I’m going to give this Righteous a name. It’s not her real name because if she ever reads this and identifies herself, she’s likely to know who I am and she’s likely to set a lawyer on me. So I’ll call her Helen. I’ll give her a last name too. Let’s make it Earth. Not her real name but a pretty good description of her effect on the world.
Giving her a name just makes this next bit easier.
When I turned up the next day, one of the smugness-oozing proto-righteous collared me. Helen wanted to see me in the back office. I said I’d see her straight after I’d eaten, but no. I was to go straight in. So I did. Without knocking. It was obvious this was my last day here and I intended to enjoy it.
I’d never been in the back office before. It had carpet, not the bare wooden floor of the main hall. Helen had a swivel chair and if it wasn’t leather, it was a good fake. The other three chairs were plain wood. The desk was polished and free of any evidence of work. It was lunchtime so Helen was having lunch, and it wasn’t what the rest of us were getting. She slid it into a drawer of her desk, not quick enough to hide the Marks and Spencer labels. I’ve never tried Marks and Spencer food. The prices always put me off, even now.
I have often heard the phrase ‘a face like thunder’ but I have never, before or since, seen it portrayed so accurately. She actually trembled with rage and signalled with her hand for me to shut the door while she forced herself calm. You could actually see it happening. She had a way of controlling her expression that would have made a Ninja master gasp in awe. In moments, her face was under control. So was her voice. It had returned to that soft, patronising tone, the one junior school teachers used on troublemakers, by the time she spoke.
“You’re supposed to knock before you walk into a room, you know. It’s polite.”
I apologised and explained I was a little out of practice at walking into rooms. The puzzled expression on her face made me wonder if she actually understood what ‘homeless’ meant. I wasn’t, at that time, but most of the others were. It struck me that she didn’t know where any of us went in the evenings, and didn’t care.
She then explained, at length, the purpose of this establishment. I had believed it was a place to get warm and get fed, for those who couldn’t afford it for themselves, but apparently it was restricted to those who ‘deserved’ it. That blindsided me for a moment.
“How do you mean, ‘deserve’ it?” I asked. “Isn’t this somewhere for those who can’t afford to feed themselves?”
“Yes and no,” she said. “This facility (yes she did call it a facility) exists for those who have no means to support themselves. I can’t use resources on people who have their own income. I have to reserve it for those who have nowhere else to turn.” The look on her face might have been pride in her work, or it might have been triumph. Her voice sounded like a thin whine. Probably because she strained it through her teeth.
Okay, I did have an income, but it was barely enough to cover rent on the rathole room I had, and if I was going to rebuild my life I had to save as much as possible. If I had to buy my own lunch, it would make a serious dent in my efforts to recover. I tried explaining this but to no avail. As soon as it became clear that I was not dependent on benefits and would not be, and that I had a room, however squalid, I was marked as a cheat. Taking advantage of Helen’s generosity in running the soup kitchen. Taking a place that someone else could use. Veiled threats of ‘reports to the authorities’ came out but they had no effect on me. The ‘authorities’ didn’t have cameras and council snoopers in those days. If you hadn’t gone to the offices and registered, they didn’t know you existed.
Perhaps I could have stayed on if I had grovelled but I was never any good at that. I pointed out that there were hardly queues of people beating down the door here. This place was very helpful, there was no denying it, but it was not the first choice of anyone here. Their first choice was a job, an income and a home of their own. This was supposed to be a temporary situation, not a lifestyle choice. Didn’t she want to see those people back in work, back in homes, back in the real world?
I quote, because I’ll never forget these words: “They are happy here. This is their home now.”
It was unbelievable. None of the faces in that soup kitchen could be described as ‘happy’. Miserable sods, every one of them. You could cut the depression with a knife. They hated their situation. Everyone saw this place as the end of the line, except Helen. For her, it was a beginning. The start of a larger collection of destitutes, all dependent on her for every morsel. The plush office, the Marks and Spencer lunches, these were her reward for lifting us from the gutter, persuading us to blame someone else, and then giving up and letting her run our lives.
The idea of letting these people escape terrified her, because without them, what was she? Her situation was such that if she did give these people self-respect and get them off their backsides and out there looking after themselves, she’d put herself out of a job. She had no incentive to do that. She had every incentive to keep the plebs down. Further, she had every incentive to increase, not decrease, the clientele of her last chance saloon because the funding for that place depended on how many used it. A chain of Righteousness, and to be fair, she was at the bottom of it.
So there was good reason for her to set, bait and spring her trap. There was good reason for her to get rid of anyone showing too much independence in case it infected the others. Those reasons were not good enough though. What she was doing was horrific to me. She was, in a sense, collecting souls. Keeping people trapped in a state that would eventually kill them.
She told me I would no longer be welcome. I told her I would rather starve than eat from her infected fingers. There was shouting, and I left, and some of the other lost souls watched me leave. I hope I saw a tiny spark of defiance in them. I’ll probably never know.
So that was my first close shave with a Righteous. After that, I was sometimes in accommodation, sometimes not. Sometimes in work, sometimes not. Eventually I did manage to accumulate enough to make myself presentable and re-enter legitimate employment. This Righteous episode was behind me then, but they found their way into the workplace soon enough.