TESCO TOWNS AND HAND ME DOWNS
I open the cupboard and check how much food we’ve got left. Two tins of ravioli, one of sweetcorn, three potatoes and seven tea bags. Mike’s trying to get the kids ready for school and I rinse the kettle out and try and get rid of all the lime scale by shaking it about and swirling the water around inside it. I pour the water out into the sink, fill it again and place it back down on the base and flick the switch. I can hear Lisa complaining about the stiffness of her shirt and how it grates the skin on her neck and wrists, but there’s not much we can do about it since the washing machine powder finished last week. I take the used tea bags out of the little bowl and place them in the mugs. As I pour the boiled water in I watch as it barely changes colour. I’m pretty sure we won’t be able to get any more tea out of these ones, but I take them out and leave them in the little bowl just in case. I put some bread in the toaster and wait. I can’t remember the last time I had a good cup of coffee. Everything is so expensive now, but I guess when you haven’t got any money everything is too expensive. Luckily Mike’s got an interview today and I’m going to the food bank to try and get some more supplies. This is the last time they’ll help us so I’m hoping they give us as much as possible, God knows we need it. Since Dad got laid off last year there’s no one left I can ask to help us out. I already owe my brother money, and now that he’s finding it harder to cope with their new kid, I’m expecting him to ask me for some of it back. But there’s nothing I can do, if Mike doesn’t get this job, I don’t know how we’re going to survive.
I pour the powdered milk into a couple of glasses and stir it out into the water. If someone had told me when I was younger that things would be this hard, I’d have doubted their honesty, but living like this, going through the same things every day with only hope to keep it all together, I guess they were right, and I wish to God they weren’t. Mike enters the kitchen with Lisa and Ben and they sit at the table so that we can eat what breakfast there is and try and pretend that things aren’t that bad. I hand the kids their milk and crackers and watch as they eat slowly whilst staring at the table. They don’t say anything. They don’t have to. I look at Mike and he tries to smile but I know he’s scared. He’s nervous about the interview and so I place his tea in front of him and move behind and rest my hands on his shoulders. I can feel the tension and I close my eyes and wish that somehow I could make things better for all of us. I wish that by some sudden luck we could get a break. That we could just have a couple of months without having to worry about our inability to provide. Mike took it the hardest. After he lost his job he tried to occupy his time by doing things around the house, and initially it was good for him and us. But as the money dried, so did the capability to decorate and improve. Soon he was hard pressed in his head and though he never told me, I know he felt like a failure. I tried to ease his pain with words and the few things I had to offer, but his distant stares continued to worry me. ‘How you feeling?’ I ask him.
‘Okay.’ He answers and sips at his tea.
‘You’ll be great. Come on, trust me.’ I can sense his doubt but am unsure how to silence it.
‘I’ve got a good feeling about this one. It’s perfect for you. They’d be crazy not to employ you.’
‘Just be confident and smile.’
‘As easy as that.’
‘No, it’s not, but you can do it. I have faith in you.’ I lean in and kiss him on his cheek. ‘I love you.’ He turns his head and looks up at me and for the first time this morning his stress slackens.
‘I love you too.’ His hand reaches down and squeezes mine. ‘We’ll be okay.’
‘I know.’ I kiss him again and stroke his face. ‘We’ll be fine.’
‘Right, are you kids ready to go?’ He asks and finishes his tea.
‘But I’m still eating.’ Ben says.
‘Well hurry up because Daddy has an important interview to get to.’ I say.
‘What kind’ve interview?’ Lisa asks.
‘A job interview.’
‘Really? That’s brill.’
‘Maybe. Now come on, we really do have to get moving.’ He gathers the used glasses and plates and places them beside the sink. ‘Do you have everything for school?’
‘Yeah.’ Both Ben and Lisa answer in unison.
‘You got your homework and everything?’
‘Yeah.’ They smile at each other. I look at them and marvel at how fortunate we’ve been with both of them. Even though their lives have changed immeasurably over the last year or so, they’ve never complained. They’ve never thrown strops or had tantrums or screamed and shouted at us. They’re great kids. Perhaps they know more than me and Mike give them credit for, but hopefully things will get better soon. I know they will. They have to.
Mike and the kids are all lined up in the hallway and I hold on to Ivy as I kiss and wish them all a nice day. I hug and hold Mike tight. ‘You’ll be great. I promise.’
‘Thanks.’ He opens the door and Ben and Lisa begin to walk out into the front garden. ‘If I can, I’ll try and ring the house and let you know how it went.’
‘Say bye to mummy.’
‘Bye mummy.’ Ben says.
‘Bye mummy.’ Lisa repeats, and I watch them turn left and disappear behind the hedge. I stand in the doorway and close my eyes. I feel the breeze against my face and I stay there for a few seconds, breathing slowly and trying not to think about anything at all. Ivy pulls at my shirt and I open my eyes and go back inside the house. It’s quiet and I feel a little odd and uneasy. Normally I take the kids to school while Mike looks at the job ads in the papers before heading down the jobcentre, and it’s weird to be in the house when it’s so empty. I guess as a parent you often seek out those seconds of stillness and calm, but without the little laughter and voices, it’s unsettling and strange. I don’t know how I’d cope without them now, and that’s what makes it worse. The disappointment that we’re not giving them the life we always wanted them to have. That we’re failing in the only thing we ever really cared about. That we’re bad parents and don’t deserve kids like them. I know we bathe and clothe and feed them and somehow still manage to keep this roof over their heads, but it’s not enough. I want to see them smile at the sight of a gift again. I want to see them bounce around with joyful anticipation of a trip to the fun fair or cinema or bowling or all the other days out we can’t afford anymore. I want to see them happy. That’s all I want. That’s all we ever wanted.
I finish washing the dishes and place Ivy in her little cot whilst I get ready to go to the food bank. As much as I dislike going there, it has to be done, and I won’t let Mike go. I know how much it would affect him. I don’t care much for the reasons why these places have opened up around the country, I just know that without them thing’s would be that much harder. The Government will do whatever it wants and my priority is my kids. I try to save my voice for them. I push the pram out the door and lock it tight. It only takes a few minutes’ walk for Ivy to fall asleep and as I pass the other houses I can’t help but notice the little changes that have taken place over the summer. No. 57 has been repainted some sort of cream colour and it looks nice and new. No. 63 has an array of plants still flowering along its window sills in ceramic pots on either side of the entrance. I think they’re citrus plants of some sort. Mini orange plants perhaps. No. 69 has had a new driveway put down and no. 71 has been boarded up. Probably squatters or fear of squatters. I reach the end of our road and turn left towards the high street. It’s still early and the roads are busy with people on their way to work and the pavements are packed with feet pressing on towards buses and trains and travel. I walk beside them and try and smile, but they don’t notice and I don’t blame them.
I finally get to the food bank and despite the early hour, there’s already a queue. I know that this is the only one in the area so it doesn’t surprise me. ‘Good morning.’ I say to the man in front. He turns and looks at me and Ivy.
‘It’s taken me two hours to get here.’ He says. ‘Walked all the way from Southall.’
‘Really?’ I don’t know what else to say. I check on Ivy and she’s still sleeping.
‘Haven’t got a damn thing in the cupboard.’ He says.
‘No, we’re pretty much out too.’
‘You don’t have a fag by any chance do you?’
‘No, sorry, I don’t smoke.’
‘That’s all right.’ He looks at Ivy. ‘How old is she?’
‘She’s beautiful.’ He leans down and I smell a faint whiff of Alcohol on him.
‘Thank you.’ The queue moves slightly and we inch forward.
‘Did you have to come far?’ He asks.
‘No, not really. We live in Hanwell, so about forty minutes, I think.’
‘Did you walk?’
‘With the pram?’
‘No other option.’
‘Yeah, seems to be lack of ‘em right now.’ He bends down to pick a cigarette butt up from the ground and he proceeds to straighten it out with his fingers. ‘The bastards cut me off. Just like that. Took away all my benefits and now I got nothing. But they don’t care.’ He lights the cigarette, or what’s left of it. ‘What about you?’
‘Got kids to feed and no work…so…you know…’
‘Yeah. You do the best you can.’ The queue moves again and we edge closer to the door. ‘It’s a bloody disgrace.’
‘What is?’ I ask.
‘This.’ He points at all of us in the queue. Shaking his head his eyes drop the ground. ‘Like we’re in the third world.’
‘Yeah. But it’s something at least.’
‘Maybe.’ He looks past the person in front towards the entrance. ‘Doesn’t make it any better though. It’s not right.’
‘No, but I’m just grateful for whatever they can give us. I don’t know what we’d do without it.’
‘Yeah, but it shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t have to do this.’ He’s at the front of the queue and looks into the shop. ‘Do you want to go in front of me?’
‘No, thank you, it’s okay.’
‘Please. It’s okay. You got kids and I don’t. It’s all right. Honest.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Okay…thank you.’ I move in front of him and Ivy wakes up. She starts crying and the man bends down beside the pram and lets Ivy wrap her little hands around his finger.
‘What’s the matter, huh? It’s all right. No need to cry.’ He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his hand. Ivy stares at his closed fist. ‘What have we got here?’ He opens his hand up to reveal a set of keys. Ivy lets go of his finger and reaches out, but before he hands them over he fumbles and separates a sole key ring from the bunch. I watch as Ivy takes the key ring from his extended fingers. She smiles and begins to giggle at the shiny piece of plastic. The man smiles too and looks up at me. ‘She likes it.’
A voice from inside the shop calls out for me to enter. ‘Okay, give that back to the nice gentleman now.’
‘No. We can’t take it.’
‘Go ahead. Keep it. It’s just a key ring.’
‘My pleasure.’ He smiles at Ivy again. ‘I’ll see you in there.’
‘Okay.’ I begin to enter the shop and then pause for a moment. I turn to see him watching us. ‘Thanks.’ I say and he nods his head and looks back down to the ground.
Inside, the shelves are already almost empty. I slowly scan the labelled trays and reach in to pick out what I can. I manage to find some tea, sugar, a couple of cans of soup, some cans of tomatoes and beans and peas, some jars of sauce and jam, two bags of pasta and one of rice, a packet of biscuits and wafer chocolate bars. I reach for a carton of long life milk and at the back of the shelf I spot a small jar of own brand coffee granules. I can’t believe it. I pick it up and check the date. Still good. I place it in my box and look around. Already I’m thinking about what I can cook for Mike and the kids. I see their faces when I give them a chocolate for dessert and it makes me feel good. I pick up a couple of cup a soups and pot noodles and then two tins of canned fruit and a packet of jelly cubes. Finally I take some rice pudding, a Fray Bentos chicken and mushroom pie and a bag of potatoes. All in all it’s a successful visit and I feel immensely grateful that some people still care enough to donate and help us out, even if it isn’t the government. Last time they stuck a sign in the window to say that they were out of food and we waited around until a van appeared out of nowhere with a fresh donation of supplies. Someone up there still tries to give us a chance.
A young lady helps me bag up my items and I see the man walk into the shop. We smile at each other and he proceeds to look around. ‘I think I might have something for you.’ The girl says and looks under the counter. I keep packing the bags until she re-appears with a pack of washable nappies. ‘Here.’ She says and hands them to me.
‘Thank you.’ I say.
‘Do you have any washing powder or liquid or anything?’
‘Not really – but it’s okay – I can’t possibly’ – but before I can finish she pulls out a box of powder and puts them in a bag. I look at her and try to guess how old she is. The one thing I’ve learnt from all this and all the volunteers and their help is that kindness has no boundaries. ‘Thank you.’ She smiles and seems embarrassed.
‘You got everything?’ She asks.
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘Oh, wait.’ She disappears again and this time walks around the counter and bends down next to Livy.
‘Hello.’ She says and waves. ‘This is for you.’ From behind her back she reveals a tiny teddy bear. ‘Go on, take it.’ Ivy reaches out and pulls the teddy towards her. The girl smiles and strokes Ivy’s face. I see a glimpse of sadness in her eyes for a split second and then she shoots up and returns to her post behind the counter. I’m momentarily caught somewhere in between all this but I snap out of it and thank her once again. She tells me it’s nothing and it’s not her I should thank, but I do so once again and turn to leave. I see the man looking at the bottom of a tin and I say farewell and wish him luck. He offers me his best and we both say we hope to not have to meet again under these circumstances. For some reason I have a feeling we won’t. I don’t know why, but I sense a change of fortune. It might be nothing more than hope but I know that things will change. Eventually, they always do. I’ll wait for Mike and make him coffee. I’ll offer him a biscuit and listen to how his interview went. Then he’ll pick up the kids and I’ll cook dinner. Tonight I’ll make the pie and mash and beans and we’ll sit and eat together. Tomorrow, we’ll start again. I leave the shop and look up at the sky. There’s not a cloud above