The following essay was shortlisted for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize.
It’s a cold, sunny morning when I take the bus to Elm Tree Loan. It’s a trip that I’ve avoided and I feel sick and dizzy. Tourists gather on St Andrew’s Square, beneath the granite plinth. They admire the bright shop windows and the old doorman, with his top hat and gold-trimmed tailcoat. Two girls pose for photographs with him and giggle, then bow theatrically when he waves them through the shining glass doors. From the bus-stop, I watch the shoppers disperse across the drab city gardens. Bandaged in autumn colours and clutching paper bags, they look like parchment confetti, strewn on the auburn grass beneath the sun.
From St Andrews Square the journey to Elm Tree Loan takes less than ten minutes. As the bus lurches towards Leith Walk, I glimpse the sea beyond the tenements. I see the dredgers on the water and the tower-blocks. The cranes near the harbour are wreathed in a dirty mist. Changes in Edinburgh are incremental, and the difference between a rich area and a poor one is often very subtle. When you reach the edge of the New Town, a magnificent but austere grid of white-stone buildings, the townhouses slowly give way to shabby grey tenements. As the bus goes further down Leith Walk, I watch them fade and crumble. The cement has worn and the bricks protrude like stained teeth.
When I get off the bus, an old lady wearing a fleece jacket and a fringed purple sari stumbles from her seat, spilling sweet potatoes, onions and okra. She kneels and gathers her shopping, quickly, but I catch her eye as she stands up. Momentarily I see Andrew’s frightened, contorted face, gazing up at me from the pavement where he knelt.
Elm Tree Loan is a difficult place to find because the streets all look the same here. Whole areas of Edinburgh consist of matrixes of straight Georgian streets. You could walk for hours, along dark metal railings, past the same estate-agent’s signs, lost beneath the polluted sky. Eventually I find the street. The shop is still there, only they’ve added a new sign. It reads ‘Soft Drinks Sold Here’. I’m not sure why they’ve added the sign, but it looks new. It seems sinister and in poor taste.
I notice an old green car, shackled to the kerb with a wheel-clamp beside the bins. The cracked windscreen is papered with dozens of parking-tickets; a wing mirror hangs from a rusty cable, and sways in the wind. Locals have begun to pile their rubbish beside the car. The bin-bags have split, and I see rusted beer-cans, doilies, polyester chips and paper-chains strewn across the drifts of burnt caramel leaves.
I immediately remember the smell of Elm Tree Loan as I open the heavy door. It’s a stale, lingering smell, of reheated food shot through with tobacco smoke, disinfectant and ammonia.
Nothing has changed in the hallway. They’ve repainted the door, but otherwise the notice board still carries the same announcements. There’s a photography group, now, trips to museums and a band playing tonight. I read the minutes of the tenants’ meeting. It was satisfactory, but only two of the tenants came.
While I wait for Rachel, I speak to one of the volunteers. It’s nearly lunchtime and he gestures me through into the tiny kitchen so that we can talk while he cleans and prepares the food. Day-time television plays in the adjoining common room, but otherwise the place is quiet. We’re drinking coffee and talking when a man appears at the serving hatch. He’s very tall, with chiselled features, a prominent, ruddy nose and brilliant blue eyes which are sunk deep into his dark, papery skin.
‘Do you know who played at Kingsmills Park?’ he says, loudly and sagely. ‘I did. I used to play for Inverness Thistle,’ he says, jabbing the air with his finger. ‘I was a centre forward. You can’t dodge it,’ he says, grinning, narrowing his eyes, letting go of his zimmer-frame and kicking at an imaginary football while weaving between midfielders with his shoulders.
Archie speaks in an Aberdeenshire accent. His voice is lilting and beautiful. It rises sharply and clearly at the end of every sentence.
‘The Moray Firth,’ he says, enigmatically. ‘Angus. Granton-on-Spey. All Highland League teams. I played for them.’
‘Do you remember me Archie?’ I say, quietly. ‘We met last year?’
Archie stares at me, as though he’s misheard. Then he says,
‘Do you want a smoke?’
‘No thanks, I’ve stopped,’ I say.
‘My father’s brother,’ Archie says, suddenly, poking at the air again with his finger. ‘He never smoked a cigarette in his life; never drank a pint of beer. One day he started coughing up black blood. He was three and a half stone when he died.’
Archie nods, takes his sandwich and leaves.
Rachel hurries through from the reception to meet me. She’s the new manager of Elm Tree Loan; a brisk, friendly lady in her mid-forties, who wears a trouser suit, a silk scarf and an amber broach. Rachel has a more professional demeanour than Ron, her predecessor, an ex-lorry driver and five-a-side football fanatic, who avoided difficult questions by bearing his gold capped teeth and raising his square eyebrows in a menacing way.
The common room is exactly the same. There’s a pool table and a darts board. Jigsaw pieces spill from beneath the television. Numerous brightly coloured fliers promoting charities and NHS initiatives are pinned to the walls. Rather than covering the space, they just serve to highlight the lack of anything personal or meaningful. There are few photographs of the men who live here or their families.
I suggest sitting at two of the leather armchairs beside the television, but Rachel gestures towards a table in the corner, explaining that she thinks somebody’s had an accident and that staff are having the chairs cleaned.
Elm Tree Loan is what’s known as a wet-house. It’s a place where homeless men with long histories of alcoholism come to spend the last days of their lives. Unlike many services who will only deal with clients when they’re sober, Elm Tree Loan adopts a non-judgemental approach. They view their tenant’s drinking as a personal decision which should be upheld, and favour interventions which will make life less of a risk for them, if abstinence is an unrealistic goal.
Elm Tree Loan is the last stop in a cycle of cruelty and brutalisation. It’s a series of bleak, sunless rooms where all the world’s meannesses and cruelties seem to accumulate. Men retch and slur and mess themselves, in clothes which we wouldn’t even bother to recycle. After years of being robbed, taunted, beaten, starved and abused on the streets, they have a home for the rest of their lives at Elm Tree Loan.
Archie was the eldest of the four men who I met when I first came. He was bright, cheerful and contrary, but his memory was very bad. Prior to arriving, Archie had slept rough for a long time. He told me how his drinking started when he was an apprentice cooper in a Speyside distillery, where he and his boss skimmed the first pint of whiskey from every barrel they made.
He subsequently joined the Merchant Navy, where he boxed, but was discharged when he suffered a series of barbiturate induced seizures in New Orleans. When we shadow boxed in Archie’s room, his reflexes were quick. The only picture on the wall showed Archie with his sister, beaming in a patterned knit jumper. Spiders had sewn webs between the heaps of cigarette butts on the floor.
Now Archie’s mental deterioration is marked. He looks frightened and drawn. While two other men laugh, Archie picks at a ham sandwich and talks quietly to himself.
‘The guys are displaying the signs of what Alcohol Related Brain Damage would be,’ Rachel says, ‘But to get a proper diagnosis stating that that’s what they have, they have to be six weeks abstinent from alcohol and that’s not going to happen. It’s not a proper diagnosis because they can’t get it.’
Alcohol Related Brain Damage refers to a spectrum of illnesses that affect memory. Alcohol upsets the stomach lining and inhibits the absorption of the crucial vitamins which the brain needs. Repeated vomiting, combined with a diet of salty, fatty foods can lead to the onset of Korsakoff’s Syndrome, a disorder similar to dementia which affects an invisible and unquantifiable number of homeless people in Scotland. One study found that more than a fifth of rough sleepers in Glasgow suffered from Alcohol Related Brain Damage. Edinburgh has a transient homeless population of several thousand people. There is only space for twelve at Elm Tree Loan.
‘Is that Peter?’ I ask Rachel, as she nods towards a thin, fair man in a bomber-jacket, who’s having a loud, jerky conversation with another tenant.
When I first visited, Peter was sober and had been for at least a year. He had just redecorated his room and was visiting his family. I could tell that the staff are cautiously proud of Peter, but wary of his precarious sobriety. As the only one at Elm Tree Loan who was sober, his morning routine involved going to the shop to buy alcohol for the men who were too ill to leave.
I know the answer to the question before I ask it, but ask it anyway.
‘When somebody does manage to get themselves off alcohol, with the type of environment that they’re in, there’s so much temptation. You can’t say to other guys in here don’t drink around that person because they’re trying to refrain, because the service is purposely built for guys that have got alcoholism. They’ve been street livers or unable to maintain tenancies due to alcohol related behaviour, alcohol offences or something similar.’
‘Am I alive?’ Peter says, loudly. A door slams. The timing’s macabre.
Rachel begins to explain how Elm Tree Loan works. I can tell she’s a good, kind person. Allowing men with degenerative brain-damage to carry on drinking is cruel, but the alternative for them would be sleeping rough. Eighty percent of Scotland’s homeless drink hazardously, and many can’t adapt to being sober. Andrew wouldn’t even sit in a chair, after years of begging outside a pub. He knelt everywhere instead.
Rachel tells me more about what goes on at the hostel. Men are assigned key-workers. The key-workers draw up support plans. The men agree on the support plan with their key-worker. Progress is reviewed every three months. In practise, the men don’t remember their care plan the next day. Ron told me during my first visit that the best possible outcome he saw from tenants was them making the switch from strong white cider to lager.
‘Having spoken with some of the staff who have been here for a long time, that has been something that has worked here. If they manage to get someone who’s been drinking maybe a couple of litres of cider onto lager, then the change of drink will be better for their liver and kidneys.’
A gaunt man with spiky white hair nods at me. Like everyone at Elm Tree Loan he’s been drinking all morning. He wears violet sunglasses and his gums are bleeding.
I ask Rachel about Bobby. He was the youngest man I met and the newest to the service. Bobby had told me that he started drinking when he lost his job as a car mechanic and contact with his family. Before coming to Elm Tree Loan he’d been sleeping in an abandoned bus-shelter in Tranent.
There was something incredibly charming about Bobby. He was gentle and kind. He looked healthy. His occasional skips in memory felt like careless, drunken repetitions rather than the symptoms of worsening brain-damage. When we met he was trying to stop drinking and had just been hospitalised for an alcoholic seizure. He was still wearing his hospital wrist-band while he drank whiskey.
Rachel tells me that Bobby’s still proud of his room. He’s meeting with a befriending service on Tuesdays. He still has the electric organ which he and Peter found on Leith Walk. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that he now has a pet canary, too.
I tell Rachel that I’ll wait around to speak to Bobby. She mentions that the council are looking for outcomes from Elm Tree Loan. They want at least forty percent of the men to go into employment or education. I can see how it might seem like a realistic figure, but to the carers who spend their lives trying to persuade their clients to switch from white cider to lager, it seems insane and ridiculous, almost like a slap in the face. Inevitably our conversation turns to the shop at the end of the road. ‘That’s where most of the alcohol is purchased,’ Rachel says, uncertainly. ‘But we’ve got to remember that for these guys with serious addiction, for them to go into withdrawal and not have access to alcohol could have a devastating effect on them as well, so we have to take that into consideration.’
‘The only thing is that it’s probably costing them more there. But if they’re paying more for it then they probably won’t consume as much. If they’ve got access to cheaper alcohol then they might drink more.’
While I wait for Bobby, I talk to Tom. He’s one of the support-workers at Elm Tree Loan. He looks slightly jaded and I can’t decide whether he’s just exhausted from the back-shift or affected by what he sees here every day. Tom tells me that Archie’s memory is getting worse. Peter’s drinking steadily. Bobby is much the same as before. I tell him that I’m sorry about Andrew and ask exactly what happened.
Of all the people I met at Elm Tree Loan, Andrew had the most lasting effect on me. The other men told me about their lives, but Andrew couldn’t really speak. He barked and swore and laughed in a loud, cacophonous, broken way. I don’t know anything about Andrew, except that he begged for years and preferred kneeling to sitting. He knelt in door-ways. Sometimes he knelt in completely random places, even the middle of the road. Andrew died in the street outside Elm Tree Loan. They think it was a brain haemorrhage. He was almost certainly on his way to the shop at the end of the road.
Tom tells me about confabulation, one of the key symptoms of Korsakoff’s Syndrome. People invent memories, in order to fill in the gaps caused by alcoholic blackouts. Unlike lies, people who confabulate firmly believe that events occurred.
Recently, Tom prepared the funeral service for a man from Elm Tree Loan, who he thought had worked in East Germany and played ice-hockey professionally for one of the major teams. After the service he was told by the man’s estranged wife and daughter that none of the details were true.
‘The only two ways out of here are death or having to go to some other sort of care, sometimes psychiatric,’ Tom says, calmly and analytically. He’s filling out time-sheets, distractedly. I sip a milky cup of tea.
‘When I first started this job, I started with this ideology of really supporting these guys to turn their lives around. It took me about a year to realise that it’s not happening; firstly because they don’t want it and secondly because it’s not that sort of place. It’s about harm-reduction rather than abstinence. I was a wee bit deflated by that realisation. It took a while. Now I’m OK with it. I totally get what we’re doing.’
I ask Tom whether what he does goes against his instincts as a person.
‘Yes, it does,’ he says, firmly. ‘It does. The other thing I’d said to someone this morning, is it’s strange when your job is encouraging someone to drink just so that they don’t go into alcohol withdrawal. I just think this isn’t right; it just seems wrong in your brain. But I will do that,’ Tom says, shakily. ‘I get why I’m doing it, it just doesn’t seem right.’
While I’m waiting for Bobby, a man called Stephen comes downstairs. The left side of his face is disfigured and covered with thick dirt and eczema. He asks me if I have a cigarette; when I tell him that I don’t he strides out on to the road and scrapes around in the gutter, emerging thirty seconds later with the remains of one in his hand.
‘I tell you, my father didn’t serve in the Gordon Highlanders, fighting for this country, for me to pick fucking dog-ends off the street,’ he says. Every part of his body is quivering. He’s in his third day of alcohol withdrawal.
We ring up to Bobby’s room one last time using the intercom system. All I can hear is the television. ‘We should view the word ‘fat’ as a swearword,’ a woman says, without irony, to applause from the audience. ‘We should put a pound in the swear jar whenever we say the word ‘fat’.’ I hear static buzzing, and what sounds like a canary chirping in the wind.
On my way home I visit the shop at the end of the road. It sells sweets, newspapers and magazines to passersby, but also strong cider and fortified wine to the twelve men with brain damage who live next door at Elm Tree Loan. They each consistently spend twenty pounds there every day. I think about how easy it would be to stop serving those twelve men and how the alcohol which they buy here will kill them, but when I look at the man behind the counter I realise that it’s far more complex. He’s tired and friendly and unnervingly human.
The sun’s falling and the tenements are crimson. I’m glad to be leaving Elm Tree Loan.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.