A story featuring Aftab
A story featuring Aftab (22), Tina (32), John (90), and Maggie (Social Worker)
Aftab’s Social Worker, Maggie, was the one who suggested he meet up with John and Tina. Maggie’s one of those people who just makes things happen, a good listener. When Maggie dropped him off, she said it would do him good, promised to come back for him in half an hour, having settled him down and seen Tina and John arriving through the café’s glass door. Choosing Aftab’s favourite coffee shop helps a little, but his cerebral palsy makes him feel awkward when it comes to speaking first, especially to strangers. Three coffees arrive. Aftab’s first trip out for weeks begins with the rush of an Americano and the nervous buzz of the unknown.
Alright, lad? John’s Hello feels like late summer, a Test Match on the telly. He’s like a tree nobody can remember not being there, so old, he’s ageless, and there’s nothing he hasn’t seen.
By contrast, when Tina, the third member of the group, grins across the table at Aftab, it’s a spring-time of a smile, one full of fascination. Her words dance across Aftab’s awkwardness, tease him out of himself, so much so, that her wheelchair disappears. So what does Aftab want to know, what can she tell him? The car crash? Well, there isn’t much to tell, except that smashing into a milk-float isn’t the most glamorous way to leave yourself flat out in a spinal ward for months, is it? Aftab grins, despite himself. So does John.
Aftab’s not sure. He just knows he wants to do something, get out and have a fresh direction, be more active, especially if he can use his Direct Payment to cover it. His chats with Maggie were a start. Just knowing that half of the people like him, trying to sort out their lives with a Personal Budget and Direct Payments, do no exercise at all, at least told him that he wasn’t alone. Like he told Maggie, it’s never been that he doesn’t want to exercise, it’s just knowing where to begin.
She was cool about it, Maggie was, went through the stuff about the Care and Support Plan, social needs, things to watch out for, having to spend the money on things that meet his assessed needs, you name it. Even told him how getting active might count as a way of meeting his personal outcomes, because it would help his physical and mental ‘well-being’.
Tina nods, grabs her cup with both hands, loving the warmth. It definitely helps if you get a good Social Worker on your side. Maggie’s one of the best, for sure, and Tina should know, having spent plenty of time whacking her head against a brick-wall. Just having somebody who actually wants to listen, to talk to you about the things you want, things like getting active – that’s massive. The number of times Tina’s felt totally voiceless in her assessments! It’s a nightmare sometimes when all that nattering’s happening around you, and you just feel invisible, stuck for words. Tina’s giggle rises again at the unlikely idea of herself being stuck for words. Well, almost! She wasn’t always the little super nova Aftab’s sitting with today! It took her months to find the nerve to say it was supposed to be about what was good for HER! Her clenched hand raps on the table. The coffees wobble in their cups. Whoops!
Aftab tries to stifle a chuckle of his own, only half succeeds. Aftab’s agreement grows from nodding into a ‘Yes’. ‘Yes’ to not having the words, not being able to say it like it is, getting lost inside himself, and then finding the assessors are halfway down the road while he’s still trying to speak. Except with Maggie. That’s different. She makes people wait for him to spit the words out.
Aftab should count himself lucky he’s got Maggie on his side. It’s not easy when you start going out. Confidence takes time. For Tina, the first months in hospital were her worst, the weeks before she could sit up, and then her first trip out to the shops in clothes she would never have worn in a million years, trying to ignore the sideways looks, the ones that squirm their faces like this. Her own features do their best impression, without coming close, which makes her laugh even more.
Then, suddenly serious for a second, she explains that what really made a difference was the first time she watched some of the other patients playing wheelchair basketball in the hospital gym. It was beautiful. Like the first time she saw it snow. The image returns to her mind, the thrill of seeing other people like her moving around the wooden floor like ice-skaters, and the way she could almost have cried just seeing them. Now it’s swimming, and cycling. She can’t get enough of either, actually gets depressed if she doesn’t get there one week for any reason. Helping out at the hospital sports club, taking her sports science degree, becoming an instructor, they were all part of the same thing.
Then John nods slowly, before adding that for him it was all about getting out of the house, seeing at least a few faces that he didn’t have to pay to be there. Plus the fact that he was piling on the pounds, eating rubbish, worrying about what people thought, eating more rubbish. They get the picture. He was starting to look like a barrage balloon, or a space hopper, not that young folk like Aftab or Tina are old enough to remember them, surely?
Aftab shakes his head, while Tina nods. Well, yes, to space hoppers. No to those barrage thingies.
John runs his fingers through his white hair, suddenly feeling every single one of his ninety years, especially next to twenty-two-year-old Aftab, and Tina looking not much more, despite being thirty-two. Got grand-kids Tina’s age, he has, and Aftab’s.
John looks blank for a second, loses his way. Where was he? Then his mind clicks back into gear. Yes, talking about sport. When it’s an invisible injury, as well as the obvious (thwacking his plastic leg with his walking stick, just to see the look on the young ’uns faces), people don’t get that you can’t just snap out of it, like you’re switching a light on or something. Thinking back, he was never really right, not after that blinkin’ land-mine back in Normandy in ’44. Just put it down to feeling down, he did. Then, a while back, the Doctors starting going on about Post Traumatic Stress and depression. Don’t worry, he’ll not bore ’em daft with his war stories. What he will say is that once he did start going out, meeting more people, at least a bit of the old John returned. He stopped yelling at everybody, crying over nothing. Not that it doesn’t take time, mind, but waking up in the morning began to feel like a good idea. He gets his bad days, of course. Who doesn’t? Archery’s never going to grow him a new leg, but it does give him something else to think about, and it’s good to catch up with a few of his new mates, ones who don’t smell of battle and uniforms, young ’uns too, some of ’em. He’s part of a whole new community now. The Brigade, they call themselves, in John’s honour. John helps himself to another slurp of coffee. The problem is, getting a bit of sense out of the people who hold the purse strings, isn’t it? They don’t always clock on that it does you good to go out.
Tina laughs again. Yep. She got in massive trouble because she wanted to use some of her Direct Payment to mend her hand-trike. They weren’t best pleased with that idea. Seemed to think it would work just as well with two wheels, rather than three! Said it wasn’t an immediate need. Yeah, right! No wonder she took so long to start speaking up for herself, is it? It gets her down sometimes, even now. She growls and giggles at the same time. Anyway, are there any sports in particular Aftab would like to do, or that he likes watching. Has he got a favourite football team?
In the pause before answering, Aftab deliberately avoids his pat response to any mention of football, his joke about having two left feet, opting instead for something a little more hopeful. No, not really. He’ll give most things a go. It’s just getting there. Before Maggie popped up, he wasn’t getting out much, and when he did, it was usually his dad who took him, or his brothers, if they weren’t working. Mind you, once his Direct Payment’s finally sorted, maybe that might change. And Maggie’s put it in his Care and Support plan now, so there’s no excuse for the people round him not knowing he wants to do things any more. Maybe now he’ll get a bit of, a bit of… What’s the word he’s after?
Control? Tina and John answer almost before they realise, their voices striking an unlikely harmony.
Yeah, maybe, he’ll get some control. That would be cool. Aftab winces a little, suddenly conscious of having said more in the last twenty minutes than he has all day, even to Maggie. The thought of getting out independently flashes across his mind, like low sun on a rear-view mirror. He loves his family, but they treat him like a kid sometimes. He needs to be himself, you know?
Tina nods. It gets easier. Really, it does. Once you start to stretch your wings, independence, confidence, enjoying yourself, things like that all go together. Oh, and then there’s the physical side of course. Tina’s muscle spasms were a nightmare before she got into sport. Now they’re loads better. Even if it’s only gentle exercise, it’ll do Aftab good, lower his cholesterol, do wonders for his heart, his spasticity, you name it. What’s not to love about that?
Anyway, Aftab should have a look at this for now. Tina delves into the pocket of her fleece and pulls out a leaflet, scribbles on a blank space in biro. Look, here’s a bit of information about the clubs where she goes, and her email. If nothing else, it’s somewhere to start. She hands the leaflet to John, along with the pen. John adds his name, his email, and his group’s website, before pushing the leaflet into Aftab’s hand. Aftab grins, seeing the words ‘The Fabulous Tina’ and ‘John’s Brigrade’ in shiny blue ink.
Tina’s voice lowers with increasing sincerity. Look, most people, most people that she’s met anyway, don’t get to use their Direct Payment for sport and things like that, because they don’t even think they can. Every authority’s got its own ideas. That’s just how it is. But even if Aftab’s not allowed to actually pay to do sport, what he needs to do is make sure his Social Worker, Maggie, and all the head honchos, know what a difference it might make to get active, to meet fantastic new people like Tina, laughing again, to be part of something. Yes? Aftab nods. He’s done the hard part already, hasn’t he? He’s spoken to Maggie, and he’s taken that first step by being here. It’s all about ‘personal outcomes’, punctuating with her fingers, grinning more warmly than ever.
Speaking slowly, as if he’s carving the words into the air, John adds his own advice. What Aftab needs to remember is that it’s about having a choice, making his own mind up, preferably well before he gets as old as John. If he wants a bit of help with what to say, John’s more than happy to give him a few tips. Anyhow, they can talk more next time. Aftab can let ’em know how he’s getting on. The leaflet’s got plenty about Tina’s club, and, if Aftab’s up to speed with computers, he can check up on John’s group on-line. A proper silver surfer, John is now! On-line was where he started looking.
How about Tina? How did she find out what might be out there? Oh, it was a friend, one of the guys from the hospital basketball team, who gave her a leg up! Her eyes glitter like Christmas tinsel as she reaches down, grabs her right leg, and dangles it in the air. He was the first one who told her she needed to start sticking up for herself, telling her Social Worker what a buzz she gets from sport. Now, when she has her reviews, they can’t shut her up! Aftab needs to remember that. Oh and like John says, Aftab should definitely get on the internet and have a sniff around. There are shed-loads of blogs on there, charity websites, clubs, everything.
The café doors open and close again. Maggie trots in, rubbing her hands. Looks nice out there, but it’s blooming freezing. Soooo, how are the three musketeers getting on? Making progress? Aftab, Tina, and John respond with a chorus of nods and yeses. Well, she supposes it’s time she was getting Aftab home. See, it wasn’t as scary as all that, Aftab, was it?
Aftab smiles, shakes his head, causing his left arm to straighten and his fist to clench. The spasm gives way again. Before he’s shuffled towards the door, Aftab promises to be back in a couple of weeks, and means it!
He’d better be back, or Tina will come and find him. He won’t be getting away as easily as that. Besides, there’s John’s war stories to look forward to. Her throaty chuckle is the first and last thing Aftab remembers as he’s driven home with Maggie humming to Smooth FM.