You're running a drop-in at a health centre and a man comes to see you for advice about his benefits. He's an elderly man in his 60s. He’s not very well. He lives on his own.
You ask him the usual questions about how he
copes with his health problems and what he does day-to-day; if he goes out
much, what he eats, how unwell he feels on a scale of one to ten, that sort of
For a quiet, unassuming man, he tells you
quite a lot about himself. His health problems are many; he has heart disease
and angina. He’s had three strokes in as many years that have made the whole of
his right side much weaker than the left and his memory poor. He has a
condition in his leg that causes it to swell and gives him terrible pain. He
can’t walk far without having to stop and rest. He tells you he’s scared a lot
of the time. You ask him what about. He says he doesn’t really know.
You ask him if he feels depressed and he
says that he’s never thought about it before but that he supposes he does. He
tells you that he never really feels like doing anything these days, that there
are a few programmes on telly that he likes to watch but that’s about it. He says
it’s hard not being able to read or write because it makes him feel like an
outsider and it makes everything much harder, like using a washing machine
and going to the Post Office.
You ask him more about his reading and
writing. He tells you that his teachers at school sort of gave up on him and that he was sent to sit at the back of the class. He tells you that,
after a while, instead of being required to go to class, he was given jobs to
do like helping the groundsman paint the white lines on the football field. He chuckles
a little bit.
He tells you that he left school at 14 and
went to work on the railways and that he did this until 1995. He was offered
voluntary redundancy because he had an accident at work that meant he couldn’t
do the job properly anymore. He says he really misses the railways; he had some
great mates there. He tells you he used to go into work an hour before his shift
started just so he could spend some time with his friends and have a laugh for
a bit. He says that he supposes most of them are dead by now. He tells you that
those are the only proper friends he ever had and that he doesn’t really bother
with people any more. You ask him if he ever feels lonely. He tells you that that's the thing he feels most.
You ask him if he eats well and he tells you
that he doesn’t, really. Most nights he goes to the chippy but some nights he doesn’t
bother having anything because he doesn’t feel like it.
He gives you a letter from his doctor, the
content of which is pretty bleak. And you look at this man who has grafted all
his life and who has learnt how to fit an engine into a train but is really
fucking vulnerable and you look at yourself sitting behind your computer doing
this job and then you look at him again.
And you have this image in your head –
a fantasy really – that this man is your elderly dad and you picture yourself
in one of those films; one of those films that has hardly any talking and is
really beautifully shot and has loads of attention to detail and in the film
you’re the daughter and he’s the dad and you’re a lonely young woman with sadness
and gorgeous secrets and he’s none the wiser and you visit him every week to
take him his shopping and you eat together in total silence and you’re this
pair of unremarkable people doing unremarkable things but it’s all beautiful because it’s one of those
films where the light is always unbearably poignant. And then you snap out of
it and feel like a prick.
And then you look down at your paper work
and ask him to sign a consent form which he does badly and for which he
apologises. And you give him some information but you tell him that you’ll need
to see him again soon, after you’ve made some calls and looked in some books.
And he gets up from his chair and looks at your eyes and holds out his hand for you to shake and he
says thank you very, very much for
helping me, in a way that makes you suspect he's rehearsed it a few times in his head, and then he leaves.
And he leaves just in time actually because
he’s completely broken your heart and you know that he has because you start to
cry. And it’s a total cliché, what you’re doing, you know that, but you can’t
really rein it in. And you cry quite hard for a bit but then you start to feel
guilty and patronising and spoilt and arrogant and all those other ugly things. Because what do you know? Really, what?
So you decide to just feel lucky instead.