There are never any clues as to what lies in store when I unlock First Base and kick off another day. I guess it’s how it is for any front line charity. A front line can be eerily quiet or a place of thunderous mayhem.
There are routines.
Lights on. Kettle on. Laptop out of bag and onto table.
Black coffee: strong.
Open the mail.
Curse the typed brown envelopes from virtual firms of solicitors chasing debt.
Smile at the hand written white envelopes with cheques and kind words.
A well worn list of first things to do. Before the door is opened onto the world. Before the tales of misery come a calling.
A bland voice to tell me what I already know. A honeyed voice tailor made to advertise washing up liquid welcomes me to my message line and soothingly informs me that messages are indeed waiting to be heard.
So I choose option 1. And option 1 tells me that the message I am about to listen to arrived a little after five o clock on the day before. The phone must have rung out for a while in our empty building before the caller would have heard my Lancastrian tones telling them what they had no doubt already guessed.
Maybe it explained the immediate edge of despair. A voice which spoke of yet another kick in the teeth on a day where nothing had gone well.
Not young. The careful manners suggested a date of birth way back in the 1930’s.
And every word spoke of a call that was hated. Detested.
A terrible sense of completely unnecessary shame.
But of course those of the generation who were there when the Spitfires took to the clear blue skies of June to stop the Nazis in their Panzer tracks hate to ask for help. For charity.
For a lifeline.
Next came an address from the other side of town.
And then the phone number. Except there wasn’t a phone number. Not yet. A shaking emotion took a hold and the tired voice couldn’t keep it going.
“I’m so sorry. I am rather upset. Really upset. I don’t know what I’m going to do you see. I’m 83 and the Council have had a problem and they haven’t paid my council tax…. And my wife has been really ill and she is only just home from hospital…Sorry… it’s ridiculous but I can’t remember my own number. I’m just so upset. Just wait please. I have to know it…”
And then he suddenly seemed able to recall the eleven numbers in question. Hesitantly at first, but then with a growing certainty. I copied them down on the back of one of the brown envelopes from a virtual firm of solicitors.
And then the call was ended with heartfelt apologies for being a nuisance. And a sentence that has become so gut churningly familiar over these last few bleak years.
“I never thought I would be in a situation like this. Never. I really am very sorry.”
So I picked up the phone and dialed up the number.
A computer voice informed me that the number I had dialed didn’t exist.
Was it me or was it him? I half expected it was me. That after all was why I had chosen option 2 to save the message instead of option 3 to delete the message. Because when you take down a number wrong and delete the message you feel like a complete fool. Especially when the message carries the despair of an 83 year old guy who never, ever in a million years believed he would have to make a call to a place like ours.
To ask for help.
For a lifeline.
I listened again. And I wrote down the number again. And it turned out I had written it down right first time around. So I dialed again because there was a chance that I had dialed wrong the first time.
But I hadn’t.
The same digital voice with the same words.
So he hadn’t made it after all. In the midst of his anxiety, the eleven numbers had been the wrong eleven numbers. A completely random eleven numbers. Eleven numbers which took me down a cul de sac to one of those half built housing projects in Ireland which died on their feet when the banks ran dry of cash.
But at least I had an address. Surely the address was more reliable because there were only three numbers associated with the address along with the name of a street.
So I collected enough food to feed two people for a week and took some advice from Google maps on how to make my way across town.
Ten minutes later I rang the bell and straight away I heard movement inside. And the moment the door opened I knew I was at the right place. An ashen pale face with watery frightened eyes set way, way back. The wrinkled sacks under the exhausted eyes were bigger than the exhausted eyes themselves. The body was little more than bagged up bones wrapped in long familiar clothes. Slippers with holes. A walking stick that was clearly not for show.
A third leg.
Thankfully the sight of me didn’t seem to be the cause of any alarm. I told him who I was and the clouds cleared. He apologised and I told him there was no need. He told me that he had realised straight away that the eleven numbers he had given me were the wrong eleven numbers. And he apologised for not ringing back. And I said it wasn't any kind of a problem.
And all of a sudden everything came out in a rush of words.
They had told him that it hadn’t look like his wife would make it. Bowel cancer. Well they thought it was bowel cancer. They were pretty well certain. And the only hope was an operation. But they had carefully prepared him for the worst. Because the growth in her stomach had taken her all the way down to 5 stone. And she was so weak….
But when his phone had rung a little after midnight, the news had been unexpectedly good. They had removed a huge polyp. But it was a benign polyp. Not a cancerous polyp. And she had made it. And she made it home. And now she was back to six stone and rising.
Now it was his turn. The circulation to his left leg had dried up line a desert stream in Chad. They had tried different things, but now there was nothing left to try. So the leg was ear marked for amputation. It was merely a question of when. So the walking stick was indeed a third leg because the second leg was no longer fit for purpose.
The second leg was unviable.
A rusting winch over a long closed coal mine.
And then all of a sudden he realised just how many words he had poured out to the complete stranger on the doorstep.
And again he apologised. And again I told him there was no need.
He closed his eyes for a moment a took a careful breath into his exhausted lungs. He picked his words more carefully. He organised his thoughts.
The Council had experienced some sort of computer problem. The housing benefit payment had failed to arrive in hundreds of bank accounts.
Including his bank account.
And it was a disaster. Because he had everything set up for a list of direct debit payments to leave his account on the day after the housing benefit money landed in the account.
Because he couldn’t stand the idea of being in debt. He had never been in debt.
But now he was in debt because the Council had experienced a computer problem which meant that the life blood of his bank account had failed to arrive. Just like the lifeblood no longer made its way around the veins and arteries of his left leg.
But all his direct debits had still all gone out.
And now he was overdrawn and he had no means to buy food. Because he would only ever buy food once every bill had been settled on the agreed date and to the agreed amount.
All the bills were settled which meant there was nothing left.
His account had plunged into an un-agreed overdraft and the customer service voice of his bank had broken the bleak news that he would be fined £50 for his unexpected journey into the red.
This £50 wreaked havoc with every one of his carefully calculated budgets. Once everything was paid in full, he and his wife had £60 a week for food and other day to day expenses. There were no savings. No back stop. So an unplanned £50 hit would take weeks and weeks to overcome. And in the mean time they had nothing to eat and the hospital had carefully explained how vital it was for his wife to eat. regularly and well. But all he had were red numbers in the bank and a million cubic metres of fresh air.
He had spent an hour on the phone that morning with the voice from the Council that was the gateway to the Scottish Welfare Fund. He had been means tested to within an inch of his life and at the end of the call he was told that the Council computer had decided to award the sum of £29 which would be electronically transferred in due course.
So there it was. Two citizens born way back in the days of Stanley Baldwin. A wife home from a life and death operation that ran all the way to midnight. A husband with a left leg on borrowed time. A kitchen full of empty cupboards. A mistake made by a Council computer. A carefully crafted budget blown out of the water. A £50 penalty automatically levied by a Cray computer fighting out of Canary Wharf.
A crisis measured and assessed to the tune of £29.
But there were no complaints from my man. For the £29 took away two thirds of the nightmare caused by the £50 penalty.
His crisis was down to £21.
And when I told him I had a bunch of food in the boot of my car, his face was all about conflicting emotions. Eight decades of honest pride made the charity unbearably hard to accept. Empty cupboards and a six stone wife made it a necessity.
Would I mind carrying the bags in?
Of course not.
I carried the bags in.
And I encouraged him to call us if things didn’t sort out out by the time the cupboards were empty again.
He said he would.
We shook hands and I left.
Maybe the Council have managed to make the payment now.
And maybe someone in the bank has found the required humanity to get rid of the £50 penalty.
But the world can be a brutal place when the computer says no.