It was me and my little girl. On our own. I won’t say how old I was; I was old enough to rent with a curt letter from my parents but I was young enough for people to judge me as I walked down the street with my pram.
My life had been thrown up in the air and I’d landed with the pieces scattered and broken around me, and with a small baby. I was a disgrace, they said. Disgrace. I suppose in a way I was. Because I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even cook chips.
When there was nowhere else to go, no more friends to stay with, they gave me a pre-fab council house. The front door was at the back, and I liked to think of it as different, like me. The solid fuel burning fire didn’t work, and because that would heat the back boiler, I had no hot water. I used to boil the kettle to bath my little girl.
It was the end of a terrace of four concrete houses. My kitchen wall grew a thick layer of mould and when the health visitor came round she told me to clean it. Even she looked at me as if I had done all this on purpose. That was the irony really. The people in the post office whispered that young girls do this sort of thing to get a council house. But mine was no prize. It was cold and damp and as I lay in bed alone I wondering how it had come to this I could feel a cool breeze on my face from the wind howling through the loose window frames.
But it was all I had. I’d been given a choice.
‘It’s this or nothing.’
The social worker had told me that if I couldn’t find anywhere to live then they’d have to take my daughter. So I stayed. I learned to cook. I brushed down the kitchen walls with a sweeping brush and bleach every day. I boiled water for her bath and for my own. I got a TV with a slot meter and some carpets. But I knew I was trapped here. I was too scared to complain in case they took my beautiful child, and too poor to afford to rent anywhere else.
My turning point came one Monday morning when I’d been shivering and seen my fingers turn blue. She was fine, wrapped in a fleecy blanket. But I was worried. No heat and it was starting to snow. I went along to the library to keep warm, and to read stories about people who lived in a much more fortunate world than us to my daughter, in the hope that was what she would think about and not our fridge of a house.
On the way home I went to buy a loaf of bread. I had 32p and the price of bread had risen to 34p. I went hungry.
Then I got a job. I got two jobs. Most weeks childcare costs and travel and food took up all my wages, but on the weeks it didn’t I saved towards another house, one with heating and hot water and dry walls. I’d come home every night and shut the door against the judging and the gossip and rock my daughter to sleep, humming, then I’d knit socks and jumpers from flea market wool to keep us warm. We wouldn’t be here next winter, one way or another.
Funny thing is, I grew attached to that house. Desperate though it was, it was sanctuary. I’d found some paint in a skip and painted the front room blue. One of my neighbours had left a rug out for the bins and I took it after dark and scrubbed it clean. I stuck Blutac into the gaps in the window frames and suddenly it was warmer. My daughter was walking now and I marked her height on the door frame. Just me and her and it, with all its faults. After all, nothing’s perfect, is it?
Eventually I had saved enough for a small deposit on a house. I had stayed another winter with a Calor gas heater and I had worked for two years and I went to view a tiny terraced on the other side of town. The seemingly impossible suddenly became possible and I bought it. We moved in three months later, and as I left the back to front house for the last time I felt a pang of regret. But the new house had an immersion heater and a gas fire and I sat there until my legs mottled. My daughter complained she was too hot!
‘Turn it down, Mummy!’
Just after we had moved I got a letter forwarded from the pre-fab to say it was being demolished and that I would be rehoused. Sentimental that I am, I went to watch, to say goodbye to the baseline for the rest of my life. I realised that, one way or another, I would have had to move the house, as if fate had intervened to move me forward. It was like that chapter of my life was truly over and I need never look back.
In a way I’m grateful, because it made me realise that you have to experience the bad to appreciate the good, and I’m grateful every day for what I have now. The sad thing is, I have to travel to work through that estate now, with its run-down housing and policy of placing single parents together yet in isolation, in sub-standard housing. When I see young girls pushing prams to the MiniMarket on a Monday morning, buying scratchcards in a misguided effort to escape, throwing spent ones on the floor and immediately scratching away at another chance, I remember how bad it really was, and what it was like to feel so hopeless. I don’t think I’ll ever forget those mouldy walls or how I was too scared to complain in case they threw me out and took my child.