Today has seen fourteen job applications go in, painstakingly typed on this Jurassic mobile phone, for care work, shop work, factory work, minimum wage work, any kind of work, because quite simply, this doesn’t work.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, this month my Housing Benefit was over £100 short. I didn’t get a letter that I know of, but I can assume that it’s still the fallout from the cockups made by the various benefit agencies when I briefly went back to work from March to May. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to work out that £670 of rent can’t be paid of £438 of Housing Benefit. So I’m a week in arrears, almost two, as by the time Thursday comes and the next £167.31 is due, there’ll still be nothing coming in. The Income Support went on keeping me afloat, briefly, as did the Child Tax Credit. Now I’m not only in arrears, but last night when I opened my fridge to find some leftover tomato pasta, an onion, and a knob of stem ginger, I gave the pasta to my boy and went to bed hungry with a pot of home made ginger tea to ease the stomach pains.
This morning, small boy had one of the last Weetabix, mashed with water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with. ‘Where’s Mummys breakfast?’ he asks, big blue eyes and two year old concern. I tell him I’m not hungry, but the rumblings of my stomach call me a liar. But these are the things that we do.
I sit at the breakfast table, pencil and paper in hand, and I start to make a list. Everything that I have was either given to me by benevolent and generous friends, or bought when I earned £27k a year and had that fuzzy memory of disposable income. Much of it has gone already. The Omega Seamaster watch, a 21st birthday present, was the first to go when I left the Fire Service. My words, ‘you can’t plead poverty with a bloody Omega on your bloody wrist’ now ring true for most of my possessions as the roof over my head becomes untenable. My letting agents take care to remind me that I am on a rolling contract, and they can ask me to leave at any time, for no reason. I sell my iPhone for less than a quarter of its original price, and put my SIM in this Jurassic Nokia that I found in a drawer from days gone by.
Tomorrow, my small boy will be introduced to the world of pawnbroking, watching as his mother hands over the TV and the guitar for an insulting price, but something towards bridging the gap between the fear of homelessness, and hanging in for a week or two more. Trying to consolidate arrears, red-topped letters, and bailiffs, with home security, is a day to day grind, stripping back further the things that I can call my own. Questioning how much I need a microwave. How much I need a TV. How much I need to have the fridge turned on at the mains. Not as much as I need a home, and more importantly, not as much as small boy needs a home.
People ask me how I can be so strong. People say to me that they admire my spirit. Days like today, sitting on my sons bed with a friend, numb and staring as I try to work out where the hell to go from here, I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel spirited. I just carry on.
First you turn your heating off. That was in December, it went off at the mains and I parked furniture in front of all the heaters to forget that they were ever there in the first place and alleviate the temptation to turn them on. Then you turn everything off at the wall sockets; nothing on standby, nothing leaking even pennies of electricity to keep the LCD display on the oven. Then you stop getting your hair cut; what used to be a monthly essential is suddenly a gross luxury, so you throw it back in an Alice band and tell your friends that you’re growing it, not that you can’t afford to get it cut. Everyday items are automatically replaced with the white and orange livery of Sainsburys Basics, and everything is cleaned with 24p bleach diluted in spray bottles. You learn to go without things, and to put pride to one side when a friend invites you to the pub and you can’t buy yourself a drink, let alone one for anyone else. There’s a running joke that I owe a very big round when I’m finally successful with a job application, and I know I am lucky to have the friends that I do.
Then you start to take lightbulbs out. If they aren’t there, you can’t turn them on. Hallway, bedroom, small boys bedroom, you deem them unnecessary, and then in a cruel twist of fate, the Eon man rings the doorbell to tell you that you owe £390, and that he’s fitting a key meter, which will make your electricity more expensive to run. So you turn the hot water off. Cold showers were something of the norm in my old flat, where the boiler worked when it wanted to, so you go back to them.
You sell the meagre DVD collection for an even more meagre sum, the netbook, a camera, you wash clothes in basic washing powder that makes your skin itch. You pare back, until you have only two plates, two bowls, two mugs, two glasses, two forks, two knives, two spoons, because everything else feels like an indulgence, and rent arrears don’t wait for indulgence.
In a world where people define other people by their job title (this is Sue, she’s a lawyer, and Marcus, he’s an architect) and by the number plate on the type of cars they drive, and the size of their television and whether it’s 3D or HD or in every room, my world is defined by the love and generosity of my friends, and the contents of my bin shed. You sit on the sofa someone gave you, looking at the piano someone gave you, listening to the radio someone gave you, perched on the chest someone gave you.
Poverty isn’t just having no heating, or not quite enough food, or unplugging your fridge and turning your hot water off. It’s not a tourism trade, it’s not cool, and it’s not something that MPs on a salary of £65k a year plus expenses can understand, let alone our PM who states that we’re all in this together.
Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix and says ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.
Jack Monroe, Southend on Sea.