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How hospitality was unlocked

by
21 August 2020

Andrew Graystone discovers the radical possibilities of opening up his family home to strangers

istock

MANY of us are strongly motivated by security. In the West, that isn’t usually a question of food and water; they are not normally in short supply. Instead, we want to make sure that we have safe housing and enough money to see us into old age. We put locks on our doors and invest in pensions and savings to ensure we will be comfortable. The prospect of being dependent on family members or others is held up as a matter of fear and shame.

It doesn’t have to be that way. What if, instead of running from dependency, we saw it as a gift? After all, we begin life totally reliant on other people. Why shouldn’t we keep it that way, celebrating our own weakness and the generosity of others?

Everyday Activists, which is how I’d describe my own approach to life, are risk-taking rebels. They are reckless with their assets and under-invest in their own security. They over-trust other people, and take the gamble of sharing their lives with the marginalised, the unreliable, and the love-hungry. They live lightly, swapping security for joy.

I’d been married about six months when Dave came into my life. To be honest, I hardly knew anything about him. I just knew that he was a big guy — I mean really big: a biker, with a mass of curly black hair and tattoos running down his muscly arms and peeping out from the neck of his shirt. Plus, I knew that he was homeless. Well, strictly speaking, he wasn’t homeless; he was living in a nearby hostel known as the Spike.

It was a series of corrugated-iron huts, each containing 12 iron beds, 12 chairs, and 12 men whose lives had gone catastrophically off-course. The Spike was cold, miserable, and dangerous. I was going off to stay with my mum and dad over Christmas, and it just didn’t seem right to leave my house empty while Dave was going to be sleeping in the Spike; so I gave him a set of keys to my house, left a phone number, and told him I’d be back in the New Year.

 

HALFWAY down the M1 I began to wonder if I’d been a bit naïve, but by that stage there wasn’t much I could do about it. Over Christmas, I got more and more worried. I mean, what if he’d been holding wild parties; what if he’d trashed the house; what if I came back to an empty shell? By the time New Year came and I was driving back up the motorway towards my house, my heart was in my mouth, wondering what I’d find.

What I found was this big bear of a man, grinning on the doorstep. Dave had hoovered, washed the kitchen floor, and had a chicken dinner waiting for me in the oven. As we sat and ate together, Dave told me his story, and my mouth dropped further and further open. It seems he’d spent his adult life as a pretty-much-full-time burglar. The reason he was homeless was because he’d just finished his latest spell in prison for housebreaking.

As he finished telling his story, he was beginning to fill up. “You see,” he said, “I’ve never had the front door keys to a house before. No one’s ever trusted me like that; so I made up my mind I was going to look after your house like it was my own. I owed it to you ’cos you trusted me.”

There was nothing heroic about my trusting Dave with the house. It came out of ignorance and naïvety. But trust begets trust, just as suspicion begets suspicion: that’s true of human relationships between friends, between neighbours, and even — perhaps especially — between nations. For that cycle of trust to begin, one party has to take a risk — to trust someone, knowing that it might just end in disaster.

“By the way,” he said as we finished our late Christmas dinner, “I couldn’t afford to get you a present . . . so I thought I’d give you the benefit of my professional services instead.”

“You don’t mean you’ve nicked something for me, Dave?”

“No,” he said. “I’m trying to put all that behind me. But I’ve given your house a thorough check-over from a burglar’s viewpoint. A sort of personal security consultation. And I’d say you’ve got nothing to worry about.” And with that advice from a top pro, I slept easy in my house from then on.

 

WHEN our children started at high school, we moved house again. We wanted a place where they could have their own rooms; so we ended up with four bedrooms. The house was bigger than we strictly needed, but we were hoping to adopt; so it made sense to leave some “growing room”. That was then. Fifteen years later, our youngest moved out, and Jane and I were left rattling around a house that was too big for us, and which we could barely afford. My job was coming to an end, too, and we didn’t know what the future would hold.

We decided it would make sense to downsize. We wanted to stay local; so we put our house on the market and started looking for something smaller near by. If you’ve ever tried to sell your house, you know it has a potent effect. We cleaned constantly — even cleaning places we hadn’t touched for years. We painted walls and did everything we could to freshen the old place up and make it look attractive.

Crucially, we started chucking things out. I made a painful decision to reduce my book collection by a third. We went through cupboards and sent old clothes to the charity shop. And, as the For Sale board went up at the end of the drive, we started saying our goodbyes to lovely neighbours and friends.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we accepted an offer on our house, and did a deal on a smaller house a mile or two away. A moving date was set, and we booked a removal van. All our books went into crates, which were stacked in the hallway by the front door; all our pictures came down off the walls, leaving tell-tale shadow marks behind them; we started to pack the clothes we wouldn’t be using for a few months.

 

THEN, just 48 hours before the removal van was due to roll up the drive, an email from our buyers pinged into my inbox. They were really sorry, but they were pulling out of the move. The deal was off. I had to read the email about six times before it really sank in. We were going nowhere.

The first and worst thing I had to do that day was to visit the house we were hoping to move into, and tell the poor shocked family that our move was cancelled, and so theirs was, too. Then I had to unpick all our arrangements with the solicitors and the removal firm. Then I had to go round and tell all the neighbours that they were stuck with us a bit longer. A lot longer, as it turned out.

The mortgage broker made it clear that now I had no fixed income they weren’t interested in offering us a loan on a new house, even a smaller one. We were stuck. While Jane and I sat on the packing cases in the hall, wondering what on earth was going on, a man came to take down the For Sale sign from the front gate.

Later that morning, the phone rang. It was an old friend from work. She and her husband had found themselves with nowhere to stay, and wondered whether we had a room they could borrow for a while. As it happens, we did! They arrived next day to find us re-hanging pictures and putting books back on shelves.

Within the next few days, we had a call from a local organisation working with asylum-seekers. Marion had arrived in the UK from Burundi. She was a children’s worker, but was fleeing for her life, having been threatened by her government. She had nowhere to go. Could she stay with us? She did.

Marion was followed by Lai from China, Rosanna from Zimbabwe, Sophia from Somalia, Yasamin from Iran, and Meru from Tibet. Some have stayed for a few weeks; others for many months. They have become our friends.

They have been joined by students coming to the UK to learn English: Maria from Peru, Hisako from Japan, MiHo from Korea, and a score of others. Visit our house for dinner (and I’m not just saying that; please do visit our house for dinner), and you will find a veritable United Nations gathered around the table, swapping stories and making friendships across the divides of language and culture.

Of course, there are downsides to having a full, international house. Sometimes there’s a queue for the shower. Sometimes the cutlery gets put in the wrong drawer, and you can’t find the potato peeler. But there are so many upsides. Fantastic smells of international cuisine waft through the house at all hours. We hear stories and see pictures from places we never knew existed. And we now have a network of friends in every continent.

Gifts come in many forms. Money, yes, but also time, trust, door keys, and even spare rooms.

 

This is an edited extract from Faith, Hope and Mischief: Tiny acts of rebellion by Andrew Graystone, published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.39).

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