Sunday, 12 January 2014

80. Plastic boxes that go beep

Gin is sitting at the other end of the sofa with her feet in my lap, and I am painting her toenails. Amanda is lying on the floor painting my nails, with her legs crooked up into Gin's lap so Gin can paint hers. I would love to see what we look like to the outside viewer.

It's seven o'clock. We are listening to the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show and drinking our way through a jug of Gin's homemade margaritas. The original plan was to go out for dinner and then on somewhere, but it's starting to look as if it has been cancelled due to not moving.

Gin has chosen bright parrot green nail varnish, Amanda sunshine yellow. I've picked midnight blue.

"How's Martin?" says Amanda, slyly.

Amanda and Gin don't mention Martin all the time. They sometimes go weeks without mentioning his name. I think the plan is that if they drop him into the conversation suddenly I might react somehow.

"He's fine," I say.

"Have you made a move on him yet?" Gin is flank-attacking from the right.


"Has he made a move on you?" Amanda again.


They look at each other.
"Did you get the tickets for next Saturday?" I say, hastily.

"Yeah," says Amanda, stroking blue across my big toenail.

"How much do we owe you?"

"Nothing." Amanda blows on my toenail softly to dry the varnish. "I got the tickets for free."

"Free? Free?" Gin says. "What? Who from?"

Amanda suddenly looks caught out and I realise she's said more than she intended.

"The box office website is a bit - antiquated..." she says, trailing off. Oh dear. I know where this is going.

"You hacked into it and got free tickets?" Gin says.

Amanda looks wounded. "Well, if you want to put it that crudely."

"I do," says Gin. "I do want to put it that crudely."

"Music should belong to everyone. I hate the way it's become just another way for The Man to make money."

"Don't turn this into some kind of political rebellion against the system," says Gin. "I don't want to be caught with a skeevy ticket at the door. I have more self respect than that."

I don't know a lot about computers. Amanda doesn't talk about her job much and I am not sure exactly what she does, except that it is freelance and she seems to make quite a considerable amount of money. She works from home, in a room full of happily humming plastic. She ignores the usual sleek black minimalist computer-geek style in favour of covering all her equipment with street art stickers she bought from Redbubble.

Machines respond to Amanda in exactly the same way as animals respond to animal-loving humans. Everyone she knows brings her their laptops with screen-freeze, sulky touchscreens and PCs shivering with viruses, and she delicately presses and searches with her long, sensitive fingers until the hidden door pops open or the screen flickers, and she smiles.Then she presses a couple of buttons, maybe types a word or two, and they work. Sometimes she hands it back and says there is nothing she can do, and she always looks sad to break such terrible news.

This leads me to some strange conclusions. A machine is a machine. How can it know? But there's no denying that some people can make anything work and some people break everything they touch. Is it just a matter of being heavy handed? Or is it some fundamental lack of sympathy?

"Alice! Tell her!" Gin's despairing voice makes me tune back into the conversation. I've lost track of what's going on and I'm not sure exactly what I'm supposed to tell Amanda, but fortunately Gin launches straight back in with: "There's more to life than plastic boxes that go beep!"

Amanda grins at her. "Look, if you're not comfortable, I'll give your ticket away. You don't have to come."

Gin looks uncomfortable. This promises to be a fantastic gig, and it's sold out. This is the only way she's going to get in, and she knows it.

"I'm not happy about it," she says, capitulating. "Musicians should get paid for their work."

"It's sold out," says Amanda. "They're sold out all over the country. They'll make enough to eat tomorrow."

"But if everyone had the same attitude as you - "

"If everyone had the same attitude as me, all gigs would be free because musicians would receive billions in state funding from the Ministry of Music. I consider that a much better use of public funds than nuclear missiles." 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

79. I kept getting turned down

I remember a time once when I was unemployed. I had been made redundant. At this time I was overqualified and underexperienced. I kept going for jobs. I kept getting turned down.

But of course, I'm ok. I'm middle class. I have a degree. The politicians and pundits aren't talking about me when they talk about unemployment and benefit scroungers and zero hours contracts and whether benefits give you enough money to "live" on.

Except they are. The "they" who try and exist on benefits is also "me". I could tell you about all the adding up of pennies and the counting down of days, the 10pm visits to the supermarket to see what had been discounted because it would save a precious £5 which would allow me to buy deodorant or a chocolate bar or a couple of halves of lager in the pub on Amanda's birthday, the realisation that living is more than just staying alive.

The time when my only decent pair of shoes got a split in the sole and I cried because I couldn't afford new shoes. I just quite simply could not afford them and still eat. But I had to have new shoes, because these were my interview shoes, and if I started turning up for job interviews for professional jobs in trainers then I would have no chance whatsoever. So I lived on value pasta. With no sauce. For a week. 

I could tell you all that, but instead I'll tell you the story of Joe. I knew Joe vaguely through friends; loud, obnoxious, given to making generalisations about immigrants. Estate agent, too much hair gel. I did not like Joe, and I avoided him at parties, because he would get drunk and attempt to grab my boobs.

But one day he asked me out. He said: "Can I buy you dinner?"

I had £5 in my bank account, nothing to eat at home but beans on toast, nothing for breakfast tomorrow, five days till the money came through, and he was offering to buy me dinner. Oh the idea of dinner, a proper meal out, with meat, and a starter, and green veg, and dessert, and in that moment I understood how skint people have ended up as prostitutes and courtesans throughout all the millennia of human existence.

Just because you are struggling to get by doesn't mean you don't have eyes, brains or a stomach and the satisfaction of doing the honourable thing lasts about as long as it takes for you to stare at your plate of Tesco Value tinned spaghetti hoops and think: "I could be sitting in a restaurant knocking back red wine and eating steak."

It's not even so much the spaghetti hoops themselves. It's the knowledge that you will be eating spaghetti hoops pretty much forever. That for the foreseeable future there will not be a time when you don't have to watch the pennies, that if you're careful things might get easier - but they will never actually be easy, not while you are living like this.

This is the thing I think politicians and people with money in general don't understand, that it's not about the lack of cash, exactly. It's about the knowledge that there is no end in sight to the lack of cash. There will never be a time when you can relax about money for even a second. You live in a world where one piece of bad luck - the electricity company has miscalculated, for example, and you've been underpaying a direct debit without your knowledge, and you suddenly get a demand for £400 - could tip you over into homelessness, because you live in a world where people might as well ask you for a million pounds as for £400. You've got about as much chance of meeting either request, after all.

And that or something like it could happen at absolutely any time, and you have no control over whether it does or not. You live on a knife edge.
But just because you live in a world with no room for fripperies doesn't mean you don't like them.

At this time, if I was invited to someone's wedding, I had to make the tough decision of whether to spend £15 on a new dress from Primark, whether to wear an old dress and take them a better gift, or whether to wear an old dress, take a cheap gift and eat properly that week. I remember spending time walking round really high-end clothes shops and department stores. Just to be in them. Just to look at clothes which weren't cheap, and smell perfume which wasn't market store knock-offs, and see how there was a designer vase for £100 - £100! Imagine that! Imagine a world where I had enough money to spend £100 on something to put flowers in! It was almost beyond imagining in a world where every pound I had was earmarked as soon as it fell into my bank account for necessities like food, or rent, or knickers without actual holes in, or shampoo.

On the rare occasion I could afford flowers, they were £1 daffodils and they lived in a converted coffee pot. And people who had money came round and said "Ooh, isn't that cute, what a lovely idea," and the truth was they were in the coffee pot because it was better than putting them in a saucepan, which was the only other option I had because I had sold everything I owned which would sell. I can speak from experience when I say there is but nothing more annoying than people with money admiring your desperate skint contrivances as if you chose to do them because it was cool.

Did I let Joe take me out to dinner? Yes, and I ate and drank as much as I could, and stole all the rolls in my handbag when he went to the loo, and took all the uneaten cheese off the cheeseboard home wrapped in napkins, and flirted and smiled and laughed in all the right places in the frantic hope he would take me out again. I did not agree with his racist statements - but I also didn't exactly disagree. I was embarrassed and horrified with myself about that at the time, but I felt a lot less awful when I woke up the next morning with a wealth of fancy cheese and handmade luxury bread rolls for breakfast.

Did he ask me out again? No. Not surprising, to be honest. In some ways it was a good thing, because it saved me from the next dilemma: if he had, would I eventually have slept with him so he kept funding my food?

Probably. It was a rough time. A girl has to eat.