The Shelter

My name is Gregory, I come from a good family, I am soft spoken and I still have my good manners. I have a bit of a drinking problem and like to smoke a joint sometimes, ok a lot of the time. I am a Christian and have given my heart to Jesus Christ, I carry my bible and an intricate wooden Cross that I made myself with me at all times. Until recently, I was staying with some friends, they had a cottage for me and I could use the workshop in the garage. To earn money I make miniature violins and guitars, in which I set a small clock. I collect off cuts of hardwood in order to make them; my biggest expenses are the little clocks and the high gloss varnish. I even found a factory that throws away off cuts of sandpaper! I do not charge too much for my clocks, as time are hard for many.   R300 or R400 each, sometimes small curio shops buy up to nine at a time. I use to put my cell number on the back of my work and often would receive orders from people that had seen my work at a friend house.

Then my friends gave me an ultimatum: I had to quit drinking or leave the premises. I could not promise to stop drinking so I asked if I could store my box of wood in the workshop. This was acceptable and I was able to leave my few electrical appliances in the cottage too. I packed a bag, taking my patterns, a wood saw, small tin of varnish and some sandpaper with which I made two violins on the streets. Then I met an old friend of mine, Vince, he has a high intellect that is reflected in his piecing blue eyes.  He also has a “Mosses” beard that hangs halfway down his chest. He said he had a place I could stay so we took the money I made and bought booze. Turns out he is sleeping on the street too! Two days latter I found Vince dead…. stabbed to death for his cheap cell phone. I had to get of the streets and walked to a Christian Homeless shelter. They offer a safe place to sleep and some food. Not only this, the also offered a rehab program to help me with my drinking and would find me a job. There were four of us seeking entrance that morning. We were made to wait outside the gate on the pavement for the Pastor to arrive, not very dignified at all. We had nothing to do but chat and introduce ourselves. There was me at the age of  45, one chap older by a couple of years and two youngersters. One had a drug problem but the other neither drank nor smoked! The older guy had some military background, I saw this by the logo on his shirt, but he said he was into nature conservation not the army. The Pastor eventually arrived and “interviewed” us one by one. The youngsters got in with no problem and I had a bit of a hard time. The older guy got hit in the chest by the rather large Pastor and told that he looked like trouble. When he no aggressive reaction the Pastor hit him again and said he could come in but if he gave any trouble the Pastor would “moere hom/” (beat him up)

When I read the rules of the place I saw that one had to donate 40% of any income to the shelter and I mentioned this to the brother helping me sign in. Hearing a cynical laugh behind me and a voice saying, “Just like the Ark, but these guys must be better at it, look at all the Pajeros!” I gave the obvious unbeliever a dirty look he just smiled back at me.  The shelter is a converted jail and the dormitories are the old jail cells. Made of thick sandstone with strong iron doors and tiny windows, most of which cannot open any longer. The bunks are in a stack of four and there are six on each side of the cell. I gave my smiling friend another look, with slightly new eyes. He was throwing his stuff on a bed then pulled out a can of coffee, asking who had sugar? I happened to have sugar but no coffee. There was a kettle but the cells have no electrical sockets, one of the brothers told us where we could plug the kettle, he not only told us but also offered in a brotherly fashion to show us where the place was. While walking there he caged a cigarette of my newfound cynical friend. The electrical sockets were in open sided room; there were only three, on one wall one that had an extension plug in. The other two were on a right-angled wall, they had a large shelf, above that two sockets and a sign that said, “No boiling of kettles, ironing only. By order of Pastor Stephen.”  We made coffee and as it always is in places such as this, the scavenges appeared, as you see I have been in shelters before. I sat and chatted to my new friend, he had a few oranges and shared them only with the other two new men, both very young, and myself; he too must have been in places such as this.

That night it was difficult to sleep, the fact that a tiny TV was blaring, the lights stayed on and the cell was airless and hot were some of the factors involved. Early the next morning my friend was up and boiling water for coffee.  We had a thin porridge and, was it tea? for breakfast. Later all the people that did not have jobs, a day job outside the Shelter had to attend a compulsory daily devotion service held in the area where the sockets were. A cripple Pastor held the service, once that was done the main Pastor arrived and first was informed of all the people that had committed some offense or other. He shouted and hit them in turn, then divided us into work groups. All the new chaps and myself were put in one group.  My new friend murmured that there was a lot of unnecessary shouting done by the Pastor and his minions, they were more like army NCO’s than men that followed Jesus. So far I had not discussed my faith much with this man and decided I had a lot of work to do to get him to accept Jesus in his heart, with his cold cynical eyes I also knew that I would have to approach this subject very delicately.

Our work party was given a foreman and lead to the rear of the old prison. Here we found wire gate and a narrow path. A young man came to tell us not to go through the second gate until he had chained up one of the dogs there, apparently it was vicious. We all looked warily at each other. The second gate consisted of a wire gate that was so bent out of shape that it could not fully close and a wooded pallet to fill in the gap. The work crew consisted of the four of us that had arrived yesterday and; an older coloured man, a young coloured man, a young black guy and a beaten up looking older white guy. Most of his teeth were missing. The young man that told us about the dog went in and chained up a big black Labrador. The yard consisted of a huge pole and tyre obstacle course/jungle gym that was taller than the jail and about 8 or 10 meters long. Just behind that was a square fenced off area that contained two American Pit Bulls, one Bull Terrier and a puppy of unknown mix. On the left the sandstone wall of the jail building and on the right a chain linked fence topped by razor wire. A major road, dual carriageway, was past the fence.  It would seem that our job for the day was to dismantle this gym thing, the main Pastor came and told the foreman he should work us very hard, we were allowed to have tea at 11:30am and lunch at 1pm, the rest of the time we were not allowed to leave the yard. As the gym was bolted together we needed spanners, it took the foreman about an hour to produce two shifting spanners and a crowbar. My cynical friend took the one spanner and I took the other. The beaten up looking guy, let us call him Ben, took the crowbar and started attacking the one platform with a vengeance.  As we had but two spanners the rest of the crew could just look on. We started rotating the spanners as the sun was very hot and all but the black guy took turns. As the platform was shattered by Ben’s vicious attack there were pieces of chipboard and smaller poles to be cleared away.  Some of the larger poles were coming down they also had to be carted off, I saw that on the black guy had done nothing but sit on his arse, some worked harder than others but he did absolutely nothing. At this stage I should mention, I take Prozac to keep myself calm and I have not been able to organized any of the pills in the past few days, my temper was rising.

At 11:30 we had the milky tea and some dry bread with a half an hours rest. Back at the yard one of the guys sprayed the dogs with the hose, they loved it and it cooled them down. Worked continued until lunchtime. Then we   could have an hour off, as the poles and tyres were heavy we were all very tired and dirty, except for the black dude, whose T-shirt was still spotlessly white. Back at the yard the Labrador has gotten free, he stood pretty far from us and barked but his tail was wagging, I did not think he would bite anyone and crouched down and called him. He wanted to come but was too scared.

A while later to very Butch women from the SPCA arrived, apparently someone in a passing car had reported we were spraying the dogs with a hose! This to them was unacceptable and carried a fine of R500.00 as spraying dogs with water causes them to fight. The owner of the dogs, his wife and his son were called. The one woman took photographs of the child holding the puppy. We kept a surreptitious eye   on the proceedings. My cynical friend remarked about both the person that reported the “incident” and the SPCA women, “Some people just have not got enough shit in their lives and make trouble about nothing out of boredom, we should hand them some of our shit.”

He has had a few calls during the day and when I ask who is calling him, he tells me it is from a friend in England and one from another old soldier. He tells me he will not stay around here long.

I went to get a drink of water and the black guy was sitting messing about with his cell phone. I asked how come he got to be a Larney? He laughed and told me to shut up and push off. I then lost it and threatened him. His reply was did I know that he was a killer? This made me even madder, he has a flawless skin, I have a few scars from knife wounds, two on my neck and face. The foreman keeps us apart. The work continued, by 4pm those of us that had worked were exhausted and we decided to leave the last four poles for another day, Monday.

I had by now made friends with Ben and so he and my cynical friend sat drinking coffee and chatting. Turns out Ben has spent 30 of his years alive in prison for crimes like armed robbery and murder! I have never been in a prison, a lot of holding cells but never The Big House. Ben spent a lot of time in the notorious Polesmore prison and has all the Cape Gangster tattoos even though he is not a coloured. He also likes to smoke marijuana and we decided to get out tonight and find some of the weed. My cynical friends declines to join us and tells us that dagga, as it is known in South Africa, just makes him loose his legs, feel ill and sleep. He also tells us he will be out of here on Sunday, his English friend has arranged for another soldier to give him a place to stay, but the man can only pick him up on Sunday.

After supper Ben and I go to the gate, as we are new here we are not allowed to leave the premises for the first week, the brain dead guard will not let us out, but the main Pastor is there and tells the guard, “Let them go, they are not in prison.” Some irony there as this IS the old Boksberg Women’s Prison. We find a score in minutes plus a bit of cheap booze and go to the lake to smoke and drink. Half of the Shelter’s people are there, doing exactly what we are! Later we all go back and the place is full up with people that are either drunk or high, more likely both. My cynical friend looks even more angry and cynical than usual, if that is possible. Not a good time to try convert him to Jesus, I think. I get into a fight with someone in the toilets, he is all mouth and quickly folds, the Pastor on duty just sits inside the Library playing games on his computer, maybe my cynical friend is right, these people do not care about really helping anyone but themselves, he maintains that as long as the person goes to work on Monday, pays his 40% on Friday they are quite content. The forcing everyone to attend daily devotion and the mass bussing of the people to various churches on Sunday is just a show so the donations come in, money for jam.  And Pajeros.

Saturday morning. A lot of grumpy people, some still drunk and/or high. The main Pastor holds the service; he says nothing about what transpired in the night or the condition of his flock this morning. We do clean up detail and the rest of the day is ours. As we need smokes my cynical friend and I waltz through the gate followed by a long term, a few years, inmate follows us, he actually sleeps in the bunk above mine and is smoked up constantly. He joins us and him and I decide to make a score, buy some weed. I speak to my cynical friend about Jesus, telling him that other people and what they think are not important, neither is which church you attend, it is your personal relationship with Jesus that counts. He says nothing, just buys us an apple each from a street vendor.  We go down to the lake and as last night many of the inmates, learned to call them that from my friend, are there. There is beer, cheap spirits and dagga in abundance. My cynical friend tells me how his friend’s wife prays for drugs or money to by drugs for “her man” and how He provides every time.  Then how she yells, “Praise the Lord!” He does not come right out and say it but I can see what he is getting at. He gets offered all the stuff mentioned but declines, asking what time lunch is? This is unusual as he eats very little, giving myself and the one other young guy we came in with most of his food. We think it is at 1pm and leave in time to have lunch, but when we get there the kitchen is closed. They ate at 12pm, I steal some bread and share it with my cynical friend. He is still getting SMS’s and calls from England, or he claims that are from England. I ask him about it and he tells me that the lady in England always is true to her word and she will get him out of here. The other old soldier has phoned him once again, he tells me the man says he has an anti-poaching job and he was waiting for the guy to call him back. I told him that I can see he does not fit in here, I know how to operate in this environment but with all his cynical outward show he was to trusting and too soft, then I gave him a lecture about how he gives all his cigarettes away and how the people that he gives to, none will return the favour.  He said, “I know.”

Saturday afternoon I slept, I actually slept till early evening. Then I met up with Ben and we organized some stuff to numb our brains a bit, like most of the inmates. My cynical friend was busy on his phone most of the time; he was determined to leave this place and it seems he had people that were as determined to get him out. He mentions that he has never met these people, just knows them from Facebook and some pages he belongs to. I tried to speak about religion and Jesus to him and all he did was point out what he saw around him. He asked if I knew what the shortest verse in the Bible was? I did not. He told me, “Jesus wept.” I asked what Scripture it was. He replied he had forgotten, but if I looked I would find it. Later that evening a kid came back, very, very drugged up. He mad a nuisance of himself and when everyone was trying to sleep, the light and TV were actually off for once, he kept sitting up and shouting gibberish. Eventually I heard a quiet voice coming from the bunk below his. It said, “I have had enough of your shit, I am asking you politely, shut up and stop bouncing this bunk about. If you do not I will come up there and break your fucking neck.” The cynical friend was not so soft after all. The kid must have believed him because he stopped his nonsense and we all thought that was that. However at approximately 1:30am the lights snapped on and the kid burst in shouting, followed by two of the Shelters security guys. He was claiming someone in the dorm had grabbed him, held a knife at his throat and taken his cell phone. A lot of noise and palaver with the kid looking to see if he could recognize his attacker. The guy that was supposed to be the “Leader” of the dorm fell out of bed and started shouting too. He was upset the kid called security and did not tell him about the incident first, as he grabbed for the kid, the kid fled. Things quieted down, the security left and the lights went out again.

But it was far from over about a half an hour later the kid rushes in again, this time followed by not only the Shelters security but the South African police too! One is caring a machinegun. My cynical friend informed me later it was not a machinegun, it was an assault rifle called an R5. The situation breaks down further, we are ordered by the police to get off of our bunks and line up. How can they take this little goofball seriously? The “Leader” makes another grab at the kid a policeman shoves him back. The kid peers at all our faces. My cynical friend points out he should know if the person was black or white, even in the dark we sort of stand out differently.  One black policeman finds this very funny. Finally the police and security leave taking the kid with, for his own safety. The kettle is put on and a lot of babbling starts.  Finally we all go back to sleep.

Sunday morning. We all get up later than usual. There is tea early than usual; I suppose this is because everyone must be ready to go to church by 8:30am. Everybody. I speak to my cynical friend, I offer him my wooden cross, he thanks me but says I need it more than him. I then ask him if I can give him my bank detail and if he comes right will he put some money in my account? He tells me the way his life has gone the last few months he is not hopeful of coming right in the near future but to give him the details. The main Pastor comes past, chasing the people to the buses, he sees my friend and shouts, “I thought you were leaving brother?” My friend mumbles, “I am not your fucking brother.” Then loader says, “I am on my way.” The Pastor shouts at him to hurry up. I say goodbye to my cynical friend and go get on the bus that will take me to church and be one of the crowd that will make the Pastor richer than he already is. I wonder……

October  16, 2011

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One Response to “The Shelter”

  1. Wayne Bisset Says:

    Reblogged this on Section Eight Solutions.

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