On Wednesday mornings I fall out of bed in a hurry because I have to clear off to the Labour Exchange to sign on. Check obsessively that I have my key, slam the door, and hurry off. Tear through the park. I love the park – it’s more or less the same as it was when I used to walk through it going to school, years ago. It’s landscaped, but when I’m flying through it to get to the Labour Exchange on time I don’t linger to admire the scenery. Every time I go past the fountain, near where Henry Royce’s statue used to stand, I mutter and tick away to myself: ‘Fkin bastids fkin bastids fkin bastids’. I saw that on a wall once and it seems to express something inchoate and furious. The Council came and took away the statue, which had always been there, and put it outside the Council House.
There’s lots of people signing on, lots of queues. The unemployment rate in the town is 14.4 per cent. In this area it’s 37.7 per cent. I don’t usually speak to anybody. About eighteen months ago there was a big row and discussion in the queue, with everybody chipping in. If I see any of the people that took part we smile and nod and exchange a few words. Otherwise I don’t speak to anybody. There’s nothing to say. On the wall near the door a teenager has scratched: ‘Have I survived school dinners for this?’
When I stay in the house for a long time and don’t see anybody, and then go out again, everybody looks peculiar. It’s nothing to do with age, nationality, looks – its just that all the passing faces look slightly grotesque, and alike in their peculiarity. I move off to Woolworths Cafeteria to meet a girl who signs on ten minutes before me. In an abandoned jokeshop window a sign reads: ‘A Laugh a Day keeps the Crisis at Bay.’ Uh-huh. It’s been there about eight years.
In the evening Chrissy and her small children and I walk about among the ruined houses round the corner, finding plants, just looking. We’ve known each other since we were three, we used to play around these streets, and go down them now remembering people who lived in the houses and talking about what became of them, and things we did long ago. I don’t think there’s anything sadder than seeing the little gardens that people have cared for and tended for years laid desolate and wild, waiting to be bulldozed. As we stand on Rosehill Street with dirty hands and arms full of grubbed-up marigolds and garden poppies, a small solemn procession of men leaves the mosque. I see my ex-landlord, Mohammad, with head ritually shaven and bowed. I don’t wave at him or hoot across the road ‘Hi there, Mohammad,’ because we look thoroughly disreputable, our hair blowing about, legs and shoes dusty, and the children quarrelling.
On Fridays my Giro comes, and a form from the Council saying the rent is going up. This doesn’t affect those on the dole, because Social Security pay the rent directly to the Council – it doesn’t pass through claimants’ hands. On the back of the form is a set of rules about only using the property as a private dwelling, care of dwelling and garden, nuisance to neighbours, including harassment, whether racial or otherwise. The last bit is underlined, which infuriates me. I’m not talking about the clause itself, because I agree with it – but about the fact that somebody has stood in the Housing Department and underlined it, as though we’re all in need of correction and moral guidance, from somebody who almost certainly doesn’t live round here. Well, that just takes the biscuit. What’s it supposed to do, anyway? If you get on with your neighbours, then it’s superfluous, and if you don’t, holding up a stern verbal finger whilst keeping well clear – that’s not likely to make things better.