The Water Cupboard
is the true story of probably the lowest point of my life, homeless, jobless, penniless and friendless. I had to live inside a cupboard with a water tank and survive on stealing milk and bread.
This story is totally true, according to the best of my memory. Some names and places may have been changed to protect the guilty and innocent. Some incidents may have been left out or marginalised for legal reasons. Some of the images in this particular chapter are for illustrative purposes only
The Water Cupboard may not be suitable for children under the age of 12.
The following events took place in and around Edmonton Green, North London, UK.
I was about 19 years old (1979/80) and I had got myself into a right old state. I had been on an extreme gambling frenzy for months, I had lost everything and was once again homeless. Not only that, I had alienated almost everyone I knew by borrowing money off them and not always paying it back.
I took severe liberties, and just about everyone I knew had quite rightly shunned me. This was probably the lowest point in my life so far, I didn’t think I could sink deeper, but of course, I did.
I had even upset Wally, (a great friend from work) and he wouldn’t let me sleep on his sofa any more. I had been sacked from my job in the slaughterhouse for being absent too much, I owed lots of people money there as well, including a rather large canteen bill as I used to eat all my meals at work.
So now I found myself, jobless, friendless, penniless and homeless and all because once I started any sort of gambling I would not, or could not, stop until every penny I could get my hands on were gambled, and then some.
I had long since sold anything I had of value, including my prized punk record collection, and gambled it away or used it to pay off gambling debts so that I could borrow more. The way I was living had to come to a head sooner or later and here I was, I had nothing, not even a decent smoke.
All I possessed at that time were a few bits and pieces like a small radio and a few bits of clothing in a sports bag.
I was a bit frightened to sleep in the open in Edmonton as I had heard about, and on one occasion seen, homeless blokes get kicked about by drunks and yobs late at night, so I was lucky to discover what I called the water cupboards.
In each of the three tower blocks that were on Edmonton Green shopping centre itself, each individual floor had a little room, about 8 foot by 8 foot, for a water tank to serve the whole floor. All of these water cupboards had a simple Yale lock on them.
What made them extremely easy to get into was there was a gap where you could slide in a piece of stiff card (like a credit card) or even a small screwdriver like I used to use to easily open the door.
It was very fortunate for me that a Yale lock was used as this also meant I could double lock the door from the inside so if the caretaker or water board guy came while I was in there they couldn’t open it!
It was a super find for me because on top of the”security” I had behind the locked door it was centrally heated because the whole tower block was kept nice and warm and I had a ready water supply too.
The tower blocks had an intercom system and electronically locked doors, to get in and out of the building itself, so that kept out the general public, though for anyone really wanting to get in it was not that difficult. I just waited until someone opened the door and slipped in with them if they said anything I was going to see my work mate Wally on the 19th floor, I was using the 19th-floor water cupboard anyway so I exited the lift there without looking suspicious.
However, it wasn’t all roses of course. All I had to sleep on was a few feet of concrete floor and of course, there was no toilet. I used a gallon plastic container with screw top for my urine which did the job. I slopped out the container in the public toilets every morning, which were luckily located just outside the tower block. I could also have a quick wash and a dump there. A slight snag was that the toilets were locked up at about 9pm every night.
For cigarettes I had to gather up discarded fag butts from the floor, there were always plenty in the shopping centre. I would break them open to get the nicotine soaked tobacco out and roll it up in a cigarette paper. I can still remember the foul taste of what I called “Roadside Virginia“. I had heard stories of people catching all sorts of diseases smoking fag butts directly, so this way was slightly more hygienic. I had to have a ready supply of cigarette papers of course, but luckily they only cost pennies.
Food was the biggest problem I had, though. The easiest option I knew of at the time was to go out early in the morning and steal cakes and bread from shop deliveries. Most bakeries, cafe’s, restaurants, mini-markets etc had baskets of bread and cakes delivered each morning.
I used to rotate which one’s I stole bits from and didn’t take more than I needed for a few days at a time. Sometimes I got lucky with iced buns and sometimes it was just a couple of loaves of bread.
I thought about washing my socks and underwear in the water tank more than once, but I never had the heart to do that to Wally’s drinking water 🙂 or indeed the rest of the people living on that floor. It would have been quite convenient for me as well!
My only income was via signing on the dole (Social Security) and getting paid a small amount fortnightly, and as far as they knew I was living at Wally’s. I couldn’t see anything to be gained by telling them I was homeless, they couldn’t help me or give me extra money.
Of course, as soon I got paid it was wasted on gambling, usually I lost it all on the first day. Those 13 days to the next Giro seemed to last forever.
When I went out of the tower block at about 5.30 am, I used to tape a small piece of card over the lock of the entrance door so it wouldn’t lock and I could get back in, I didn’t want to be hanging about with a bag of stolen bread and cakes when I got back from my little breakfast expeditions.
I would then wait in my water cupboard until I heard the clinking sound of the milkman delivering to the flats, and once he had gone I’d choose a random floor and steal a few pints off a doorstep. I wasn’t a total git, I usually took from people with more than 2 pints on the doorstep so they at least had something for breakfast.
On the ground floor was the waste room where people put their rubbish, one day I noticed a single mattress in there and it wasn’t too filthy, so I moved that in to my water cupboard to sleep on, it was gross and smelled a bit funny, but it was a step up from that hard concrete floor.
During the day, I would amble about looking for scams and trying to get some gambling money together, but mostly the easiest way to make money was shoplifting. I already knew where to sell any goods I could lift as I used to be in a shoplifting gang, most of us in that gang got gradually caught, or left, but for once I wasn’t one of those that got caught.
I had been living like this for several weeks and in the end, I got quite ill. I felt very weak and was sweating and felt sick all the time and I could just about rouse myself to get down to the toilets every morning and then steal some milk on the way back up. I think it was about a week that I lived on just milk and absolutely no food at all.
On the last day of my unintended milk diet, I awoke needing a dump really bad. I dragged myself out to the lift (elevator) and pressed the call button. My guts were jumping inside out and I thought I wasn’t going to make it down to the toilets in time. The lift was still on the ground floor, if there were people in it on the way up and it had to keep stopping I was definitely not going to make it.
I decided to go for the stairs. I had practice in going up and down those flights quite quickly, I could jump the short flights of steps in one go and do a floor in a few seconds, as I jumped onto the 17th floor my guts could take no more and gave me the “touching cloth” signal;
Oh my god, I thought, I only had the one pair of jeans, so I couldn’t afford to crap myself, I had no choice, I stopped, pulled down my jeans and it just gushed out of me right onto that concrete floor, but it wasn’t shit, it was red hot, acid like, water, it was a horrid feeling and burnt my asshole to the core.
I eventually got the toilets and cleaned myself up the best I could. I resolved to get some decent food inside me. The next day was Giro day anyway, thank god.
The following morning I still felt really ill but somehow I managed to walk to Ponders End (about 1 and a half miles away) and collect my Giro. In those days Giro cheques were not usually sent out, you picked them up when you signed on.
After cashing in my Giro at the post Office (huge queues as usual) I had a decent meal in a cafe and bought some goodies for later, like tobacco, lots of cigarette papers, crisps and biscuits and something from the chemist for my stomach (I can’t remember what it was but it helped) In a few days I was a lot better and learned the valuable lesson that I could not live on milk alone 🙂
The funny thing is, years later when I visited Wally’s I walked down the stairs because the lift was not working and to my surprise the concrete floor on 17 had a massive stain burnt on it as if someone had thrown acid on it! I had left my mark, so to speak
One day during the final few weeks of living in the water cupboard I bumped into a scumbag I knew from my old shoplifting gang, called Terry. We joined forces again and worked the shops together with a fair amount of success.
Terry may have been a scumbag but he knew every cheeky shoplifting trick in the book. Once he even wanted me to start a fire at the back of the Co-Op store so he could use it as a diversion to get a video recorder out of the door, past two security guards, but I thought that was going a bit too far.
Home Video recorders were the big thing then and had just come out in the shops, the Betamax one’s he wanted to get were £500 a pop retail, we would be able to sell as many as we could get at 1\3 the retail. We did eventually get one out in a dustbin liner when one guard went for a break and the other was busy, but the chances were rare for big ticket items like this.
In the end, though Terry and I split acrimoniously. One day I went to sell off the goods we had previously nicked while Terry was weighing up some shop, looking for the best way to get goods out. We would sometimes sit outside watching all day for ideas. Anyway, I had managed to get a few quid over the odds for our goods and so I spent the extra in the arcade.
When l gave Terry his share (minus his share of the extra) he said he was going to the pub, so I went back to the arcade to spend my share on the fruit machines, at the time that was all I lived for.
When we met back up later Terry said he had been talking to the guy I sold the gear to. He then just punched me in the face twice, making sure he broke my glasses and then just walked off. Luckily I never saw him again, well, I kind of made sure I didn’t!
So with that in mind, my future shoplifting was a bit limited. I only went where I knew Terry wouldn’t be and I was shoplifting blind as I couldn’t see past my nose, it took weeks to get a new pair of spectacles. Also, I was not as good as Terry, he was careful and always knew how he was going to get stuff out before he went in.
In my desperation for gambling money, I went in a difficult store who already knew my face well and had plenty of security on. I just grabbed a socket set, a car jack and something else and tried to walk out with them as if I had just paid, this usually works in busy stores with large items as people would simply think you couldn’t be that crazy to just walk out with stuff, but this time they were waiting for me at the door.
The security guards had one of my elbows each as they led me to their office. I didn’t put up a struggle, but I refused to say anything much.
As expected, they called the Police. Two coppers arrived, cuffed me, and took me to Edmonton Police station. In my statement I just said I had gone shoplifting to sell the goods to buy food, they never asked where I intended to sell them, I wouldn’t have told them anyway, I’d of ended up with a knife in my stomach.
It was just my luck that it was a Friday, and because I had no fixed address, (apart from the water cupboard, floor 19), I wasn’t given police bail. So I was locked up in a cell for almost three days.
After a day I was climbing the walls, it was so boring. If I wanted a smoke I had to ask a copper for a light, I could have cigarettes but no lighter in the cell. On the Saturday night, the other cells were full of drunks and the one next to me was howling all bloody night and kicking the shit out of his cell, it did my head in.
Finally, Monday morning came and I was off to court to get a £75 fine and told to go and see a social worker at Edmonton Town hall for help with being homeless.
I did exactly that. The social worker said the only help she could give me was to recommend me a place in a salvation Army hostel somewhere in central London. I said OK and she phoned them in front of me, and the Christian charity that is the Sally Army said I was not wanted if I didn’t have a job.
I’d like to add that at that time unemployment was at an all-time high, especially for youth and older people and there was simply no work about. If the S.A didn’t want to help a troubled, homeless teenage lad then who were they helping I wondered?
So it was back the water cupboard for me.
Eventually, I have no idea how long, maybe it was weeks, Wally let me stay at his place again. once again Wally had saved me from God knows what fate.
The Water Cupboard is dedicated to all the homeless people in the UK.
All images,used in the water cupboard are from Google image search and appear © free. If you know different let me know and I will make the relevant changes.
The Water Cupboard is © Steve Bale 2016\2017 and cannot be reproduced in part or in full without express written permission from the author.
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