A very silly risk

In 1981, I was the District Officer of the Salisbury Community Welfare Department, north of Adelaide. Somewhere in the hot January of that year, the receptionist, a tiny woman prone to grumpiness, came into my office to say that no-one would respond to an urgent call from a man I’ll call John, because they thought he might be dangerous. ‘He’s mostly bluff, but none of this lazy lot will get out there and do the job they’re paid for. This man needs some help. You’re the boss; in my opinion you should either give some orders or do it yourself.’

Winning her over would have to wait; I was looking for a good distraction that day, so I went and grabbed the file, saw the address and took off in the car. Bone-dry winds were swirling leaves in the air as I parked outside a small house, with a bare front yard behind a chain-link fence. I opened the file, registering for the first time that it was very thick, to find that he was a ‘serial and vexatious complainer who sometimes threatened violence when he thought he had been wronged.’ He had a couple of restraining orders in place, from his ex-wife, and a neighbour. The Housing Trust had been trying to evict him from this house because of ‘continually living in squalor’ but he had refused to budge.

‘What a dickhead; should have at least read the file first.’ I was thinking, not sure what to do now. There were no mobile phones then, so discussion with my colleagues wasn’t an option. Then I saw the front blinds move; someone was watching me. I couldn’t just sit there. As usual with me, impatient bravado prevailed and I went to the front door, uncertainty making my heart beat a little faster. There was a rusty screen door, and before I could knock, I heard a male voice. It was glaring sunlight outside; I couldn’t see in, and when I opened the door at his request, the room looked very dark.

‘If you’re alone, come in slowly, and close that door behind you.’ I did, and as my eyes gradually adjusted, I saw I was in a sort of walkway between two high piles of newspapers, leading to someone sitting in a chair facing me. Medium-sized, skinny; the file said he was 30 but my impression was of an older man, although I couldn’t see his face properly. A couple of metres in front of him was another chair, and he said in a low, quiet voice, ‘Just sit down there please.’ As I did so, I saw that he had a rifle in his lap, one hand near the trigger, one in front. As a teenager in the country, I had used rifles a lot, and I knew that position; ready to shoot. By now I was icy calm on the outside, heart thudding in my chest, full of regret, trying to think clearly.

I said ‘Hi John, I’m David Meldrum, from Community Welfare, nice to meet you.’ I leaned forward to shake hands and he stopped me with a hand signal. I took a chance. ‘It’d be easier for me to talk if you put that gun away.’

‘That’s not going to happen David.’

‘Ok, you called the office to ask for someone to come and see you about an urgent issue. How can I help?’

‘You probably can’t.’ Not the answer I wanted to hear. By now I was assessing my chances of making a run for it—zero was the obvious conclusion. I ploughed on. ‘Is this about the Housing Trust?’

‘You know about that? How they think my house is filthy? Look around. What do you think?’ Well, it certainly was overfull. Every chair had a pile of books on it and the floor was covered in waist-high stacks of newspapers. With the curtains drawn and no lights on it was hard to comment on cleanliness, but I was able to say truthfully ‘It doesn’t smell dirty.’

There was a long silence. I guessed he was thinking about whether I was being honest, or just lying to keep the peace. I doubt he had a proper appreciation of how difficult it was to have a polite chat in these circumstances. But then he went on to explain why he kept the newspapers. It was sadly delusional, all about watching for patterns of reporting that showed the government’s real plans for us all. ‘People just aren’t paying attention; the clues are all right there.’ This line of argument went on for many minutes, while I parried with such zingers as ‘Do you really think so?’ and ‘You may have a point there.’ Inane, but all I could think of that wouldn’t sound patronising or even remotely combative. All the time trying not to look at the gun. I was scared to try to move the conversation to an end-point, because I had a sinking feeling what that could be.

It must have been about half an hour after I came in when I took a risk and said, ‘I have to get back to the office soon John. Is there anything I can do that would be of help to you?’ Silence from him. Dry mouth for me. Then he said ‘Tell the Housing Trust this is my house, I’ve been paying the rent on time for seven years, and it is not filthy like they say. I am not moving, and if they try to evict me, I’m not going without a fight.’

I felt a crazy urge to say something honest like ‘John, this can only end badly. You just can’t threaten people with guns and expect everyone to say Oh, alright then, you can stay.’ Instead I said, ‘I can do that John. Thanks for your time, it’s been a useful meeting, and I’m quite clear what you’re asking for. I’ll make sure the Housing Trust understands your point of view.’ I also wanted to say ‘Can I go now, please.’ But I could feel that might come out in a high-pitched squeal, so I just stood up carefully and waited. He didn’t move. I said brightly, “Well, I’ll see you later.’ Turned my back on him and walked very slowly between the newspaper piles back to the front door, trying to breathe evenly. Even outside the door, the path to the front gate was directly in his line of sight; that was such a long way. It wasn’t till I drove away in the car that I breathed out fully, and my hands started to shake.

He did get to keep his house. The Housing Trust people read my report and stayed away for the longest time. The mental health community team stayed away, and so did I and my team. When I got back to the office, the receptionist was unrepentant. ‘I never thought you’d just charge in there on your own. Why didn’t you get the police to go with you?’ I had no good answer for that, so I shut up, and went into the lunch-room, to admit to a few colleagues that I should have asked them why they were refusing to visit John. Going to the home of a man with a history of violence, on my own, with no back-up. As a community worker, I was still green behind the ears. It had been a very silly risk.

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