I stumble out of the debt counselling service. I had been there for two hours and I had spent most of those two hours waiting, hidden behind my dark glasses, mobile phone to my ear, trying not to look at the other folk sitting with me. Others had gone in and out, we were the hard core, needing specialist advice. After a while, I turned off the phone, no one was calling anyway, and I took off my dark glasses. Who was a hiding from? Opposite me was a woman with three children, next to her a very worried looking businessman, and a couple, the husband kept his head bent, his wife’s face was swollen with unshed tears. Intermittently, when there were too many tears to contain, a few would escape, sliding down her face, clinging to her nose. Embarrassed she would wipe them away with the back of her hand, ignoring the tissues she clutched in her hand. She tugged at my heart. I got up and got some water. Two polystyrene cups, one for me, and another one for her. I offered her the cup.
“Thank you” she said, taking it. “You here for the same reason as us”
“Debt?” I ventured
She nodded. “We’re going to lose the house. Bailiffs are coming at the end of the month”.
I reached over and grabbed her hand. She clung back. Her husband looked away, humiliation creeping, like spilt red ink, over his face. “John lost his job, didn’t you love”? John didn’t speak. What could he say? The businessman spoke “I could’ve kept my business going but I couldn’t raise sufficient capital…”
The mother of three children admitted that she’d borrowed from Peter to pay Paul, and the next step was a loan shark. Who else was going to help her?
I looked down at the ground, when I raised my eyes John was looking at me. I smiled. He smiled back. “Costs almost £500 to go bankrupt” he said sympathetically.
What? You have to pay to go bankrupt?
“I haven’t got the money…to go bankrupt”.
“Who does?” the businessman said.
“So what do we do?”
“It’s not good if you are declared bankrupt” the businessman said.
I tried to tell myself this was good copy, for my rewritten more serious piece on debt.
Like sheep waiting for the abattoir, we each await our turn with the executioner.
My executioner was crisp lady in a twin set and pearls. She ran her finger, with its nicely painted red nail, down my list of debts. She looked at my income. “You’ve got a job. Well done!” It’s not enough though. “You are doing something! Make a budget, and stick to it. And because you have a job it means you can get on to the credit card companies, explain your situation, offer a token payment of say £5.00 a month, they’ll probably try and push you up but as long as you make those payments, they can’t do anything to you. Now, these secured loans. They are a problem. You will have to ring them and agree a reduced payment, and of course to the mortgage company. The point is…to keep in touch with them. “
I nod mutely. So I don’t need to go bankrupt? “I can’t see why you should. Your house will get underpinned and redecorated; you will get back into your own line of work, eventually. Or you’ll find something else. Maybe you will become a full blown pastry chef. I’ve every faith in you.”
Actually, it’s Barry she should have every faith in.
On my way out I see the mother and her three children. “Please, please”, I beg her, “don’t go to a private lender.” She shrugs. I watch her walking up the road. She’s tired beyond her years.
I go home, I rewrite the column, full of salient advice like “how much it costs to go bankrupt”. “Don’t go to a lender who isn’t registered by FSA” and “Get a job. However little it pays.”
I send it off. Surely this one will get through. I get a reply within half an hour.
“This is way too depressing for our readership, but lovely to hear from you. Must do lunch.. Best. Harriet Crawling”.
How on earth did Harriet manage to get a job as editor of “The Finance Doctor”, a new supplement of a Sunday Broadsheet? I go on line, on line is still free – till Rupert Murdoch introduces charging. There it is in front of me, Harriet’s signature motif, “The Make Do and Mend Way to Get out of Debt, Shabby Chic is the Answer.”
I hate Harriet Crawling!