Being the Story Live is our immersive storytelling event providing a platform for people who don’t normally have one, to inspire new ideas, challenge perceptions, and stimulate conversation on issues. Think social sector meets TedTalks. sounddelivery hosted our very first online edition of Being the Story live on the theme of ‘Life in Lockdown’. At Being the Story award-winning author Onjali Rauf shared the story that inspired her to write her third children’s book ‘The Night Bus Hero’ which explores themes of bullying and homelessness, while celebrating kindness, friendship and the potential everyone has to change for the good. Read Onjali’s script and watch her talk below.
So, what does an armchair, a large packet of frozen peas, and a bus map have to do with life in lockdown?
In my world, an awful lot, because without them, I definitely would not have been able to write The Night Bus Hero – my third children’s book, and one which, in an almost ironic twist of fate, was destined to focus on the issue of homelessness, at a time when being without a home, seemed more unfathomable and unacceptable than ever before. Sitting in my armchair day after day, night after night, week after week, trying to force a story out of me, was not a natural state to be in. Hearing sirens echoing around me every half hour, or the house phone ringing incessantly with yet more sad news of family and friends who hadn’t survived the pandemic, was not a natural state in which to try and be creative in. In fact, sitting and writing a children’s story in the midst of so much pain and grief and helplessness, did at times, feel almost an insult to the memories of my loved ones.
But there was one thing that kept me going.
One image that made me strap those large packets of frozen peas to my legs to stop them from spasming, and write on. And that was the image of a man, sleeping by the steps of my local police station, which has remained seared in my brain since I was aged fourteen. I first saw this man on my way to a friend’s house one morning, for our usual walk to school together. He had a grey-white fluffy beard, a flat woolly hat, an old black coat, and parked beside him, a trolley full of neatly folded newspapers, piled so high that they looked like miniature tower blocks. I remember feeling shocked at seeing someone who was old enough to be my grandad, having to sleep on flattened cardboard boxes, with nothing but some thin blankets and newspaper sheets to help him stay warm. The next day, there he was again, sleeping right by the police station. And the next day, and the next day after that, and in the following days too, and not just that, but I began to notice him walking up and down my local high street as well.
Now being me at fourteen, meant I was far too shy and far too lacking in confidence to ask the old man if he needed anything, even though I desperately wanted to. So instead, I used my massive fringe – I had a fringe that practically hid half my face! – and my even larger, round glasses, to half hide myself whilst staring unblinkingly at him whenever I passed by. I imagine being stared at by a slightly pudgy, spotty Asian girl every morning was strange for the old man, and perhaps a little funny too, because after week or two, he began to grin and give me a small wave. And that was all it took really, for me to decide to do something. Almost immediately after that first wave, instead of staring like an owl and hurrying past every morning, I began to stop and leave him something. Usually it was a piece of fruit or a slightly squashed box of biscuits, but on days I felt richer, it was a portion of fish and chips or a hot breakfast meal from the McDonalds which stood just a free hundred yards away. Not that I ever spoke to him – I was still far too shy, and too scared to speak to a stranger. So I would silently hand out whatever I had for him, and run off again.
This went on for a good few years, and I got to know the old man’s patterns and likes and dislikes. Spring and summer, he was often by the police station in his makeshift bed, which he would pack away neatly when he went off to hunt for food and newspapers from the local bins. He loved fried chicken and chips, fish and chips, and McDonalds hot chocolate with a side of apple pie. Hated filet-o-fish because of the tartare sauce, and coffee. Come October, he would disappear: I hoped to a shelter where he could stay warm and dry and fed. And then come the warmer, spring days, he would be back again.
Time passed and I moved on from secondary school to college. Luckily my bus stop for college was right by the station, so our silent friendship went on: with me often dropping off fruit for breakfast, and leaving something hot for dinner too. But then one morning, just before the easter holidays were due to start, I noticed the old man wasn’t in his usual spot – and his cardboard bed and blankets weren’t in their usual spot either.
He wasn’t there again on the next day.
Or the next day after that.
Or even the day after that.
I began to feel as if something was wrong, so I mustered up the courage to go into the police station, and ask if anyone knew where the old man who slept by the steps had gone. The answer I received, as short as it was, was the first thing I heard in my life that really shook me to my core. I was told that the old man had died a few nights ago, and when I asked if anyone knew anything about him, the officer speaking shrugged and simply said, ‘Not really. But everyone called him Thomas.’
Called him Thomas…
Who knew if that was even his real name?
To say I felt devastated would be only a beginning. Thomas had come to feel like a friend – a real friend to me. Someone who I loved seeing nearly every day, and the silent grins and winks and thumbs ups we shared, had come to be a huge part of my world. And not only was he suddenly gone, but I had never had the courage to even ask him his name, or speak to him about his life, or ask him even one of the ten thousand questions I had secretly wanted to ask him. By then, even my mum had come to know of him, and had begun giving me a few extra pounds every week so I could help him out, or putting extra fruits and packets of crisps in my bags to gift him. So there really wasn’t any excuse for me not speaking to him – I just hadn’t had the courage to find out more. So I wasn’t just devastated at Thomas’ passing. I was angry at myself too – for being too shy and too scared to not find out his story, and maybe help him more too.
That was the summer I began to volunteer at my mum’s housing and welfare advice charity – now called the Limehouse Project, which is still going strong today, and is still helping thousands of people keep their homes or access their basic rights to help. And that was the summer I promised I would try to talk more, and run away less, from the people I recognise as needing help. It doesn’t always work – my courage still fails me at times and my tongue has headed for the Bahamas on more than one crucial occasion! But it’s because of Thomas that I began to find my way and place in the world, and the memory of him that helped me not only get through this lockdown, but produce a story in the very midst of it.
So here it is, The Night Bus Hero, featuring a homeless man named Thomas, written in the memory of man “called” Thomas, and in hope that we might understand the real Thomas’ of our world a little more, and help them find a place they can shield in, stay safe in, and quarantine in for a lifetime too.
If you feel inspired to help our homeless communities, whether they are visible or invisible, or indeed, have a Thomas in your world, then please find out about your local food bank; get in touch with Shelter, Nightstop, Streetlink or Crisis UK, or a local women’s refuge, or any one of the hundreds of grassroots charities struggling to help people experiencing homelessness in our world.
And please always remember – nothing you do – whether it’s gifting a packet of cereal, or passing on news of a brilliant charity you’ve heard of, or contacting your MP to find out what they’re doing to help – none of it is ever “small”. Covid-19 showed us that every borough in the country has the space to shelter every single one of our visibly homeless – and that when push comes to shove, we can even do it in the space of a weekend. If we can do it in a weekend, we should be able to keep on doing it for all time – but to make that happen, our homeless need all of us need to help, however we can.