a few bricks.
***Photographs used with kind permission from Incidents on Teesside***