Five litres of cider he’d drunk, and it was only 9.30am. He was quite coherent, considering. He had not had a bath for three weeks and he sleeps in his clothes, so he didn’t smell too pleasant. But you get used to the smell after a while, though it hangs around in your lungs for several hours afterwards. You almost notice it more when he’s gone.   The whiffs of poverty and dirt and self-loathing.

He’d made an appointment to have some help filling in a long application form for a disability benefit. The application form is about fifty pages long, full of very precise questions about toilet habits and washing and cooking and ability to walk. It’s very clearly set out, but it’s almost mandatory to puff out a deep sigh when you see one. You need stamina just to fill the form in, and most people who will qualify for the benefit need help, just to get through it.

The benefit is called Disability Living Allowance and is a non-means tested benefit, which means that Christopher Reeve would have qualified. I see it as a sign of the civilised society we live in, that we acknowledge that “shit happens” and that there is no rhyme or reason to disabilities. It is all of us saying that life is not fair. Money will not make things fair, but it will go some way to providing care for those who need it, or for providing respite for exhausted relatives. It is payable based on what you need, care-wise or mobility-wise, and is not based on what you actually receive in terms of care.

Many people who live alone don’t get their care needs met, but they survive by sitting in a chair all day, eating microwave meals, washing with a flannel, and wearing clothes with elastic and no difficult fastenings.  It is payable under special rules to people who are terminally ill.  That is, to those whose death might reasonably be expected in the following six months.  It is awfully difficult to get round to broaching that subject with clients.  There are special rules, too, for children with development disorders such as autism. 

The thresholds are pretty high.  For instance, it is not enough to have lost both your legs in order to qualify for the top rate mobility element.  You actually have to be unable to walk, and that means that if you wear prosthetic limbs and can walk with those then you will not qualify.  People in a coma don’t qualify either… Top rate care and mobility will pay over £110.00 a week.

My man this morning was in his mid-thirties, accompanied by a slightly older friend of his with whom he occasionally kips when he is not sleeping rough.  He’d been sent to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau by the Job Centre for help completing the application form for a benefit that would potentially double his income.  His medical condition was described in a doctor’s certificate as “anxiety attacks” and he suffered several that morning, frequently having to leave the room to recover, and preferring the whole waiting room to hear his toilet habits rather than close the door on the three of us.  I asked how long he suffered these anxiety attacks and he told me how his stepfather used to beat him, and how there was nowhere to get away, and how he was frightened in closed spaces because he couldn’t get away, and that he was frightened in the street, too, that somebody would come and get him.

His friend wasn’t keen to hear all the gory details, but neither was my client keen to be left alone.  Smoke-breaks for his friend left us short snatches of time to deal with the really difficult bits.  He mentioned his dog, and I asked about it, and asked some more, letting him talk and cry.  It turned out the dog had had a massive tumour and the vet had had to put it down.  He hadn’t been able to watch the injection going into his paw, and he sobbed as he told me that he’d carried the dog’s body down to his beloved river to bury it, and how he’d lit a candle on the mound of earth and said a prayer and how his drugged up friend had been hysterical and he’d had to comfort him rather than being able to be quiet in the moment.  I wondered if his dog had made him feel safer than he felt now.

I had to get him to write something, and he wasn’t keen.  I asked him how he’d got on at school and he replied “Sharks”.  He’d loved natural history, and knew everything about sharks.  He reeled off the name of several teachers he’d liked. He liked fishing too, and used to go to the mud flats on the estuary to dig bait.  He said he’d really enjoyed helping people when he was younger too.  It had given him a buzz.  I said if you put all that together, wasn’t it easy to imagine a life better than now, that he could aim towards, where he had a small flat, and a dog, and went fishing and digging for bait, and did some voluntary work to help people.  He said he could imagine that.  I gave him the number of Alcoholics Anonymous and he folded it up with his doctor’s note and put it away in his wallet.

His friend said he wanted to ask me out.  But I gestured to my wedding ring and he gallantly declined, saying just “Respect”.  Later he said that his goal was to find a woman to take to his sister’s wedding in the Caribbean in October, but that he could never take me “because I was not wearing proper shoes”.  I was wearing plimsolls – trendy French Bensimon tennis shoes that went wonderfully with my grey linen skirt, but plimsolls none the less.  I said that I’d had a lucky escape and must wear plimsolls more often.  It was all good humoured and kind.

As finally my client turned his back to leave, all I could see was the twelve-year old boy who loved sharks and digging for bait, and who loved his dog more than himself, and who had been beaten by someone he should have been able to trust.

Afterwards, I sat at my desk writing it all up and breathed heavy sighs.  The supervisor asked me if I was OK.  I was, but it’s a lot to soak up in a morning, twenty odd years of unhappiness laid out before you.

 Another related, similarly depressing post …

Faith and Hope and Not a Lot Else


Stuart: A Life Backwards