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Paul Dent

In conversation with Dominique Zino

Sometimes if I think something’s wrong I’ll say it. But other times I keep things to myself. I can be so quiet. Sometimes it can get to be too much. But then I just go for a walk, chill out for a bit. I just need time by myself and I’ll be alright. Apart from this conversation, I am so quiet.

I’ve always liked playing football and rugby, and I run a lot. It’s just something that’s in me, I don’t know what it is. I just like keeping fit. I don’t generally take on a leadership role. If it needs taking on I can do it. But otherwise I just get on with it. If you’re doing something wrong I’ll tell you, if you’re not doing something wrong I don’t have to say anything. I can be a leader if I need to be.

My favourite subject in college had to be PE. I could spend all day doing PE. There weren’t really any subjects I didn’t like. I just got on with it. But it’s because I loved my sports so much that I’m not going into my career. I was going to go into the army. I did everything to prepare for that. But then I smashed my elbow playing basketball. I’ve got pins in it. So that was my favourite subject stopping my career.

I’ve got no feeling in my right arm, from my wrist to my shoulder. I’ll show you the scar…It took just under six months to heal and at first the pins were sticking out of it. I wasn’t allowed at school because I was a danger to myself and other pupils - my elbow was that bad. When I first went back to school it was during the time of my GCSEs as well, so since I’m right-handed I had to have someone else write my answers down for me.

It was lousy, but I just learned to live with it. Why look back on it, you know what I mean? You set yourself a straight path, but if you want something you’re gonna go get it, whatever path you have to take. One of the hardest things was that I couldn’t play sports for a long time, and that’s what I really loved to do. But then I just kind of forgot about it. If I have on a t-shirt someone will mention it and I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah’. I’m just so accident-prone anyway. I’ve got a scar on my head too…everywhere. My elbow doesn’t bother me now. I didn’t do a lot though in the few months after the injury. I probably just stayed in and played on the computer.

***

I’ve just spent five years in Sheffield. When I was there one of my mates that I was living with died in my bedroom. He choked on his own vomit. And I just went to pieces. I had to leave. That’s why I ended up in Oxford. Until about a year ago I had a pretty stable life. I had my own flat for two and a half years. Sheffield is like Oxford, it’s just full of students. I was at college. I was playing sports and studying human biology. I wanted to become a P.E. teacher. I was doing my degree in Sheffield until everything went wrong. I was thinking about going to college again to carry on and try to get into sports again. The best five years of my life were in Sheffield when I had my flat. Everything I wanted was there.

If I get over this stumbling block then that’s it, nothing is going to stop me. My mate’s death is the only thing stopping me at the moment. I grew up with him. I knew him since I was two or three. I’m not afraid of dying, because I know it’s going to happen one day. At the moment what I’m most afraid of is not succeeding in going to college. This will be the forth time I’ve tried going and each time I’ve had an accident, or something’s happened, so I’m afraid that I’m so far off the course that I can’t get back onto it. This is one thing I’ve really wanted to do. I’m afraid of getting to the point that there have been too many attempts and I’ll have to find something else.

I used to have some really, really nice calligraphy sets. I just used to sit there doodling. I used to be able to do nice, fancy writing. So my mom got me a calligraphy set. I didn’t know what it was at first. But when she said it was a writing set I tried it and used to sit for hours and hours writing at night. But when I smashed my elbow I stopped doing it. I haven’t done it since. I can’t write with my left hand, you wouldn’t be able to understand it.

***

I’ve been in Oxford around nine or ten weeks. I’m originally from Birmingham but moved here from Swinthorpe, which is up north. I left Swinthorpe in 1998. That’s where all my family is. The last time I saw my mum and my two sisters was five years ago. The last time I saw my dad was about thirteen years ago. But I don’t want to have anything to do with my family. My mum and dad got divorced when I was ten. I’m the oldest, I’m twenty-eight. I’ve got a sister who’s twenty-six and one who is twenty-four.

I’ve got a few friends here, probably about four or five proper friends: people I can hang around with, go out for a beer with, say anything to. But it takes a long time for me to get to know somebody. I don’t talk. This is probably the most I’ve talked in my life. In a group of people I’m the quietest of them all. But I’ve got friends all over the country because I haven’t stayed any place for a long time. I just like meeting different people. There’s probably about a dozen that I’m in contact with. I’ve got numbers and that lot. We’ll meet up for a meal sometimes, e-mail and stuff like that, but that’s it.

I will get on with anybody until they do something wrong to me. And then I won’t bother with them. I don’t look for anything in particular in a person, I just take them for who they are. That’s the way I want to be taken for, for who I am. If you don’t like it, that’s not my fault. I know what I want to do, but I take the future each day as it comes. Once I get my own place I can start thinking about things more. I do know what I need to do. It’s just getting there. I want to get on with college, become a P.E. teacher, and then I’ll just take it from there. But first I just have to get out of the shelter.

There’s things I need people to do for me, but I need them to do them with me. It’s something I have to go through myself, but I do actually need someone there. Like with a counsellor I need to go over what happened with my mate. That’s the only thing that is screwing my head up right now. Once I get over that, I’m over it. But the problem I’ve found since I’ve been in Oxford is that since I’m not a drug user, and I’m not an alcoholic, there’s no help. If you’re a drug user or alcoholic you’ve got as much help as you want. But for someone that’s just down on his luck like me, they’re not interested.

***

I was close to my dad at one point was when I used to go every Saturday to football with him. I was never really close to my mum. I’m the double of my dad. But the last time I spoke to him when I was sixteen and I don’t want to see him for another twelve years. I never want to see him again. Don’t get me wrong, deep down inside I do love him. If it wasn’t for my dad I wouldn’t be sitting here now. When my mum and dad got divorced my dad gave his life up for me and my two sisters. He gave up his job, everything, to look after us. But when I got older, he got a girlfriend. He started spending more time with her than he did with my two sisters. Me, I’m not bothered by that, I do my own stuff. But my two sisters got pushed out. So we got into a big argument and he said ‘If you don’t like it you know where the door is.’ So I took the keys and I just walked out. We haven’t spoken to each other since. That’s how I know I’m the double of my dad, because I’m stubborn, very stubborn.

***

Sometimes I feel lonely. It depends on what I’ve been doing during the day and what mood I’m in. If I’m listening to the radio and I’m chilled out, I might just start thinking about things, how they could be better. But other times I’m happy the way I am. I was with my ex-girlfriend for five years, so I’ve had a long-term relationship. But it takes a lot for me to get close to somebody…a hell of a lot. For half of the time that I was with my ex I was thinking ‘God, do I really want to be in this?’ It’s probably a commitment thing with me. I’ll never ever get married. I’ll never go down the same road my mum and dad went down. I couldn’t put anyone through that. I don’t know about being a father. I think that’s part of the commitment thing too. I think I’m probably scared of it at times. But one day I probably will be. I’m not denying the fact that I’d like to be. I know it sounds selfish but at the moment I want to do what I want to do. I’m still young-ish.

***

Laws are there to be broken…well, rules are there to be bent. It depends on what I’m doing and where I am. Where I am right now at the night shelter I can get away with so many things it’s unreal. I can get away with murder in that place, probably because I’m the youngest. I don’t like breaking rules, but I like bending them. I know what a rule’s there for, but I chose to do it my way. If you’re at work, you got to stick by the rules and work. But other laws you can just play with, doing things the way you want to as long as you don’t go too far. You shouldn’t break rules, just interpret them into your own words.

I’d never be a cop. It’s a tough job they do. I don’t like them all because some of them think they’re clever because they’ve got a uniform. I won’t speak to them in the street. I’ve seen some police pick on some people and you can’t do anything about it. At the end of the day they’re only doing a job. Someone’s got to do it. And I don’t want to get arrested. I just keep my head down.

Living in the shelter you see all different situations. I like a spliff and that lot, so I’ll go outside and smoke a spliff. And then you’ve got the drinkers. And whenever they’re all together you know something’s gonna go on. So I just walk away from things like that. If it has to do with me then I’ll get involved, otherwise leave me out of it. In that place you’ve got to bite your tongue at times, you got to. Otherwise, they won’t think twice about kicking you out.

***

I’m probably motivated more by getting respect from other people for doing what I want to do and getting where I want to be, definitely not by money, I hate money. As soon as I’ve got it I’ve got to get rid of it. It’s evil for me. I like spending it but I don’t like money itself. If I was motivated by money I wouldn’t be going into teaching. And I’m not bothered about power, let someone else deal with it. I want to be who I am and I don’t want power over anybody.

In the shelter I’m different because I’m the youngest, I act like a kid at times. But I am who I am, I’m not changing for anybody. Everyone seems to take it and be alright with me. They know I’m cheeky. People seem to like me for it. I just seem to make people laugh. I don’t like falling out with people. Like I said, if people don’t like me, it’s not my problem. But so far most seem to like me, so I must be doing something right.

Sometimes I do care about how other people perceive me. Sometimes I get really paranoid. I could just be sitting somewhere thinking and I’ll notice other people and wonder if they’re watching me, or if they’re talking about me or not. That’s just me. I’m not very bothered by anything else. I’ve lived in some very, very rough places where a lot of people will be looking over their shoulder at all times. I’ve gotten so used to it that it doesn’t bother me. So I’m not paranoid in that way. It’s just sometimes when I’m with a group of people that I don’t know and I’m sitting near people I wonder what they’re thinking about me. It’s just curiosity. I’m just a bit nosey really.

I can be compassionate, but when someone winds me up I can be the worst person in the world. I wouldn’t say there are limits to my compassion. If someone says ‘Can you go to the grocery?’ do this, do that, I’d do it. Usually I’d do anything for anybody.

***

I think about two or three years of my life have been wasted, from when I first left Swinthorpe to when I got into Sheffield. It was just two years of not knowing what I wanted to do. I lay around, couldn’t care about anything. Then I got back on my feet and got a job and it all changed. If I could go back to those two years I would do it all differently. I would have got a job quicker than I did, because I could have had a job quicker than what I had. Maybe I wouldn’t be in this situation now, things could have gone differently. But then, as I said, if I hadn’t smashed my elbow I would have been in the army. It’s only because of my elbow that I didn’t get my career. It winds me up when I think of what could have been. It was my excuse to get out of Swinthorpe and do what I wanted to do. You’re getting paid to travel around the world. But I was in for twelve years, so I wouldn’t have been out for all the trouble that’s going on now. My uncle did twenty-one years in the army and told me what it was like. My grandmother told me how he just went out one day and came back and said ‘I signed up’. She asked him how long and when he said twenty-one years she said ‘You better do your twenty-one years then’. And he did. I remember him talking about going out to the pub with the lads when he had time off, and all the things that he had seen, it was just amazing. You couldn’t wish for a better job. And it didn’t cost you anything, it was all paid for. What more could you ask for? That’s all I wanted to do, go into the army.

***

If I had the money I would travel across Europe and to Asia. It’s just a matter of having the money. I’d like to get my degree first and then travel, not the other way around. Because at least then I know while I’m out there I’ve got something I can do.

I’ve lived all over England. Comparing down south to up north, in Oxford if you’re a drug user or an alcoholic you’ve got as much help as you need. For someone who’s down on his luck, there’s nothing. I spent three years in Birmingham, and there you cannot be homeless unless you want to be homeless. You just go into the service centre and explain to them why you’re homeless and they find you somewhere that same day. In Oxford, unless you’ve got money or you’re shooting up, there’s nothing. You’re not gonna go nowhere in Oxford. The night shelter is turning into a hostel. A lot of people say now they’ll need another night shelter because they just keep kicking people out of there, and so people are back on the street. You’ve got to go out and look for help yourself, it won’t find you. As soon as you do anything wrong in that place they throw you out, you’re barred. And people have nowhere else to go.

I’ve always said, sounds stupid, that we’re on this earth for a reason. Don’t know what this reason is, one day I may find out, till then, I don’t know. I still have to live each day as I can. Every day is different. I learn something new every day. Sometimes I do sit there and think about things, why I’m here, why I’ve ended up doing what I’m doing, why couldn’t I have my career. But then that just seems like I’m feeling sorry for myself, what’s happened has happened. Just look forward towards the future. I know what I need to do; and when I do it I’ll do it.

***

I probably have enemies. Not any that I know of…well, I’ve got one: my youngest sister. She probably hates me at the moment because she doesn’t know where I am. But I’m used to it. I never got on with my sisters even though I looked after them. When I left, I left. I didn’t want nothing to do with them. They’re both rich; they’re both married; they’ve both got kids and businesses; both are hairdressers. Let them get on with it. When I wanted help, they didn’t want to help me. So I’m not bothered with them. When I needed them they weren’t there, so ‘See you later’. It’s hard at times. I do miss them. But if they want me they’ll find me. My mum found me last time. I didn’t see her for two years and then when I was living in Lincoln she was looking for me. One of my sisters got in contact with someone I know and he told me mum was looking for me, so I told him to tell her where I was. If they need to know where I am they’ll phone up one of my mates and he’ll tell them. As far as they’re concerned, I’m still in Sheffield. As far as they know, I still own my flat. They haven’t got a clue. All it will take is a phone call and they’ll know where I am. Like if someone dies and they need to get in touch with me, they can find me. But I know it won’t happen. I don’t want it to happen. I’ve always lived my own life really; this doesn’t feel any different.

When I first left Swinthorpe I met a kid who was like a brother to me. For two years we did everything together, we went out, smoked, drank. I could sit and talk to him. And then there’s a lassie here, a member of staff at the night shelter. I can talk to her if I need to and want to. But I don’t always want to. I know I have to face my problem, but I want to talk to someone who I can sit there and trust. And it takes a lot for me to figure out if I can trust somebody with what I need to say to them. I’ll find someone one day.

***

I don’t think in Oxford that my own flat is an option. Like I said before, there’s nothing for me here. And that’s a shame because all the colleges are here and it would be perfect for me. But if you’re not a student and haven’t got money there’s no accommodation. Ten years ago, I probably would have said that a passport out of England would have made me happy…now all I want ten years later is a flat. It doesn’t seem like I’ve done a lot in ten years, but I have. I’ve been through a lot, same as other people. If you would have asked me ten years ago ‘Where do I see myself in ten years?’ I would have said, ‘Dead’. I wouldn’t have thought I would have made it. I had my ups and my downs, but the ups were very nice ups. It’s only been this last year where things have just stopped. But now if you ask me where I’ll be in ten years…Oxford, I don’t know.

My life was going where I wanted it to go until now. Everything’s just come off track. I’m still doing what I wanted to do, it was just set back a few stages. Especially getting a flat in Oxford, that could take forever. I’m almost halfway to where I wanted to be before.

Sheffield was the best five years of my life. But if I could I would just erase my friend’s death. At first when he died I said I wasn’t ever going to go back out and drink. But about three weeks later I was out drinking. So I guess I didn’t learn from it. I know I should have. I have changed one thing actually: since he died I haven’t been out on a Friday night. I very rarely go out on weekends now.

***

What is one of the most difficult conversations you’ve ever had?

This one. This is more than I’ve talked to anyone ever.

What about the most decisive?

When my parents split up. I remember I was playing in the park and my dad called me and my sisters over and said, ‘Your mum’s leaving, she’s gone’. I didn’t think anything really serious of it. But when I went back to the house and she wasn’t there I asked where she was and he said, ‘She’s left’. After that I knew I just had to take care of myself. Later on my dad explained that she had been seeing someone else. I didn’t care that much. I knew by then I had to do things on my own.

July 2005