I They lived alone in a small rented house for over six years. I am in my sixties. Winter isn’t harsh here in the southwest but sea mist wanders along the coast clinging to your face and going straight into your lungs.
I live in an affluent village where there are acacias, wood stoves and underfloor heating. Nobody knows the secret I’m ashamed to share: that I don’t know how I’m going to live this winter.
The recent turmoil in Downing Street is adding to my anxiety. For them, it’s all about strength. The sarcasm of this word is not lost when I am terrified of running gas or electricity. I am skeptical that Rishi Sunak will bring hope or change. It is very rich, which means that you do not have to worry about the cost of anything. So it is incomprehensible that he could call anyone unable to buy fresh fruit for their children, £9.35 off a prescription, or a tank of fuel to go to work. I was never very wealthy, but I was comfortable one day, and at that time I hardly looked at food prices except for the Christmas turkey. I pushed him in the wagon without a second thought, because I can.
I’ve worked as a freelancer for years, but this is a new field for me, a perfect storm of low wages, amazing prices and my 60’s. Experience translates as an expense for many potential recruiters, especially when there is a younger, cheaper workforce. I’m not yet claiming benefits, swinging around the poverty trap, but it will be inevitable if I lose the client who is the source of so much of my work – which seems increasingly likely. In terms of benefits, I will fall prey to the bedroom tax because I have a small spare room, so any rent allowance will be reduced by 14%.
I am fortunate that the landlord is still understanding, and has yet to pay the rent, which is £600 a month. My council tax is quite a burden, around £150 a month even with an allowance for one person. My dual-fuel fixed plan expires this month and then I’m moving it to a variable rate. So far I’ve used 28% less gas and 11% less electricity than last year. I feel financially lost, waiting to hit the iceberg. Illness terrifies me because there isn’t much of a safety net for the self-employed. Let me rephrase: There isn’t much of a safety net for anyone.
It reminds me of the insecurity I felt growing up on a council estate. When I went to grammar school and needed organizational shoes and uniforms, they were bought with loans at amazing interest rates from a company that took over people like my father, who were simply doing their best. Education was my way, and I swam for a while at the top. Bad relationships, shortcomings, and bankruptcy ended it all. I am now worse off than my parents, certainly in terms of the welfare state, access to health care, and job security. They never owned their homes. I lost mine. It’s still very painful.
Microwave food and use one Ikea induction hob which costs £35 which is great. Sometimes I make a stew in my one-person slow cooker, using pearl barley to assemble it like my mom taught me.
The bread I liked now is £2.10 for a small loaf, up from £1.50, good value because they are frozen long and durable. I no longer have a freezer so the loaf is out of my turn. I shop at the end of the day and look for discount labels but even these are not generous. The only fresh fruit I eat is bananas and oranges. Soft fruit is off the menu. Instead, I buy cans: a small can of peach slices in fruit juice is worth 70p and a pear for the same price. I have put my little garden into growing chard, broccoli, onions and baby leeks. The garden helps, it really is wise. It has become my safe space. I haven’t used a food bank yet, but it might not stay that way.
I am able to weed out a government bent on cuts that look like “efficiencies”. A friend bought me some coffee that day. Kindness and caffeine in a jar. I cried when they were gone, out of anger at foolish politicians who destroy people’s lives for some ideological excitement and my pride in the necessity of accepting charity.
I can live like this because it’s just me. It only affects me and I am, at the moment, fit and healthy. But I couldn’t have lived that way when I had my baby to keep warm or when I was caring for my mother who had Alzheimer’s before she passed away. I can’t imagine the constant pressure to provide for the young or the old and the horror of not being able to. I’m really lucky.