HERMITAGE TO HARROW
To utter the phrase ‘culture shock’ would be an understatement when thinking again of my early days back in England. If you have ever experienced something similar, you may understand how I felt, otherwise, I think it is impossible to imagine.
I awoke on my first morning, to a carpet of thick snow on the ground and it was still falling. It was March 8th and snow continued to fall throughout that month and in to April. My flip-flops were a non-starter on the footwear front and my wellington boots were perished and let in the wet. France gave me a pair of her shoes, but they were a size too big and felt uncomfortable. They were moulded to fit the shape of her foot, not mine, but they had to do as I had no money to buy anything. I did have a coat of sorts, but it let in the wet and was not warm – I had never felt so forlorn and bleak.
The part of Harrow that France lived in was actually very pleasant, but to me, at that time, it was like spaghetti junction at rush hour. Cars, buses and lorries, fire engines, ambulances and police cars, roared along the dual carriageways at breakneck speed. There were long jams at traffic lights and irate drivers behind the wheel. I was scared out of my wits. To top it all, my sense of direction has always been abysmal and I knew that each time I left the house, I would find it incredibly difficult to find my way back. Gone were the sleepy dirt track pathways and deserted roads and in place of the odd donkey or passing flock of sheep was the clamouring circus of London life. Add to this that my sight was poor and that my mental health was fragile and maybe you will gain an insight into my general wellbeing.
I don’t remember how much actual money I had of my own, but I think it was about 100 euros, which France helped me change into pounds. I do remember my first English purchase – it was a pair of blue wellington boots from a charity shop. They cost 50 pence. France was furious with me, saying that people didn’t wear wellingtons in Harrow, but I did and I was proud of them. I also bought a second hand but warm fleecy top, waterproof jacket and a bowl for the dog to use as a water bowl. The rest of my money I needed to save, as I had no idea how or when I would get more.
A few days after I arrived in England my best friend from Greece who had returned several years before me, insisted that I met her for lunch, her treat. It was wonderful. I cried like a baby, unaware of the other customers in the cafe and she held me tightly, calming and hushing me much as a Mother would to a fretful baby. She had been through the whole process of ‘returning home’ several years previously, so could advise me on benefits and how to claim them and many other practicalities. At the end of our time together, she gave me a wad of cash, telling me that it was a gift and that I should spend it as and when I wanted. I don’t remember how much was in that curled up stash of notes, I think it was about £70, but at that time it felt like a miracle. I had money. It was mine to keep – and someone who knew exactly how I felt.
France was such a trouper. She registered me with her own doctor and marched me along to his surgery within a couple of days. He was, without doubt, the best doctor I have ever had. He sat with me for at least twenty minutes, listening intently as I told him of my difficulties. He started me on a course of anti-depressants straight away and contacted a colleague of his at Moorfields Eye Hospital, to fast track an appointment for me. He also had another friend who specialised in the ‘Nether Regions’ and was at the top of his field. Somehow I was put on a high priority waiting list immediately. The doctor insisted on seeing me once a week for the first six weeks or so, to keep an eye on me and slowly I learned to trust him and his word. I felt a kind of support that I had not known for years and as the trust formed, the terror began to diminish and I began to think that I would live to see better days. The hacking cough that I had arrived with, subsided and even my teeth seemed to calm themselves.
The next hurdle was to register with the Department of Work and Pensions. I wish I could tell you that this went as smoothly as my experience with the National Health Service, but sadly, I cannot. My first appointment was with a Mrs Patel, who, whilst speaking very good English, had a strong accent, which was hard for me to understand. She filled in forms as I spoke, did not smile or try to put me at my ease, or actually, even look at me or acknowledge me and finally, cut me off in mid-sentence, to tell me that I was not eligible for any benefits or help whatsoever, as I had not resided in England for five years. To her utter amazement, I broke down like a baby and howled. Eventually, as she was unable to calm me, she trotted off to get her Manager who arrived with several enormous Policy Manuals so that she could ‘examine my case’. To say that I felt abandoned by my own Country is an understatement. I was British born and bred, had worked for almost forty years in England, paying vast amounts of tax and National Insurance premiums and yet, here I was, having to beg and scrabble for money like a criminal. From somewhere, I found strength to argue my case with the Manager and her Policy Manuals and at last she went away to get another Manager to talk with me. This Manager was obviously in charge of the Department and came to me with a completely different set of forms especially for people with extenuating circumstances, who could prove that they were British. She examined my passport and all my other paperwork, wrote a statement, which she asked me to sign and stapled forms, paperwork and statement together before putting them in the IN TRAY – I was to be granted Job Seekers Allowance of £70.80 a week!