Leaving the tube station I accelerate from a casual walk to a panic driven run as I crossed through a perpetual wave of Black cabs and bicycles in a game of human ‘Frogger’. I pull in tight to the brickwork on the opposite side of the street and hide under the window ledge of a 1st floor hotel room window above me, to shelter from the downpour which, caught me off guard as I emerged above ground from the 450km system of tunnels and tracks. The streets were wet and the sound from a million rotating tyres in a deluge of water was deafening as it reverberated in the tight, high rise West End London street.
I’ve been on a journey of discovery these last few years. It’s late October in 2019 and even though I do not know it yet, I am about an hour away from tears again for the first time since mid 2017.
The rain stopped as soon as it had started, and I quickly check Google maps for the address I had been given and make off northward up a side street and away from the busy, early evening, tube station entrance. The doorway to the building (blinking away in blue on my phone) reminds me of an entrance to an old fashioned doctors surgery. A black metal sign is swinging from its bracket at 90 degrees from the wall it is bolted to, from the breeze left behind by the previous passing, brief but powerful rain storm. I step through the door that has kindly been held open for me and I continue to follow the small crowd that appear to be arriving at the exact allotted time. I notice a plaque on the face of the door, but do not have time to read it as I am now ensnared in a small flow of people. I walk cautiously behind others who appear to be mostly middle aged white men and I enter a small corridor which in turn snakes to the left, and the faint, flickering glow of strip lights above me illuminates a set of steps ahead. I follow the conga line.
I came to London on the train. I love the train now that I am not living in or around London anymore. I can take it whenever and wherever I wish; if I wish. My mind was running wild with questions while the beautiful English countryside sped past my window just meters away: What will it be like? Will I have to do anything? What will the atmosphere be? How will I explain myself if questioned? How many others will be there? What will I do if I find it overwhelming or strange? Should I turn around, make an excuse and go back to the safety of my new home? Do I REALLY need to go? Do I really WANT to go?
I enter a room that seemed strangely familiar to me from my childhood with the Salvation Army Boys Adventure Club (SABAC) back in my birth town. The Salvation Army were housed in a beautiful old Victorian, stone building which has long since been demolished to make way for a huge modern Mosque which now calls to prayer a different faith, on a different day and in a different language than the original building did for a hundred years before it. With its multiple rows of plastic chairs aligned in the centre and with tables around the edge, the room had the feeling of a village church hall or Scout Hut. A Burco water boiler with its bright red bulb indicating it ready for use bubbled away silently on a fold out ‘church’ table to my left, and the faint smell of coffee and floor polish hung in the air. Posters were stuck to the walls advertising a multitude of different local events. Already, this is not what I expected it to be, but I felt comfortable, and with an air of nostalgia I was transported back to the North West of England in the late 1970’s early 1980’s, sat warm and well fed in the Salvation Army Church.
After about 15 minutes of awkward mingling, half faked, tight lipped smiles, and nodding of heads in some kind of un spoken solidarity with people I had never laid eyes on before, I took my drink to a seat, sat down and began to listen. We were all here for the same reason but as yet I didn’t know what that reason exactly was, I simply didn’t understand the power of what was to come. The hour flashed by like the train journey back into London had before it, but I was transfixed to human stories instead of the English hills, fields and waterways. My heart sank as I listened to men who not only lost wives and partners, but also homes, children, friends and other family members. People who were not only broke, but tremendously in debt and with nothing to show for it except heartache and mental health problems. I heard stories from a group of people who were powerless and out of control when faced with an issue that I personally had no knowledge of, but the thread I saw here was massively positive. It was the fact that they were now in control of it, they were no longer powerless and they were back in the metaphorical driving seat once again.
I continued to listen to some of the most honest, frank and heart breaking stories of uncontrollable despair, hardship and guilt. Sitting here now on this plastic chair in this room with my cup of tea, I have the tools to deal with the loss of parents and the Ex. and with all the personal and career issues I have recently faced. The bankruptcy was my plan and I controlled it from the start. I was in control of the legal battle albeit it did not appear like that at first when I faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted. I was in control of my future work life no matter what the outcome; deep down I knew I could always work somewhere and earn enough to live. I was even in control of my mental breakdown within weeks of it happening. You can take the boy from the Army, but you cannot take the Army from this boy. “Every good soldier has a plan B“, as I was told on my Senior Non Commissioned Officers Battle School Cadre. I always had a plan B at every step of the way meaning I was indeed in control and I was not ever powerless. Sat here in this room now I realised how lucky I was to have that ‘control’. Listening to other peoples stories of being powerless and out of control set me on a mindful path to ensure I remember actually how lucky I really am. I was never out of that metaphorical driving seat; I just couldn’t find the headlights.
I now knew why I was really here, why fate had brought me here. Of course, I knew why I was physically there that night, but I did not know or understand until now why fate had brought me. I came for a reason which transcended just a simple train journey to support a friend, and it was that friend who showed me the reason.
As an honoured guest, I watched and listened to my friend Carl stand up at Gamblers Anonymous and tell his story of his gambling addiction that night. I watched him receive an award for his services to the fellowship and for being back in control for many years. The tears flooded my eyes and the occasional escapee leapt for the freedom of my cheek.