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Brigid Haug says love is a tree with leaves on it that fall and bloom the way lovers lose heart and move on and return, so we’re never really out of love, just sometimes out of season.

Love, she says, works not on words but on feelings and actions, which is why she opens her purse and hands me a TAB ticket with a $1 trifecta bet on race 6 at Moree. “That’s going to pay for everything,” she says. And I know that single, unexpected action is as good an answer as I am ever going to get to the question I’ve spent a year asking strangers: “What is love?”

Maybe that’s where this story should end, me getting all bloomy with Brigid in the foyer of Brisbane’s New Farm Cinemas. It should begin in 2009 with Lynette Vardy’s pet budgie, Bluey; go backwards to go forwards.

“I’m a little bit backwards,” Lynette said, kneeling down to tend carrots in the edible garden of the 139 Club homeless refuge in Fortitude ­Valley. “When I was a baby I fell down some stairs. I think I damaged some of my brain. I could never learn to read; never learn to write; never learn to do this; never learn to do that. It’s like now, I can’t get a job in a cafe because I can’t read and write to take orders and I don’t know how to handle money. I don’t know how to work the till. But I get by, mostly. I come along to 139.”

I first came to the 139 Club in 2007 after a morning spent begging outside the Tiffany & Co jewellery store in Brisbane. It was an ambitious, flawed idea – young journo goes gonzo homeless for a week, tries to survive on the streets with no money, no food, no shelter, thus gaining a glimpse into life for the 100,000 Australians sleeping rough each night. I placed my Brisbane Broncos hat upside down and sat outside Tiffany’s cross-legged before a cardboard sign reading, “Need money for room in boarding house. Please give generously.” I’ve since been informed my sign was too needy and lacking the necessary splash of humour that draws the punters: “Need money for urgent penis reduction. Seriously, this thing is killing my posture!”; “Mum told me to wait right here, that was 25 years ago!”

After a fruitless hour of awkward human eye contact – looks of compassion are more humiliating than looks of disgust – a young security guard moved me on into the bustling Queen St Mall. “I’m sorry,” he said, genuinely. “You’ll have more luck out here anyway.”

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Utterly lost for ideas as to where I might find food, shelter and a warm shower, I spent the rest of that week dropping into the 139 Club to sleep and watch Oprah by day – the club shuts at 4pm – then begged friends to walk the streets with me until dawn because I was too scared to actually sleep alone on the streets at night. I continued to drop in to 139 in the years after, often greeted in the doorway by the same kind-hearted regular, Mary Cumming, a late-40s daughter of an abusive dad who’d been on and off the streets since the age of 16. “Aaahh, here he is again, look out,” she’d say. As in, “Here’s that scribbling ­vulture again with the ironed chinos, here to peck on the bones of a social tragedy he hopes to fix with another worthy newspaper feature”.

It was Lynette Vardy and her budgie, Bluey, who exposed the flaws in my gonzo efforts. Lynette was 46 when I met her in 2009, and ­living in a boarding house. The love and primary support of her life, her mum, had recently died. The thing she loved most in life after her mum was Bluey. She said Bluey rescued her from depression. She said Bluey was the reason she was still breathing, still dropping in to the 139 Club each day to tend its edible garden.

“I love him,” she said. “When I’m sad, he cheers me up. If I play music he tries to sing along to it. He likes country and western and disco. Sometimes he gives me a big kiss. I talk to him. He sits there and listens to everything I say.”

Lynette asked about my family and I told her about my wife and two young girls; about my brothers and parents and aunts and uncles all close by. Mary Cumming said I wouldn’t properly understand Lynette’s love for Bluey for the same reason I wouldn’t ever understand what it truly means to be homeless because I could never genuinely feel the worst part about it, the loneliness, the despair that comes with waking up each day in a world where there is nothing to love and nothing to be loved by. In that kind of world one quickly learns to improvise, to take love from wherever you can get it. Lynette loved her bird and her tree bloomed because of it.

Three years later she handed me a piece of paper with 10 digits on it, beaming. She’d been learning to read and write in the 139 Club’s ­volunteer classes. It was on that piece of paper that, for the first time in almost 50 years of life, she wrote her phone number.

“I’ve been writing little stories,” she said. “The only thing I’m having trouble with is my Rs.”

R for recovery. R for rehabilitation. R for the redemption of Robert Bell.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy. Love does not boast. Love is a battlefield. Love is in the air. Love is an open door. Love is a four-digit access pin code to the Woolworths ­toilet block passed between a network of homeless friends. Love is an exclusive invitation to a McDonald’s banquet bought with “peel and win” stickers collected from discarded soft drink cups. Love is drugs. Love is booze. Love is cigarettes. Love is a swag. Love is a blanket stolen from the Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital laundry. Love is Robert Bell’s swallowed rage.

Last month, in the 139 Club kitchen, Robert Bell showed me one of his artworks, a stunning dot painting commenting on his life, his father’s indigenous heritage and the expanding universe. Robert turned up unannounced at the 139 Club’s art class one morning in June with some rolled-up canvases on his shoulder. He told the class convenors that he’d recently been released from jail and he had no space to paint and he wondered if he could spread his works out down by the club’s edible garden. Robert is 47 and has spent almost nine years, on and off, inside prison for drug-­related theft.

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“I get so much relaxation out of painting,” he said, his 19-year-old daughter Nadine sitting proudly by his side. “Then I get the end product of seeing people happy.”

“He’s pretty talented isn’t he!” said Nadine.

Robert paints for Nadine and her older sister, Nicole; always has. “They’re my world,” he said. In prison he’d tear off squares from bed sheets and create ballpoint pen masterpieces of skulls and motorbikes for inmates, sell them for as much as $50 apiece, enough to buy his girls chocolates and chips during visiting hours.

“You’d paint on whatever you could find,” he said. He gripped the dot painting in front of us. “I started this when I was working in the prison kitchen. This is cardboard. I’ve glued it on to 3mm MDF and I got that cardboard off the bottom of the pallets of food that used to come in. I’d ask the boss if I could have ’em and take ’em back to the cell and paint on them.”

As Robert spoke, a red-eyed club client in a drug haze sidled up to us, began running his ­fingers across the painting, rudely spinning it around without permission, something quietly menacing in the action. Robert’s demeanour turned on a coin. “Don’t touch it, hey,” he said.

“Did you ask Aboriginals permission to do this?” asked the client.

“He is Aboriginal,” snapped Nadine.

Robert’s face went red; veins popped in his tattooed neck.

“You’re not one-sixteenth!” barked the client.

Robert stared at that brash and drug-brave young troublemaker for 10 long seconds, his teeth clenched, his feet tapping. Then he turned to his daughter and said, softly, “C’mon, let’s go.” Outside the club, Robert’s hands were shaking.

“I touch him, I go straight back in,” he said.

Nadine wrapped her arms around her dad, a tear in her eye. “You did good Dad,” she said.

And that, right there, was a love story.

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A tree had grown from Lynette and Bluey’s love story. A friend, Karin Schaupp, the internationally renowned classical guitarist, made it bloom. Her friends, the award-winning music ensemble Topology, made it shake. We’d built up an idea together, a strange, ambitious notion of turning the love stories of 139 Club regulars into a doco-meets-cinema-meets-concert event for the Queensland Music Festival. The club ­clients would tell their stories on the silver screen while Schaupp and Topology – through guitar, violin, bass, viola and saxophone – would play original live compositions to accompany them, note-perfect soundtracks to their lives that built upon the patterns of their speech, the emotions in their hearts, the natural melodies in their ­stories.

A year ago I began dropping into the 139 Club to conduct a series of interviews with club clients like Robert that all began with the same question: “What is love?” I approached regulars in the club’s morning breakfast lines, in the club’s smoking area, at the exit to the club showers: “Excuse me, I’m wondering if you’d mind ­coming upstairs to talk with me about love?”

Who wants to talk about love after eight hours sleeping on a concrete basketball court in the coldest Brisbane winter in a decade? I expected the “F..k off” responses I got. I didn’t expect the wonder. That simple cheeseball question became a springboard for clients to jump back into their pasts, forward into their futures, to talk about families, regrets, small victories and taking love from the unlikeliest places.

“What is love?” mused Neil Westra, repeating my question as he stared into the camera manned by award-winning Brisbane photographer David Kelly. Love is caring for your children so deeply and truly that you live away from them, live on the street, he said, so as to not bring the cyclonic disasters of your daily life home to harm them. Love is the woman who waits for you to serve eight years in prison and raises your kids alone.

“Love is music,” said Leonor Orellana, who was raised in Guatemala. And she closed her eyes, tilted her head back and sang a note-perfect traditional Spanish flamenco ballad.

Love for Wayne Peters is the way he checks his mobile phone every day in case his ex-wife has called to see if he’s still alive. He said he’d been taking heroin and crystal methamphetamine on and off for close to 40 years, which he is certain would rate as some kind of global record, if the folks at Guinness were ever to track such things.

Love for British-born John Coffey is his younger brother, who hanged himself. Love for John is returning home from an odyssey with the British Navy to find the love of his life engaged to another man. Love is attending that woman’s wedding, watching her kiss the imposter standing in his place and forever holding his peace.

For Dom “Dynamite” Muleta, love is a game of pool. You can set those balls up all neat in the triangle, but when the white strikes it’s anyone’s game – and the eight-ball is there for the taking. Dom’s dad taught him the rules of pool at the age of five, showed him how to hold a cue using a broomstick as a stand-in. “Go to a pool hall,” his dad said, mystically, “and you’ll find your love.”

For much of her 41 years Valerie Anne ­Huysman had no faith in men. She thought men were evil because they sexually abused her as a child. But then she met Dom, fell in love with him over a pool table. She’s different now, less angry, but stronger inside, which is why the regulars call her “Kid”. “As in, ‘The Comeback Kid’,” she said.

Love for Brigid Haug is life before her nervous breakdown, before all the voices in her head that told her she was going to die. She was 28 and a Rockhampton nurse at the time. She’s almost 60 now and loves nothing more than writing epic short stories, which she dreams up while cleaning the windows of the 139 Club. Love is all those couples – all those fertile trees – she watches passing below her window on Brunswick Street.

Love is the volunteer chiropractor and acupuncturist services at 139 Club – sleeping rough is murder on the spine. Love is the club’s Monday morning art therapy classes. Love is a network of homeless painters searching the city for make-do canvases. “One of them came in the other day with a real estate sign to paint on,” said art class co-convener Lyn Matthews. “I told him, ‘You can’t just take real estate signs from in front of people’s houses,’ and he said, ‘Nah, it’s all right Lyn, the house had sold!’ ”

Love is a future for Jesse and Claudia, young lovers who met on the street, who come to Monday morning art class to write stories and poems and draw faces and street scenes inside their well-thumbed sketch books. They carry these books around the streets and ask ­random strangers to write in them, to scribble personal messages about their lives.

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“Love?” said Jesse. “Love is hard when you’re homeless. It’s not the thing on your mind. You’ve got so much else going through your head, your whole thinking changes. Your insides go into survival mode. Where do I need to be? Where do I get food? Where do I keep warm?”

Jesse is in his early 20s. He was a removalist for six years, working up and down the West Australian coast before moving to Brisbane to escape a crippling cyclical world of crystal meth addiction. “Everyone around me was going to jail,” he said. “Lives were being destroyed. I put myself into rehab, then I got out, started selling. I used to move quite a bit of it, which I’m not very proud of. I needed money. Then I ended up using again and then I needed to just get away.”

Jesse and Claudia met at a small street drinks gathering six months ago. They “moved in” together in a concrete space behind the florist shop attached to the Royal Brisbane Hospital, sharing a single blanket that they rolled up and hid with their meagre belongings every day at dawn. Eventually moved on by hospital security, they found a concrete space in the City Botanic Gardens that they slept on before being moved on from it, too. They then found a spot beneath a sprawling Botanic Gardens tree that they soon discovered was infested with spiders; Claudia’s leg swelled up dangerously after a bite, forcing them to seek help from medical staff at the 139 Club. There, art class co-convenor Kerri Pidgeon made Jesse a deal: “I’ll give you a free lunch if you paint me something.” Days later she bought him a sketch pad and some pencils. “I think you could do something with this,” she said.

“When you’re living on the street you feel so alone,” Jesse said. “It doesn’t matter how many people are around you, you just have this alone, empty feeling. But Claudia and me, we’re now alone together, you know. I didn’t want a relationship. But I gave in; I fell in love with her.”

Jesse sat down to have a smoke with his friend, Lisa, a 45-year-old mother-of-four and former machine operator from Redcliffe, who now sleeps in a thick garden bed each night behind the bus stop opposite the 139 Club.

“What is love?” Lisa pondered. “Mmmm. Mmmm. I’m not going there because I’ll cry.”

She asked me a question instead: “What do you do in the morning when you wake up?”

“Ummm, well, I go out to the kitchen and fix some Weet-Bix.”

“Yeah, but you go for a piss first, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So you have a toilet. Before you go for a piss, you’re getting out of a what?”

“Bed.”

“Nice warm cosy bed, pillows and all bro? You then go to the toilet and that toilet has light switches and taps and water. You can splash that water on your face. Then you go to the kitchen and you’re sitting at your lovely dining table and you’re smelling in your homely life. Smell good?”

It smells like toast with vegemite and salt-­reduced spreadable butter.

“The streets don’t smell like that, bro,” Lisa said. “They don’t smell like that. And you’re only two pays away from being just like me.”

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Lisa sleeps in the garden bed because someone stole her swag, a highly prized item on the street. Because she had no swag she began sleeping in a hessian sack behind a church. “But then I got booted in my sleep,” she said. “About 2am, a couple of fellers come past who’d been drinking. ‘You homeless c..ts make me sick’. I get a kick in my sleep and my eye all fills with blood.” She sighed. “Shit just f..kin’ happens.”

One of Lisa’s daughters was murdered several years ago. If there was one thing Lisa had in her life to love and cherish as she walked the streets alone it was a lock of her late daughter’s hair that she kept in a purple, egg-shaped container. “Purple was her favourite colour,” she said. “I kept that lock of hair inside that egg and carried it with me everywhere.” One day, while sleeping rough on the Redcliffe Jetty, she returned from an errand to find her bag and belongings, including the egg, had been removed by local council workers, dumped, gone forever.

“I can’t move on from an absolute shit of a life,” she said. “My son said to me the other day, ‘Mum, I never thought I’d see the day where you gave up on life’. But, mate, it’s an empty f..kin’ hole and no one’s gonna fill it.”

That, right there, was a love story. And when it ended, Lisa did exactly what she said she was going to do. She cried.

“I have something for you,” says Brigid Haug, in the foyer of New Farm Cinemas on the night our little show, Love Stories, plays to a full house that lined up outside the cinema doors to hear the stories of Brigid’s friends, Neil and John and Kid and Dom and Wayne and all the clients of 139. She opens her purse and passes over her trifecta bet. It is Brigid’s way of saying thanks. If this were one of Brigid’s vivid, rollercoaster-ride short stories, that $1 trifecta would pay out big-time and all the clients of 139 would walk into the club the next morning to be greeted by a banquet prepared by Heston Blumenthal, then walk home in the afternoon to five-bedroom mansions with swimming pools.

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But nothing changes dramatically for Brigid and her friends on this night.

The show goes really well. The musicians are superb. The stories are beautiful. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t solve anything. But there is this one period of true magic at the end of it all, this one sublime moment in time after the credits roll when four of the club clients who’ve told their stories – Brigid, Leonor, Dynamite Dom and The Kid – stand up on the theatre’s makeshift stage like movie stars and bow before an audience that stand and clap and holler and, for that brief moment at least, there isn’t a ­single person in that room out of season.

Love Stories will be performed at the Darwin Festival on August 19, darwinfestival.org.au

Source: The Australian, 17082015