On the worst nights, it felt as if everything encroached at once. The rain found every gap and inlet, soaking into the earth and rising back up through the strata of flattened cardboard on which we slept. The cold breached all our bundled layers – our damp and matted jumpers, our cast-off coats and scavenged sleeping bags. Often, I awoke to the sound of fights outside, clumsy fingers rooting for hidden valuables, a man’s boozy breath in my ear. I slept in my clothes and boots, tucked my scant cash in my sock. People who knew me left me alone. Others I had to hurt a couple of times before they learned.
Dawn was always a relief. The night was over, the trials of the day not yet begun. Whatever had passed in the darkness was forgiven. For a few seconds, as the sun offered its first tentative touch and the sky, on a clear day, lost its blackness and became first bruised and then bloody, those of us that lived on the encampment – that stubborn mess of tents and lean-tos, sheets of tarpaulin and stolen boards propped against poles and trees – were briefly allowed to feel all the things denied to us in the night and through much of the day: faint hope, tentative warmth, a moment of ease.
So to all the other insults and injustices of that day, the violence of the officials’ arrival and the destruction of their passing, I must add this: that they caught us, whether deliberately or not, at our freest.
I heard them before I saw them: a low, hive-like hum down the road. I guessed the time at soon after six. It was early March. The morning still carried the residual chill of that year’s long winter, but you could feel the promise of spring in the air. When I pushed aside the draped tarpaulin under which I slept and rose stiffly to my feet, I saw that others had already gathered and were staring off down the road, towards the deepening drone of whatever was approaching. For a strange, still moment, it seemed like the most natural and ordinary meeting of people: a small group of neighbours, hands on hips, speculating as to what was afoot. But then the convoy rounded the bend, and in an instant we were alone and scrambling, neighbours no more.
The more military-looking police were at the front: two vans with grilles on the windows bearing black-clad, visored officers. Behind them were ambulances, uniformed cops, and buses for whoever the task force managed to round up. Lastly came the vehicles of non-specific destruction: the JCBs and bulldozers, the skip trucks, an unmarked van filled with contracted workmen in hard hats and hi-vis overalls.
We scattered. People ran for the pieced-together structures that had been their homes and began throwing things into bags, tossing aside tarpaulins and ground sheets, uncovering their secret caches of money, food, drugs. There were children in some of the tents, and they began to scream, which set off the panicked barking of the encampment’s dogs. As people shouted to each other, language became an irrelevance. Wherever you were from, a global shorthand was at work: police, trucks, run.
I managed my fear by cataloguing my minor advantages. I was fast, I was alone, I had attached significance to only a few small possessions. Humble comforts were a trap. You fought for something that kept you warm, but then it came to mean something to you, evolved into some meagre symbol of achievement, and you clung to it, even as it slowed you down. Around me, as I began to run, too many people were making this mistake – hamstrung by what they carried, stumbling as they dropped unwieldy items under their feet.
By this point I’d gathered my rucksack and the little bundle of valuables at the bottom of my sleeping bag and was moving quickly. The encampment had been pieced together on a patch of waste ground, recently cleared to make way for development. A raised train track and arched bridge provided shelter on one side. Beyond that was a high fence that marked the border with a largely disused industrial estate. This was the direction in which most people were heading. Once over the fence, the empty warehouses and equipment stores, the huddled buildings and maze of units that formed the estate, would offer ample opportunity to scatter and, like droplets of spilled water absorbed into the earth, vanish back into the city.
For a moment, the shouting, the chaos, seemed to diminish. The fence was in our sights. Briefly, I glanced back at the broken-down boxes on which we’d slept, the scattered cans and pots from which we’d eaten. It was, I thought, a perpetual cycle. Detritus, repurposed, became possessions. Now our abandoned belongings were trash once more.
Beyond what remained of the encampment, the convoy was fanning out. One of the police vans swung rightward, heading towards the fence, clearly intending to cut us off. People began to shout again. As those in the middle of the crowd saw the approaching van, they changed their minds about the fence and peeled off, making instead for the other side of the encampment. I tried to tell them: If we all stay together, they’ll never be able to stop us. But panic had set in. We were disparate, confused, vulnerable.
Just as the first few people reached the fence and began to climb, the police vans stopped and threw open their back doors, releasing a trio of barking Alsatians. There is something primal, something wild, about the human response to an attacking dog. It gets in your blood, is carried to every major organ. As the animals fired themselves into the crowd, our trembling herd-selves took over. We were gazelles on a plain, outrunning death. Those with children, by instinct, swept them up, pressed them to their chests, wrapped their hands around their heads. Ahead of me, someone fell. People leapt over the tangle of limbs, not even stopping to see who it was, perhaps fearful that recognition would give rise to pity, pity in turn to hesitation.
By this time I was being pushed from behind, carried along by the panicked swell. Ahead, I could see policemen pulling people from the fence. Only a few had made it over. I turned, briefly stalled, then made for open ground. Behind me, I heard the urgent percussion of paws. Within a few steps, the dog was on me, clamping its teeth around my ankle, bringing me down, then moving its jaws up to the collar of my coat. I rolled onto my back. Looking down, under my chin, I could see the eyes of the dog looking back at me, surprisingly calm. The dog growled and tightened its hold, its nose now pressed against my throat, its rancid breath hot and damp against my jugular. Around me, the screams and shouts, the engine noise, the boot-steps and bellowed orders to stand still seemed to fade, until I could hear, instead, my own pulsing blood in my ears, the rhythmic breath of the dog and the beat of its heart against mine. I lay back, softening. The dog placed a paw on my chest, warning me not to struggle. I thought of all the blood in all the veins of all the animals, human and otherwise, on that rough patch of ground, all of us breathing together, in stasis and tension, and felt myself, almost relievedly, give in.
I reached up and laid my hand on the back of the dog’s neck. It sharpened its growl, warning me. I patted it gently and it calmed again.
‘Alright,’ I said to the dog. ‘Alright.’
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw black steel-capped boots approaching. A man’s voice said, Stay there. Because there was nowhere else I could possibly be, I obeyed.
Navigating the system, you become accustomed to the dingy impersonality of certain settings. Across the country, at any given moment – across, I assume, the world – lives are unravelling in rooms of crushing uniformity. Interview rooms. Advice rooms. Holding rooms. Rooms with nothing more than a simple desk, a single strip light, and a burnt-out worker typing notes while you lay out your case. On the wall, always, there is a generic canvas of a flower.
The particular room in which I found myself contained two men. The desk between us was less a working surface than a barrier, stretching from wall to wall and bolted at both ends, meaning I had to enter through a separate door and hallway. It was a neat statement, I thought: the clearest signifier of bureaucracy, repurposed as a blunt communication of division. The men across from me were protected; I was held at bay.
They were not the usual faces of officialdom. They seemed to have attended a recent PowerPoint presentation on the projection of sincerity. They leaned across the table, nodding at everything I said. Both of them had loosened an extra shirt button, as if an open collar was the gateway to an open mind.
‘We apologise for the set-up,’ said one. ‘We don’t get to choose the rooms.’
‘If we were running the show?’ said the other. ‘Very different story.’
I said nothing. The tactic in these situations is always to say nothing. There are legal factors, of course, but really it’s a matter of principle. I don’t engage with authority because I don’t tend to recognise it to begin with.
‘We see this a lot,’ said the first man. ‘The whole quiet thing.’
The second man folded his hands on the table, cocked his head to one side and tightened his lips, a pose I imagined gradually evolving through an instructor’s subtle corrections of form.
‘People have had a lot of bad experiences,’ he said. ‘It’s a barrier.’ I looked between them. It was dawning on me that they were neither policemen nor council workers. They wore no identification or badges. Their clothes were slim-fit, pastel toned, expensive. Man number one was wearing a watch that monitored his unwavering heartbeat.
‘Let’s maybe introduce ourselves,’ said man number one. ‘Break the ice a little. I’m Seth.’
‘And I’m Ryan,’ said man number two.
‘Maybe you’d like to introduce yourself now?’ said Seth. I stared at them, saying nothing.
‘OK,’ said Seth. ‘That’s fine. Like we said. Lot of bad experiences.
Lot of mistrust.’
‘And also, we know who you are, anyway,’ said Ryan. ‘So the introduction would really just have been, as Seth said, an icebreaker.’
The statement was delivered flippantly, but was clearly intended to be unnerving. I remained unmoved. Of course they knew who I was. Their precise role might, at that stage, have been unclear, but they were still, in one way or another, representatives of the authorities. After picking us up, the police had fingerprinted us all at a makeshift processing centre located, ironically, on the same semi-abandoned industrial estate towards which so many of us had tried to flee. After fingerprinting, we’d been divided up according to a system that remained undisclosed to us. After that we’d been photographed, then divided again. Finally, a man in shirtsleeves who, without quite knowing why, I knew immediately was not a policeman, called my name and, after checking me off a list, shepherded me into a private room, where I sat for long enough to lose all sense of time, and from where I was ushered, stiff-legged, exhausted, disoriented, into an unmarked car and driven, via a deliberately circuitous route, through suburban South London to a featureless office complex on the periphery of a peripheral borough, inside which was the room I now occupied, adrift in time, shaky with hunger, more bored than frightened. The announcement I was known meant nothing. Clearly, I was here because I was known, because I had been, in some way not yet revealed to me, selected.
I decided to fix the men with a slight, knowing smile and sustain the expression regardless of what they said or asked me. People in authority find this unsettling. If you’re lucky, they start babbling.
‘Your name is Maya Devereaux,’ said Seth. ‘Do you mind if we call you Maya?’
I moved my eyes from Seth to Ryan and back again, still with that faint smile.
‘You’ve been homeless for about a year,’ Seth continued. ‘Give or take,’ said Ryan.
‘You’d been at the encampment over a month,’ said Seth. ‘Which puts you there pretty soon after its inception. Before that you were most likely at whatever encampment preceded this one. You know how it goes: one borough breaks up a hotspot, a week later it magically reforms across town.’
I decided to concentrate on my breathing: keeping it even, keeping it slow. When they stepped outside and talked about my case, I wanted the word they kept circling back to in their minds to be unfazed. By this point in my life I didn’t even really have to act. I’d sat on this side of numerous similar tables. I’d stared at an incomparable number of thickly painted walls and deeply worn carpets. I could have discoursed at length on the subject of mass-produced airbrushed canvases.
‘You’re English,’ said Seth. ‘We know that.’
‘Just in case you were planning on using the whole please, no English routine,’ said Ryan.
‘You have no disabilities, no impairments, no history of mental breakdown,’ said Seth.
‘Or none recorded, anyway,’ said Ryan.
‘Right,’ said Seth. ‘Lot of undiagnosed stuff in situations like this.
We understand that.’
‘Actually,’ said Ryan, ‘we can help with it.’
‘We can help with a lot of things,’ said Seth, giving me what he clearly thought was a significant look. ‘If you let us.’
They were quiet again. My breath was a count of four in, four out. I had placed one hand on the table in front of me. I began tapping my forefinger lightly against the tabletop every few seconds, like a dripping tap.
Seth smiled. ‘You’re a tough nut to crack, Maya,’ he said.
‘You know,’ said Ryan, with exaggerated gentleness, ‘we have facilities here.’
They let that sink in a moment, searching my face to see if anything registered. Clearly disappointed, Seth clarified.
‘A canteen,’ he said. ‘Showers.’ ‘Free to use,’ said Ryan.
They looked pointedly at my hand, the finger of which was still calmly tapping, as if trying to draw my attention to its condition. I didn’t need to look at it. I knew its condition intimately: sharpnailed, callused, deeply grimed.
‘We’ve got clothes too,’ said Seth. ‘We already know your measurements, so . . .’
‘Good to go,’ said Ryan. ‘Say the word and it’s done.’
Tap . . . Tap . . . Tap.
Finally, they looked at each other. A question, followed by an agreement, passed calmly and silently between them. They were used to this, I saw. There were processes they could follow, stages through which they could move. A quick glance, and the tactics wordlessly changed.
‘OK,’ said Seth. ‘We understand.’ ‘We’re asking a lot of you,’ said Ryan.
‘We’re asking you to trust us based on nothing,’ said Seth.
‘The year you’ve had,’ said Ryan, ‘trust has probably not been something you’ve been dispensing freely. We get that.’
‘I mean, look at the situation here,’ said Seth. ‘You’re woken at dawn, chased by dogs, arrested, fingerprinted, bundled off to some sort of . . . facility.’
‘You’re going to be wary,’ said Ryan. ‘You’re going to be understandably and perfectly reasonably on guard.’
I stopped tapping, folded my hands, said nothing. ‘So,’ said Seth. ‘How about a bit of background?’
It was beginning to dawn on me that none of the usual routines appeared to be forthcoming. No threats, no thinly veiled disgust, no ostentatious pity. Instead, Seth and Ryan had the air of men about to deploy a brochure, pitch some rare opportunity to invest. I knew the signs because I had done it myself: puked out sales patter, turned glossy literature in the direction of sceptical targets. I couldn’t decide what would be more insulting: threats or promises. I felt confidently immune to both, but my patience for platitudes was finite.
‘We work for Green,’ said Seth.
They let that sit there a moment, accustomed, I sensed, to some sort of reaction.
‘You’ve heard of Green, I assume?’ said Ryan. When I didn’t answer, Seth continued.
‘Tech solutions, communications, web content, search. Your basic highly disruptive global player.’
‘Yadda yadda yadda,’ said Ryan. ‘You get the picture.’
‘We work in a very specific department of Green,’ said Seth. ‘Giving.’
‘Not a department you will necessarily have heard of,’ said Ryan. ‘Green don’t tend to trumpet it, because that would be undignified,’ said Seth. ‘But they are very much in the business of giving.’ ‘And we’re tasked with targeting that giving,’ said Ryan. ‘Because untargeted giving isn’t really giving, it’s just . . . seepage.’ ‘Hence,’ said Seth, ‘the opportunity programme.’
He said it with a flourish, spreading his hands palm upwards, somehow including me in whatever the phrase was intended to indicate. There was a long, expectant silence, during which I maintained my static smile and shuttled my eyes from Ryan to Seth and back again.
‘People usually get excited at this point,’ said Seth.
‘Not, like, crazy excited,’ said Ryan. ‘But, you know, tentatively hopeful and intrigued.’
‘Actually though,’ said Seth, ‘your reaction is very promising.
Different, but promising.’
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ said Ryan. ‘You’re thinking: this is just another revamped work programme. This is slog your guts out for less than minimum wage and help the government get their numbers down.’
‘You’re thinking,’ said Seth, ‘fuck that.’
‘But this,’ said Ryan, ‘is not that. This,’ he said, pausing for emphasis, ‘is a unicorn.’
This is an excerpt from Come Join Our Disease by Sam Byers, out with Faber.
Image © Horacio Bustos