A Short Story by Tim Walker
The Witch Trials
Grey skies and a light drizzle reflected his mood and did little to allay the fear that clenched in his stomach. With a sigh he entered a cobbled lane, leaning on his walking stick as the cramps stabbed at his ankles and feet like demons with sharp needles. Above him shop signs creaked and groaned on rusty hinges and the upper floors of aging properties crowded in, dimming the light and slowing his progress. Homeless people and assorted beggars sat in doorways and alleyways, crying out to passers-by for help. Stopping halfway to catch his breath, George bent to talk to a homeless man cowering under a blanket.
“What’s caused you to be on the streets, my friend?” he asked.
The man shifted and sat upright, sensing an opportunity. “Good day to you, sir. I have lost my job and been evicted from my lodgings. Times are hard. Can you spare some coin?” he rattled a chipped mug at George.
Dropping a coin in, George asked him, “How much further to the courts?”
“Top of the lane and turn right, follow the shadow of the castle walls to the square and you’ll see it to your left.” He peered at the hunched figure before him, leaning on a stick to stay upright. “Are you summoned to the witch trials?”
George stood as upright as he could manage, stretching his back. “Is that what they are called? I’m one of those summoned to appear for examination. Suspicion and distrust stalk our troubled land. Good luck to you.”
With that, George continued his uncomfortable journey towards the rectangle of daylight at the top of the lane. Here he rested whilst taking in the imposing sight of the castle walls – tall, majestic and grey, built to command and dominate the subdued town. The cries of beggars mixed with the shouts of street traders hawking their wares, as the wealthier citizens drove by, unconcerned and cocooned in their conveyances. At the town square he saw a sign for the courts on a granite building and headed towards it. Each step brought pain as pins-and-needles shot up his shins, forcing him to rock from side-to-side, like a ship in a storm, in a forlorn attempt to find relief.
He joined a line of dejected folk in the overheated reception area, shuffling forward to check in for their appointments.
“Go to the end of this corridor,” the unsmiling receptionist said, “to where it says, ‘Work Capability Assessments’ and take a seat. You’ll be called.”
A ceiling mounted cctv camera swept the waiting area, adding to his sense of foreboding. George looked away from it and retreated into his own thoughts, reflecting on his predicament. He had been a maintenance engineer with a global company until, as a result of mounting absences, he had been retired at fifty-nine on the grounds of ill health. Poor circulation compounded by nerve damage in the extremities of his limbs was slowly reducing him to a hunched invalid. It was not reversable and would worsen over time, his GP had told him, prescribing medication to ease the symptoms and give some relief from nagging pain. Now his status as ‘medically unfit for work’ was being challenged under new Government welfare reforms.
His name was called after half an hour and he was ushered through steel security doors into a white-walled corridor with a dozen rooms off it.
“I’ll be assessing you today,” said a sombre brown-haired man in glasses, probably twenty years his junior. He wore a white coat but looked more lab assistant than medical professional.
“Are you a doctor?” George asked, whilst seating himself and laying his walking stick on the worn and curling carpet squares.
“I’m not obliged to identify myself today, Mister Osborne. I’m your Government-appointed assessor. Firstly, can you confirm your full name, address and national insurance number?”
George duly replied, and then answered a series of questions about his condition and what medication he was taking. Could he dress himself? Could he prepare a meal? How far could he walk? The questions followed one after the other and George’s responses were noted.
“And how did you get here today, Mister Osborne?”
“How far would you say it is from the stop where you alighted?”
“About a hundred and fifty yards, give or take.”
“Thank you.” He tapped away on the computer keyboard for a minute.
“Now I’d like to give you a physical examination. Can you please sit on the couch?” He asked George to raise his arms, bend backwards and forwards, rotate his head and lift his legs. When satisfied he instructed George to return to his chair whilst he sat at his desk, typing notes and squinting at his screen. George stared at the peeling paint on the ceiling for a while.
“Thank you, Mister Osborne. Please return to the waiting area and we will let you know the outcome of your assessment in approximately thirty minutes.”
“As soon as that? Alright then.” George picked up his stick and made his way gingerly to the waiting room.
He sat next to a young man with callipers on his legs and a mother who caressed his arm. An anxious woman was pacing up and down the narrow space between the rows of plastic bucket seats, mumbling and scratching her head, causing a man in a wheelchair to back up and concede precious space to her. Opposite him was a row of silent, pensive faces of young, middle aged and elderly men and women. Most shuffled or limped to the heavy security door when their names were called. The turnover was quite quick – one in every five to ten minutes. Maybe a dozen assessors…
“Mister Osborne.” His thoughts were curtailed and he pushed himself up with his stick. Through the door again, but this time a turn to the left and into a bigger room where a panel of two men and one woman sat at a table, facing a solitary chair. George was directed to sit and answered the security questions to confirm his identity.
An elderly man with thinning grey hair sat in the middle looked up from his notes and spoke. “Mister Osborne, we have assessed your capability to work and found you to be fit. This means your claim for sickness benefits will be closed as of today, and should you wish to make a fresh claim for Job Seekers Allowance then you must report to your nearest Job Centre in the morning. Is there anything you’d like to say?”
“Erm… yes. This is quite a shock… As you must know from my record I was retired from work on the grounds of incapacity, and my doctor is treating me for severe pains in my hands, legs and feet. Can you elaborate on what you mean by ‘fit for work’?”
The woman on the panel chose to answer. “Your assessment tells us that you were able to walk more than one hundred yards from the bus stop to this centre, that you could walk into the room without being helped, could sit still for more than ten minutes, understand and answer questions put to you, and pass a rudimentary physical examination…”
“I stopped twice to catch my breath. It took me over thirty minutes to get here. And as for passing a physical,” George blurted, “I could barely raise my arm!”
The second man answered, “But you COULD raise your arm and you DID make it here, Mister Osborne. That is the point.”
“On painful and swollen feet, with pins-and-needles shooting up my legs. I get breathless quickly when walking. My doctor has told me to keep off my feet as much as possible…”
“Nevertheless,” the senior man interrupted, “you are found to be capable of doing some work. If you want to continue receiving benefits then you must report to the Job Centre.” The three of them simply stared at him, indicating the meeting was over. George shook his head and slowly stood.
“Is there an appeals process?” he asked from the door.
“There is, via the Job Centre, but you must first convince them you are eligible,” came the terse reply. George now understood the procession of unhappy faces that had gone before him.
As he left the building a young woman approached and smiled as she offered him a leaflet. “Hi, my name’s Amy and I’m from a charity that gives advice and support to chronically ill and disabled people who have been miraculously declared fit for work,” she cheerfully said. It was the first smile George had seen all day, and he attempted a grin in response.
“Well, I might need some advice after that. My feet ache and my head’s spinning.”
“You’re not alone. Most of those who attend are declared fit for work, including people with severe physical disabilities and mental health problems. Under the new guidelines you have to be wholly unresponsive and not able to sit still to be in with a chance of remaining on sickness benefits. We advise you to sign on for Job Seekers Allowance so your income is not cut off and then come to our office. I know it’s a shock, but don’t despair – we can help.”
George made his way home in concerned silence. He had worked for thirty years without much time off for illness or injury and had been led to believe that in his time of need the State would support him. He had been cruelly disappointed. He made a sandwich and took his medication with a glass of orange squash. Then he retired to his room for a nap. This was now part of his new daily routine.
At six o’clock the door slammed shut and his son, Derrick, appeared at the bedroom door.
“How did it go, Dad?”
George sat up and wandered into the lounge, describing his experience as he went. Sitting in his favourite armchair he added, “I’ve hardly ever missed work for sickness and now they’re making me feel like a fraud or a work-shy loafer.”
“These Government cuts are painful for a lot of people, Dad,” Derrick replied. “It’s always those at the bottom of the pile who are made to suffer. Don’t take it personally.”
“It is personal, son,” George moaned. “Now my best hope for fair treatment is this charity.” He showed Derrick the leaflet. Derrick turned it over in his hands and shrugged. “Cup of tea?”
The following day George made his way to the Job Centre and was interviewed by a disinterested youth. “You have to make a contract with the Government to spend at least thirty-five hours a week looking for work, and be prepared to take any work that your adviser deems to be suitable,” the young man intoned. George followed the advice of the woman from the charity and signed the form, knowing that he was no longer capable of reporting to a place of work on successive days or of staying the course for six or seven hours a day.
“Can I take part-time work?” he asked.
“You can, but there are few about, and hourly rates are poor, as employers and organisations prefer full-time staff.”
Derrick had found out where the charity offices were located and given him written instructions on how to get there. It involved another bus ride to a different part of town. George arrived at the building – it was a converted house – and rang the doorbell. A man peered through a crack in the door.
“A woman called Amy gave me this leaflet and advised me to come here,” George said.
“Then come in,” the man replied, opening the door wide and stepping to one side. Please wait in the lounge and I’ll call her.” George glanced at the noticeboard as he passed and noted leaflets for various support services on display. In the lounge, all the chairs and sofas were pushed back against the wall, like a dentist’s waiting room, and a coffee table occupied the middle of the carpet space, covered with magazines and empty mugs. About half the seats were taken with an odd assortment of unhappy people who appeared to be from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps poverty and desperation were all they had in common, as there were no conversations taking place.
“Ah, hello again George,” Amy said brightly. “Come through to the kitchen and we’ll get a tea or coffee before we have a chat.” She had spiked blond hair and wore a blue mohair jumper, black jeans and baseball boots, like a punk rocker from the late seventies. George had been more of a progressive rock fan, back in the day.
“How did it go at the Job Centre?” she asked when they were seated in her tiny office.
“I found it to be a degrading and de-humanising experience. I’m a skilled tradesman of thirty years’ service, but now I’m treated with suspicion and made to feel like a scrounger. This capability assessment is designed to make you fail. Even the positioning of their centre on top of a hill next to the castle is well thought out – the enemy has to battle uphill.”
She regarded him with well-practiced, blue-eyed sympathy, her head cocked slightly to one side. “I know it’s hard, George, and many are suffering as a result of these Government cuts – more of a crack-down really. Nearly everyone is found ‘fit for work’ but on appeal over 65% of decisions are overturned. We’ll look into your grounds for appeal and help guide you through the system. You’ve been advised to set up an online account by the Job Centre, is that right?”
“Do you use the internet? Do you have wi-fi at home?”
“Erm, yes. I live with my son, Derrick. Just the two of us since my wife, Gloria, left us. He’s on it all the time, but I don’t use it much.”
“Well, I’m sure your son will support you through this. The most important thing is that you post a comment everyday saying what you’ve done that day to find work. I’ll set you up, and give you notes to take home. Your son can then show you how to post a comment. You need to follow their rules to the letter or they’ll sanction you…”
“What’s a ‘sanction’?”
“It’s when they stop your money. Usually if you are late or miss an appointment, or your work coach deems you are not doing enough to find a job. A lot of those downstairs have been sanctioned and have come here asking for a loan. Unfortunately, we can only help a few, so my advice is to follow their rules and turn up on time.” She sat back and smiled, as if this was a normal situation.
“I’ve never claimed anything from the State before I went onto sickness benefit, except child support for Derrick. This has all got my head swimming.”
“It’s affecting more and more people every day, Mister Osborne. Now please fill out this form and I’ll get you registered with us. Bums on seats helps us get more funding. We do a free lunch twice a week, by the way, on Mondays and Thursdays. You’re welcome to join us on those days.”
After a couple of weeks, George felt more at ease and had met a few of the regulars. He had also been to see his doctor and given her a copy of the assessment outcome that he had received in the post. Although she was unhappy and disturbed by the results, she was not able to do much more than offer to give him a sick note if he felt he couldn’t start a job that was too demanding. She asked about his moods and offered a prescription for anti-depressants. George refused, but asked for a more powerful dosage of painkillers as he was doing more walking than she had recommended and he would have liked.
After lunch at the drop-in, a fiery character with a chronic and degenerative condition named Paul asked him if he wanted to attend a meeting.
“A meeting to discuss what?”
“We’re planning to take part in a protest outside parliament against these work capability assessments.”
“I’ve never protested anything in my life. I’m a strict law and order type,” George replied, leaning back slightly as he caught a whiff of the red-haired youth’s sour breath.
“It’s part of a national protest and if the numbers are high enough it’ll get the attention of the international media. Why don’t you just come in and listen. No obligation.”
Two weeks later, George found himself on a train heading into central London in the company of his new drop-in mates. Derrick had finally talked him around and had even painted a board from him to take with the words, ‘Work Capability Assessment – Unfit and Failing’.
“I feel uncomfortable about this,” he whispered to Amy who sat next to him. “It feels like I’m doing something subversive.”
“Not at all George. It’s your right to protest against this unpopular and hostile Government who ignore their responsibilities to citizen welfare and dance to the tune of Big Business. They’re treating us like dirt, and it’s time we stood up and denounced it.”
“Or lean on a railing and denounce it,” George moaned. He noticed Paul and a group of friends standing in a closed group around a large hold-all, whispering conspiratorially. “I hope I don’t get dragged into anything illegal like damage to public property.”
“Don’t worry. It’s a peaceful protest involving over a dozen charities similar to ourselves from around the country. People are suffering, and it’s time we drew the nation’s attention to it.”
“Does anyone care? Those in work tend to take a dim view of those who don’t contribute to the economy.”
“That’s only because of Government propaganda that has divided our nation. Our economic woes are not the fault of the sick, poor and disabled. Rather, they are the fault of our capitalist system that allows the rich to get away without paying their fair share of taxes. Our world has become distorted by the greed, ambition and arrogance of a wealthy elite who have a firm grip on our political system and infuse our society with their odious values. It’s time for the little people to stand up to them in a way that we can’t through the ballot box.”
George was impressed. It was a view he had never considered before. He had spent his whole life buying into the shared values of a political system that encouraged home ownership, personal aspiration and wealth accumulation. Now he had been discarded by the system he had supported, and felt betrayed. They were now looking down on him with a smirk of disdain.
“I feel I’m on a very peculiar journey with all this, but I’m now a convert and fully supportive. It was never meant to be this way. Democracy is supposed to work for everyone.”
George stuck close to Amy as the crowds intensified as they approached Parliament Square. The noise levels increased as chanting of slogans began – he had never seen so many wheelchairs and mobility scooters in one place. Speakers took to a makeshift platform to give stirring speeches and soon the television cameras arrived. Soon it was Paul’s turn to climb onto the stage of wooden planks between railings, receiving whoops and enthusiastic applause from their drop-in group. His friends had wedged themselves behind him with the large hold-all they had dragged from the train. Paul appeared to be much bulkier than George remembered, wearing an oversized raincoat.
His stirring speech soon reached a climax and he held up his hands to hush the crowd.
“…I’m not against finding something to do to give the chronically ill and those with physical and mental impairments added purpose and motivation in their lives – but they should be activities that are not set against a profit-making target with a bullying manager standing over you. The answer is NOT to brutalise us through these demeaning capability assessments, stop our benefits as a sanction and then tell us to hustle in a low-paid gig economy with millions of fit, young and desperate adults. The capitalist mindset that controls our political agenda is producing a blame culture directed against those not deemed to be pulling their weight whilst generating wealth for the already filthy rich!”
Applause and jeering broke out, allowing Paul to catch his breath. “This must end. We need to put on our compassion goggles and come up with a fresh solution to assist the weakest members of our society in a humane and supportive way.”
Paul deemed the time was right and stepped back to thunderous applause. He unbuttoned his comedy coat, revealing what appeared to be a suicide bomb belt strapped around his body. The crowd gasped and backed away in consternation. George stood transfixed, keeping his eyes on Paul, who had taken off the coat and had a device with two metal cannisters strapped to his back, fitted by his friends. They then studiously withdrew, leaving Paul alone on the platform.
“Come on George, let’s move back,” Amy said, pulling his coat sleeve.
They retreated behind a hastily-erected police barrier and continued to watch Paul who now addressed himself directly to the television cameras.
“The culture of blaming the weakest members of society for its ills harks back to an earlier age of intolerance and exploitation. If dramatic action is required to get the people of this country to wake up and see the injustices all around them, then that’s what they’ll get. This is for the two thousand martyrs to capitalist oppression!”
He was holding trigger devices in both hands and seemed to be pressing the buttons. Screams went up from the hundreds gathered in the square as flashes of yellow flames shot downwards from the cannisters on his back. The intensity increased, and soon Paul lifted off the ground, like James Bond in ‘Thunderball’, propelled into the blue sky above Parliament. The jet pack took him up vertically and then he tilted forward and flew over Westminster Bridge, where he picked a spot to hover about a hundred feet above the River Thames, an equal distance from the banks and bridges. Pleasure boats and barges quickly moved out of the way as police launches sped to the scene.
“What’s he waiting for?” George shouted above the din. He and Amy pushed their way through the crowd to the Embankment wall and watched in horror. “Did you know he was going to do this?”
“Absolutely not!” Amy cried, gripping George’s arm. The police where shouting to him through a megaphone from a boat, but it was impossible to hear anything above the roar of the jet engines and the noise of the crowd. George estimated a thousand or more people had gathered on the south and north banks and along the length of the two bridges.
“If this is a stunt, it’s certainly got people’s attention…”
Just then there was a hiss and a splutter and the flames died out. Paul and his jet pack plummeted into the dirty brown water with a splash. Nothing came back to the surface. The assembled multitude of protestors, tourists and office workers gasped in horror as a police launch moved to the spot and officers looked helplessly at the opaque water. The muddy flow of the River Thames continued its journey to the sea, impassive, unresponsive, indifferent to the latest in a long history of human dramas. George took Amy’s arm for support and they burrowed through the crowd, moving downstream.
A pair of hands reached out of the dirty water and gripped the rope on the side of a tourist boat. Soon, they pulled a head out of the water, and shouts from the bank drew the attention of those onboard, who dragged the figure onto the deck. Paul coughed and vomited dirty river water as he was helped to a sitting position and wrapped in a blanket.
George and Amy barged their way through the crowd to a set of stone steps that went down to a landing stage. They hurried down as the pleasure boat docked, and Paul was escorted onto the jetty.
“We’ll take care of him,” George said, putting an arm around the soaked man. Amy took his other arm and they walked up the steps and melted into the crowd. The police had not seen this incident and were still searching on the river.
“Perhaps he should remain a martyr to the cause,” Amy said, as she hailed a taxi and gave the address of a charity she knew in central London. She slid the window to the driver shut and sat back.
“This is rather exciting,” George said in the back of the black cab, “I’m now a member of a seditious underground movement.”
Amy looked across the barely conscious Paul and replied, “Joking aside, George, I expect this will be all over the news, and we must think of ways to keep it there. A strong swell of public opinion in our favour is the only thing that can effect change.”
At the London homeless charity, George helped Paul remove his sodden clothing, and saw that what had looked like a suicide bomb vest was, in fact, a life jacket. Amy returned with a doctor to examine Paul, whom she described as ‘a homeless man who had unfortunately fallen in the river’. He was given antibiotics to ward off any possible infection, but otherwise was deemed to be fine. Amy found him some donated clothes to change into.
“You took a right ducking,” George said, handing Paul a mug of coffee.
Paul managed a grin. “Ah yes. Harking back to the ducking of witches. If you floated it was proof that you were a witch and you were then dragged out and burned at the stake. If you sank, then you were innocent, but most likely drowned anyway. A lose-lose scenario, I’d say.”
“Ah, but in your case, you sank but were buoyed up by a life vest, so you cheated the hangman, so to speak,” George replied.
“Innocent of being unwilling to work, I sank to the bottom, only to be returned to the surface by my life jacket. If I could travel back in time I’d take some life vests and pocket knives to the Middle Ages and set up a bureau advising witchcraft suspects on how to cut themselves free from the ducking stool and swim for their lives.”
“But what did you hope to achieve?” George asked.
Paul looked up and grinned through cracked lips. “They make you feel so small, so powerless through their constant bullying and harassment. I can’t do anything about my condition and I feel so much frustration. I just wanted to be in control for a moment, to be free of all the nastiness and to fly above them all…”
Amy had many friends at the charity who were wholly sympathetic to the protest. They all watched the repeats on a satellite news channel and began discussing ways to continue the protest. News reporters helped by giving the numbers of people who had been moved off sickness benefits by Government-employed private contractors, and the shocking statistic that over two thousand benefit claimants had committed suicide in the past few years as a response to having their money stopped. A hard-faced Government spokesman tried to deflect the questions asked by repeating a mantra about economic performance and high employment.
Soon a brainstorm list of possible actions had been made, and Amy tried to whittle it down to realistic actions. “If only we had an electrician on our team,” she mused, “then we could cut the power to the ruling party’s headquarters the next time they hold a meeting there.” She looked sideways at the quiet and thoughtful figure of George.
“Erm, yes. I’m an electrical engineer,” he sheepishly admitted.
“Well? Are you committed to our cause yet?” Amy asked.
All eyes were on George, the only sound a delivery scooter rattling down the lane outside. George sat straight, his hands on the table, meeting the stares of the expectant faces around him. “I’ll do it.”