The safehouse

I picked up my old copy of Michel Faber’s The Fahrenheit Twins recently. The first story in the collection intrigued me, all over again. It’s called ‘The Safehouse’, and in it the narrator tells of a full day in his life as a rough sleeper, from waking one morning to waking the next day. The tone is bleak; the speaker believes himself to be unforgiven and unforgivable, though we’re not given any reason. He is hypervigilant, and shuns any contact.

As I read, my mind leaps back some sixty years. Burl Ives, the American folk singer, told my childhood self about meeting a “burly bum”, hiking through the shady sugar cane on a summer’s day and singing his fantasy life. In – inside? – a big mountain made of rock candy, cops have wooden legs and bulldogs have rubber teeth; it’s a land of perpetual summer where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs. You only learn what his real life is like by extrapolating from his negatives: in the big rock candy mountain you “never need any money… the rain don’t fall and the wind don’t blow…” Is this heaven only available after death? I guess so, if he’s inside the hard earth of a mountain.

In contrast, Faber’s ‘The Safehouse’ starts with a graphic description of the protagonist’s environment, of the refuse bags he slept on which oozed onto his outer garments. Once on the street he is alarmed by being accosted again and again by passers-by, who are reacting to a T-shirt he finds himself wearing which tells his most personal information. At last he succumbs to the temptation of entering the titular safehouse. Here he has his physical needs cared for, but there is a sense of complete institutionalisation, where the many zombified inhabitants barely interact, and where every harm and humiliation of their past lives are written up in minute detail.

Is this safehouse a sort of limbo, like in Charles Kingsley’s The Waterbabies? Tom, a child chimney sweep, falls into a river, into a place where accounting of moral worth takes place and wrongs can be righted. Doubtless it cheered Victorian nursery inhabitants to think that the ragged starved chimney sweep boy, who had interrupted nanny’s tea with his alarming labours, would meet a reward in the afterlife.

And what about Burl Ives’ chance-met bum? His song has no presentiment of mortality, and indeed the melody is in a cheerful major key, using call and response and repeatedly resolving to the dominant note, in a cheerful reassuring harmony. The verse uses only the first five notes of the scale and is simple and satisfying. 

Michel Faber’s homeless man is far more disturbing. Is his safehouse also post mortem? There are clues which make you think so; the pool of urine on the floor in the morning is maybe caused by muscles relaxing after death, and the towers of bunk beds are reminiscent of mortuary drawers. What music would accompany this tale? Something in a minor key, formless, haunting, modern… Peter Maxwell Davies comes to my mind.

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