James Campbell: Where’s Santa when you really need him?

The fourth chapter of James Campbell's extraordinary diary about the reality of sleeping rough – published only in The Big Issue

James Campbell has been sleeping rough in Edinburgh since May when he left his home in Kettering to look for work. He has kept a diary of his experiences. This is his fourth chapter published exclusively in The Big Issue…

My friend Nacho has gone home to Spain and once again I am alone. Nacho has been my mate ever since I arrived in Edinburgh. We met when I was hanging round the train station wondering what the fuck to do with myself. Nacho had arrived a few days before, having flown in from Spain. He quickly sussed where to go and get blankets, food, cover from the elements.

Despite the language barrier – Nacho’s limited English (although I must say it vastly improved when talking to nice-looking female tourists) and my zero Spanish – we became good friends, so much so that we often got on each other’s tits and had the occasional fall out. But that’s what being pals is all about!

Nacho was never very clear as to why he ended up in Edinburgh; something about the King of Spain and taxes, I never pressed him. If people want to disappear then they are quite entitled to. He regularly checked the internet to see if anyone was checking his whereabouts, and let me use his computer time to type up my journal. This was invaluable to me.

He was always cheerful despite having no money (he couldn’t sign on at the DWP). He had been threatened, attacked, had his ID and phone stolen. If me and my mate G were around we could step in. G is well known in the Edinburgh ‘scene’ and nobody crosses him. One time this gadgie with an eastern European accent grabbed him, telling him “go back to your own country, Spanish bastard”. More irony on the street than you can shake a stick at.

More irony on the street than you can shake a stick at

Anyways, this time I borrowed Nacho’s phone to call my friend Steph back home. I checked in with her every couple of weeks to let her know I am still in the game. A couple of weeks later she rang telling me that a man had called from Luxembourg looking for Nacho. He was English, said he was a friend of the family and had been asked by them to find where he is and check that he is ok. He had managed to do this by tracking his phone and looking at the last number dialled. Well, my Spidey sense started tingling. What the fuck was going on? Who was looking for him? It was getting a bit too MI6.

I told Nacho about this and gave him the man’s name. He shrugged his shoulders. I told Steph if the man rings again to give him my number, as Nacho had his phone nicked. No one called.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

Steph got back in touch a couple of weeks later, told me that Edinburgh Police had been in touch, also looking for Nacho. By Christ was I sweating! That, coupled with a gadgie at one of the free food places saying: “Are ye in any bother son?”

“Just the usual,” I replied. “Why?”
“Well, when we were aw’ staunin’ up by the train station waitin’ fer the food van there wis a guy tekkin’ photaes ‘o’ you an yer Spanish pal.”

This was weird as fuck. What had he done?

Part 2

Time moved on without any further MI6 shenanigans and Christmas was approaching. I spent most days with Nacho. We shared tobacco and food. I was trying to squirrel away as much money as I could. The council got me in a BnB but it’s time-limited and I don’t want to be sleeping out now that the weather is closing in. I go back to the BnB as late as I can (there is an 11pm curfew). I started to realise how vulnerable Nacho was; he mentioned being in hospital in Spain following a psychotic episode. He insisted he was ok now though. Was he on the run from hospital?

He did have odd ideas. He tried to talk me into going shoplifting, insisting if we got caught with less than £50 worth of stuff on us “no penalty!” I wished him luck with that one! And the time we went to Streetwork for a shower and Nacho asked a member of staff if he had any sandals he could use in the shower. The staff member gently asked if “sir would prefer a cashmere or lambs’ wool bathrobe and what type of cigar sir preferred with his morning coffee and brandy”

READ PARTS 12, 3 & 5 OF JAMES’ ACCOUNT OF LIFE ON THE STREETS

Meanwhile things were changing for me and taking me in new directions. The Big Issue started publishing my accounts of homelessness. I’d never written anything before and was glad my stories were being put out. I was also informed I had been among the shortlist nominated for an award for my efforts. I was totally gobsmacked. Who’d a thunk it? Maybe what I have to say means something.

I never had the imagination to write stuff before, but who needs imagination when it all unfolds in front of your eyes! It’s not exactly The Waltons, though.

It has helped me look to move permanently off the streets. The Council told me that because of the writing gig they are reviewing my housing application and I am hopeful I will be put on the housing register.

Living on the streets, friendships often end in unthinkable ways, including death

Nacho and me went to Streetworks. Me to get post, Nacho to get showered. We were leaving when staff asked Nacho to come back at 11am, they had important news for him. Hopeful he was getting somewhere proper to stay, we returned. Nacho had a visitor. His dad. He had flown in from Spain. He had used all the info he had collected and tracked him down.

Nacho, eyes wide, went to his dad. They hugged and spoke in Spanish and went to a private room to talk. After a time Nacho came and told me that he was going home, for me to keep writing and laughingly said: “Tell my story, make me famous.” With promises to stay in touch they got into a cab and were gone. Just like that. And I was alone. I haven’t heard from him since. Part of my life, then gone.

I am glad because, living on the streets, friendships often end in unthinkable ways, including death. Nacho was returning to where he should be, with his family.

As I have mentioned, my life is changing. Not as rapidly as the circumstances that brought me here, but it all feels good.

Despite my situation I love this city. It has helped me to explore challenges I never imagined. The generosity and good nature of the Scots knows no bounds – Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Hindu you name it, religious groups and social enterprises that provide food and warmth for the lost, sick and lonely.

The kindness of men and women in the street has often amazed me. Like waking up really early one morning to find a McDonald’s breakfast and hot coffee sitting next to where I was sleeping. And the people I have met, the associations I have documented.

But, I am alone – no Nacho, G has a flat now and his wife and children have come over from Portugal – like so many others in this city, these islands, across the world. The dispossessed and disenfranchised; suffering from family estrangement, substance misuse, mental health, childhood trauma, war and bereavement.

Whilst the rest of society gets ready for the glitter and promises of Christmas, basting turkeys, arranging parties, buying gifts, organising reunions and celebrating with their friends and loved ones, I will guarantee that come the festive time the question will be on my mind, and the minds of my street friends and compadres: “Where the fuck is Santa when you REALLY need him?”

James Campbell has been shortlisted as Feature Writer of the year in the PPA Scotland Magazine Awards 2015. James Campbell is not his real name, and the photo is not of him