`Another wee slice of bread?'

FOR some years now we have been taking it in turns to leave our village toward daybreak, with the sky reddening, owls calling from the beechwoods, as we drive from fields and moorland to dark city streets. We park in a cobbled lane outside a gray stone hostel. The warden opens the door for us and leads us into the kitchen. On the stove is an enormous caldron-like pot for porridge, another for boiling eggs, a frying pan for sausages; the kettle and teapot are the size of samovars. Dozens of loaves are piled high on the table, ready for spreading. We have come here to make and serve breakfast. Those who eat it are the city's down-and-outs, the despised and rejected of society. The more fortunate among them are inmates of the hostel, sure at least of bed along with breakfast, treated by the warden with brusque kindness, alternately wheedled and chivied. We go along a narrow corridor that smells of disinfectant, carrying trays of porridge, cornflakes, one boiled egg, two sausages, two slices of bread, a hot drink for each person, no more, no less.

The inmates are beginning to appear from their dormitory. Timmy is already huddled over the television, exclaiming, ``Who'd have believed it!'' For him everything on the screen is gospel. ``Take your porridge while it's hot, Timmy.''

``Call that purritch! I'd rather watch telly.''

Some of the breakfasters greet us -- ``How are you the morn?'' -- others are sunk in a despair too deep for speech. We try to coax them to eat, attempt some communication. Then we rush back to the kitchen to stir up more porridge, fry more sausages for the next wave -- those who sleep rough, the outmates.

A ragged caravan comes across the backyard, its members wearing grimy woolen caps, trailing mufflers, coats, and boots retrieved from dustbins and rubbish dumps. Most of them talk with a strong Lowland Scots accent. The only variation on this is the brogue of an Irish woman, Tina, lank-haired and lean as a rake. She keeps trying to protect the only other woman there, old Bessie, treating her like a child, putting her arms round her and wiping egg yolk from her cardigan. Bessie ignores her attentions and concentrates on that plate of morning porridge.

Over the years we have become so familiar with most of our breakfast guests that we know their names, the very grain of their faces, as in a map of human misery. The word passes round that free food is going at the kirk hostel, so new faces turn up from time to time. Who is this bearded man like a professor? we wonder. How has he come to such a pass? ``Another wee slice of bread?'' some of them mutter. ``I'm empty as a sieve.'' ``I'd like jam with my bread,'' Jimmy says wistfully, as if some far-off, half-forgotten vision of childhood had floated up, of home, family affection, bread, butter, and jam. He sits with his plain bread, lost in memories.

``We shouldn't complain,'' a skinny man, the Holy Willie of the hostel, says unctuously. They turn on him angrily. ``Life's great. We're all doing fine. Breakfast at the Ritz!''

``Life's a disaster,'' says Ned. He is an elderly man with blue lips and a once finely featured face. ``A dis-as-ter!'' He whacks his porridge with his spoon to emphasize each syllable.

Tina tries to cheer him. ``It'll get better, sure it will. Did I ever tell you how me brother Paddy never lost heart?''

``Paddy! I know yon Paddy of yours like the palm of my hand,'' Dan says ironically.

Robbie, huddled in an ex-army greatcoat, his teeth chattering, whispers to me that he has found a pound note lying in the gutter. When I ask him how he means to spend it his face lights up. He winks conspiratorially. ``I'll give it to old Bessie.'' There is no use telling him that she will have no idea what to do with it. In a threadbare cardigan and moth-eaten felt hat with bedraggled feathers she sits silently there, waiting for the moment to bring out her one unfailing humble request: ``I want a paper poke,'' adding under her breath, ``for my purritch.'' We see her each day, ladling what she doesn't eat into a plastic bag. She will spin it out during the day, eating leathery congealed lumps on park benches, in rail and bus stations.

We come from our parish kirk, as representatives of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, aware, as we stir the porridge and dole it out, of how times have changed. Victorian attitudes of self-righteousness are gone forever. Our parents perhaps, our grandparents most certainly, would have brought in a note of piety, would have admonished those vagrants. We feel far too unsure of ourselves to preach at anybody. Our conscience is too stirred by ``those things left undone which we ought to have done.'' Who dares be complacent? With a different twist of circumstance anyone might become a partaker of that chill daybreak hospitality.

We tidy up the kitchen while our guests, even the privileged bed owners, are chased out by the warden. ``Time to lock up! Hurry now!'' Some wave to us as they pass the window and head down the cobbled lane. ``See you the morn,'' Tina cries. ``Aye, and the morn's morn,'' Dan adds. Some call out thanks as they vanish into the drear wanderings of the endless day. We should rather thank them for tholing -- or tolerating, as others might say -- our advantages.

We drive away from the bleakness of the city with the impression of having been absent, not for hours but for a lifetime. As we enter our village, well-slept, well-washed villagers are reading their morning papers over hot buttered toast, bacon and eggs. Do we still belong here? It is greener, fresher than ever, birds sing, the air is sweet with blossom, but it has taken on a certain unreality.

In the course of a mere morning's serving breakfast we have come to understand better than ever John Donne's words about our shared humanity: ``Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . I am involved in mankind. . . .''

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