You know how it is when you first fall in love. There’s a honeymoon period, where everything is warm, fuzzy and covered in a gauzy pink glow. Then, slowly, over time, the glow fades to reveal the harder, sharper bits of the object of your affections.
There comes a point where your feelings run deep enough to be able to absorb the flaws and faults, or they mushroom out of all proportion and gobble up all the romance, leaving you no option but to leave. For me, there’s not much distinction between my absolute passion for my husband and my affinity for my adopted home town.
Both inspire me, both move me beyond words sometimes, and both have the ability to frustrate me and, on rare occasions, leave me apoplectic – though to be fair, Castres never does the washing up, never mind badly. While my other half and I are more than well acquainted with each others foibles, it’s only recently that my love for this place has been tested.
There is a man I’ve seen around town, always wearing the same clothes and the same expression. The first time I saw him, I looked at him the way I looked at most people: my eyes slid over him. He was smartly turned out, a smoker and had several bags. But there was something in his face that caught my attention.
Imagine the way a person’s face contorts when they scream at the top of their voice. Now, remove every trace of that expression, the stretched mouth, the raised brows, the taut face – but leave the eyes alone. That’s exactly what this man looked like.
The second time I saw him I looked closer – or as close as I could without seeming rude. His smartly turned out clothes on closer inspection were unironed and frayed at the edges. His hair, while combed, needed a wash and his bags were tucked in close to him, as if they were precious, as opposed to a load of shopping.
The third time really gave me pause for thought and inspired this article. I clean a gym, which means I have to crow-bar myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4.30am to get to work by 5. Earlier this week, while chugging along in the car, I saw the man – wearing the same white shirt and dark trousers – walking the streets.
I had assumed he was homeless after the second encounter, but it was only when I saw him in the small hours that it hit me: this guy probably had nowhere to call home. I could, of course, be jumping to a massive conclusion and be wrong, though heaven knows I’d never be rude enough to confront him and ask. It’s not as if I could do anything to help…
As someone who clings closely to the notion of having a roof over my family’s head (and we’ve come close to losing that in the past year or so), I can’t even begin to comprehend the enormity of what that really means.
According to NGO Medecins du Monde, there are 133,000 homeless people in France, and more than 3 million living in sub-standard accommodation. Think about that, as you gaze around your stately pile, maybe with your feet up, cradling a coffee in your hands and reading this.
Imagine taking away your laptop, your comfy sofa – your bed. There’s no food in the cupboards because there are no cupboards, and you can forget a long, hot soak in the shower. You haven’t got one.
And it’s not just about stuff. There are lots of other goodies that come with being ‘sans abri’. Apart from the obvious lack of hygiene, homeless people are at risk from health complications including chest infections, dermatological conditions and poor dentition.
Is there an easy answer? Of course not. If that was the case, there would be no problem. And yet…
Behind our house sit three or four blocks of council flats that yes, might have seen better days to my not-so-inverted inner snob. But they appear to be largely empty, which begs the question: if there is only a reasonably small percentage of Castres’ 40-odd thousand population who are homeless, why aren’t they offered the keys to these places?
It seems so simple to me, is it really so naive to think it’s a possible solution? While we all ponder that one, my thoughts return to the man, and whether I will ever have the courage to walk up to him and ask if there’s anything he needs.
If I do, I’ll await his reply with fascination.