Housing Benefit Hill: Roller Coaster Ride to Despair
If he was bad to live with, he was worse now. He was taking her for every penny and beating her too. She got out an injunction on him. He sneered. "What's that? A bit of paper." And then - bitter laugh - she discovered she was pregnant again
HAUNTED. That's the best word I can use to describe her. Nervous and haunted, labouring behind a pushchair up the hill, as if some ghost was on her trail. When I spoke to her in a cafe she was so startled she almost jumped. I only said, "I've seen you up on Housing Benefit Hill, haven't I?" After that we'd say hello and whatever, the usual politeness'. I met her in another cafe one day, and the person I was chatting to recognised her.
"Didn't we go to school together? It's Tamsin, isn't it? What have you been doing with yourself?"
"Nothing. I just made a stupid mistake and got married, that's all," she said, her normally timid voice tinged with an unexpected bitterness.
As you can tell by the name, Tamsin isn't your usual type of council tenant. Her parents are well off and she went to public school. But she hated the snobbery, she said, how your popularity went up in direct proportion to your parent's income. She became a rebel and got herself expelled. Messed around with heroin for a while and had to de-tox. Foolish and dangerous and typically adolescent. She ended up in a bedsit in a strange city, rejected by her parents, trying to make the best of things.
Jerry lived downstairs from her. He was loud and liked the sound of his own laughter. She hated him. But there's a quality to men like this: they never take no for an answer, let alone her public school brand of subtle disdain. He pestered her with flowers and chocolates and invitations to dinner. And - fairly rapidly - the charm, the confidence, the winning smile began to wear down her defences. He was so unlike anyone from her own background. Exciting. Romantic. And one in the eye for her parents. They were engaged within three months.
She was working at the time, with disturbed children. He came in one day and, in front of a room full of kids, announced they were to be married within ten days. He'd arranged everything. But it was all part of the roller-coaster sweeping her along. Mad exhilaration. What every girl dreams of. They had their rows, of course, though she was too refined to answer back at first. He'd lose his temper and thump a wall. But the making up was always worth it.
And then they were married, and living together in a council flat. "I want children," he said. She felt she was too young, still enjoying her life. But that roller-coaster was out of control, and he was very insistent. She got pregnant. And by now - all too quickly - she'd become just the woman at home.
He went out every night, never inviting her. Lost his job. Started doing bar work here and there. Never stayed for long, getting drunk, getting the sack and moving on. Sometimes he'd be out all night, sometimes for two or three at a stretch. She had no idea where he got to. She was eight months pregnant by now. They had furious rows and one day he hit her. She was numbed with shock. Just couldn't believe he'd done it. Later he apologised and told her she shouldn't have made him do it.
After she'd had her son, Jerry was all right for a while, playing the proud father. Tamsin was ill, and he used to take the baby out. She needed the rest. But then she discovered he was going round to dealers' houses and doing mounds of speed with the baby in tow. She put a stop to it, insisting on taking care of the baby herself. It became so they hardly saw each other. She wandered the streets till she knew he was out. Finally, she discovered he was having an affair.
What happened to the roller-coaster? It turned into a nightmare ride, took a dive into a dark tunnel and never came out.
One night he came home with all these bottles of cider. "Drink!" he told her. She refused. He was ranting, saying he'd kill her and the... (she never finished this sentence). And then he just got into bed, as if everything was perfectly normal. Later he got up again and, in a drunken stupor, pissed over the baby's cot. The following day she kicked him out, telling him what he'd done. He was suitably subdued and went off, guiltily, to live with the other girl.
She heard no more from him until, three weeks later, she came home to find that he'd let himself into the flat. He wanted the child. He wanted money. He wanted this and he wanted that. And when she said no he beat her up. She changed the lock. But after that, he'd climb on top of the porch and through the window. Or he'd be waiting outside the Post Office when she went to cash her book. If he was bad to live with, he was worse now. He was taking her for every penny and beating her too. She got out an injunction on him. He sneered. "What's that? A bit of paper." And then - bitter laugh - she discovered she was pregnant again.
He was getting more and more violent. She went to the council demanding to be re-housed. She went to the doctor to show her injuries. She joined the National Mobility Scheme, anything to get out. She visited the council round here, bruised and torn. "No chance," they said, "we've only got 15 spare places." This went on for months.
She paused at this point and let out a brief sigh before continuing. Quiet and subdued, more like a small wail. I have it on tape. It is the most haunting, fearful sound I have ever heard, like something dying.
SHE WAS heavy with child by now, desperately searching for some escape. He came round again. Ranting. She was going out with all of his friends, he said. And the baby wasn't his anyway, and she didn't ask his permission to get pregnant in the first place. He was wild. Started smashing the flat up before he turned on her. Kicking her, beating her, knocking her around. She went into labour as all this was happening, as he was stabbing her.
The next few hours are hazy. She must have ended up in hospital somehow. She remembers holding the new-born girl, washing and dressing her, before the poor thing died of head injuries.
I said she seemed haunted. When I first met her I had no idea how accurate this metaphor would turn out to be.
They gave her the exchange she was looking for in the end. Too late. She hates it here, is suspicious of her neighbours, always fearing that she will be broken into. This is not paranoia. People are broken into all the time. But that insecurity is the last thing she needs.
And meanwhile she is trying to make a go of her life, having secured a place at university. Keeps herself busy, with all the mundane things. But there's an emptiness there, a small space still crying out. When she walks past a mother-and-baby shop, she can't help peering in, to see what she might have bought.
© 2009 Christopher James Stone