He woke up at the noise. The first plane flew over the house at 6am every day, including Sundays, like a Promethean punishment from the Establishment. Although his alarm was set for 7am, he rarely slept beyond the first low-flying aircraft heading for Heathrow Airport. “Please, don’t let them build another runway,” he moaned, as bleary-eyed and with an uncomfortably full bladder, he manoeuvred his swollen legs and numb feet over the edge of the bed and sat up.
Marge was still sleeping, ear plugs in and mask on. He looked at her with a mixture of love and envy. He couldn’t sleep with ear plugs in – what would happen if there was a break-in or explosion? Such things were not unheard of on the Runnymede Council estate. He managed a slow, painful shuffle to the bathroom and relieved himself. After a quick wash and shave he returned to the bedroom to get dressed. Not a straight forward procedure, as nerve damage to his hands and feet made routine tasks a trial. He sat on the bed and took his pills.
Johnny was downstairs having his cereal, ear phones in and eyes glued to flashing lights on his tablet. Thankfully, he was a self-sufficient teenager and could make his own way to school.
“What you got on today?”
He removed one ear plug. “Nuffin’ much.”
“Well, let’s hope your teachers can spark an interest; and stay out of trouble.”
The letterbox snapped and he robotically moved to the front door. His heart froze in shock. A brown envelope. He hated getting brown envelopes. It was not his fault he was unable to work anymore due to a chronic condition. These things happen. Now he was in The Welfare System.
He sat at the kitchen table, turning the envelope over in his tingling hands, sitting quite still with bowed head as the boy plonked a mug of tea in front of him and rushed out just as she rushed in, gulping a cup of coffee.
“What you got there?” she said.
“Letter from the sosh.”
She hovered behind him. He could sense her unease.
“I’ll open it when you’ve gone.”
“Oh, no you won’t. I want to know what it says before I go for work. You know our budget is on a shoestring. Any changes will leave us going to the Food Bank. Open it.”
He reluctantly thumbed it open, fearing the outcome. He read in brooding silence.
“Come on then, what does it say?” There was an uneasy tone in her voice.
“It says, ‘…you are required to attend a meeting to review your status as being medically unfit for work.’”
“Oh God!” she cried, as she slumped onto a chair. “Why can’t they leave you alone? Doctors have examined you and said you’re not well enough to return to work. Why are they doing this? I’ve got to go. We’ll talk later.” A kiss on the cheek and she was gone.
He took his time clearing up. Put warm water and washing up liquid in the sink. Pile the dishes in, then sit down. Wash up and leave on the drainer. Sit down. He moved slowly to the lounge and picked up his inhaler and welfare correspondence file. Sit down. He was breathing heavily and took a few seconds to recover. A squirt on the inhaler. His tired eyes wandered to family photos on the wall. One of him with team mates holding a trophy.
The warm sunlight and effect of the medication made him drowsy and afternoon naps were a part of his new routine. He woke to the sound of sobbing coming from the kitchen. Slowly pushing himself up from the armchair, on swollen feet he moved to the kitchen. She was sitting at the table, head in arms, body shaking with deep sobs. He put his arm around her.
“Don’t worry, love. Things will be alright. I’ll get another letter from the doctors. I’ve already made an appointment.”
“Oh no it won’t!” She sat up, red eyed. “Look what’s in today’s paper!”
He read out loud: “‘Sick Dad Killed Himself After Benefits Axed’. Hmm… a Coroner has ruled that a man committed suicide as a result of a government-approved assessor telling him to get a job against doctors’ advice.”
He looked at a photo of the Minister responsible, clearly selected to make him look sinister. She sat up and looked at him miserably, mascara running down her cheeks.
“What are we going to do? You can’t win against these people. They’re on a mission to cut welfare payments at all cost, even killing people! It says in there that 2,500 sick and disabled people have died within two weeks of their benefits payments being stopped after being declared fit for work. It’s not fair!”
“Come on, love. There’s no way they’ll find me fit for work. Look at me! Still in my dressing gown in the afternoon. I’m a wreck, and that’s how they’ll see me. Let’s have a cup of tea.” They sipped their teas and munched on biscuits in miserable silence. How can I tell her that I’ve already been sanctioned for missing a meeting?
He persuaded her to go upstairs and have a lie down. His mind was numb. There was nothing else to be done. They’ll probably be better off without me – the Union will pay-out. He took a roll of washing line and a foot stool and walked out into the back yard. Blinked up at the late afternoon sun, he scowled as the shadow of a ‘plane flashed over. Placing the stool under a tree he stood on it and threw the washing line over an overhanging branch.
Madge woke from her nap when the front door slammed.
“Mum! I’m home!” Johnny shouted.
She got up and made her way to the bedroom window, looking down to their tiny patch of garden. She froze in horror at the sight of her husband’s legs standing on a stool under the tree. With a scream she rushed downstairs, past the startled boy, and out into the garden. His head and torso were obscured by the leaves of the tree as she rushed up to him, throwing her arms around his legs and squeezing as tight as she could.
“Hey! What’s going on, you silly mare!”
“Don’t do it!” she sobbed, “We’ll manage!”
“What are you on about? I’m just fixing the washing line!”