A family we know have just had their lives changed irrevocably. She worked as a school administrator, had been there for fifteen years. He was a sparky who ran his own small business with his son as an apprentice. Last summer, he had a massive stroke; he is unable to move one side of his body and is having to learn to speak again. He is in his forties. She had to give up her job to look after him, and their son has to find a new job. They are not well off, they don’t own their own home. Their future will be a struggle, and for the first time they will have to engage with the welfare system.
I fear for them therefore, because the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is, unsurprisingly, falling well short of people’s ability to manage on the financial assistance provided. A survey has just come out from a national coalition of disability organisations, which shows that two thirds of claimants, not only felt they were not being given enough to live on, but that because of this they were falling ill. Of course, this creates a vicious circle because they then need medical assistance. The government denies this; their own survey found that 83% were satisfied – but even if we split the difference, it still means around 40% of people are struggling.
Rachel Plummer’s poem ‘The Hunger’ poignantly portrays this experience first-hand. A disabled partner ‘drifted on the bed like something taken/ up out of the ocean, like weed pulled from a depth I could not fathom.’ She, working in tele-sales selling double glazing chasing, ‘stale fivers that could feed us for a week/ coaxed coins from headsets, from the voices/ of old men contained in the wires’. Then the inevitable struggle to make ends meet, ‘the view/ from there to the South Downs stretching/ far as the box of cereal we had stretched/ into lasting a week already.’ This is the life many people with a partner who has a disability, face today – in a so-called advanced ‘wealthy’ economy. What is worse is the fact that it doesn’t make sense even from a cold-hearted economics point of view; it costs more giving people less because the displaced price has to be met by other frontline services.
Rachel Plummer is a poet living in Edinburgh with her partner, two young children and too many books. She is a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award recipient. In 2016 she received a cultural commission from LGBT History Month to write a collection of children’s poems re-imagining LGBT versions of traditional Scottish folk stories. She has a pamphlet of sci-fi poetry which explores themes of poverty, migration and homelessness, The Parlour Guide to Exo-Politics, currently available from House Press. https://rachelplummer.co.uk/
You drifted on the bed like something taken
up out of the ocean, like weed pulled
from a depth I could not fathom – bulbous
joints, skin clammy as a sunfish.
In a room noisy with telephones I chased
stale fivers that could feed us for a week,
coaxed coins from headsets, from the voices
of old men contained in the wires.
They laughed at my fervour. The image of you
sinking in and out of sleep was insistent
in my mind like fever, pressing my stomach
in, my eyelids out to some new shape.
After the long night’s shift I’d wind
home, unspooling, a route that took me up
to the cathedral on the hill, the view
from there to the South Downs stretching
far as the box of cereal we had stretched
into lasting a week already, stale, its grit
burning your tongue with no milk to ease it.
The space inside me seemed deep as the hills.
I watched them pitching up, away, to a peak
that blurred the horizon. Wheat moved like water
on the slope, reflecting the sun as it rose
over that abundant, yellow sea.