With the money from Tom, I was now looking for a home for my eight-year-old son Colin who was still living in his Dad’s flat in Brentwood, along with two other strange lodgers; it was far from ideal. I found it heartbreaking to be separated from Colin, always wondering what was happening to him, and I so desperately wanted him to be with me.
I applied for Local Authority Housing immediately after leaving the flat, and since I hadn’t heard anything about my application, I decided to visit the council offices in Silver Street, Enfield. They told me to go to Redlingtons, a once proud building that stood alone in Baker Street. Humbled, and black with soot from the chimneys nearby, it served as the Housing Department.
I walked up to reception. They told me to wait. The lady’s brown hair had a fringe, flickup’s and butterfly glasses. She called me into a stuffy little office. Dressed in a twin set with pearls, and high heels, she sat down behind her smart modern wooden desk. I judged her shoes more expensive than my entire wardrobe. I didn’t have a good feeling about this meeting. She was young, and inexperienced; and then she spoke.
“My name is Felicity Ursula Carlin-Kent.”
“Hello, can you tell me what’s happening to my application please?” I gave her my name.
“Well, you are far down the list, I’m afraid.” She spoke as if sitting on her horse. “If only you had more points it would help you a great deal.”
It wasn’t a surprise to me. As soon as she opened her plumy mouth something told me this was going to be about as helpful as a pickaxe in a china shop. In fact, I couldn’t think what town she might have come from, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near Edmonton!
“So how do I get more points?”
“We have to give priority to thousands of homeless people first, you know. The Vietnamese Boat People are coming over to the country, and they have a much greater housing need. Did you know they have fled their country in fishing boats with nothing but the clothes they were standing up in?”
“Very commendable, but how does that affect me?”
“Well, there is a war on in the East, you know. Vietnam has attacked Cambodia, China has attacked Vietnam, and now thousands of refugees are fleeing their country, some drowning and others sold as slaves. A British Oil Tanker has picked up fifty-three from the open sea. It’s very dreadful, you know, and we have a duty to house anyone who is homeless. Mr Callaghan, the Prime Minister, has agreed to take over twenty thousand, and of course they will be homeless; you at least have somewhere to live.”
She spoke as if I didn’t know who the Prime Minister was. I looked at the ceiling and sighed.
I didn’t know what to say to that. I felt humiliated. I didn’t understand how my social deprivation and the psychological hardship that I suffered separated from my son, was somehow insignificant, or, worse, unimportant. Didn’t I pay my rates and taxes like everyone else? Hadn’t I earned my right to some sort of support when the chips were down?
“So what do you suggest I do then, go to Vietnam and throw myself into a boat, tossing my son in the water for good measure?”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic!” She looked down her nose at me. “It is a humanitarian need of vast proportions and I think we all need to do our bit for the world’s people, don’t you?”
No, I didn’t think so. I had known enough hardship in my own country and I certainly wasn’t too happy about the response I was getting.
“How do I get more points and increase my chances of getting housed?” I asked again. “I am lodging in one room, my eight-year-old son is living in the flat with his father, and two other strange men. He lives miles away over in Brentwood, and my son Colin is picking up all sorts of ideas and language that I don’t approve of.”
“Well, you need to have more babies,” she trotted out bluntly.
“More babies?” I screamed. “Oh, that’s a great idea, that is! I have just got divorced!”
She looked surprised at my onslaught.
“Do you know what that is like?” I continued. “My best friend has just died and I am living in one grotty room as a lodger, desperately trying to keep myself alive. I am in no position to start having more children. What do you want me to do?” I said, “Go on the streets, pick up someone like a common prostitute, get myself pregnant and live in a tent down the Blackwall Tunnel, just so as I can get more points on your bloody housing list!”
She stiffened. “Well, if that’s the way you want to look at it, then I’m afraid I cannot help you!” She got up from her chair and pointed to the door.
“Well, you haven’t been very helpful, have you?” I turned on my heels, held my head high, and made a brisk exit from the office.
I walked out past the reception, through the swing doors into the bright sunshine, but I couldn’t hold back the tears. They burst onto my cheeks as I reached the steps. I stopped and searched for a hanky.
Walking into a phone box at the end of the road I spoke to a friend of Andrea’s, a girl called Janet, who lived nearby. I needed to take shelter in her house and have a cup of coffee, and I hoped she might be able to help me.
I was crying when I knocked on her door.
“Hello Janet,” I said.
“Mary, look love, I don’t have time at the moment for coffee, but just tell me what’s happened.” She invited me in and we sat on her sofa.
I explained what had happened at the Housing Department.
“Right,” she said, “here is a direct line for Mrs Amy Emsden. She used to be the Mayor of Enfield; she is the Chair of the Housing Committee now.” She scribbled on an old envelope. “Phone her now, mention my name, explain what happened at the Council Housing Office.”
I looked up at her, hesitant. She thrust the note in my hand.
“Do it now,” she insisted. “Phone them straight away and see if she might be able to help.”
She got up to leave.
“Thank you, you have been such a help. I’ll do it as soon as I get home.” I left it at that.
I rang Mrs Emsden as soon as I got home. I managed to speak to her over the phone, as Janet had told me. I blurted out exactly what had happened at the Housing Department. She asked some questions about where I was living and what access I had to Colin. I told her I was living at my mum’s, only seeing my son at the weekend.
She said that it sounded like I was overcrowded. I asked her if she knew what it was like to be living like a single woman, only seeing your son for the weekend. She told me she fully understood the pain of it and the difficulties I was suffering. She was due to attend a Housing Committee Meeting shortly after and promised to raise the matter on my behalf. In the meantime, someone would be sent to talk to me and get some details.
A lady called a few days later. I gave all the details, and then it all went quiet and I didn’t hear any more.
Mum telephoned me at work to tell me there was a letter for me. She had opened it and told me that it offered me a place at Dendridge Close, in Enfield.
“It’s lovely, Mary.” She sounded excited.
I caught my breath for a moment.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve got the keys, and me and Jane had a look. It is so clean Mary, bright and lovely. Just decorated. You will love it.”
“What do you mean, you have been round there and had a look? Before me?”
“Yer, me and Jane got the keys.”
“You should have waited until I got there, Mum.”
I was a bit upset that Mum had gone round there without me, nosing, before I had really had a chance to see it myself, but at the same time I was so elated that I had managed to get a home; because it was now only Colin and I, and the long wait to get back to a family was over.
I dashed round there on the bus and let myself in. It was a little two-bedroom end of terrace maisonette in a quiet cul-de-sac just off Turkey Street, Enfield. I ran up and down the stairs, thinking how bright and airy it was, and the wallpaper so tastefully decorated, with pastel colours—perfect, just perfect. There was a train station just five minutes’ walk away, direct to London. A little green for Colin to play. It was my little piece of heaven.
I phoned Janet and Andrea and asked them to meet me at Janet’s house on Saturday. I went to the baker’s on my way and bought some fresh cream cakes. It was my way of thanking them both for all the help they had given me. I was overjoyed.
I ordered a new single bed for Colin, a double for myself, a new chocolate brown carpet for the hallway and stairs, and a rich deep piled claret carpet for the living room. Now the cash from Tom had made it all worthwhile. I rang Terry straight away, and arranged for him to bring Colin over at the weekend to see his new home.
It was the first sign of my independence. I felt so good! I was ready to start building a life for myself. I found a reliable babysitter for Colin nearby, and he enjoyed playing with their children. It all worked out very well, for both Colin and myself.
I took driving lessons and passed my driving test, although I couldn’t afford a car.
Despite all the joy of having my own home at last, one problem seemed to dominate my life; I was still terrified of the dark. It had been there since losing Les in 1957, left over from my childhood, and now it all came flooding back to me. The way the electric would cut off when you least expected it, and then crawling round the walls, searching for the cupboard, fiddling with a coin to put in the meter. The trauma of it was tattooed on my mind. It was all there.
I hadn’t been able to shake it off no matter how hard I had tried. I just couldn’t get to sleep at nights. I would sit up with the light on, drinking endless cups of tea, and checking all the windows and doors. It became an obsession.
Andrea called me and we met up with another friend, Vaz, a tall, slim, elegant Greek woman. We went to Martha’s Wine Bar, in Cricklewood to celebrate my new home. The three of us were chatting away in the bar while a musician, Billy his name was, sat playing his guitar and singing. He was Scottish, and his accent reminded me of Joyce. He could be found singing his quiet casual songs in the wine bar most nights, and when he wasn’t singing his songs, he would be found up against the bar chatting to the manager and his wife about tales at university and life in Edinburgh.
Billy was pleasant and easy going enough. He seemed to enjoy chatting with our little group between songs, buying us drinks and joining in on our jokes, with saucy comments. It seemed that we were all having a great time. The wine bar became a regular haunt, meeting with the girls and enjoying their company. It was such a relief to be able to get out and put all my troubles behind me.
Now that I had a stable house and friends to share my worries, my mood lifted. I saw hope in my life once more.
The last thing I was looking for was a relationship, though. I just wasn’t ready. But soon Billy started to single me out from the rest of the group, talking to me more frequently whilst we waited for the others to arrive.