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Avee Tsofa Holmes
I met Benjie at the care home I was working at on Sillwood Street when he was about 18 years old. He apparently came from a good family in Jamaica and wanted to study to be a vet, but because of his drug problem he’d ended up in the care home. I didn’t see him again for many years until he walked into the Sussex AIDS Centre and Helpline on Cavendish Street announcing his presence with ‘hello pea pod’ when he saw me. It turned out he was also living in the same block as me at Tyson Place! I started training to be a volunteer at the Sussex AIDS Centre when it was based in just one room near London Road. Years later when Princess Diana officially opened the place on the 12th of July 1990, Benjie was there too. When he said ‘how's Charlie boy then’ to her I nearly died, but she took it all in her stride and smiled.
When Our House Body Positive was up and running, I organised a trip to Arundel Castle. There were eight of us with my dear friend James Etheridge driving. Benjie asked me if we could go to the Castle café for some hot chocolate. When I turned my head at the counter, I saw Benjie tipping sugar sachets into his hippy bag, and I was horrified. He just grinned and said, ‘we've paid for them.’ He was so beautifully dressed that day in an Edwardian green velvet frock jacket with lacy cuffs and black trousers tucked into high leather boots.
One Christmas Eve (his last) I came home at 1 in the morning to be greeted by four fire engines. Thick smoke was billowing from his bedsit and the fire was so bad they had sealed off the entire 3rd floor. I think Benjie stayed at the hospital that night. He came back in the morning and asked me to go upstairs because he thought his cat was still in the flat, but I couldn't find it, or any remains. The fire started because he’d been drinking with a friend and using drugs by candlelight because they’d run out of electricity. Benjie was rehoused, but he sadly passed away the following Easter after a three-day Methadone binge. It was an electric heater that caused a blaze this time, and he died in hospital soon after from smoke inhalation. Words by Avee Tsofa Holmes