I signed on today. I was dreading it. As I’ve said before, the dish of dizzy heights and the shitty lows have been staple fare of my life.
Two weeks ago I boarded a train and travelled first class from Leeds to Kings Cross, eating food allegedly cooked by James Martin though he didn’t seem to be around to serve it. Then I was picked up in a posh limo and ferried to ITV on the Southbank, then up on a stage being the story expert sharing his expertise on storytelling. It was very successful and I felt good and there were many plaudits. Then I was limo’d back to Kings Cross and travelled first class back to Leeds where another posh car waited to run me back to the Ottermobile in Frizinghall… and I bedded down in my house on four wheels.
Today I walked a ten-mile round-trip to claim what’s due from the State. And that’s my story. It’s no more tragic than anyone else’s, and it’s certainly far less tragic than that of a good many less fortunate souls in the world. So I won’t feel sorry for myself, I should remember I have much to be thankful for, many to be grateful to and everything to look forward to. That’s the way it is and that’s how I will view it while laughing in the face of adversity and keeping the dog in the kennel where it belongs.
The many to be grateful to include my beautiful daughter Gabriel, whom we met for coffee the other day. She’d been swimming with my granddaughter and there she was, a little bundle of joy but shy and tired. My heart soared at the next storey of the rebuilding relationship. Then last night I had drinks with my two eldest brothers Podge and Gary, my son Charlie and Mandy. We did the pub quiz and came joint-second… erm, joint second-last. But we didn’t care because we were laughing all the time. I filled them in on some of my travelling anecdotes and updated them on the decrepit state of the Ottermobile, and on how Mandy and I are organising a school reunion. They filled me in on what’s happening in their lives – how Podge is coping as a widower, how Gary is plodding on in his cheerful way, how Chas is settling into his house in Derby and planning a trip to Germany. It was great to see them all and see that life goes on. And, of course, that there is always a story…
Signing on I thought would be an unbearable affair, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a neat office and friendly faces. I was also surprised by a weird thing that happened, which I’ll come to soon…
I’d anticipated looking at vagabonds, drug-addicts, hopeless souls and Polish-speaking strugglers (and I’m not being prejudiced as there is Polish blood in my family) and I was expecting to be thinking “I’m better than you” but knowing I wasn’t, I am not. But there was a welcome deal of cheer among us claimants. And as I waited and got chatting to one or two, the weird thing happened…
It wasn’t long before I was called to the desk by a 50-something bespectacled lady with an open smile, and as I sat opposite her to go through the process, talk about my change of c/o address and my “fairly unique” homeless circumstances, I soon realised that the lady was someone I’d slept with some thirty-five years ago!
I knew this would be an elephant in the room as I couldn’t possibly drop it in, as it were, but the subtext in my mind was “I wonder if she recognises me and I wonder if she’d remember?” Obviously I won’t name names or go into detail about such a distant and probably meaningless event, but my memory was pretty clear. Mercifully perhaps, hers wasn’t, because she didn’t seem to recognise me, or remember at all.
I record this only because it was such a strange feeling to be laying my soul bare to her, of all people, about being homeless, “unwashed” and unemployed, yet the boxes she was ticking showed “a very impressive CV”. She even commented that I came over very well, and I’d therefore, she was sure, have no trouble in finding work within my field. Then as I thanked her genuinely for being so kind and helpful and shook her hand, I couldn’t help thinking “the last time I touched you…” And as I left the building I felt surprisingly uplifted for reasons I find difficult to explain. The top and bottom of it though, was that it somehow made the process far more bearable than I’d expected.
And all the way back to the Ottermobile I laughed to myself and thought how strange life can be, how there’s a story round every corner, how even for the great unwashed there’s a rich lather of material to gather in.