Thursday, September 8, 2011


One day this week I helped out in a soup kitchen. 
The kind folk here at the Methodist Church in Knysna dispense containers of soup to over a hundred hungry people, every Tuesday and Thursday. And there are a few other soup kitchens too, in other parts of town.

I was quite sick that day, and as a result experienced it all through a feverish haze.
Still, I have dispensed soup before, and when L picked me up, and took me home, to fall headlong into my sick bed, the memories tumbled around my head before I slept.

Times spent in such different realities to my own linger on in my mind, anyway, like some dream or hallucination.
Memories of spaces and shadows falling into grotesque shapes, under bridges, under foggy, dim, street lights, late at night, came back to me in my delirius sleep. 
I remembered other times spent with people who live on the street, who gather in dark corners, mostly out of sight, with some security only lent by a concrete wall or a reinforced pillar, holding up a highway, way up above.

Those in need of soup, to be sipped, slowly, into a body not much used to food, can be found in these sorts of places. 
We joined them, a twenty something me and a couple of others, under the P E freeways, a long time ago.
Port Elizabeth had a docklands like no other South African city. It was bounded by a row of strip joints and sleazy nightclubs in old warehouses, which let out into the underbelly of the freeway network. 
It was a labyrinth of concrete pylons, holding up highways going no where - a world of cold cement and tar-kept back from the sea, by chicken wire fences, and a row of faceless buildings,with the waves  so near you could smell them crashing in the cold air curling round.

I remember fire lit faces with toothless smiles.
The people gathered under the bridges, warming themselves around those fires, mostly smelt incredibly bad. I, then not much accustomed to them, recoiled a little. But, I had a friend who brought her small, three year old daughter with her, and she let those dimly lit women dandle her, which they loved to do, and stroke her little smooth head, and she was not a bit afraid. 
And so, I let my hand be held, by one lady, who, still somewhat drunk, wanted to sing me a song, in exchange for my offered, polystyrene cup of soup. 
Everything changed for me after that.

Similar hands took soup from me again on Tuesday. Hands with long nails, ingrained with grime. Thin wrists emerging from stiff cuffs, ringed round with dirt. Grey hair tangled into dreadlocks, hanging down alongside thin, crusty and lined faces. 
They sat on the wall in the sun, and waited for their number or their name to be called, graciously accepting soup and samp, from my hand to theirs. I had had no part in the expense or preparation of the soup, and wondered at myself,  in between helping to wash containers, dry up, dispense, receive, smile, chat briefly, lapsing into my words used for those unknown to me, 'love', 'sweetheart', ' my dear'...

That turn of phrase, resident now in my speech, found its way there during my time in England. It has settled into my vocabulary, comfortably, cheek by jowl with 'skat', 'liefie' and other all encompassing terms that cover a wide variety of folk, and roll, effortlessly off my tongue.

I used those comfort words first, when working with the Homeless in Guildford, Surrey.
There, in that lap of luxurious Southern England, I spent some time, distributing soup and sandwiches. The Homeless there, when unable to make use of the various shelters, also gather in similar dark corners. 
We found them, in the icy winter, by breaking through the barracades of back, boarded up windows in a multitude of 'squats' - a dark warren of connected terraced houses, abandoned and derelict.

Finding our way in,  in the freezing dark, was the stuff of clothes, jeans and arms, being hooked on nails and shattered pieces of wood. It was clambering up, over, through, crumbling, tumbling, falling down stairs stuff, and missing a pothole and losing your foothold in the ripped up floorboards, and following a thin beam from a headtorch lamplight stuff  - at least that is how I remember it.

The people we found were wrapped round in a blanket and still and stiff with cold and alcohol and drugs. I am not sure how welcome our sudden, bursting upon them  presence was, really. 
But stumble over them we did.
And they mostly sat up and took the Sainsbury sandwiches from us -  yesterdays fare-  but quite exotic with  tasty chicken tikka, or prawn cocktail fillings, inbetween two soya seed, sourdough or rye layers of slightly curling bread.

They, the forced to rise for us, recipients of our worthy gifts, were grateful for the most part. Mad for the rest. 
One man, I remember, jumped at us, and swiped at us with a plank of skirting board, like a raging demon in the dark. We beat a hasty retreat and I panicked that I would not find my way out, but I did, and tumbled out, back into the dark, tangle weed garden. Quite safe.

I will, I think, be back at the soup kitchen, this Tuesday. 
Being older, and more cynical about myself, I do wander why I do it. 
Without thinking too long and deep,  my more philosophical side might present an argument about balance or justice or just doing good.
But probably its just because I like it. 
Just because I like to do it. 
Feed people.

And I like them, those of  the stripped away gaze, and the open eyes, of the stale sweat smell, and the stench of alcohol and dirt. I like the held out hand, the bad toothed smile.
Maybe it is a kind of love. 
I surely hope so. Then it is something more than like, and sense or understanding is not necessary. 
No answer. No solution to be found.
Just a cup, from hand to hand.

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