Stuart: A Life Backwards

After the service, a crowd gathered by the grave. It is not a pauper's grave. It is the sort of grave that ordinary people dream of: under the boughs of a horse chestnut, in the company of yews and flocks of rooks, in a Norman churchyard. Beyond the aged wall that borders this blissful cemetery the hills and copses rise like waves.

And it is strange: a few moments after the cars that brought us down drive off, I become aware that already I have discovered something new. Because we do not have a place of our own, nor will have for the next three days, we must invent one. I catch myself, and the eyes of one or two others, searching for a section of the pavement with which we might want to become familiar. We are looking among the concrete slabs for the outline of a home.

And so on, until you arrive at the other side, among the purely abstract self-harming: the grinding over your failures, the refusal to remember anything good, the determination to ensure - if anyone falls into the mistake of making it clear they actually like you - that the next time round they change their opinion pronto. Emotional self-cannibalism, in other words, like those tessellated pictures of a person grappling with a mirror image of himself.

As his mother drove him away on the day he was let out, Stuart broke the cardinal prison rule: like Lot's wife, he looked back, at the building he'd just left.

At this time of day it should have been open and full of fifty fellow smackheads, crackheads, psychotics, epileptics, schizophrenics, self-harmers, beggars, buskers, car thieves, sherry pushers, ciderheads, just-released-that-morning convicts, ex-army, ex-married-men-with-young-children-who'd-discovered-their-wife-in-bed-with-two-members-of-the-university-rowing-team-at-the-same-time.

Bring it on, bring the pain on, I want to face it

But one of Stuart's most personable (and most annoying) qualities is his refusal to judge strangers until he knows them, especially if they're peculiar.

Disobedience is one of the few tricks you have left to hang on to the idea that you continue to exist distinctively and are still reliably connected to the person who bore your name on the outside.

Everybody expected everything for nothing not realising that he had bills to pay.

For a moment, I believe, there was a stillness. A shocking realization by all things - beetles, dormice, the spiders spinning their webs in the moonlight, even the hot metal of the tracks and the wind in the trees - that Death had just shrieked past like a stinking black eagle and made off with a remarkable man.

Homelessness–it’s not about not having a home. It’s about something being seriously fucking wrong.

I don't know, Alexander, sometimes it gets so bad you can't think of nothing better to do than make it worse.

If Stuart is a freak... it is because he has had the superhuman strength not to be defeated by this isolation. It is because he has had the almost unbelievable social adroitness to be able to fit in smoothly with an educated, soft-skinned person like myself and not make me frightened half to death. If Stuart's a freak, I salute freaks.

If you’re fucked up in the head there’s no explanation. You might think about it one way one minute then two hours later you’ll think about it totally different. It’s too confusing to even try and put your head around it. Now, can we leave it alone?

I have a great sense of Stuart and silence on these nights. The village, wrapped in sleep; owls glide between the yew trees, badgers poddle across the graves. Then Stuart, cleaving the peacefulness. All people, gone. No educational experts, medical specialists, bullies, policemen. His mother's disapproval, hot on his heels, runs out of breath after half a mile. It is Stuart and the earth, just those two.

Is this what real homelessness is like? Not just a particular set of roof and walls gone, but a sense of the death of companionship?

I wish I could pick you up sometimes, turn you upside down, shake all the bad things out of your head, and put you back up the
right way again.

I wish I wasn’t me.

Just because you met somebody, doesn’t mean to say you know anything about them.

Other attempts appear as scars, weals, parentheses in conversation, absent days in his diary. But, at the same time, according to Stuart's weird sense of etiquette on such subjects, only one son in a family is allowed to kill himself, else it puts too much strain on the parents, and his brother, Gavvy, like Jacob in the Old Testament, has stolen Stuart's birthright.

Put two macho groups together and give the first desperation and numbers, and the second truncheons and protective clothing, and the result is like a laboratory civil war.

Revelation comes with these misunderstandings. Stuart's life and way of thinking momentarily exposed. Like a break in the hedgerow during the country lane part of a journey. For an instant you glimpse scenery you haven't seen before - fields of poppy and cornflower, trees gnarled in the shape of demons.

Ruth once told me when I went to visit her at HMP Highpoint that it is surprising how much of what you imagine to be your innate sense of self actually comes from things that aren't one's self at all: people's reactions to the blouse you wear, the respectfulness of your family, the attentiveness of your friends, their approval of the pictures in your living room, the neatness of your lawn, the way people whisper your name. It is these exhibitions of yourself, as reflected in the people whom you meet, which give you comfort and your identity. Take them away, be put in a tiny room, and called by a number, and you begin to vanish.

Stuart is conscientious about names. He believes they are important to a person's self-respect and, to Stuart, there is nothing more important than that.

Tell you what,’ Stuart goads across the pavement at the huge officer who’s rolled down his window to wish us good-night, ‘since you got so much fucking time on your hands, answer this one for me. Ten people on the street beat the fucking crap out of somebody and they’d all get ten years for it, where, in prison, your mates put on shields and riot gear and fucking pour into somebody’s cell and do the same thing, and they’re doing a public service. Explain that. And then they wonder why the person they just beat up so there’s blood all across the walls and screaming what can be heard from one end of the wing to the other doesn’t turn into a nice boy. Do you know what I mean? Do you? Do you? Nah, of course not. You ain’t got the faintest fucking clue, have you?

there is very little connection between law and justice.

Twenty miles on, we have spotted a roadside sign: 'CHAINSAW CARVED MUSHROOMS'. Troubles promptly forgotten, Stuart falls to gawping at the road ahead. What could it all be about? 'As one victim to another,' his body language seems to marvel, 'what's a mushroom done to deserve that kind of abuse?' Not even in the worst days of street-fighting did he ever experience ill-treatment on this scale.

What is left of you once your clothes have had their say?

When life is this dull, you have to invent purpose. Collecting torn-up newspaper gives you a hobby, provides an anchoring intimacy with your surroundings, keeps the streets clean. Or so you think. Then one day you wake up and realise that it was all a con: what you had thought was an escape from madness was in fact the arrival.

You'd think the homeless would despise the rest of us, but it seems the thing they want to do most is talk. If only they could sit us down and let it all spill out - every twist of their history, down to the last murmur - then they'd be cured.