My life, as is the case with everyone, has been one of ups and downs. Some periods are ones of unimaginable bliss whereas others have almost unmentionable trouble and strife in them. Over the years it becomes almost a habit to cope and to learn that everything changes; no matter whether it is happy condition or a sad one; a positive or a negative; whatever it is will pass.
It had been my experience in my wanderings around Europe in those days before the advent of the European Union that my happiness seemed to always be linked to a woman. Money was short so I walked most places; hitch-hiking where I could and sneaking aboard trains or farm waggons when the opportunity presented itself.
This was before the advent of the mechanical bailers that became so prevalent, the ones that leave giant rolls of hay around the shorn pasture; the ones my children call 'Alien Droppings'. In those days there were huge, hand raised, old fashioned haystacks. You could find such a stack and on the wettest, coldest night, burrow in and build a little nest, There you were safe and warm and dry for the night. The cocoon of hay kept you thus and it was so soft and comfortable as well that you were assured of a good night's sleep.
I kept a little stash of money hidden in my belt inside a tiny pouch that a London leather-worker had secreted in it. It was just enough for me to get back to London with if an emergency occurred. I didn't bother with food at all. Well, let's clarify that. I didn't bother buying food at all. I found that apples and other fruit from the trees, and vegetables from the gardens of country dwellers, eaten fresh after washing in a clear stream sufficed. Water was plentiful in both Austria and in Italy and the water was unpolluted. The weather, in the main, was kind to me. In fact, I was enjoying myself being a hobo or tramp. Not shaving for I had no razor, dressed in jeans and golf shirt and wearing on my feet my trusty Rhodesian-made veldtskoene that were so good and long lasting. Whenever I wanted a rest, about once a week, I would choose a pleasant spot in the country, near a stream and wash both myself and the week's clothes.
Men were the bane of my existence. Farmers. For some ridiculous reason if they saw me sneaking into their fields they took exception. On several occasions the boom of a shotgun accompanied my retreat and I found several pellets in my back-pack, with the sleeping bag strapped on top, that I kept on whilst foraging for food. After an encounter with a farmer I usually felt a bit morose.
Women were different. It was always the womenfolk who saw me, not as a dangerous tramp, but, I think, for they never seemed to know any English, as a lost little boy. I had this little trick with my bottom lip that I had used since I was a lad of around six or seven to get sweets from sympathetic store-keepers, by going into shops in Salisbury with no shoes on and looking pretty grubby. It never failed. And in those days the ones who fell for the lip and my pleading eyes were almost always men. In Italy I rarely got near enough to any man to use it.
When I saw a farmhouse near the road that looked well kept and had a peaceful air about it I would go to the door and knock. If a man answered I would hold out the tin mug I carried and ask for water, I usually got a cupful, would drink it and depart. If however a woman answered I would ask for a crust of bread and some cheese if she could spare it. My head would be downcast and I would look beseechingly up at her through my long eyelashes and with my lip stuck out. It never failed. I never went inside the house though on one occasion the farmer's wife held her nose and pointed to a outhouse and said something in Italian. I found that it was an outside bathroom, obviously used at the end of the day after labour was over. So I had a beautiful hot shower and changed, even combing my long black hair and leaving off the battered Russian Railway Driver's cap I had picked up somewhere.
When I returned to the house an outside table had been set and she and her two children were waiting for me to eat a delicious stew with them, She said grace. I understood enough to know that she was Thanking her God for the food that was on the table before us. That was one of the best days. She treated me as I saw myself. A young Rhodesian hitch-hiker in a far-from-home foreign country. And the meal was amazing. And she was beautiful as were her children.
The worse day was the one when I was approaching the French Border and was robbed. It happened like this and was my own fault. I had been given a lift by a young English couple in a Austin Gypsy jeep. They quarrelled unceasingly. Eventually, they pulled off the autostrada to fill up with fuel. As the pump attendant approached the woman started nagging for an ice cream. The man told her they didn't have enough money for such luxuries. Like a fool I told them that I would buy the ice-cream and took out my wallet. It contained nothing but a photograph of my fiancee and a wad of notes, about £20 worth but in several different currencies. The one on top was a £10 sterling note and I think that the thought I was well heeled. As I went to put the wallet back into my jean's hip pocket it fell onto the floor of the jeep. I almost stooped to get it but then didn't bother.
I bought three ice cream cones and left the shop, stopping in horror when I saw the jeep driving away and my back-pack thrown out by the pumps. I could have sat down and wept but instead I ate all three cones and gave up.
After using up my emergency cash I arrived in London with 2/6p in my pocket, hungry and feeling that I was in a pit of despair with no way out.No way.
I had the clothes I stood up in and those in my back-pack and my sleeping bag. It was early September and the nights were chilly. My fiancee was away in Scotland, I knew. I had only an aged aunt in the Midlands and no friends in London.
As I walked around the streets of London I looked up and saw a sign 'The Friends of Inn Court'. It was a shelter for the homeless. That was me, defeated, dirty, broke and completely without hope. So I followed the directions and went in. I was the first to arrive. During the day it served as a gymnasium. At night pallets were laid out on the floor. I had to take the corner one near the entrance. The price was exactly what I had in my pocket ~ 2/6p. It included a cup of chicken broth. This was served by a large, buxom, red-cheeked lady who told me that it was freshly made and that I was lucky for it got stale later on.
It was early, just after eight, but I was emotionally drained, so spread out my bag and put my back-pack down to use as a pillow. Then I fell asleep.
I woke up in the early hours. There were blue night-lights on and it lit up a strange scene. A glimpse for me into hell. Smoke filled the room and seemed to swirl around. At first I thought it was pipe and cigarette tobacco but then I recognised the smell of marijuana. There were other smells as well. Body odour was the worst. There were grunting noises, snoring and rumbling. I sat up. My head ached and my nose was sore, My eyes were watering, not with tears but from irritation. I noticed the humping of blankets and bags as men and women copulated. My cheap watch indicated just after four in the morning.
I had to leave. I rolled up the sleeping bag and strapped it onto my pack and, after putting on my veldtskoene crept out into the cold morning air. Then, cold and miserable, I started walking. I have no idea where I walked. I crossed the Thames at some bridge other than Tower Bridge and it must have been one near St Pauls, for I could see the massive dome rising up out the mist beyond the river.
I have no idea what directed my feet but I found, as the sun finally made an appearance, that I could see that dome in close proximity above the nearby buildings. I did not think to look at my watch so have no idea what time it was. All I can say is that it was in September of 1968 and it was early, just after sunrise; it was chilly: the very weight of my burden, self-imposed, was weighing me down; my pack had become far too heavy to carry easily as though some enormous load of lead or granite had been added to its contents,
As I rounded a corner I saw the vast bulk of St Pauls standing there in all its splendour, a haven of peace to all, though not for me for I was too unclean and filthy, both inside and out to despoil the sanctuary it offered. I started to turn and as I did I saw a golden haired young woman standing there watching me intently. She was so close that I could see the tears springing from her eyes as she regarded me.
What a pitiful creature she sees, I thought, and moved to walk around her, to carry on my lonely, oh so lonely, walk through the Streets of London.
As I passed by she took my arm, firmly and with a strength that belied her frail looking frame. "No," she said, "you are coming with me."
I was too far down to argue and had the sense that she was far too strong for me to resist. So I followed wearily behind her as she led me up the steps of St Pauls and through those massive wooden doors. She took my backpack from me, handling it as though it were empty. Then she took my old cap and tossed it into the corner where she had laid the pack.
"Come!" It was gentle but was a command. This time she took my hand with hers and I felt the soft, gentle feel of it and the steel within. Without protest I allowed her to lead me to the very front row of pews. There she bade me sit and I did.
She sat alongside me. "Now kneel," came the command. I did so without demur though it was difficult for my pride somehow got in the way. "Now pray!"
I looked up at her. "I do not know how," I informed her.
"Just speak," she told me, "I will listen and so will He."
What? Was someone else there? I looked around but couldn't see anyone.
I started mumbling. What do I want? Money? Yes. I was broke and needed money for food and somewhere to live. To buy clothes and all the other good things in life. So I started speaking clearly.
There was a tap on my shoulder. I looked at her. She shook the finger of the right hand before my face. Stop talking. So I did.
"You do not have to ask for anything, He knows what you need. All you ever need to do is give thanks and show appreciation for all you already have."
But I didn't have anything! I looked around again. There was still no-one there. "Who is he?" I asked. "I can see no-one."
"That is because you are looking in the wrong direction. God..." I jumped on my knees. God? I thought, He would never bother with the likes of me. She continued, "God is inside you. Do not look outside for Him, your search will be in vain. Wherever you go you take him with you. And he will never forsake you.
When you realise this truth and acknowledge Him, He will be your guide, your friend, your helper.
And he will never forsake you for He loves you as He loves all Creation. He will raise you up and carry you when times are harsh. He will walk beside you and celebrate with you during the good times. When you are sick give thanks for the contrast that makes wellness so wonderful. If a friend or a loved one is sick or depressed or injured or bereft do not ask for relief for them but simply express gratitude and appreciation for the wellness he has bestowed upon them. Whatever you need He knows already. Just acknowledge Him."
I stared at her. Then I closed my eyes. I didn't say anything aloud. I just allowed my thoughts to flow. And they came thick and fast. My entire life flashed before my eyes as I had read happened just before one died. I thought, Am I dying? I must be, Then as though she was inside my head came the soft reply
"You are already dead. Now you will soon be born into a new life, a new world, a new existence, a new YOU."
A peace settled on me. My heart lightened, the weight on my shoulders left me, and a peace such as I had never felt before came over me; a Peace that surpassed all my understanding.
I have no idea how long I knelt there. When I finally stood up, a trifle stiffly I admit, St Pauls had many people there. There was no priest present and I looked for my Guide, for that is how I thought of her, but she had gone. I walked back to the door with a spring in my step and a joy in my heart that I had not felt for years.
My pack and cap was where she had left it. I picked it up and it was as light as a feather. I placed my cap on my head at a jaunty angle and walked back into the world outside. The sun was shining; the sky was bright blue; birds were singing; I could hear the sounds of music; and smell the late summer smells of the harvest; even the smog of London had dispersed. To and for me it was a New Beginning and a New Life.
I had truly come home.