Editor's Note: This account was sent to BEATNIK anonymously to protect the author from legal recrimination. He or she assures us that nothing said in the piece is untrue, even if some things are presented in fictional form. But since money speaks louder than truth or justice the author fears he/ she may be persecuted for speaking out, and never get a job in care again. We normally prefer to publish author's names but we feel this is an important piece of writing, and something everyone should read at a time when the care of vulnerable people in our society has become such an issue.
You have to deal with a lot of people you don’t like in the course of a working life, and the worst of them all, for me, was Penny. Penny Thow, manager of the last-but-one care home I worked in, 42 Cambridge Street, on the outskirts of the city of Middletown. It was part of the Moore chain of small homes for people with mental health problems, learning difficulty and acquired brain injury. Small, anyway, relative to the battery farms that homes for old people were allowed to be without a second thought from anyone. But I’m not sure I’d want to live with nine or ten other people like the poor bastards in the Moore homes had to either.
But anyway, Penny Thow. I hated her, and I’m sure she hated me, although neither of us ever said it face to face. I once told a Care Assistant, when he asked me why Penny hadn’t been at work today (she was actually – or supposedly – off sick), that she was at home hanging upside down in her cellar being fed baby rabbits by her husband, who was the Moore accountant. ‘All we have to do to make sure she doesn’t come back is put lots of crosses and garlic over the front door,’ I said. The Relief Care Assistant, a very serious Nigerian man and a devoted Christian, managed somehow to smile and frown at the same time. ‘You shouldn’t make jokes like that,’ he said.
I’m not sure why I disliked her so much, or why we didn’t click even for a while, when I started working at the home. I have a reputation, bigger now since my run-ins with her, for ‘having a problem’ with authority, but that’s only partly true. I’ve had good relations with supervisors and managers in the past at least for a while, although, to be fair, most of them have deteriorated eventually. I am not good at the false deference to arseholes that you have to perfect to be a success in the workplace. I’m not very good either, it must be said, at performing at a consistently high level week in, month out. I can do it, for a certain amount of time, but because I don’t want to be working at anything other than my writing (and I know how affected that sounds), my concentration inevitably lapses and then I make a horrendous fuck-up which gets me into trouble. And when you do that, in care work, the bosses attack you like piranha just to cover their own rear ends (and mortgages).
It was something in Penny’s manner that grated on me instantly. She was always aggressive and brash, always talking too loud and interrupting other people’s sentences before they had the chance to compose their thoughts; she always misinterpreted everything that you said to her, filtering it through her own narrow, intellectually limited and emotionally strangulated view of the world, and spitting it back at you as something bearing no resemblance to your original comment or request. She also had an inferiority complex the size of the Telecom Tower. Some might say this is a sentimental view of people exhibiting that much aggression, but the only workers in the home she related to were those she thought less intelligent and more working class than her. The people who called her ‘boss’ and ‘babe’ and had strong local accents, typical local hairdos, typical local bellies and big arses – those people she loved, chatted in corridors with, went for walks with in the alley that ran past the side of the house. When I came along, with my semi-middle-class accent, my declared interest in poetry, and the air of snobbery I carry around with me – instant freeze-out.
Ironic, really, considering she was making more money in two days than I made in a week. Considering, too, that my grandfather had worked on the docks in Liverpool and my mum grew up without a penny to her name – until, that is, she married my dad, whose own parents were ‘comfortable’ ( as the moderately well-off still say) after the husband’s long career in science and the M.O.D. By the time I came along my dad was a rising star in the world of magazine publishing and the sense of self-worth we all had was raised a few notches more than it should have been, probably, by his considerable achievements. I was a bit of a snob. I still am, although I have no right to be (if anybody does). I may have been able to talk on subjects she knew nothing about – since work, horses, her daughter and the fundamentally rotten nature of human beings (she wouldn’t have put it that way, but that’s what she believed) were her only topics of conversation, her only areas of knowledge – and in the last topic she would have known I believed she was wrong – but she was the one with all the power. Capitalist society, having, as it does, a definite tendency to reward aggression and stupidity over reason and intelligence. Why, I wonder, did I make her feel paranoid – before, anyway, our various disputes broke out? (and before I transferred out of that godforsaken place there were many).
What irked her, I believe, is that she knew I thought she was a crude woman –she couldn’t even eat quietly – and a bad manager. She must have seen my face on those mornings when she stomped into the house from her office at the back of the building shouting because this wasn’t being done or that hadn’t been done, or because she’d found a coffee ring on a radiator cover and the senior staff needed to get better at supervising the cleaner; or when she’d tell one of us off about the shabby appearance of an adult service user with a brain injury while he or she stood beside her clearly embarrassed, clearly too intimidated by her loud, angry manner to respond. You were supposed to take your beating, accepting that she had a right to ignore completely the standards set for reasonable, non-abusive behaviour that you were expected to work by; then you were supposed to cajole her out of her mood with a nice cup of tea and a chat. But I never cajoled. I was usually too busy suppressing the desire to tell her she was a cunt who hid behind the authority of her job to attack the ghosts of her childhood. And although Penny was a poor reader of other people – imposing, as she did, the grand narrative of corruption on all of them (I imagine it was a mirror of her own state) – she must have known what I was thinking.
She was a dictator in a country whose perimeters were the brick walls and hedges of a care home in the North of England, and like all dictators she wanted not only obedience from her subjects, but the assurance that behind the calm face of the obedient subject there would be no plotting. And with most of the staff that’s what she got.
Penny treated Levi like an idiot. He did seem to ask stupid questions at times – once in one of our three-weekly senior meetings he asked Penny, "Can we get into trouble with the Inspectors if we don’t make service users wear slippers?" – but what Penny was too stupid to realise was that Levi was often being disingenuous when he appeared at his most dimwitted. Often Levi used a kind of faux innocence to mask criticisms of Penny’s ridiculous, autocratic policies in the home. It would have been a useful tool for a much-needed campaign of protest, too, if Penny had noticed what he was doing; but she didn’t, unless she was more subtle than all of us – which, given the fact that she was a cunt, as I’ve said, seems unlikely. What she’d do, when he said something that appeared silly, was encourage everybody in the vicinity – whether that was the confined space of her office during a senior meeting, or a lounge filled with staff and service users – to laugh at him. June, who was treated with a brutal disrespect by Penny herself, would join in with this mockery of Levi. So did one or two of the other staff who professed to dislike Penny. I couldn’t understand it. Nobody would join the union either, despite my having a brown envelope filled with application forms stuffed away ready at the back of my tray in the staff office. I talked to everyone about it who didn’t already have a reputation for being an ally of Penny’s, but nobody would even take an application form. Ronnie, one of the Care Assistants, told me she couldn’t afford the subs while fishing for something in her Dolce & Gabbana handbag. I suppose it’s a question of priorities.
The home had ten adults with acquired brain injury and, in three cases, mild learning difficulty. The idea was to come in every day on shifts, three teams of four staff, as I say, and provide the people living there with as good a quality of life as we could give them. In theory they would not be staying in the home forever – it was listed with the Inspectors as providing ‘slow-stream rehabilitation’ – but slow actually meant ‘glacier-pace’; all of the service users had been in care homes for a long time and they had lived in this one for three years, since it opened. Mostly we laid on for them what the company liked to call "activities" (the parlance used was all designed to demonstrate how far away care had moved from the institutionalised practises and terminology of the past, but somehow everything we did to appear modern made us sound more old-fashioned). When we could we took people out for cups of coffee. Usually we escorted people on walks around the estate. This was a fraught experience frequently because Ray - who was learning disabled and prone to what were charmingly called, then, "drop fits" - might unexpectedly head butt you, which hurt, since he wore a helmet, and run off to invade a newsagents or charge in front of speeding traffic; and Steve, whose emotional development had ceased around the age of 12 at the time of his accident, might take out his penis and wave it at passers-by, who he sensed were coming despite the blindness caused by his accident; or he might simply stop in the middle of the street and piss.
There were issues with the service users – and how I still loathe that phrase – but as is usually the case in care homes, the real problems we had were with each other. And in Penny’s Farm, as I called the home to myself because it reminded me of the old song about the hard times farm labourers had with a bitch of a landlady, my problems were largely, although not exclusively, with Penny. Compared to her, Dave, the bitter, solitary, occasionally suicidal diabetic Geordie who lived in an eyrie up the stairs on the second floor of the house was entirely normal and manageable. If I’d had to make a long coach trip and choose between Penny and Rob for a travelling companion – Rob, who claimed he couldn’t walk although on two canes he was reasonably mobile, and preferred to shit in a bag under his duvet than get out and go to the toilet (this was never proven but olfactory evidence suggested it strongly); Rob, who threatened suicide whenever he was asked to come down to dinner – well, Rob's endless self-pity would have been infinitely preferable to her endless vulgar self-aggrandisement. I liked all of the service users more than I liked her, and all of the staff too; and I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t like many of the staff very much. As someone who professed to be a Buddhist I was setting myself up for a long, long time spinning on the karmic wheel.