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photo credit: Neil Hepworth / RHS

Sleep Out Blog

-by Penelope Bennett

It’s 9.45 pm and we, Frances (a friend) and I are lugging our sleeping bags, sleeping   mats, layers of cardboard  (to be used as bedding), pillows, woolly hats, gloves and Bivvy bags across Duke of York Square. I had never heard of Bivvy bags before. They are, Glass Door has informed us, ‘good to have on hand, but don’t use them unless it rains. As they don’t breathe, body heat causes condensation inside the bag’. We are also told that  ‘Security will keep an eye on your belongings while you sleep’. Homeless sleepers have advised us to sleep with our heads on our packs and our shoes inside our bags.

I have been looking forward to Sleep Out for several months, trying to imagine what it will be like. Two friends of mine think it’s absurd to sleep out. ‘Are you mad?’ they ask, adding only the smallest of question marks. ‘It’s not an impossibility,’ I reply, deciding not to go if it rains, remembering that the homeless don’t have the luxury of choice.

Generally I associate this square with its Saturday morning food market. But now it is dark, lit up by little islands of happily chatting and laughing people seated on the ground. I’m trying to find the ten vicars who, we have been told, will be here, imagining I’ll see their dog collars glowing in the dark. Also present will be one Chelsea Pensioner who, I imagine, must be at least 79 and 3/4 to qualify as a pensioner. Frances is 84 and already racing around the Square chatting to people, more like someone of forty-eight. (I’m no spring chicken either).

After registering, we find ourselves a semi-sheltered spot of concrete paving not too far away from the kindly donated porter-cabins which, to my surprise, have brilliant sapphire-blue water when flushed. Pret-A-Manger have generously supplied us with unusual flavoured drink companions (Hibiscus and Pomegranate, Mandarin and Lychee, Green Tea and Peach) as well as delicious small sweet biscuits.

Seated regally in a wooden armchair is a middle-aged woman. Is she going to remain like this all night? 

Around us, sleeping bags are being laid out, resembling a mixture between beached seals, caterpillar cocoons and soft coffins. From one, a small enthusiastic dog emerges, fur ruffled, obviously under the impression the sleeping bag is a rabbit warren.

Two smart, blue sun-loungers lie stretched out, moon-bathing.

Above us, untidy-looking clouds survey the transformed Square.

The laughing and chatting is diminishing, being replaced by the sound of zips racing up and down the sides of sleeping bags. Suddenly everyone is horizontal. Some of the sleepers are using cardboard boxes as protective hat-helmets and although not a threat to Ascot, they look quite smart and do help to deter cold  breezes.

I have never had such a close relationship with concrete paving stones before. They seem to have stored up years of coldness and hardness.

I bury my face in my old Russian fur hat and discover how pleasurable knitted nylon gloves can feel. Knowing I can go home keeps me luke-warm though somewhat guilty. A blanket of silence covers the Square in contrast to the unexpected liveliness of the Kings Road. Where are all the cars and buses coming from and going to?

It’s 2.40 am. The concrete paving stones are exhaling coldness and hardness.

My thoughts turn to my electric blanket waiting at home, but then, ashamed, they retreat. Homeless sleepers have no electric blankets, let alone walls with sockets into which to fit the blankets’ plugs.

At about 2.55 am I can almost smell the cold; the sleeping bag and mat seem to be growing thinner. As an excuse to return home, I try to think of various ailments I have which won’t benefit from the cold, but without success.

A little later I repeat the chastisement, ‘It’s time to go home!’ I tell myself strictly… But will Frances want to go? She is in her eighties,  older than I am. I am getting rather anxious about her.

Somewhat guiltily, we depart a few hours early, hoping our sponsors will understand. 

I will never forget this night and would recommend it to everyone. It is not often that one can experience other people’s misfortune so acutely.

What an admirable idea Sleep Out was and is. It reminds me of a  restaurant in Zurich  called ‘The Blind Cow’ where one eats in pitch darkness, the darkness transforming the taste of the food, the feel of the surroundings (it is in  a church), the sound of voices: everything. 

About the author:
Penelope's work has appeared in various publications including The Weekend Financial Times, The Times, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, Harpers and Queen, The Guardian, The Atlantic Monthly, and Mademoiselle. Penelope has also published a novella, short stories, and a children's book and writes a column every other month for the Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine ‘The Garden’.