Monday, May 05, 2008

The House of the Dead
Visit to Homeless Shelter, Clermont Ferrant, France, Dec. 1993

I am sitting at an octagonal table under a color TV, waiting to be attended, having already been reassured there is a place to sleep. Ah! That “Ah” could fast turn into an AARGHH, however, because apparently I have checked into a total madhouse. As ever, being a magnet for madmen, this leaves me with no peace whatsoever. Even the couple of guys in charge seem half nuts, though in a perfectly agreeable way. Our “interview” went on interminably, due to their endless digressions. When the older man in charge asked my profession, I pointed at my notebook and he wanted to know about the seal of Solomon which I just yesterday drew on the cover, and why it had the circle in the middle. He started talking about “pantacles” then, and drew one on a scrap of paper, the hexagram surrounded by stars and stuff, obviously a talisman. When I mentioned my stay with the Buddhists, denying it was a personal affiliation by saying “all religions are the same,” he told me he was a Templar Knight! This was an unsettling, if amusing, coincidence.

I told them I’d be staying no more than three days (seven is the maximum), that I had no money, “really,” just a little for traveling. The worst part about this place is that, after 8:30 pm, there’s no getting out until morning. In many ways it seems like a prison, not least for the “inmates,” who all seem like they’ve been here forever and forgotten why they came. There are only ten or so of them, yet they are all to a greater or lesser degree deranged. Some gently so, some rather more violently.

Having boiled myself some water for an instant soup and made my own bed - the bottom bunk by the wall and the last in a line of six beds - I got to meet the inmates one by one. A small guy with black hair and a plaid shirt came and introduced himself first, saying, “I hope you don’t snore!” He was only joking, however, because he added quickly that it didn’t bother him really. I refrained from telling him that it did bother me. He offered me some bread, and I took some butter from the fridge (with another nut’s blessing), thinking I was well set. Another crazy, with a broken nose, long greasy hair, and tattoos on every visible part of his body (including a cross between his eyes), came over then and asked me if I wanted some cheese. I rather rashly said OK, and he invited me to their table. The small guy got up and offered me his seat, acting like I was royalty. It was typical, I thought, that when I finally get some recognition, it's not with the Benedictines or the Buddhists but, as ever, with the bums.

A fight broke out between the small guy and the tattooed wing nut, who took out his knife and handed it to me for safe-keeping before he entered the fray, as if he didn’t trust himself with it. Although the argument didn’t get physical, it was quite violent emotionally. They were disagreeing over God knows what, and I sat buttering my bread, trying not to be involved. Finally the two guys in charge came over to break it up, trying to calm down the little guy, even though he was the least in need of calming. Probably they were too scared of the other guy to even attempt to calm him down.

There’s one woman here, and of course she’s cooking the food. She saw my cross and told me she used to believe, but not anymore. The wing nut leaned towards me then and turned the cross over, to obscure the Christ. I turned it back once he’d looked away. (Later, I took it off and laid it on my bed.) The wing nut began to berate me for eating bread and butter, insisting that I would eat with them, that I was “on the road,” just like they were, and that this was the proper way to do it, and so on. I certainly didn’t object to being fed, but his endless barrage finally drove me to my bed to await the meal’s preparation in safety.

While I was there the boss—who’s very friendly towards me—came and asked about my writing. He told me that he did dream interpretation, and asked me some questions about my dreams: colors, if I dreamed of water, was it clear and clean or dark and dirty, and faces (were they clear?), fish, children, and so on. His interpretations were very simplistic, pretty obvious in fact, which is probably why I’ve never bothered my head with interpretations. (I have enough trouble making sense of “reality.”) He showed me one of his “pantacles,” with writing around it, which I mistook for Hebrew but which was in fact (according to him) Gaelic. The lady dragged me off for food and I ate heartily, despite the fact it was frozen pork and canned vegetables. Hunger took care of my reservations. After the meal, in order to escape the wing nut, I feigned interest in a card game opposite until, unable to fathom the rules, I slipped off back to my bed, where I now lie, weary from the day’s struggle.

Later on, I was driven from my room by the noisy conversation that ensued once the beds were occupied. The noise woke me and I lay there in growing exasperation, until finally I gave up and went out to read. Since I'd turned on the light, however, the proprietor got up and told me “lights out.” I didn’t want to “rat” on the others, but I had to explain that I couldn’t sleep; he went into the room and told them to be quiet, and after that, I didn’t dare go directly back to bed. I also thought it was unlikely they would heed the command, so I asked the man if I could sleep in the other dorm. He showed me in, then pointed to the toilet, which was lit, thinking I still wanted to read. I insisted again that I only wanted to sleep. He showed me a bed, and I climbed in.

The room was full of sleeping people, so there was no chatter; instead there was a hideous cacophony of snores and groans and irregular breathing. It sounded exactly like a pig sty - the House of the Dead. I slept finally with the pillow over my head. It was more than noise that troubled me, however. The thought of merging my astral awareness with such a troupe of decaying and deranged zombies gave me cause for concern—rightly, as it happened. I dreamt all night that my health had collapsed again; in the dreams, I couldn’t understand why, and was railing against this development, though there was little I could do but accept it. I had no doubt that I was dreaming of being ill because I was ill, and was quite pleasantly surprised to find my condition somewhat less severe on waking.

I was woken by horrible groans and coughing as the shadowy figures came to life and began to wander about in a ghostly fashion. One guy sat down right opposite me and lit a cigarette, giving me the resolve to get up and flee at once, back to my first bed. As I’d deduced, all was peace and quiet here, and I crawled into bed to return to sleep. Just as I neared it, an old creep began coughing endlessly and letting out long, loud farts. I considered grabbing him by the throat and throwing his smelly arse out of there, but instead covered my head again, and presently returned to sleep. People began to rise up, I slept on until the proprietor came and shook my foot, telling me to get up. I wondered why, he came back shouting that they closed at 8 and it was already 7:30.

I got up and had a shower, put on my clothes, cross, poncho, left my things under the bed, and headed out into the early light.

1 comment:

Jen said...

Kinda unfortunate experience. I remember a few years ago hiking around Corsica.

After one very long, very hot day, with a backpack that was far too heavy, we finally fell into an old convent that offered shlter for weary walkers.

I was so exhausted, my muscles so leaden and dead, that it was all I could do to swallow a few small morsels of food and sips of water before falling headlong into the dormatory.

The place was so quiet and so isolated and so peaceful that I slept the most beautiful sleep I have ever had.

I recalled nothing in the morning. No dreams, no memories of the day before, no aches or pains. Just peace and rest.

I've never slept like that again in my life....