07/06/2022

aYour bank card was declined at the supermarket. It’s not a big deal – a bug. But I do have escape or fight reflexes: The heat rises in the back of my neck, and my heart is pounding. I can not meet the eyes of the cashier.

The rational part of my brain understands that this is stupid. I realize that the certainty that we definitely have money in the account is a benefit in itself. But the irrational part goes back to many times in my childhood and teenage years when there wasn’t enough money. Back in carefully counted piles of two- and five-piece blocks, they are often tossed from the back of the sofa or rocked by often empty piggy banks.

My middle-class husband smiles, shrugs, apologizes to those waiting behind us and clicks the card again. Perhaps the terms “middle class” and “comfortable” are often used interchangeably because, among other things, they mean you’ll never be too bothered to hear echoes of poverty in your forties. When we leave, I’m about to cry. “What should they think of us? And we bought food for the kids!” My husband is friendly but confused. It may be.

This thinking of scarcity often takes me back to my days in the ’80s when I lived on the outskirts of Council where corner stores had metal grilles over alcohol, butts, cash and a sign that said “No loan please”. I grew up knowing that although everyone we live in has been poor, admitting it is worse than bearing it. And I still feel that way.

There were times in my 30s when I was an award-winning author writing about poverty, but I was almost homeless until my late teens and no soul, not even my closest friend, knew about it. Instead, I did whatever work I could find—memorably forcing retirees to answer fitness surveys at a West Ruislip call center that always smelled like chicken shack boxes—and skipped meals until my paycheck arrived.

When you grow up poor, it takes a long time to get rid of shame and mystery, if you did before. Even if you’re not poor, mental gymnastics is part of breaking free from deprivation. I am not extravagant. I feel guilty enough that I was lucky enough to live a better life without wearing a Gucci Hair shirt, too. I still buy almost everything used. But I stopped getting the cheapest ever and Terry Pratchett was so interested in shoe theory I wish I had spent more than £25 on my ill-fitting wedding dress that I had to stick to my breasts. But old habits do not die easily. If I were to buy a new pot – something I wanted but didn’t need – I would reconsider my itemized budget and put each total back into the £15 account.

There are also pluses. I am grateful for everything I have and rarely envy anyone else. I know that if I ever find myself on the cliff of poverty again – and it can be any time for most of us these days – I will. I remember spending a decade making sure my kid didn’t grow up like me — and he won’t. He will never know every penny, every deprivation, because it’s big enough for addition and subtraction. I still buy him mostly used things, but I enjoy getting what he needs and sometimes only what I want to give him, for no other reason than that, like all children, he deserves something good.

I won’t make some cuts. I travel because my wandering childhood taught me that there is always a fresh start. If I could, I would always have extra food. Heating comes in October. These things are important to me. You make me feel safe. I want my child to have a warm home and a fridge full so he won’t be turned back for 30 years when he’s older and his bank card is declined, and instead smiles, shrugs, and apologises.

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