A Christmas story from Bury St Edmunds

A modern day nativity story in Bury St Edmunds

A modern day nativity story in Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Getty Images

Can you help James and Louise find room at the inn this Christmas?

Doing the easy thing. That’s what we live for, isn’t it?

Do we ring the lonely person? Or send a text because we’re busy? Bite our lip when someone hurts our feelings? Or let them have it in the neck?

I thought of this – and yes, I almost always make the weaker choice – when I was at the hairdresser’s last week. Michelle Ames at Vanilla in Bury St Edmunds does my hair and ever since I met her, my hair at 46 looks better than it did in my 20s. But I digress.

Michelle is a bit different to other hairdressers. She has this thing about God. He’s there, apparently. That’s part of it. But she also seems determined to do the kinds of things that God has always harked on about, but which even those who go to church can sometimes forget.

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Michelle met (let’s call them) James and Louise in the summer of 2016. She was sitting on a friend’s balcony above the Arc shopping centre in Bury and heard a couple arguing. She leant over the railing and saw Louise walking away and James angrily following her.

“I instantly wanted to defend her,” Michelle told me, “So I ran down and put myself between them. I told him to back off and that he needed to treat her better. We argued and eventually they walked away.”

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A few weeks later, Michelle saw James again on her way to church. He was sitting on the pavement and he explained that he would never hurt Louise.

After that, she kept bumping into them almost daily. Michelle felt this was divinely inspired.

“It was as though God had a purpose for me with the two of them. Then one day I was on the balcony again and I heard a man moaning. I looked over and saw James and I said, ‘Hey, are you arguing again?’ He said, ‘Well, Michelle, she nags me a lot.’ So I said, ‘Yes, she’s a woman, get used to it!’ We laughed and a friendship began.”

James and Louise, Michelle discovered, were homeless. They explained that they did argue, because it was stressful sometimes trying to find somewhere to sleep on the streets. Sometimes, if it was really cold, sleep was impossible. This made them grumpier than they might otherwise have been.

“I couldn’t imagine being too cold to sleep,” Michelle says. Neither can I.

Bury is affluent so how can there be people without a roof over their heads? When I see a homeless person here, I put my head down, walk a bit quicker and feel ashamed.

But Michelle did not do that.

She has been fundraising to pay for a month’s rent and deposit for the pair to get housed. With the help of close friends and clients, she has raised £1,000. But it has been a struggle. “People want to blame them for their own misfortune,” she says. “Because that’s easier, isn’t it? If you write people off as bad people, you don’t have to help them.”

Michelle is appealing for a landlord who might be prepared to take them on.

“People round here say, ‘not them again’. But once they are in a property, they will be able to claim housing benefit so it’s not really that much of a risk,” she says. Michelle has also given Louise a part-time job cleaning at the salon and she says, “They are keen to work and make a life for themselves. Once off the streets, they want to get married. It would be amazing to see them live that dream.”

The parallels with the Christmas story are obvious. An innkeeper is needed. The one who had a stable, at the back.

If anyone needs convincing, let Michelle tell you her favourite story of her friends. “One evening, I went to get some money out of the cash machine to give them but I had run out. This often happens because I don’t check my bank balance often. But they were so upset. They said it’s because you give us your money. I said it’s OK. I have a home to sleep in and food in my cupboards. But they had a little word and then said, “We begged today and we got £5. Please take it.”

When Michelle had finished telling me this story, she had tears in her eyes. I did too.

“James and Louise really were prepared to give me all they had,” Michelle told me. “I realised, then, that I would never have a better pair of friends.”

Can anyone help James and Louise get a roof over their heads this winter? It would be so much easier to walk away from this, wouldn’t it? But let’s do this. Let’s just help them.

It’s nearly Christmas, after all.

If you can help ‘James and Louise’, please contact me on liz.nice@archant.co.uk or call 01603 772112. I’ll put you in touch with Michelle.

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