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Hardscrabble
Jackie Carpenter

Face contorted with rage, right fist clutching a biro, hammering viciously down into the table, William Griffiths – somehow I always think of him with his full name – sits with his left hand spreadeagled on the table. The point of the biro is stabbing through the thin white-stretched skin between his thumb and the back of his hand. 

Contained, motionless, I sit to let his fury exhaust itself. I understand why he is livid about The System. You can hear the capital letters when he says it. Long before social media fuels conspiracy stories, William is a one-man echo chamber, winding himself up with endless repetition of what They have done to him. 

 

‘They took me away from my mother. They had no right to do that.’

I assume he was removed from his mother at birth. I know what happens to women like Ronnie – who we’ve also had in the night shelter – when they get pregnant. She had no chance of keeping her baby even though, like most drinkers, she wasn’t drinking to get drunk, merely trying to get somewhere close to normal, every day having to “top up” as the drinkers say. Stopping abruptly can trigger seizures or even death. It’s difficult for a woman when she gets pregnant. 

William Griffiths knows his mother was a drinker; her life on the streets wasn’t one a baby could slot into. But he also knows she loved him, and he feels the deep hurt of having been deprived of that.

I repeat the anodyne things I always say. Like it or not, I am part of the system – The System – and I can’t say it’s perfect, but I do know why it does what it does. Social workers try to keep babies with their birth mothers and support women to be good enough mothers. They have to make impossible decisions: damned if they do, damned if they don’t. A child neglected, unfed, filthy; or a child in care, moved time after time and missing that vital personal connection to their own family. Lose-lose situations for everyone, often.

William Griffiths is still ranting, but quieter now. Running through his rosary of how he was let down and who by. I’m still saying what I said last time, what I know I will have to say again and again. Hearing him. Acknowledging his pain. Trying to nudge him a tiny bit.

Sitting, watchful, I know the rules say I should not be on my own with someone who is incandescent with rage, to keep myself safe. If anyone knew, I’d be told not to work with him again, and certainly not on my own. But I am not going to tell anyone. I’m sure William would never hurt me – at the moment I am the only one he trusts in his angels-and-demons world. 

‘Robert Taylor tried that.’ William is saying. ‘I thought he was all right, but he turned out just like all the others. No, worse! I thought he was different.’

This is his habitual rant about Robert – the previous person who sat where I sit now – so I know how things are likely to turn out. 

Mostly, I listen. Give William a safe space to offload his anger, much of which I agree is justified, while simultaneously knowing there were good reasons for most of the decisions he rails against. When it’s my turn to speak, all I can do is try to moderate and shift his thinking, any intervention from services is way over the horizon. What William does need is somewhere to live and I may be able to sort that for him. It’ll be tricky, though, with him being so touchy and irascible, and, at the whiff of something that offends him behaving in a way that anyone would call aggressive and threatening. I need to get a definite offer on the table before I mention it to William; the last thing he needs is more dashed hopes. 

Right now, though, I need to get him calm enough to get through the night. In the morning, we have a trip to Black Rocks, and I don’t want him to be banned from that. Countryside, fresh air, walking, the climb up to the top, doing it with others, an enjoyable time away from the everyday stresses; all will be good for William.

 

A couple of nights later, William presents me with a Deluxe Scrabble set. My heart sinks; I am not allowed to accept presents. But I can’t refuse and give a big fat slap in the face to someone who’s known so much rejection. And it’s so rare to see pleasure on his face. William and I have talked about how we both love playing Scrabble. 

Over the weeks, he often beats me. The game is useful; it builds trust, calms his brain, and is a neutral thing to fill time with. There are so many subjects he can’t talk about.

The following week, I have something that will be welcome, so I ask William to come and see me in the morning. He’s easier to have a conversation with before he’s had a drink. I’ve got him the offer of a place of his own. We’ll go and see it, and if he likes it, he’ll move in before the end of the week. I’ll continue to support him through the transition to his own flat. It can be his home for life.

‘It'll be just four bare walls and floorboards and no time to get it furnished,’ I warn him.

‘No matter.’ William surprises me. ‘As long as I’ve got curtains so people can’t look at me, I’ll be fine. I’m good with money. I’ve got enough to buy curtains tomorrow if I want.’

‘We’ll get you the funding for the basics of bed, cooker and fridge, washer,’ I say.

It goes well. He likes it and moves in. I go round every week or so to hear how things are going over a game of Scrabble. William chooses things from charity shops to make it a home. He seems settled, so I allow myself to hope with time, he might even relax his guard enough to venture into the mental health system, or the alcohol treatment and recovery world. I’m not overly optimistic. William still trusts almost no one, allows almost no one into his life. And I can’t in all conscience reassure William that services will deal with him in the person-centred – human – way that he needs. “Deal with” is pretty much how it would go. People – patients – have to fit within what services offer, the way they want it to be, their system. William does have a point. 

There isn’t much I need to do on a practical level, or can do beyond that. I rarely go round to his place now. William likes letters, and it’s easier to be open and honest at one remove, and feels safer. I can think about how to word things, can judicially suggest and encourage, hoping he’ll be able to take something on board if he can reread and reconsider what I say. Distance myself as I’m supposed to.

*

One day, his letter comes from Rotherham. William must have walked away from his flat. I can’t make out why he’s moved, but something (or, more likely, someone) near the flat terminally upset him.

Letters keep coming, intermittently, for months. Mindful of his previous experience with Robert Taylor, and of what the sector calls professional boundaries – which insists we should act in a friendly manner but never allow friendship to develop – I am uneasy. I leave a gap between his letter arriving and my reply. I am professional, not personal, in what I say and how I couch things. Still, the fact that I write is a taboo that I feel secretly awkward and guilty about. I carry on because I don’t want to be yet another person who lets William down.

Then he asks if he can come and see me. This is catastrophic. I realise I’ve let this thing between me and William drift into too deep a connection. I’m deeply conflicted about professional boundaries. I passionately believe that relationship enables change in people. But the people who need it most are the ones for whom closeness is most dangerous, for them and workers. Proper clinical supervision – any supervision, even – would help. But in homelessness, it’s accepted that we just sort ourselves out. At best we talk to each other, support one another. 

I never mention William. I’ve let what’s between us slide into a whole deeper level. Reasoning – no, rationalising, justifying – that he trusts hardly anyone, I let the long-term connection build, keeping it long after he’s left our services. The longer it goes on, the more it means to him, the more he wants. I am out of my depth but too ashamed to talk about it to anyone.

 

Despite misgivings, I agree to meet William in a café. I don’t want to bring him to the office where my colleagues will see. We sit with mugs of tea. He talks calmly, our conversation appearing perfectly normal and reasonable. If I wrote down his words, nothing untoward would arouse suspicion. I ask about Rotherham, his flat. He asks about the night shelter. 

Polite conversation exhausted, there is a pause. He looks up from his mug. Stares into my eyes. Tells me what he wants. More than I can ever give. He wants to be part of my life, my family; he sees me as a mother figure. He needs someone to love him unconditionally for who he is. I know he can’t be in my life the way he wants; like it or not, he is “a client”. “Just” someone I worked with. 

I feel sick. 

By going along with things, not putting up that boundary, I allowed him to develop hope for something way beyond what I could ever agree to give. Now, I’m going to have to say no. I will be the new Robert Taylor. 

I will have to write this in a letter, for my own personal safety, and to make sure it is clear, unambiguous, final. I’ll say that I’m willing to write, to support him, to listen, but that’s all. It won’t be enough.

I watch him walk to the bus, knowing this, knowing that he doesn’t know it yet. 

I write my letter, drafting and re-drafting, trying to get the tone right.

The expected fury and hurt punch me when his reply comes, the biro etched into the paper. I get no more letters.

I failed him, one way or the other. Both ways. I wasn't professional enough; I couldn't be there for him as much as he needed. Aiming for balance, I fell. Really, it was an impossible situation. But I handled it badly. 

*

A couple of years later, I get a phone call from a support agency up north. 

‘Do you know Drew Kavanagh?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘You might have known him as William Griffiths.’

Suzie has been trying to support him, but she’s struggling. He must have talked about me, and she’s tracked me down. She wants some tips to engage him, as he is still drinking, still not interested in any help from services. What I suggest feels feeble, but it’s all I’ve got. Be honest; listen; be calm; don’t collude with him; acknowledge where you think the system could do better.

A couple of weeks later, she rings again. 

‘Have you seen Drew, or William?’

‘No, sorry, I haven’t. He must have taken himself off for another fresh start somewhere else.’

*

I never hear from him again. For years, a fat envelope of William’s letters sits in my filing cabinet at home. One day, I throw it in the bin, embarrassed to have hung onto it for so long. I won’t see William again. The Deluxe Scrabble set I give away.  

That is all I can give away.

 

 

Jackie Carpenter (she/her) lives in a quirky town in the gentle hills of Derbyshire, England. Identifying as neurodivergent and queer, her poetry and prose has appeared in half a dozen online and print publications. Special Mention in the 2022 Winchester I AM Writing Memoir Prize. Twitter/X: @JackieCarpenter, Blue Sky: @jackiecarpenter.bsky.social 

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