Sunday 1 July 2018

Austerity 'hits' | Parallel lives . . .

As anyone who has read my Blog will know I like to sometimes use fiction to comment on political issues. A  few days ago I wrote a short story - A Paycheck Away - about how austerity affects people differently depending on the situations and resources. I posted in on ABCtales and one of the site's readers asked me if there was going to be a sequel. I thought about this for a while and decided instead to write a parallel story; House(s) of Cards (which ends optimistically for some, but suggests risk and uncertainty ahead for others). The two stories follow: 

A Paycheck Away

Louise takes the scenic route home after completing one of her twice-weekly stints helping out at the local food bank. Having on several occasions lived hand-to-mouth herself she is glad to do her bit. Believing that such action is rarely truly altruistic Louise knows that she is more able to enjoy her own present relative good fortune if she gives a little time to aid others going through similar hardship to that she herself has often experienced. Warmed by the sun Louise removes her cardigan and stops for a minute to watch and enjoy the sparkling light dancing on the water. Her mood lifting after a soberingly busy morning she calculates the cost of coffee and a scone at her favourite beach café reckoning that if she economises a little on the weekly shop she can afford a treat. All the tables are busy but Louise spies Jan sitting at one. A chat with a friend is a pleasure to add to the one of eating and drinking something that she has not prepared herself. Feeling subversive she shares her buttered pastry with a seagull. Jan tuts and smiles and instead of juggling pounds and pennies in her head Louise counts her blessings.

As ever, Ruth is in a hurry. Rushing between meetings she rings the caterers one final time. Only the best for George’s ‘BIG-5-0’. Personally she’d rather they had a quiet, stress free, night alone at their favourite restaurant but she appreciates that her husband’s business is helped by some oiling of the town’s wheels. Feeding local VIPs with fiddly canopies and mid-range bubbly is indeed a regular necessity. Her own job, as a designer, for a small but creative clothes company, is both enjoyable and challenging but what she brings in is really only pin-money. The sexist stereotype of her labours gives her pause for thought as does the expectation, that given George’s importance, everything about their family and social life is her responsibility. But, busy as she is she has little time to dwell on her feelings about this, or indeed anything else. She can’t remember when she last watched a film, or read a book or had a little fun with her friends, rather than colleagues or significant acquaintances. She tells herself that on balance the sacrifices and compromises are worth it.

On arriving home Louise changes into work clothes. Following a three hour shift cleaning the most recently kitted out yachts at Bryson’s Luxury Leisure Homes (or Bryson’s Boats as she and her colleagues call it) there’ll be just time for a quick change into her dark blue uniform in preparation for a long night serving finger-food and alcohol at one of the big houses at the ‘posh end’ of town. Such luxury and decadence disturbs her despite the fact that it pays her wages. The yachts are indeed luxurious throughout. She worked in one last week with a price tag of almost four million pounds. The carpet fitter had just finished his work as she arrived to begin hers’. A nice enough bloke but sadly ignorant of the realities of life for many people he trotted out the ‘well if they will spend their money on fags and booze’ line when he found out about her volunteering. Not wanting to sink to the same offensive banalities Louise can’t help but put him in the ‘I’m alright Jack’ category.

Ruth only has time for a quick shower after returning home from work, supervising the decoration of the house and the garden in preparation for the party, visiting the kitchen to make sure that the caterers are on schedule and putting out George’s outfit for the night. She manages twenty minutes with the children before the au-pair puts them to bed but, as is often the case, she is left feeling dissatisfied by her all too brief contact with her daughters. Her mobile rings as she’s dressing. Her assistant Phil, still at work at 7pm, is clearly irritated that it is him and not her dealing with the problem of a lost order. Promising to go into work early the next morning, even though in theory it's her day off, Ruth ends the call after 20 minutes. Swiftly putting on her make-up and jewellery, including the diamond studs George’s secretary chose for her last Christmas, she reflects on the constant tension in her relationship with Phil. She knows little about his life, and the pleasures and pains within it, but whatever his reasons there’s no excuse for his unprofessionalism. Nobody’s irreplaceable after all.   

Before she sleeps Louise sits in her tiny garden drinking a long, cooling glass of water. She is looking forward to a day off tomorrow. She thinks, given the good weather, she’ll have an outdoor swim and in the afternoon there’s a planned walk with a group of friends. On Sunday there’s another catering event – a sit down lunch this one – and the following week she has eight, or maybe more, cleaning shifts including three or four on the boats and the rest in the B&B at the end of her road. The waiting-on jobs are less regular, less predictable, but it’s a busy time of year so she’s fairly confident that there will be some work. So far it’s been a good season and if it continues so next winter - the time of year when paid occupation is always less frequent - will not be as lean as the last. No room for complacency but for now the never far away anxiety of how to manage her finances is at a distance; low on her list of concerns. Kicking of her shoes Louise sighs happily and picks up her library book.

Having paid the caterers and tipped the waiting staff Ruth pours herself a final glass of wine and takes a seat on the patio. Strung up lights still twinkling, the garden resembles a fairy glade but Ruth barely notices. She is tired beyond belief. Massaging her aching feet she moves her face muscles in a gurning-type twist to release the tension following hours and hours of forced smiling. Reassured that her house and garden will be restored, by others, to its usual pristine condition before she returns from work tomorrow she leaves her glass, alongside others, on the table besides her, turns out the garden and house lights and climbs the stairs. Perhaps tomorrow after work she’ll find some time to take the girls to the beach. She promised earlier that she's take them shopping but duty calls and there’s always Amazon. Undressing quietly in the en suite Ruth slips into bed beside an already sleeping George. As always another busy day for him tomorrow and she doesn’t want to wake him.Once he is sure that Ruth is asleep, George quietly gets out of bed. His hands shaking he knows ANOTHER drink would calm him a little but he needs a clear, well at least less fuddled, head for what he has to do.

It’s no good, he’s been through the figures half a dozen time now and the answer is always the same; Bryson’s Boats – he knows that’s what everyone calls it - the luxury yacht building company he has built from scratch is about to go bust. With the house already re-mortgaged and the bank unsympathetic – tonight’s conversation with its' local branch manager confirming this - it’s absolutely clear that there are some changes ahead.  


House(s) of Cards 

Parking his van at the far end of the docks in the designated area for Bryson’s Luxury Leisure Homes Joe unloads his tools and checks his job-list for the day. It takes an age to fit the carpets in the yachts, what with the small areas and the multiple nooks and crannies. He must finish the latest boat by early afternoon so he’s starting early; ‘crack of sparrow fart’, as his old dad would have said. The deadline is necessary for several reasons. He has a measuring up appointment mid-afternoon which he needs to fit in before returning home to get ready for his night out and someone from the cleaning firm Bryson’s Boats (as everyone calls it) contracts is arriving later to make the vessel sparkle more than it already does. Waste of money, Joe thinks, but who is he to deny anyone work. He’s hoping the cleaner will be Louise today, although if it is he’ll probably either be tongue-tied or put his foot in it badly just as he did last time he saw her. For once it seemed he was managing to maintain a coherent conversation with a woman and then when she mentioned her food-bank shifts he came out with a mouthful of foul, insensitive shit about people choosing to spend their money on alcohol and cigs and the like rather than food. He knows it’s not true. He likes to think he’s well informed and he appreciates the precariousness of many people’s lives. Indeed; ‘there but for the grace of God’ and all that. But terrified of blurting out his admiration for Louise’s obviously caring heart, as well as his appreciation of everything else about her, he avoided behaving like a lovesick teenager by acting like a middle-aged dickhead instead.

George’s day is going slowly. He’s been at his on-site desk since dawn; as ever missing breakfast with Ruth and the girls. All to no avail, for however creatively he manipulates the figures they paint the same picture. On top of everything else there’s his 50th birthday party to get through tonight. Personally he’d rather they had a quiet, just-the-two-of-them, stress free night together at their favourite restaurant. The company of his wife, a steak and a bottle of red is what he really fancies. But he appreciates, especially now, the need to keep the town’s elite sweet. It’s likely going to take a lot more than a few fussy canopies and a bit of sparkly to persuade some of his long-time business rivals to listen to what he has to say though. He’s not told Ruth yet. She’s got her own worries, what with managing the care of the children and the running of the house, along with her job. He knows how much she loves her career and has always tried to be interested and supportive, whatever his own commitments. Just now he’s thankful that for at least a little financial security in the family

Joe is running late having stayed a little longer than he should to chat to the customer whose carpet measurements he’ll input in the computer tomorrow. He nearly refused the cup of tea she offered but is glad now that he didn’t. Widowed just eight months ago the older woman is obviously still working out how to live the rest of her life without her most beloved husband and listening to a little bit of her story left Joe humbly counting his own blessings. Despite his hurry he makes time to ring his daughter for a quick chat. She’s surprised as they’re meeting up on Sunday and have already made what plans they need to. Struggling a little with the twins as Phil is late home again she flops on the sofa, with a baby under each arm and the phone tucked under her chin, and enjoys a ten minute gossip with her most favourite (although she loves her husband dearly) man. Call over and humming happily to himself Joe grabs a jacket and his car keys and locks the house up for the night.

George arrives home just before the first guests are due to turn up. He kisses Ruth’s cheek – she’s a little cross that he’s late and turns her face when he aims for her mouth – and runs up the stairs, taking two or three at a time. A quick – much too quick – cuddle with each of his daughters later – he showers and dresses in the clothes that Ruth has left out for him. Even when she’s angry her care for him is constant and consistent. Less than twenty-five minutes after leaving work he is in his fairy-light decorated garden drinking cool fizz and succumbing to a plethora of birthday backslaps. Across the garden Ruth is mingling. Remembering, as she does, the names of other people’s children and grandchildren and key anniversaries and experiences, Ruth is a natural host. George on the other hand still feels awkward at this kind of event even when it’s held in his own space. It’s their different upbringing of course. His dad a dock-labourer, his mum a school dinner-lady the beautiful home and fabulous holidays, the luxuries and indulgences that are part and parcel of his daily life were things and experiences beyond his imagination whilst growing up. Not to mention his wonderful and accomplished wife and his adorable children. 'How will they cope?', he wonders, worried that they will hate a life less packed with glitter and glow and resent him for it.

Joe is tired now. It’s been a long shift. He sometimes manages a little sleep in the hostel he volunteers in one night a week but tonight has been full on. There was a bit of bother between two of the younger lads early on – nothing much just a scuffle, the heat not helping – and he spent much of the rest of the night chatting to others unable to sleep, despite it being their first chance to do so on a mattress for quite a few nights. Even though it’s a now well-worn phrase it’s not true that we are all a pay check or two away from homelessness. In fact those who have suffered child poverty are 142 times more likely to be sleeping rough, sofa surfing or living in temporary accommodation than others more fortunate in childhood, with the single biggest gateway to insecure accommodation or street sleeping being the breakdown of a private sector housing contract. In a holiday town such as this, where there is also a university, much more money can be made from multiple or tourist rentals and all this adds to problems already accumulated in times of political austerity. Joe’s own landlord seems happy (well, at least for now) with a long-term tenant and he is confident enough that his job for the town’s premier furniture store is secure. He knows many others not so lucky. Today after a few hours’ kip he’ll pop into work to get his list of yacht and other fitting jobs for next week and then he has a couple of days off. Eavesdropping on Louise’s phone call yesterday he heard that she’s walking part of the coastal path with friends. His dog could do with a long ramble.

George quietly gets out of bed once he is sure that Ruth is asleep. His hands shaking he knows ANOTHER drink would calm him a little but he needs a clear, well at least less fuddled, head for what he has to do. It’s no good, he’s been through the figures half a dozen time now and the answer is always the same; Bryson’s Boats is about to go bust. And yet, despite his unsatisfactory conversation with the bank manager some of the other chats he had earlier in the evening about mergers and partnerships might go somewhere. Whatever, there will need to be downsizing, not least in terms of some of the finishing touches to the yachts; a cheaper carpet provider, less emphasis on the final spit and polish, and so on.  But, although there is change and hard work ahead, unlike some others who share his class of origin George knows that he, and his family, have other resources and reserves to draw on in a life-changing event such as this. The house will have to be sold to pay off the re-mortgage but they can buy something smaller, less showy, more homely maybe. The au pair will have to go too -  a childminder will be cheaper - and the girls’ extra-curricular activities, the twice yearly holidays and his and Ruth’s many costly pleasures may need some revision. He won’t fret if they entertain a little less. His golf club membership will continue. If he’s ever to recover from this current downturn he needs to show a brazen face and keep up with his contacts. And there are ways to make a little more money here and there. The first thing to look at is his stock of local houses; at the moment they are all rented out on a six-month renewal basis to local folk but there’s much more money to be made from students and holiday-makers.  

Feeling happier and more hopeful about the future that he has for weeks George returns to bed smiling as his sleeping wife moves her warm body towards his. As he drifts off he thinks of how he might make time to go to beach with his family tomorrow.


  1. So much I can relate to here. Like Louise I am also compromised. I earn my living gardening for the very people, second and third home owners in St Mawes, whose properties can remain unoccupied for 48 weeks in a year and who I judge to be an large, negative component in societies disparity. Let's see how this story pans out. Thank you Gayle

    1. Thanks Steve - yes, our community was in my mind as I wrote the stories, as much as wider/broader problems of austerity, homelessness,food poverty and so on. Gayle