Marni was working as a physiotherapist at Guy’s hospital, London Bridge. She had moved into her brother’s council flat in Bermondsey. Her brother, a probation officer, had gone to drama college and left Marni the flat to look after. I moved in to the now vacant box room. Council rent was a third of what I was paying Mr Conway and I was sick of Clod’s fry ups, not having a phone and totally sick of working in insurance offices. The personnel officer at Jenner Fenton Slade was making me wear a wig to work, they couldn’t cope with the red Mohican that was my pride and joy.
The wig I bought from Covent Garden market was long, blonde, itchy and flattened my Mohican, I took the wig off at lunchtimes to get my hair back sorted before I ventured out to the sandwich kiosk in Leadenhall Street, leaving the wig on my desk. On windy days I had to attach it with hair pins so it wouldn’t blow off when walking over Tower Bridge, from Bermondsey into work.
A few months earlier I’d been to the Nervous Diseases hospital for more tests re the MS, medical students had put glue on my hair and stuck wires on my head for an EEG. They fucked up my hair and I ran out of the hospital with consultants in white coats chasing after me shouting “Come back, you need a scan”.
I wasn’t bothered about going back for a scan, or MS, I ignored the adverts in underground stations – empty wheel chairs and spines all fizzed up.
The consultants could only offer me steroids and there was no way I would take them, they made you puff out, put on weight and I’d have looked shit. Appearance was everything, I was surprised I’d lived this long anyway, I was 23, I’d got two years to go before my suicide pact with Dave Tench (No. 7) – I was gonna take each day as it came and have a good time.
Thatcher had got back in as Prime minister, this was the last year you could jack in your job and get dole straight away. I jacked in my job and claimed dole, straight away. To get in extra cash I answered ads for cleaning jobs and found myself cleaning for the Samaritan’s call centre in New Cross. I was aware of the Southend branch because it was next to door to No. 22 (Leo Sayer look-a-like)’s bedsit and I’d almost gone in the Samaritan tent at Glastonbury when No. 24 (Ray) and I had a row over a gram of cocaine. I was fascinated with what the Samaritans did. I would clean and listen in to the volunteers, they shared a caring comradery that I envied.
“You’d make a good Samaritan” a volunteer said one day as I polished the mouth piece of a phone, while listening to volunteer No. 336’s relationship problems. No one had ever directly told me I’d be good at something. I enrolled onto the next Samaritan training programme and became a good Samaritan, the youngest at 23, I became volunteer No. 501.
The New Cross Samaritan centre was in a large Victorian house, nearly opposite New Cross station. The telephone room was on the ground floor, facing the street, there was a large kitchenette at the back of the house that had a small cupboard space in between where we did face to face’s with long-term or distressed callers who were invited in and sat on one of the two chairs behind the curtain. It wasn’t very confidential because you could hear what was being said when you entered the house or passed from telephone room to kitchen.
In the telephone room I listened to the depressed and suicidal. We accepted the Chris’s as Christine’s and the Paul’s as Florence’s, it was a joy to know we could be accepting of all. We were trained to put the phone down on masturbators and ask them to ring back when they’d finished to talk about their feelings. I considered all callers to be as lonely and suicidal as any other, if they were calling because they’d burnt their husband’s dinner, there would be a deeper reason, domestic violence perhaps.
I soon found out that many of the volunteers on the night shifts were there to find a partner or get away from a partner. Volunteers had sex on the pull down bed in the telephone room, or on the single bed in the kitchenette out the back. It was warmer in the telephone room. The four relationships I had in four years, all wanted to take the phone off the hook during sex, but I insisted the callers came first and left the phone on, that’s why I was one of the best Samaritans.
The men I had short relationships with all had jobs in the caring professions – a social worker (No. 332), a probation officer (No. 402), a director of student services in a college (No. 248) and a vet (No. 14, he was the oldest and struggling with his sexuality, I cleaned his house too).
I was delighted with my first professional caring role, I had proved to be a good listener and was valued as a Samaritan. I was moving into a working life as a wounded healer. Next stop, I was invited to be a Samaritan volunteer in Brixton Prison.