Thursday, 19 May 2011


Tuesday 17th May.

I’ve never been clear about what I’m getting. Way back when this thing began I got a lot of letters from Acton JobCentre Plus, or were they? There was an address in Glasgow. Some how I got onto the disability benefits list, I think, and was told I was entitled to £40 a month or so. I didn’t bother with that, then there were more letters, some saying I was not entitled to anything, as if I was arguing, which I wasn’t.

My doctor took charge of it all and got me to sign a letter with him. Since then I have been receiving a small amount of monthly money. I put it towards the high cost of Matcha Green Tea and the magical Montmorency cherry juice.

Then I got a letter saying I had to be assessed to make sure I am not defrauding the taxpayer by dossing around when I could be out there partaking in one of the millions of exciting jobs available.

This troubled me a bit. I lost my job at the Daily Mail in September 2005, and spent the next five years sitting at my computer filling in forms on line for jobs and getting no reply. I didn’t get enough freelance work to live on either, and eventually I started going for the “small” jobs; shop work, stacking shelves, a local café, book shop, Waterstones, museum guide, the Acton Care-Centre, doctor’s receptionist. I didn’t get a thing.

It became clear that there were no jobs for white middle class, middle aged ladies like me. The woman who interviewed me at the care home was embarrassed. She said she mainly employed Africans who sent money home to their families. She wanted strapping young things who could work a twelve hour shift for shit wages.

At forty eight I was an embarrassing bit of scrap on the heap, apparently un-usable by this society. Forty eight sounds old, I know, but I wasn’t. I was still ready to test my fate, take a chance, but I didn’t get one.

The trauma of that with its wrenching shift of identity and life-style was almost as bad as the diagnosis of cancer – I would rank them almost side by side. Perhaps that is why my mind gets so cloudy when the matter of “Jobseekers” and benefits comes up.

“You should get this money,” said my Doctor. “You have ovarian cancer.” I didn’t want to hear that, but I decided to go through with it.

This assessment seemed even more unlikely because it involved a trip to Neasden of all places, with an order to be there at 9am or there would be a danger of losing benefits. As if this north London suburb is known to be inaccessible and largely unvisited by outsiders, they provided a map and even a timed journey plan from my flat.

I got up at 6am as I had no way of knowing how long the journey to Neasden might take. I got there at 7.30am and followed the map along a dual carriage way, under a dirty bridge to a large flat building called something “house,” as much like a house as an air-craft hangar.

I had decided to put on a summer dress, bought on Saturday from Dorothy Perkins in the Westfield Centre, along with a white cotton bolero. Lord I was freezing. I hadn’t worn a dress for ages and I badly misjudged the Spring weather. Despite costing £40 it’s made of mighty thin cotton, almost like tracing paper, and it kept blowing up around my neck.

Some Somali men on the desk of the office next door to the medical centre let me sit in and wait. The medical centre still hadn’t opened at 8.45am. I stood on the step in the wind, joined by a middle aged woman with a pony-tail, and a walking stick.

“Be careful,” she said, “they are watching us. There is one of them in that four-wheel drive over there. They watch to see if you are really disabled.”

I flexed my hand with carpel-tunnel syndrome a bit to try to look a bit less of a ligger, whilst screwing my fly-away skirt down between my perishing knees.

She said she was by profession “a dog psychologist.” She hadn’t had much luck with her clients.

“I was in the park with my Shepherd,” she went on. “Another dog barged up to us and completely severed my leg.”

I smiled politely as if perfectly convinced. I wondered what kind of dog it could have been, probably not one of the myriad Yorkshire terriers or pugs in smart coats that you see in Acton Park. And why couldn’t she carry on with that work - surely all she needed to do was sit opposite or behind the disturbed dog as it lay on the couch.

“I now wear a brace,” she said. How could you put a brace on a leg that was no longer there?

“My physiotherapist says I won’t be well again for seven years.”

The letter was very keen on us being there by 9am but they only opened the door one minute before the hour.

A young Somali man with a shiny forehead and tiny features unlocked it as I pressed the bell. He looked annoyed and began to question me about why I had done that as he was unlocking. He seemed like an offended policeman who might at any moment turn proper nasty. The dog lady and I hopped into the lift with remarkable alacrity for two such disabled people.

“Well, you are here nice and early,” said the Chinese girl on the second floor desk, as if we were not only disabled but only five years old.

There were just the two of us being interviewed and I was relieved to be called very quickly.

The woman interviewing was a nurse of the old type; English, well educated and pleasant. Unlike the other staff I’d met she was impeccably professional. As far as I could tell she had no attitude towards me at all. She just wrote it all down and some one else made the decision.

She tapped away, and I noticed she had no wrist supports on the desk or key board at all. As I listed my rather vague symptoms, I wondered how long her wrists would keep going like that.

I asked her if she knew how much I was getting, she didn’t but thought it might be about £64 a week. I was very surprised. I’d never noticed that on my bank statement. I’d feel rich if I had that.

We did some exercises - swing the arms, open and shut hands, pronate and supinate the forearms. Lie down and sit up. Touch the toes. I was very good at them, except when she told me to put my chin on my chest and look at the ceiling. She tapped me for reflexes. It was no more humiliating that meeting people who didn’t know me or can’t remember me when I had a job, Egyptian cotton sheets and good clothing.

On the way out, heading to the loo, I saw the Somali who’d let us in, sitting facing the ladies lavatory door. As I went in he gave me an unpleasant, knowing look as if I’d got scammer written all over me. Perhaps the dog lady was right and we were being scrutinised. He and the girl on the desk regarded us as if they had private knowledge about us and it wasn’t anything to be proud of.

I wondered whether to ask them how they got their jobs – and if they could possibly get one for me ?

1 comment:

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