Two things frighten me a great deal: having a severe mental illness and being homeless. Sadly they're two things that can happen very quickly and they can both be really difficult to climb out of. I see a few homeless people through my work at the Tafel and on Monday I was chatting to a guy who was collecting some groceries and he showed me a photograph of a blonde-haired little girl; it was his daughter who lives with her mother and he hasn't seen her for three years. He has a rucksack with a change of clothes, the photograph, a notebook, a wallet and a pen and that's it. I don't know what brought him to this state but it seems desperate.
There was a homeless lady who used to pitch up outside one of the university buildings in the old town – her name was Petra and she was, in the parlance of the times, known to the mental health services. Mostly she chatted quietly to herself and would sometimes laugh at something and then go back to chattering. Now and again she'd shout at the buses going past but she'd soon go back to sitting on her low wall, chatting. From a distance she looked like a long-haired Chrissie Hynde and she dressed mostly in black layers. When you got closer her face was rounder than Hynde's and you could see that the black layers were rags. She smoked roll-up cigarettes, drank copious amounts of coffee and would sometimes eat pretzels. Now and again I would buy her a coffee or a pretzel and once she asked me for a Euro which I gave to her. One day as I walked past she asked me if I was going to Paris and I told her I wasn't and she said that she thought that I should. I judged her to be a similar age to me and I kept her in mind reckoning that if I got her coffee or tobacco from time to time that it would protect me from a similar fate.
Last xmas eve Petra was raped and murdered by another homeless person who was also mentally ill. That's how I learnt her name – from the newspaper reports of her death and I learnt that she was the same age as me. Ten years before her death she'd been a physician's assistant at the teaching hospital in the city and then she got ill and eventualy took to living on the streets. I don't know if she was happy or not. I don't know if she spent a lot of time being frightened and lonely or if she was contented with her lot. She seemed reasonably happy but I don't know.
I moan about most things and often complain about whatever bad deal I feel that I've been dealt but at the moment I'm only scatty and not bonkers and I have a lovely home and someone to share it with so perhaps I should be more grateful Another year has gone by for me but not for Petra. Maybe I should visit Paris again.