The shelter was in a field behind a fairly new prison-style gated apartment block and a derelict red-brick hospital building. Walking through the old hospital gates, Natasha was surprised to see a relatively wide stretch of wasteland so near the city centre. Soon it would be swallowed up by the new technology park. It was a one-night shelter, with a first come first served policy and there was a queue of about fifteen men outside as Natasha stepped into the pool of light at the entrance. A few girlfriends were also hanging around, with their buggies and skinny children. Most of them were probably staying in B&Bs and would return to their rooms later. It was only a quarter to seven and these men were giving up the possibility of any other evening activity to guarantee a bed for the night. What they would do when the place closed down was anyone’s guess.
Natasha nodded with a rueful half smile at the group, as if they were fellow mourners at a funeral. The atmosphere was subdued, the only noise coming from the children playing on some rubble fallen from the high stone wall. The men concentrated on their cigarettes and some of them finished cans of beer or cider, their last drink of the night. The metal door had a square cut into it at eye height. Very conscious of her intrusion and her accent, Natasha rang the bell and introduced herself to the face that appeared on the other side.
She found herself in a small entrance hall. The security guard who had let her in ushered her into a side room with a cheerful grin. The man behind the desk looked up with a guilty expression. “Just getting ready to open up, last minute cup of tea, you know.” He introduced himself as the administrator of the shelter, Maurice Sheils, and gave Natasha a minute to get her recording gear out. “My job is to check everyone in, keep the records and all that. Derek here helps me make sure the clients all stick to the policy of no drink or drugs. We have a cupboard where we can hold onto the clients’ works overnight and we give the bits and bobs back to them in the morning.” He unlocked the little cupboard on the wall to the right and showed her the numbered empty ice cream tubs inside.
“We’re very strict on the whole question of drugs, and weapons of course. Anyone who’s caught using or with a knife after they’ve checked in has to leave. No exceptions, we have to consider the security of the volunteers.” Maurice’s pale eyebrows danced around as he spoke, his tone growing more theatrical as he warmed to his subject.
It was time to open up and Natasha squeezed into the space behind the desk to the left of Maurice, perching on a filing cabinet. The first two men didn’t mind her sitting in on the welcome chat but they didn’t want their own voices to be recorded. Natasha got some of Maurice’s patter on tape and watched the procedure patiently. The third client, Martin, was nineteen and just out of prison after a short sentence for larceny. It was his first time in this hostel but he didn’t appear to be shy or nervous, having spent plenty of time in various institutions from a young age. He didn’t mind being recorded and winked at Natasha when he started to debate, with mock outrage, the rights and wrongs of having to pay the nominal charge for his stay.
When Martin went off with his sheets and towel, Natasha went with him, interviewing him along the way. The first task was to choose and make the bed. The rows of iron bed frames gave the place the appearance of an old-fashioned hospital ward. If you disregarded the eight-foot high partition between the two eighteen-bed dormitories, the men were all sleeping in the same room.
One by one, new arrivals continued to trickle in and soon the place was a buzzing with activity. Some men made straight for the showers, preferring to wash the evening before rather than first thing in the morning. A television jutted out of the wall on a metal arm and a soap opera was holding the attention of several older clients, as Maurice called them. Natasha wandered around a bit, recording atmosphere for her radio report and feeling more at ease.
Derek appeared again and brought another willing talker with him. As Natasha listened to the gaunt young man complain at length about his ex-girlfriend, her attention was caught by one of the kitchen volunteers. He looked very familiar but she struggled to place him. She was trying not to be rude but had to stare. Pausing in his work for a moment, he ran his hand over his cheeks as if rubbing in moisturiser, a gesture she knew so well. In a flash she recognised him – Mr. Byrne. He had put on some weight since she saw him last but it was definitely her old English teacher. His classes had been the highlight of the week in school; Mr Byrne was the one who encouraged her to write. Natasha interrupted her interviewee expertly and gathered up her equipment in a rush. She wanted to leave just after dinner began; she had plans to meet friends in a pub nearby. What a stroke of luck to meet Mr. Byrne, Natasha thought. Such an articulate man, he was sure to say something compelling she could use.
Mr Byrne was setting places at one of the long trestle tables, absorbed in the task. Natasha felt slightly star struck as she approached, seventeen again. She had admired this man so much in school, craved his praise and attention. And here she was working as a journalist; he would be pleased. “You’re a long way from home,” she said, pulling out a chair for her gear. He looked up at her, blinking nervously. She gave him a moment to recognise her, then saved him the effort it was clearly costing him and introduced herself.
“Natasha Cullen,” he repeated, unsure.
“You taught all of us, remember? My three older sisters too,” Natasha smiled. “It’s great that you’re volunteering here, how long have you been coming to the shelter?”
Mr Byrne glanced around the room and looked to the cutlery in his hand for an answer. “Not long,” he said. “It’s one of the better places.”
“Yes, you do good work here,” Natasha said. “The producer sent me because of those tragic deaths last month. I can’t believe they’re closing the place down.”
Mr Byrne nodded. “Hard times,” he agreed. “And who are you working for?”
“Radio Nation, 101.7. Would you mind?” Natasha dug out her microphone and started untangling the lead.
“Sorry Natasha, I’m going to have to decline. We’re about to serve up here,” Mr Byrne moved up the table, placing knives and forks.
Natasha wasn’t expecting resistance but she switched automatically to persuasion mode. “Two lines will do, one even! Just give me something about hard times for the homeless. Please.” Mr Byrne shook his head and kept moving.
Five minutes later, dinner was being served and Natasha gathered the last of her audio material – an institutional din of cutlery scraping plates. She said her goodbyes to everyone she’d spoken to and Maurice walked her to the door. Natasha shook his hand warmly and they locked smiles for a moment. “Are you sure you won’t hang on ‘til I finish so I can walk you to your car? Honestly, I only need another 20 minutes and I’m all yours.”
“No need, it’s fine. I’ve got to be somewhere,” Natasha said.
“Are you happy with how the evening went?” Maurice unlocked the door and opened it to the cold January air.
“Yes everything was great, thanks. I’m just sorry Mr Byrne didn’t want to say a few words. It would have been nice to include one of the volunteers,” she said.
“Do you mean Robert Byrne? No he’s not a volunteer,” Maurice said as Natasha stepped outside. “He’s a regular client. Nice guy. Well goodnight then.” The door clanged shut and Natasha leaned against it. For a moment it seemed impossible to leave the comfort of that light. But only for a moment.