It’s 3am, and my assigned partner and I are on our way up the stairs to the main sleeping floor of the homeless shelter to relieve a pair of supervisors. The smell hits first, long before we reach the top, a thick haze of old sweat and cigarette smoke like the front row of Glastonbury’s main stage on the final day, then the staggered snores and mutterings of men in various stages of sleep. We walk between the camp-beds, my partner ahead of me, her shoes shushing gently on the worn carpet.
The supervisors we’re replacing rise when they see us, stretching the stiffness from their limbs. In the dim light from the windows one of them shrugs off a luminous safety vest and holds it out to me.
‘You know how to use a fire extinguisher?’ He whispers so as not to disturb the men sleeping close around us.
He shoves the vest into my hand. ‘Well, you’re the fire marshal now.’
And they leave. I try and foist the vest onto my partner, but she insists it remain with me on the grounds that ‘I’m the man.’
I study the squat fire extinguisher stashed beneath my chair and realise I have no idea how to use it. The advice printed on what’s left of the label says ‘Aim at fire.’ This is the instruction that will allow me to save the lives of hundreds of people if something catches alight in the next two hours. There is a temptation to ignite one or two of the homeless people, just a little, and let them flail around aflame as melodramatic proof that I am not up to this job.
It first became apparent that people considered me a grown up when I worked in a pet shop. If some child were banging on the glass of the guinea pig cages their mother would throw me a knowing sidelong glance before announcing, ‘You’d better stop that or the man will shout at you!’ At which point the child would recoil from me in abject terror.
I wanted to fling my hands up and plead my innocence. When did I become some kind of fun-spoiling crypto-fascist? I felt the need to throw my lot in with the child; I’m with you, guinea pigs are boring, bang the glass! Set them on fire and applaud as they screech like boiling kettles for all I care! Just don’t sever me so flippantly from my childhood.
By some definition I could not grasp, I was suddenly seen by many as a grown up. This is why, perhaps, if ever I occupy a spot in London for more than a few minutes I will inevitably be approached by a waylaid foreigner and asked directions. I had always assumed that my face’s default position was that of vacuous bafflement, as if my brain were perpetually tuned to BBC Parliament. Instead it must be vaguely trustworthy, possessive of some chance verisimilitude when I send the asker in a random direction. A Spanish lady and her family approached me once as I waited outside Camden Town tube station and enquired whether I was a taxi. The only response I could manage was an exasperated spreading of my hands, a slow turn to the empty curb behind, then back to her as she gazed at me expectantly.
Western culture is devoid of any definitive transition into adulthood. Teenage dystopian fiction is filled with clear-cut gruesome rituals that are the death knell of childhood, and the world of Pokemon is built on a delightful transparency, youngsters expelled at thirteen to enact any cruelty they wish on the animals of the land. The UK is too politically-correct to let me venture into the allotments behind my house and cold-bloodedly enslave or murder the resident foxes. No survivalist trek into the wild can last for more than a few hours before stumbling across a Little Chef. How could I have earned my stripes rather than become an adult without even noticing? I needed more experience, to see more of the world. I had experienced nothing to thrust me headlong into manhood.
As 4am approaches on the sleeping floor of the homeless shelter, the lights of the city eerily still in the distance and the winter creeping into my bones, a young guy, perhaps my age, perhaps less, rolls in his tattered sleeping bag to face me.
‘Have you ever seen a dead alcoholic?’ he asks.
And it’s true, I think, as his eyes stare into mine. I haven’t lived through anything at all.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I haven’t.’