It was a cold and rainy Christmas Eve when my story began and I was…well, no…actually that’s not true.
Not entirely anyway.
I guess you could say that my real story began a little over forty two years ago when an average couple with the strange surname of Luck became less than proud parents to a healthy but equally average son with facial features as unremarkably plain as their own.
The child in question, me if you hadn’t already worked that out, was named Phineas after some previously forgotten uncle on my Jewish father’s side then raised to inherit the family stock and trade which consisted of being exceptional in absolutely nothing whatsoever.
The subsequent years passed in a whirlwind of nothing outstanding, each surpassing the one before in its mediocrity until like my father before me I was holding down a pointless job, married to an unimaginative woman and counting the days until I was mercifully killed in an accident or shot dead by some deranged spree killer while browsing the frozen food in Tesco.
Then suddenly at the age of thirty four I found myself unexpectedly divorced, finally free of the dull, self-important woman who had been like a very large and boring lead weight around my neck, both thankful and equally stunned that by some curious stroke of fate someone had been dumb enough to run off with her.
Free at last, like a claustrophobic rabbit escaping its hutch, I had embraced my new found freedom like a drowning man breathing fresh air, and had moved away from the disappointed looks that my family had given me for daring to break out of the humdrum regime that they themselves all seemed too terrified to escape from.
In no time at all, I had moved away from the town of my birth, the only place that I had ever known, and travelled England; meeting new people, experiencing new things and discovering a faith that I had never expected to find.
Immersed in my new-found Catholicism, I had decided to help those less fortunate than myself, those that needed the support and guidance that I had never been offered when I had been trapped in my former marriage.
It had been a noble cause, a worthy cause, and with my new God at my back and the wishes and support of my new friends, I had journeyed back down south to London to help the needy by opening a refuge.
Jump forward five years and I was homeless.
My money had run out in six months, lost to a string of bad decisions and poor life experience, and my new friends had faded away as quickly as they had arrived.
Even God had turned his back on me, or so I believed in my new angry state, how else could I have fallen so far?
Yet as bad as life had turned out for me, it had also changed me as a man. The former smooth skinned, soft bellied and weak-willed man of my former life had gone, purged from existence by the harsh reality of life upon the back streets of the great sprawling metropolis that was hidden from the eyes of the city’s horde of tourists.
Now in his place stood a man who was as equally unimpressive as his former counterpart, yet with a lean muscled body crafted from hunger and constant physical exertion as I struggled along with the city’s other eight thousand forgotten people that I shared the streets with, and a determination forged from iron.
It was this new found never say die attitude that had bought me out of the cardboard lined pipe that I had been living in for the past week on the Christmas Eve that my story of my new life begins, my desperate need to eat beating my desire to stay warm as I followed my nose towards the smell of something hot cooking.
It was soup, though I had not known it at the time.
All I had known was that some godly aroma was drifting upon one of the breezes that blew through the city at this time of year, my stomach turning over and cramping violently at the smell, the constant ache of hunger bringing tears to my eyes as it surged out of control.
On shaky legs, I had crawled from within the pipe, wrapping my long dirty coat tighter about my thin frame as I had made my way down the darkened alleyway towards the bright lights of the main streets of the city. Half-way down, I had paused, my nose wrinkling in disgust as I studied the still form of Old Joe Soap, a ‘neighbour’ of mine in this area, shaking my head as I studied his grey skin and the dried vomit around his lips, his dead eyes staring at the dark sky far up overhead.
He lay beside a large bin, half covered in cardboard boxes whose sides had been cut to make them flat, with some of the newspapers that the crazy old Irishman used to line his sleeves and trousers legs to protect him from the cold poking from the right cuff of his old coat.
Yet he would never be warm, not now that he was dead.
Not unless he had been right about his next destination.
The urge to cross myself had been nearly overwhelming, my desire to fall to my knees and pray for my friend only counter-balanced by how betrayed I felt by Him, and bitterly, I had shrugged my coat around my shoulders and continued walking towards the smell of food.
Not once did I consider telling the police of his death.
No-one cared about you when you were on the streets especially any of the establishments and their ilk.
No, my good friend Joe Soap was dead and gone and it was a terrible shame but it was time to move on.
That was the street way. The survivor’s way.
Pushing any guilt or remorse that I had felt at my friend’s passing away as best as I could, I had emerged from the alleyway and paused for a moment, feeling the shocked and disgusted eyes of the passersby wash over me and slip off with barely more than a curl of my top lip in irritation hidden as it was beneath my full beard.
Then I was walking again, following the tangy aroma of what I was now sure was soup, past Archway tube station and along the streets that ran from it.
I paused at the end of a small junction, trying to determine which way the aroma was coming from over the fresh smells from the numerous take-aways and restaurant’s that lined the streets, knowing that the smell of soup possibly meant free food was being handed out. I frowned as I considered my options. To the West the road curved along, heading towards the distant Parliament view and Hampstead Heath while to my right, it turned away to run past the sprawling necropolis that was Highgate cemetery North of where I stood.
It was night time, though I am not entirely sure what the hour was, and despite being in a wealthier area of London the streets were still fairly full of pub and club goers heading out to Christmas eve parties further south in the heart of the city and the wealthy headed out to top restaurants to spend enough money that would have fed me and Joe Soap for an entire year.
I crossed over the road as I began to near the front of an Italian establishment, dodging among the traffic as I sought to put the street between myself and the two burly, no-neck doorman that had perked up at my approach, knowing from experience just how they reacted to my kind. Now with the two lanes of passing cars between us, I turned my head, meeting their gaze as I walked past, feeling brave enough to look their way.
This pair of pricks had discovered myself and Joe Soap rooting around in the restaurants rubbish bins several weeks back and had given me an extremely painful beating while the crazy old Irishman had watched safely from halfway up a fire escape, gibbering away in fear.
Raising a hand to rub at my ribs as I met their gaze across the road, I winced as I saw their smiles, anger washing over me as I recalled how Joe had taken to drinking sour milk from the teats of a pregnant old dog that had died from hunger after my beating, the Irishman refusing to go through the bins anymore.
I wasn’t a betting man but if I had been then I would have put everything I owned, which was less than nothing, on that dog milk being the cause of poor old Joe choking to death on his sick in his sleep.
That made the two doormen his killers in a strange way.
Or not…it was hard to think clearly with the anger raging around my head and the smell of soup filling my nostrils.
Clenching my teeth, forcing myself to look away from the two doormen as they began to laugh, I skipped quickly past a car exiting the side street before me and angled my path back across the main road to where I now knew the smell was coming from, rubbing my hands together in excitement as I saw the scene ahead.
A long trailer was parked back against the side of the road, two large gas canisters hooked up to its back end and through the open hatch in its front, a grossly overweight Indian man in a turban was singing heartily as he poured soup into polystyrene cups and handed them out to the homeless that were gathered there.
Dragging my coat tighter about my body as a strong gust of wind blew through the tunnel, I moved to join the queue, nodding and grunting in greeting to the faces that I recognised from the homeless people gathered there, coldly staring down the ones I didn’t.
Five years ago I would never have been so hostile towards strangers but that was before I was reborn.
Now standing strong was the only way to survive.
People needed to know who they could fuck with.
If the truth was told, I was still far from a tough guy, barely able to string two punches together but with my broad shoulders, and my full beard and dirt dreadlocked hair, I looked like the sort of guy who would kill for fun.
Hostile was good. Hostile got you left to live in peace.
So there I was, freezing my balls off as I stood in line, keeping myself to myself, hands thrust inside the pockets of the coat I was wearing while I waited for my old mate Baljinder to serve soup to those in front of me, his voice deep as he sang happily at the top of his lungs.
This was what he lived for, helping those in need.
Much like I had once tried to do in my former life.
Slowly but surely, the line began to filter down, and raising my hands before my mouth, I breathed into them and rubbed them together, trying to ignore the cramps that my stomach was going through now that I was just minutes away from eating something hot and tasty. Turning my head from the line before me, I studied the other side of the street from where we were all stood, my eyes narrowing as I studied the dark shadows of the tops of the trees above the large stone wall before them.
Highgate cemetery, a virtual city of graves lay beyond.
Since moving to this area of the old city and discovering my cardboard lined pipe in the wall of the old carpet factory, I had seen the walls of the grand old cemetery on many occasions although I had never been inside.
Lack of funds to pay for the guided tours and a healthy respect for the dead had kept me outside the walls.
For a moment longer I studied the dark shapes of the treetops above the wall then as movement caught my eye, I lowered my gaze to study the stranger that was now leaning against the wall across the road from me.
Despite my usual effort to not let jealousy or anger cloud my thoughts, I was unable to stop the wave of irritation that coursed through me as I studied the man in his expensive suit, shoes and coat, his perfectly combed hair, designer glasses and over the top laughter being the dog turd icing on the shitty cake.
He turned my way as he stood talking on his phone, a look of amusement crossing his arrogant features as he studied me and my homeless brethren for a moment before turning away once more, absorbed in his call.
Fighting the urge to walk over the road and stick his phone up his rotund arse, I shuddered as a yawn coursed through me, eyes filling with moisture, and sighing I reached up to wipe them clear with base of my palms, rubbing them hard before I opened them again.
That was when I saw the huge black dog.