More thoughts on money - and being actually skint!
Mr Micawber said, 'Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.'
Money can be such a misery we try to pretend that it's other things - credit cards, stocks and shares, the ever-so-pretty sounding hedge fund. Out for a drive and there flowering among the Traveller's Joy or primroses you find the cash for a mortgage repayment...
Apart from a brief and not particularly serious episode of debt from overbuying opera CDs, I've been cheap to run. Renting what estate-agents would call post-bijoux bedsits, using taxis only when the walk to and/or from a gig would exceed two hours, ever comforted by my favourite line of poetry: 'Buy one, Get one Free' with its answering line: 'Reduced for quick sale'. I buy all my fruit and veg from the market late Saturday afternoons when the stallholders are packing up and will sell stuff off cheap. Entering a supermarket I make straight for the Reduced for Quick Sale bin; and then will go up and down the shelves squinting to make the orange special offer stickers sing out to me. As Rosa, on the delicatessen counter at the nearest unfeasibly large Tescos commented,
'Up and down the aisles like a demented hamster. Only pausing to stare at me with cow eyes hoping for some samples of sheep's milk cheese.'
Stacks, my Marine mate, says I summed up once and for all my approach to finances when he and I arranged to meet in London after he got back from Afghanistan.
'Up your way,' he said, 'I know the Koko Abandon All Hope Club, the bondage tattoo parlour and this performance space up near Primrose Hill. That's where we saw the girl in the basque that looked like it had been made out of laminated cabbage, fastened down the front with rusty nappy pins. And her act was her singing and pressing the keys on a Speak-and-Spell that had been rewired to sound-byte about her uncle abusing her.'
I said, 'Bless you for thinking I might ever be cool enough to know any of those places. But my landmarks are Sue Ryder, the library and the church a quarter of the way up Haverstock Hill that has the free Friday lunchtime string quartet recitals in the crypt.'
We compromised and met at Subway in Euston.
True, there was almost a whole year of the wolf not being kept from the door. It had moved in with me, and liked to sit proprietarily on my Poang Chair under the staircase window. I wanted to point out that, thank it, the Poang Chair was precious, as it had cost me a whole afternoon and fifty-six Oh for fuck's sakes of bradawl tooling. I couldn't get a word in, however as the wolf sat in the chair arguing the toss about floor-plan dimensions, quoting Keats on "the tick of the deathwatch beetle", and flapping the Farrow and Barrow colour chart in my face, saying it was thinking Geometric Vermicelli to replace my nineteen fifties Lemon Mivvy...
In shame, for just shy of a year I claimed one hundred and twenty pounds housing benefit per month to make up a shortfall from one hundred and forty pounds. In the Anything more you want to tell us? box on the claim form I wrote that I fully intended to return the payments when I was back on my feet.
After two months or so a letter came from the Coastal Council Benefits Fraud office.
Dear Ms [sic] Edwards,
We have been passed your claim for housing benefit received, and in receipt and pending furnishment, and feel that we really must delve into your appearance of to be able to be existent on the mean figure of an averagely figured amount of £42-£45 per single weekly, pertinent to your pro-rata aggregated profit and loss accounts as was mentioned in your aforementioned ongoing claim to claim housing benefit received, and in receipt and pending furnishment, subsequent to your signed and binding oath. We require that you instigate telephoneric communicado with us at your asapitudedinarian convenient, and certainly not tardinarier than within two days of your reception of this present-day epistleoid.
You know how they write these things...
I rang them and they sent Barry round to my tiny south-facing, one-up, one-down, to get to which you walked along a line of carpet samples through a garage that was rented out to the pub opposite.
Barry had the the pro-forma gelled quiff, adenoids, and sticking out of his quilted corduroy jacket was a label that I just knew would read: Do not iron. It's simply not worth it. This garment is beyond help.
'Interesting pad,' he said.
'Is it? Oh.' Each to his own. 'It was once the lock-up of the now defunct police station. The letting agent, even, admitted that it was 'compact'. But said it 'benefited' from spectacular sea views.'
Barry shifted around to look through the two windows, then pointed upward and seawards. 'And does it?'
'Oh, yes, spectacular sea views - if you go out through the garage, across the road, down the alley by the Jubilee Hall, and look at the sea.'
Barry busied himself writing on a clipboard decoupaged with an FHM centre-spread.
'So this is your kitchenette,' he said.
'Kitchenette, cum dining room, cum office,' I corrected.
'That's rather an expensive looking cushion on the stairs.'
'Borrowed as I knew I would be having visitors. It's the sitting-room.'
He took an inventory of the kitchen. I opened the cupboard with the Value baked beans displayed from weevil nest to weevil nest. I didn't draw attention, I just opened.
'Baby Belling,' said Barry. .
'Hardly that,' I said. 'Only one of the two rings works and the oven doesn't. More of a gleam in its father's eye.'
'And what's that opposite the back door?'
'A septic tank.'
He nodded. 'Washing facilities?'
'Would you really? I prefer to shower.'
He finished making notes, muttering, 'NCS...'
'No Cash Stashed.' He became leeringly confidential. 'Look, it's obvious you're not playing the system. Just one thing I would say to you - you're registered for self-employment as a classical baritone, yet - this item in your self-assessment accounts loss column - Timer Plug from MCT Electrical Aldeburgh High Street. Care to shed any light?'
'Yes. I also earn money house-sitting for Lady Cave, who has a ghastly gardener called Jean. And Lady Cave emailed me after the first time I house-sat to remind me that I was meant to have been getting up at seven each day to feed the dog, Oscar, and had filled in my the journal of my daily ministrations to him saying that I had. Yet she happened to know that at least one morning I hadn't got up until quite a quarter to nine. And how did she know that? Jean the ghastly gardener. And how do I know that? Because coming back from a walk with Oscar one morning there was Jean in the kitchen molesting the electric kettle. And she said, "Ooooarrgghh, you've caught me red-handed. I always know what time you've got up of a morning from the heat of the kettle when I put my hands to it. I'd say it was about a quarter to nine this morning, and not seven as you're meant to. Ooooaarrrrrgggghhh, you'll never get one over on your aunty Jean!" Except I did - I bought the timer plug under discussion and fitted the kettle to it. Then it boiled at seven each morning come high-water or hell-hag!'
Barry was looking as though he had just then died and been stuffed. 'That's actually our point. The other lines of work. Here's an Inland Revenue pamphlet.' He handed it to me. 'This may clarify and avoid them having to come and look into you.'
Which sounded positively gynaecological.
Though it wouldn't have been the first time.
And hopefully, not the last.
Money-misery is universal, even for the fabulously wealthy. Take Maria Callas. As I remember the story, in the late fifties, wearing something like half a million dollars of her own diamonds, she had sung a final rehearsal for a live TV performance on Rediffusion and was waiting anxiously to meet the TV company's chief executive, Sidney Bernstein.
'Oh, thank God, you're here!' she greeted him, laying a taloned hand on his arm.
'My dear Madame Callas, why? Have we been remiss? Has something been not quite to your liking? Has somebody offended you?'
'No, I want you to give me a discount on one of your range of colour televisions, please.'
Later, during the live broadcast, the stonkingingly expensive brooch she was wearing came loose and fell from her stole. In time with the music and chiming with the drama, she made a sweeping gesture to the floor, retrieved it and then made sure it was securely pinned back in place.