In Memoriam

“Don’t forget me, Bethan,” she said as the conversation drew to a close, “Don’t you forget me”.
“I’m not going to forget you, Claudette”, I replied, smiling wryly. If we were speaking on the phone I might also roll my eyes in exaggerated exasperation. The conversations with Claudette always ended like this. She’d tell me what the problem was, I’d tell her what I thought I could do about it, and as we said goodbye she’d say it again, “Don’t forget me”.
I was hardly likely to forget her. Claudette came to me when there was still legal aid for immigration work, so she had a solicitor dealing with her immigration application and my role was to try to help her to hold together the strands of her life while the immigration case ground its way through the slow mill of the Home Office machinery. Claudette was a lively, confident young Jamaican woman with two daughters born in the UK. When we first met, her eldest daughter was five and the little one was only a few months old.
Claudette lived with her daughters in a small room in a shared house and her main problem in life was finding enough money to survive and to keep a roof over their heads. Since she had no immigration status she wasn’t allowed to work or to claim benefits, so she relied on a network of friends in the community to give her what money they could spare, to share food with her or top up her phone credit. Despite all these challenges she usually seemed upbeat, energetic and determined; sometimes it seemed that she held things together by sheer force of personality.
Most of my relationship with Claudette involved me writing to funders to try to obtain one-off grants of money to keep her going a little longer, while her immigration case continued. I was surprisingly successful; Claudette’s youth, the young age of her children and the fact that she had an immigration case made her a relatively sympathetic prospect and, for a time, the grants rolled in – £80 here, £150 there, and, on one memorable occasion, a grant of £2000 which I paid to her in small instalments over a number of months, £100 at a time.
Claudette owed money to her daughter’s school for school dinners, she was trying to pay back a substantial debt to the NHS incurred giving birth and she was eternally behind with her rent. The grants I gave her didn’t exactly keep the wolf from the door so much as at least prevent the wolf from swallowing her and the children whole.
With all this and with other help I provided, such as finding a GP willing to put her on their practice list, Claudette was a regular visitor to my office over the course of two or three years. We’d sit, the desk stretching out between us, as I tried to help her navigate the difficulties of her life. I didn’t feel in any danger of forgetting her.
Then, for a while, I didn’t hear anything from her. I hadn’t been able to get any more grants and I had no other reason to call her. She got back in touch, calling me one afternoon to tell me that her landlord had finally lost patience and evicted her from her small room leaving her and her daughters on the streets. In desperation she approached social services for help.
“And guess what, they’ve sent me to a place in Margate!” she said.
“Margate? Seriously?”
“Yes. Margate. We just got her and there’s hardly anything, no bedding, not even a blanket on the beds. I’ve got no food and no money and I don’t know anyone here. What am I going to do?”
Heaving a sigh, I bade farewell to the work I’d hoped to do that afternoon and began trawling through search engines trying to find organisations in Margate who might be able to respond to someone in urgent need. The afternoon ticked away in a series of cold-calls to organisations I vaguely hoped might be sympathetic, trying to explain to people unfamiliar with the cruelty and vagaries of the immigration process what was going on with Claudette and her daughters and why most of the usual avenues of assistance were closed to her. Finally, after a number of fruitless conversations, I was able to call Claudette back and tell her that someone from the local Salvation Army would be phoning her imminently and thought that they could sort something out. “Don’t forget me, Bethan, will you. Don’t forget me,” Claudette repeated her traditional parting invocation as we wrapped up and once again I dutifully promised, of course I wouldn’t forget.
I didn’t hear from Claudette much after that. Her face and her voice were submerged in my memory, replaced by the next desperate case, the next person being slowly worn away by the immigration process, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. In short, I forgot her.
It was several years later, as I sat at my desk a colleague said, “Oh, do you remember an old client of yours, Claudette Stephenson?”
“Claudette, Claudette…Oh, yes, of course, Claudette! What about her?”
“I was talking to someone from the community and they said that she died suddenly. Lupus I think”.
I was momentarily stunned. “That’s awful. Lupus. Yes, I seem to remember she had Lupus.” I thought hard, dredging up information from below the surface of memory. “What happened to her daughters, do you know?”
My colleague shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s very sad.”
For the rest of the day I read through what was left of Claudette’s case notes, reminding myself of her story, piecing together the information I had and trying to see if she’d ever mentioned any relative, any close family friend who might be an obvious choice to take in two small girls who’d lost their mother.
I had no way of finding out any more about what happened to Claudette; when she died, what became of her daughters, whether she’d ever actually gained immigration status before she died. I thought about her a lot for some time, guiltily fretting about whether I’d really done all I could for her.
It’s been a few years now, since I heard of her death. There are stretches of time when I don’t think about Claudette for a while; but then, suddenly, something will stir the memory, like a stick stirring and agitating the water in a murky pool, and I remember her. I think of her life which seemed to be continual struggle, a daily fight for survival with no respite and I grieve for her daughters, left alone at such a young age. And I hear her voice as she says to me, “Don’t you forget me, Bethan”.
I won’t forget.

One thought on “In Memoriam

  1. A hugely vivid description of someone pulled around by being deprived of essential, basic resources, epitomised by having her and her children’s lives disrupted and up-ended and then having to find dependable support all over again. This life story makes me ask – is some one’s exclusion from minimal security the necessary cost of a so-called wealthy nation? It highlights, too, the pastoral quality that accompanies the roles of people who bring humane qualities to their professional responses.

    Like

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