It’s close to 3pm and, like most afternoons, I’m slumped on the sofa, surrounded by empty crisp packets and scrunched up coke cans, squinting at the blurry picture on my forty-inch TV.
I’m not sure why televisions are still measured in inches. Televisions and penises are both still subject to the imperial measurement scale, I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head.
One inch of TV screen for each year of my life. My penis has not grown at the same rate I have to say and now spends its days hiding underneath my fat gut.
I’m waiting with resignation, for the Rottweilers to buzz the door again. I won’t answer it, again, but it won’t matter this time.
I’m right. Three minutes pass (I’m watching the digital timer on the TV screen), and there’s a very loud thump on my door, followed by some urgent yelling.
The digital clock puzzles me, it’s crystal clear, and yet the pixeled picture of posh people looking for a pad in the country, with a paltry budget of only £650,000, is out of focus. I dropped the TV whilst moving it last week, which probably caused the fault, but why should the clock be clear and the screen blurry? I’d still been wondering about that when the wood surrounding my door shook, splintered and eventually collapsed onto the floor, along with the door itself.
And, in they charged. Four huge, human Rottweiler’s wearing identical jeans and trainers. The uniform of bailiffs? They paused, wide-eyed, adrenaline pumping and ready for action. They quickly surveyed the battleground, intent on inflicting harm, reminiscent of the opening scene of an American cop show.
Instead of brandishing guns and machete’s, these guys were armed with more sinister weapons, repossession paperwork, a court summons and an eviction order. They handed me all three documents, told me to read them, and set about ransacking my home, or my, soon to be, ex-home.
Creeping cautiously through the door behind them; Sally Henderson, my appointed social worker. I’m not sure who appointed her, but she said she’d been appointed, and I didn’t dispute it. I watched as they unplugged the TV and transported it out of my flat and down the stairs. I’m not sure it would go very far toward repaying what I owe everyone, it wasn’t worth much to begin with. Less since I'd dropped it.
Sally sat down on the couch, as far away from me as she could get, pushing herself against the armrest. I should have mentioned that it was only being held in place by the fabric. I didn’t. A second later, following a ripping sound, Sally disappeared. She plunged to the floor and landed on her ample bottom amongst the empty crisp packets and coke cans. Her paperwork now lay, in disarray around her and her dark brown hair had fallen over her face. I’d have been tempted to laugh, but the circumstances, being what they were, meant extracting humour from my predicament, seemed inappropriate.
Sally righted herself, perched precariously on the edge of the now armless couch, sighed and began to speak. She had a soft South London accent and I noticed, not for the first time, nice teeth. Sally is dark and serious, not really my type, if I were lucky enough to have a type anymore. I’m positive I’m not likely to be her type, or anyone else’s come to that.
‘Sam, I’m sorry it’s eventually come to this, but I can’t really help you if you won’t help yourself.’
Her tone of voice, pitched somewhere between nursery and primary one level with a healthy dose of exasperation, is something I’ve become used to over the years. I’m sure her heart was in the right place. It must have been for her to be dealing with such a lost cause.
I nodded which seemed to encourage her to continue. ‘You’ve got twenty-four hours to get out of here, the landlord’s been more than reasonable Sam, he’s not had a rent payment from you in six months.’
I nodded again. It felt like the right thing to do as I couldn’t disagree with a word she’d said so far.
She stared at a piece of paper for a moment. She then looked up, making eye contact with me, and said flatly. ‘I have managed to secure a care-assisted place for you in a residential facility, but there are conditions.’
There are always conditions. With everything in life, I’d discovered. I couldn’t say I’d miss the little flat. I’d been here just over a year, lured to Birmingham with the promise of a job that lasted all of three months. I picked the area of Lozells to rent, 1. Because it was cheap and 2. I liked the name.
Sally elaborated. ‘It’s a mental-health unit. Technically you don’t meet the criteria because you are more than capable of looking after yourself, if you want to, but I managed to convince them that you’d be perfect for a study they are conducting. You’ll get to stay there, only for as long as you agree to participate in the project. It’s scheduled to last for six to eight weeks and during that time they’ll also treat you for whatever else has caused you to sink so low. They need to collect a DNA sample from you, prior to you entering the study. I’ll set that up for tomorrow. The unit, called Perry Flowers, is in the North of the city, Erdington. It might be just what you need.’
I wondered why a mental health unit, would be named after something that sounded more like a florist, perhaps that was the reason, to make it sound less like its real purpose.
I think that had been the most I’d heard my social worker say in the two months I’d known her. I nodded. I don’t generally have a lot to say for myself. I’m self-aware enough to know that I’ve been on a very slippery slope for some time, but I lacked the ability to do much about it. I suppose it’s a kind of punishment for making bad decisions, I’ve made a lot of bad decisions. The weird thing I’ve found, is that one bad decision tended to lead me to the next one. I liken it to an addicted gambler where he/she thinks the next big bet will pay off and get them back to parity. It never does of course, and another bad decision inevitably leads to a similar outcome. Perhaps I’m addicted to bad decisions. It would explain a lot.
For a moment I considered trying to explain some of this to Sally, but as the human Rottweilers wanted to take the couch, the moment passed.
As we stood in my increasingly emptying flat, she gazed around. ‘Where will you sit?’
The bulky men passed through the room again, this time carrying the bed. It’s not my bed, it was here when I moved in. I assume it belonged to the landlord. The duvet’s mine, as is the cover with the tiger’s face. I quickly grabbed it as they passed by, I like my tiger. They can keep the duvet. They’re quite zealous the Rottweilers, devoted to their craft. I’m not so sure the landlord would agree.
Sally watched as they squeezed the bed through the broken door frame, some plaster dislodged and drizzled to the floor. We both watched the little powdery waterfall until it ceased. ‘Where will you sleep?’ she asked.
I shrugged again. Sitting alone in my flat for the last few days, dreading the arrival of the Rottweilers, has rendered me temporarily mute. I haven’t had anyone to speak to. I don’t have any pets, and I hadn’t developed the habit of talking to myself. Perhaps I’d got out of practice, use it or lose it. Isn’t that what they say? Whomever they were.
She made a note, ‘This place is no longer secure, burglars could waltz straight in.’
I nodded, thinking they’d probably waltz straight back out again ten seconds later.
‘Get your things together Sam, we need to find somewhere for you to sleep until we can get you into Perry Flowers.’
I duly obeyed, which took all of five minutes. Sally walked with me downstairs and plinked her car key. The boot to her old Mazda 3 flipped open. She regarded me for a moment then said, ‘OK, put your stuff in the boot and get in, but no funny business.’
I nodded, not 100% sure what she meant by funny business, I assumed she didn’t expect me make jokes. I’d never really had a particularly jolly disposition. Even less so these days. I dumped the two bags that represented the remains of my life in the boot and then sat in the passenger seat. I noted the empty crisp packets and coke cans on the floor, a half-eaten doughnut and the empty coffee mug with lipstick around the rim. We had something in common after all. I felt quite at home.
Outside Sally talked on the phone to someone, perhaps telling them she’d be taking me in her car in case I decided to try out my best Michael McIntyre impersonation whilst she drove.
She terminated the call, clambered in, started the engine and pulled away from the kerb. I glanced back at the entrance to my building and noted the Rottweiler’s coming out of the door with rolled up carpets over their shoulders. They were there when I moved in too. As I said, zealous.
We drove across the city. I hadn’t become very familiar with Birmingham, a year doesn’t really give you the chance to know a place, especially when you’ve spent most of the time hiding from creditors in a small flat. I guess I could have taken a trip on one of the tour buses that introduced you to the city’s landmarks and history, but I didn’t.
As neither of us seemed to have anything to say, Sally turned on the radio after five minutes. I don’t think she enjoyed silence.
Eventually we turned into the car park of a small hotel, and Sally selected an unoccupied parking space near to the entrance. She turned off the engine and the radio and pulled her bag onto her lap. A large tan faux leather bag with a dark oily stain on the bottom right-hand corner. She extracted a fistful of paperwork and handed me a sheet to read. ‘This will be your home until we can get you into the unit.’
I read the form which consisted mainly of a list of provisions and rules. I would be provided with a single room and two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. I had to keep the room tidy and whilst there were no specified restrictions on my freedom, in terms of where I could go, I would be required to sign in and out. The hotel had instructions to phone my social worker or her department if I went away overnight.
I had no plans to be away overnight.
She handed me some vouchers which could be used in a supermarket to buy basic provisions, but would not be accepted for cigarettes, alcohol, solvents or Blu-Tac. Cigarettes, alcohol and glue I could understand being restricted, but Blu-tac? I didn’t know it was a harmful substance, perhaps depressed patients used it to block up their nostrils to try and end their lives. I didn’t think that would work somehow. I had no wish to put Blu-tac up my nostrils nor did I have an urge to stick any posters to the walls of my hotel room. The Blu-tac ban, therefore, would not inconvenience me.
‘I’ll come in and make sure you’re settled.’ Sally decided.
She and I, bags in hand, walked into a shabby reception that exuded a heady scent, resembling sweaty socks and fish. The receptionist, a balding man in his fifties, smiled a greeting to Sally. His teeth were crooked and stained. She did her best to explain my circumstances in some detail, probably more detail than necessary, but as with most things in life at that point, I was beyond caring. He looked down his nose at me as Sally completed the various forms on my behalf.
‘We don’t want any trouble.’ He said sniffing.
‘Sam won’t cause you any problems.’ She reassured him, ‘He’s as quiet as a church mouse, you’ll hardly know he’s here, and hopefully it’s only for a few days.’
Baldy, didn’t look convinced. Can’t say I blamed him, but his establishment didn’t appear to be the place that attracted society’s movers and shakers, nor did it seem particularly busy with the hoi polloi either, truth be told.
Key in hand, we traipsed up two flights of stairs to what felt like the farthest corner of the building where room number 27 was located. Sally opened the door and stood aside to let me in ahead of her. First impressions; small, with barely enough room to walk around the bed and the bathroom was tiny with only a shower cubicle, sink and toilet. Still, it seemed clean.
A TV was glued to the wall and the remote on the bedside table. Sally nodded her approval, ‘This is nice, isn’t it, Sam? Better than a flat with no front door or furniture.’
I couldn’t disagree and did my best to force a smile onto my lips. She returned the gesture. ‘Right, well I’ll leave you to it. You will be served dinner downstairs at six, and breakfast is between seven and nine.’
As she turned to leave, I uttered my first words of the day, my voice croaky from lack of use, ‘Sally?’
She turned, holding the door handle. ‘Yes?’
She smiled again, ‘No problem Sam, just doing my job.’
I knew full well that this projected well beyond her job description but for some reason I’d become one of her pet projects, which is just as well, or I’d have been dossing down behind the bins somewhere by now.
After she left, I lay down on the bed, noticing how much the mattress sagged under my weight and flipped on the TV. I watched an antique auction programme. It slowly lulled me to sleep.
When I woke darkness had arrived. My watch told me it had only just left five fifteen, but it had been a gloomy autumn day and it seemed the sun had decided it’d had enough and, buggered off to the other side of the world where it might be more appreciated at this time of year.
The antique show continued muttering away on the TV. I’m not sure if it was the same episode or a new one, or a different antique show altogether. I’d watched a lot of them recently and had difficulty distinguishing between them all. They all kind of merged into one. I assumed they were cheap to make.
I didn’t smell too fresh, and decided a long hot shower was in order before I ventured downstairs. It dawned on me, that if I could smell my unwashed fat body, so would Sally, which explained how she came to fall off the couch. It also, made her decision to transport me in her car, even more generous. I might not have been able to do much for myself right now but remaining clean should be achievable.
Dinner, plain but filling, consisted of roasted chicken and potatoes. No menu as such, more of a buffet-help-yourself type of arrangement. There had been some steaks, but they seemed to have been snaffled by the family in the corner. Four of them, mummy, daddy and two sons, all munching away happily.
I chewed unenthusiastically on the rubbery chicken, still beggars couldn’t be choosers and I’d drifted very close to beggar status. Dessert, ice cream and jelly reminded me of bygone days school dinners. I never really liked school and school never really liked me. That’s when my problems began, I think.
After dinner I, shrugged on my only jacket, a black ripped anorak that had seen better days, and went for walk, remembering to sign out. The streets around the hotel were quiet, residential, and poor. I could tell from the dilapidated gardens and broken windows boarded up with cardboard. Someone had placed a notice beside their broken window which said, GO AWAY BAD PEOPLE. It made me smile, my first smile in days, weeks perhaps.
The cold October wind spat drizzle into my face, I pulled up my hood and tied it under my pudgy chin. The jacket had long since lost the lining that might have insulated me. Facing the imminent danger of exposure, I turned back toward the hotel, signed back in, and trudged up to my room.