He can hear his thundering heart beat and feels a tight pain in his chest that he is sure is the onset of heart problems even if his doctor insists it’s just anxiety. With just two days before Christmas, he had been hoping for a card or two, but no such luck. Still he’ll be seeing his grandchildren tomorrow he thinks as, with some difficulty, he stoops to pick up the letter.
It is from the government alright, he can tell that easily enough. No-one else sends out letters in those envelopes. Stuffing it in his pocket he decides to carry on down to the shops. Nothing is going to stop him getting those kids a Christmas present he thinks, and decides whatever horror the envelope contains can wait until after lunch.
Jim is 56 and lives alone in a small flat in a suburb of Leeds. He has a grown up daughter, who lives and works in Newcastle, where she is married with two sons who Jim adores. He doesn’t see them as often as he likes, but he will be travelling up tomorrow, Christmas Eve. He reminds himself he still needs a coach ticket, but that should be okay. He knows even just a couple of hours on the coach will mean agony tomorrow, but he just can’t afford the train. His daughter had offered to pay but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Jim is also a fictional character. Sadly his plight is all too true for many people this Christmas.
Like most of his friends, Jim left school at 15 with just a couple of CSEs. He’d be the first to admit he wasn’t academic and school bored him senseless. He would far rather have been outside, or doing something with his hands then sitting in endless lessons.
On leaving school Jim quickly found work on a building site, where he began as an apprenticeship. He soon learned that he could make more money as a hod carrier, lugging bricks around the site and other heavy labouring tasks. Jim was healthy, strong and worked hard. He was well known and welcome on local sites where he had a reputation as a grafter. The hours were long but he could often clear a good few hundred quid a week.
Jim married young, to his childhood sweetheart and first and only love. She was also a hard worker and had always dreamed of owning a home of her own. With lots of over-time and her doing nights, they were soon able to afford a mortgage on a small terraced house. Jim was just 24 when his daughter was born, a day he still describes as the happiest of his life.
His daughter enjoyed a happy childhood. They weren’t rich, but she never seemed to go without. They even managed a few holidays in Spain, and whilst her Dad was often working, he always made time for her. She never noticed the increasingly strained conversations between her parents. It was a shock when, at the age of 15, they told her they would be getting a divorce.
There was no malice in the marriage break up. No affairs or betrayals, they just simply grew apart. Little quirks they once loved about each other became intense annoyances. Both felt desperately guilty at separating whilst their daughter was in the middle of exams, but the strain just became too much. Arguments once hidden behind closed doors were increasingly taking place in front of the young teenager. The truth that whilst he knew somewhere in his heart he would always love her, Jim could barely stand to be in the same room as his wife anymore. He was all too aware that she felt the same way about him.
With the mortgage not far from paid off, Jim had agreed to move out, happy to leave the house as a base for his daughter. He rented a small flat and threw himself into his work. He knew his daughter wanted to go to University and he was determined to make sure she wouldn’t struggle too much for money.
Jim was 45, old in his trade, when his back first went. A slipped disc or something the doctor had told him. They didn’t really seem to know. Jim was laid up for eight weeks, in searing pain and barely able to walk most days. On returning to work, he quickly found he just couldn’t do his job anymore. He’d lasted two days before the foreman had told him to go home. He was in agony the whole time.
His doctor had warned him that his days on building sites were over. Jim took this hard. But he was not beaten. He never even signed on. The lads from the site had had a whip round, with even the foreman chucking in fifty notes. With this, a small pay off from the building firm, and a couple of hundred pounds in savings, he was able to buy a second hand car.
Jim enjoyed mini-cabbing. The money was a bit less than he was used to, but he liked working with people. The other drivers were good lads as well, they often shared a few pints after a shift. Sometimes he felt a little lonely, sitting around in an empty flat, but he had his daughter, his mates and there was always work available. Truth is he was happier sitting round the cab office, even when it was quiet, then he was sitting in front of the television on his own at home.
When Jim was 52 he had a stroke and everything changed. He hardly remembers what happened. He’d just dropped off a fare, he knew that much, and then had felt everything just sort of go dead. His car swerved and crashed into a bollard. He couldn’t even lift his hand to the steering wheel to stop it.
Weeks of therapy followed. Jim made a slow and steady recovery. To his eternal shame, his daughter had helped him apply for sickness and housing benefits. He never believed he would need it, but without that money he would have been out of a home.
Whilst some of the damage from the stroke slowly repaired itself, his age meant his body seemed to deteriorate at the same speed. As he started to get sensation back to his right hand and arm the numb feeling was replaced with arthritic pain. It had been difficult to talk at first, but now, apart from a slight speech impediment he was desperately self-conscious of, he could at least communicate.
He could walk, although as he joked to his grand children, he could be a bit lop sided. The vision in his right eye never recovered. And his back would still give him gip and seemed to get worse every passing year. On a bad day sometimes it took all his strength to hobble to the local shop for a paper and some milk.
Jim found sitting about the flat all day almost unbearable. He tried applying for jobs, but he had no experience in retail and his speech made working on a telephone difficult. All there seemed to be was call centre and supermarket jobs in Leeds these days – he must of applied to over a hundred of them and never even got an interview. As his doctor told him regularly, the truth is that even that kind of work, on a bad day, would be impossible. He needed to rest said his GP, who proscribed sleeping pills, and concerned about his increasingly withdrawn state, anti-depressants.
One day Jim got a letter from the government. They had asked him to to attend a health assessment and warned him his benefits would be stopped if he didn’t turn up. He wasn’t too worried, something similar had happened a year ago. He’d had to go and see a doctor employed by the social to check him over. Armed with reams of evidence from his own GP, they had quickly agreed that he wasn’t able to work. Jim didn’t mind doing it again. He was grateful for the support he received, although at just less than £100 a week, it was getting harder all the time to make ends meet.
It had been a difficult year, for everybody Jim supposed. He’d had to blink back tears a couple of times in the supermarket as his carefully budgeted weekly shopping trip had descended into chaos because all the prices had risen. Jim was not a man who cried easily, not until recently anyway.
In truth he was desperately lonely and frustrated at his situation. He rarely went out anymore. When he’d first started to get a bit better he’d had a couple of nights out with the lads from the taxi rank, but the truth was he couldn’t really afford the pub these days. Even the library had closed and with it the little caf’ where he’d always been able to find someone to have a chat with.
He lived a solitary life now, except for his daughter, who had no idea how much her Dad was struggling. He lied to her that everything was fine. She didn’t know that his local, where he’d always been a well known regular, had closed down two years ago. She had no idea that he lived on economy beans, packet noodles and toast half the time.
Jim was placed in something called the Work Related Activity Group after his assessment, which seemed to be with a private company rather than the government. He wasn’t sure what this really meant. They told him he might have to go on some kind of training scheme or meet an advisor to help him get back to work. Whilst they agreed he was unlikely to find work at the moment due to his health, they said there may be some jobs he could do and that his condition might improve. Not bloody likely, Jim had thought bitterly. His money didn’t seem to go down, although if he understood the news recently then it probably would soon, a thought which increasingly terrified him
That had been a couple of months ago. Around the same time he’d received a letter telling him his housing benefit was being cut. He wasn’t sure why exactly, he already paid £6 a week towards his rent out of his benefit, now he’d have to try find another fiver. His landlord had laughed when he’d try to talk about decreasing his rent and warned him it would be going up again soon. He had looked around for somewhere else, but the same message came back time and time again,no DSS.
Jim swore blind that he’d never received the letter asking him to attend a Work Programme interview, whatever that was. He checked his post religiously. The person on the end of the telephone, just a kid by the sound of it, patronisingly informed him that they were just trying to help him, but if he didn’t turn up to his appointments then his benefits might be affected. They were just doing their job Jim decided, although it seemed strange that a big charity would be ringing him up and not some government department. Still it re-assured him in a way. A charity would have his best interests at heart after all.
He was duly given another appointment which he agreed to attend. When the day came though it was a different matter. Jim had already been ordered to bed by his doctor after he was struck down with Winter flu. Then he awoke with scythes of pain rocketing up and down his back. Coughing and spluttering, he could hardly even make it to the telephone. He definitely had a fever, he could feel sweat covering his body despite shivering in the flat he could never seem to afford to get properly warm anymore.
They’d seemed nice on the telephone. They had warned him that they would have to refer him to the Jobcentre and his benefits might be affected but they would recommend that that didn’t happen and they were sure everything would be fine. Jim was glad to be dealing with a charity, who really did seem to care.
That had been a fortnight or so ago Jim muses as he nurses the hot cup of tea in the cafe in Asda. He is treating himself to egg and bacon, it’s Christmas after all. Proudly he looks at the gaudy plastic toys he has bought his two grandsons. He’s never heard of Ben 10, but he recognises the Cyberman action figure he’s bought the eldest. Funny he thinks, who’d have guessed back then we’d be buying Dr Who toys for our grand kids. It had been difficult, but he was chuffed with himself for managing to save enough to make sure he didn’t arrive for Christmas Day empty handed.
Feeling happier than he has in sometime, Jim decides to face the inevitable and takes the crumpled brown envelope from his pocket. Carefully using a knife to slide it open he begins to read. Phrases jump out of the cold, and all too familiar language. Repeated failure to attend, new incentives to find employment, lack of engagement, and finally, sanctions, benefit payments suspended, period of four weeks, running from 20th December.
Immediately Jim begins to shake. Dropping the letter his hands fall to the table. At first he thinks he is having another stroke, as his whole body seems to go numb. A jolt of pain shoots up his spine as he stand up too fast, as if to prove to himself he still can. Gathering up his bags, his palms slippy with sweat he looks around desperately. He can see a cash point through the windows. A tight knot in his stomach means he doesn’t want his eggs and bacon anymore. He rushes, as fast as he can, out of the cafe.
Waiting behind someone in the queue at the cashpoint is unbearable. What on earth is making them take so long. He keeps telling himself it will be fine, as he starts to try and calculate just how bad things are. When his turn comes he almost drops the card, his fingers hurting as he keys in the numbers in the December cold. Hitting the button to check his balance, he prays, to anyone who might listen, that the almost £200 benefit payment he is expecting to be in his account has arrived.
His balance is in single figures. He has no money. As he fishes in his pockets for change, pulling out a handful of coppers and just a single pound coin, he realises he has no money at all.
Jim tries to calm himself down as he starts walking faster than his body would usually allow him, fear and adrenalin temporarily blocking out the pain. He marches in the direction of the Post Office, his first thought is to stand in line to at least take out his last few pounds. He’d been expecting to jump on a bus into the city and get a coach and he curses himself for not booking in advance. He needs to ring his daughter, to explain why he won’t be coming, but he must not tell her the truth, he knows that.
As he fidgets in the Post Office queue he makes a plan, and after several attempts manages to call his daughter on the mobile phone she had insisted on buying him last Christmas.
“so sorry love. Old Bob, on his own since his wife died, can’t leave him alone pet, not at Christmas, not my oldest pal, tell grandkids I’m right sorry and I’ll make it up to ’em in New Year”
In reality old Bob was having a whale of a time at his son’s house in New Zealand, but Jim can’t tell his daughter that. He’s a proud old sod, and isn’t having anyone feeling sorry for him.
Jim collapses into his armchair when he arrives back at his flat and sobs in a way he never knew he could. Banging his fist again and again on the cushion he swears, loudly, loudly enough for the neighbours to hear. But no-one comes.
He is that way for some time. Just sitting in the empty, cold flat. All the loneliness, all the pain, all the fretting about money, and scrimping and saving, and it has all come to this. Nothing left, nothing to offer. Perhaps the newspapers are right Jim thinks, perhaps he is one of those scroungers. A freeloader, that’s what they call people like him. A parasite who can’t even get it together to get to see his bloody kid, and his grand kids, on Christmas day.
They’re better off without me anyway Jim realises suddenly. His daughter certainly had been, Soon as she left university she prospered, they’ve got a lovely house up in Newcastle. Aye she’ll be fine Jim thinks, she’ll get by whatever happens to me. I only make everyone else as miserable.
He thinks of his ex-wife, and her new husband. Couldn’t even bloody get that right he says to himself, and I’m still in love with the old bag after all these years despite everything. And he thinks of his aching body, that gets worse everyday, and his mind, that just seems to forget things recently, and that at only 56 this is it. All there is left it seems is to wait to die.
At that moment he knows he just can’t cope anymore. Can’t face another cut to his money, can’t face another appointment, or assessment, or letter in a fucking brown envelope. Doesn’t want to think about the debt he is already in, or the rent going up. Doesn’t want to feel the cold anymore. Doesn’t want to feel guilty and desperate and ashamed of the bare minimum that benefits equip his life with. He just doesn’t want it anymore. Any of it.
Jim scrapes together every last penny in the flat to take with him as he ventures out into the cold Christmas Eve. It’s late. He’s spent the whole day, and much of the evening, just sitting, and crying, and thinking. And then a final clarity emerges from the grief. So here he is heading to the only shop he knows will be open at this time of night.
Back at the flat Jim stares at the television with gaudily dressed youngsters making some kind of shocking noise that he thinks they call music these days. Won’t miss that, Jim almost laughs to himself as he cracks the seal on the cheap bottle of vodka he just about managed to afford. He takes a heavy glug, it burns a little, but he forces himself. Feeling a little sick he pauses a while and then pours a full tumbler and quickly drinks down as much as he can. He was never really a spirit drinker.
He takes the first tablet off the little pile he has made on the table next to his glass. Taking a deep breath he puts it down again. Not like this he thinks.
Walking across the room he takes the grand kid’s Christmas presents out of their bags and leaves them in a prominent place. Then, with hands trembling despite the drink, he scrawls a note to his daughter, “I’m so sorry my love, I just can’t”. He’s not sure it makes sense, but it’s all he can think of to say.
Setting himself back down he notices most of the usual nagging pain is gone. Must be the strong drink he thinks, should have taken it up years ago. He fills his glass again and takes a large mouthful. The next drink washes down a handful of pills. Then another. Then another.
Jim takes one last drink noticing the bottle is over half empty. He leans back in his chair and closes his eyes. As his mind starts to fog, the world slips delicately away.
Don’t cry for Jim. Avenge him.
(Jim’s fine by the way. The daft old bugger drank too much and threw the pills up all over himself a few hours later. Took him ages to clean up the mess. After a fitful nights sleep he was awoken by his doorbell buzzing. His daughter hadn’t believed a word he said and was here, with the grand kids in the back, to drive him up to Newcastle)