OK, where were we?
Over the last two weeks, I've been starting to pick over the bones of the last fourteen years—oh god, has it really been that long?—in an effort to explain how I got here. How I ended up doing two PhDs, how my world fell apart in between, and how I didn't do the thing I really wanted to do (i.e., be a published author).
The first week, I talked a bit about why it's taken me so long and why it's so hard to discuss this. Why I've never talked about it before.
Last week, I gave a kind of roller-coaster tour of the years leading up to my thirty-first birthday, which is when I got the eviction papers.
This week, I've been planning in my head to deal with the eviction hearing itself, and the weird mental place I existed in at the time and maybe a little bit after.
Here's the problem, though. Usually, writers know how to wrap up these stories in some way, tie a ribbon around the manila folder containing that bit of their lives. They can provide rich and eloquent detail, a timeline of events and neat weaving of emotions to engage readers and take you on a journey.
I don't know if I can do that.
This is how memories work for me, normally. I have synaesthesia and I'm autistic and I can see every year of my life as a wobbly, coloured circle of small blocks, each one a day. Each day is coloured according to what happened and which month it was in. Each month has its own colour, but then there are further patterns and shapes to distinguish, for example, between summer holidays, Christmas breaks, exam periods or university semesters.
For most of my life, I can plot with some accuracy events in each year, regardless of whether they occurred in my personal life, school life, working life, etc. and weave them all together into a coherent pattern.
I can't do that for 2009. It's like a found a jigsaw in the loft of my hippocampus, but when I opened the box, discovered the pieces of four different jigsaws all muddled together. And all of those jigsaws are like the ones of M&Ms or baked beans or Skittles.
Is this what happens when you have a mental breakdown?
I know that at some point I ran out of money. Various things happened. I know I tried to make writing coaching work. I also know I went to various Job Centres, filled out the complicated additional forms for emergency support. I remember sitting at the table when the eviction notice was sent.
I can't tell you what my thought processes were, and most of my memories of this time are of waiting rooms and office desks at which I had to sit when I was either being interviewed for something, or filling out a form, or being assessed in some way.
Like I said last week, I've got no memory of feeling. No memory of thinking through anything with any level of coherence. No planning took place, at all.
Things I can recall, therefore. I recall at some point I called my dad in a panic that I was going to be made homeless. He suggested calling Shelter. I called Shelter and they told me where an emergency homeless centre was located near me. I was too terrified to go.
I can tell you now that I think I wanted Dad to say, "Come home."
It wouldn't have occurred to me to ask. Like a vampire, I had to be invited in. It didn't seem like an option. I was ashamed and thought I was supposed to solve all my problems myself.
I am pretty much a vampire, in many ways. I fed off my parents' support from a distance, making their lives incredibly hard when they were living on pensions and fighting through money they'd lost during the financial crash.
I recall going to see the letting agents before the eviction thing happened and explaining my situation. I had a job lined up but it fell away, disappearing into the ether like everything else did at the time. Rather, I recall a sense of talking to a voice, so I must have been in the flat; I recall the letting agency offices with their big windows and their view of a busy street in Manchester.
Other than that, it's all waiting rooms and dingy offices.
I wish I could describe how I decided to go to the local Citizen's Advice Bureau offices. I say local, but I had to get all the way to Salford's "shopping city", which was a fair distance away. A bus ride? But I had no money. It's possible I walked because I know I walked miles to get to various DWP-mandated appointments at the same time.
The CAB at the Shopping City is in a mall from a Brutalist nightmare. Surrounded by tower blocks that, after Grenfell, would be stripped up to the third floors of their deadly cladding, but at the time scratched the skyline as dull grey oblongs. The Shopping City is a small collection of money transfer agents, betting shops, and other strange, small stores that sell odd collections of items from car oil to kitchen brooms.
The CAB itself was on the first floor, up a set of narrow, dusty steps. One queue waited outside, as if we'd all been washed there by a bleak financial tide. When the office door was unlocked—I suspect it stuck, had the sort of wired safety glass that makes you wonder why they bothered at all with the hint at a window—we all trooped up those uneven steps and assigned ourselves to hard plastic chairs in a tight l-shaped waiting room.
But I don't recall this movement; I'm reinventing it for you, to give a flavour. I recall only slide show slivers, of being in the waiting room and then being in a dingy office with a woman who filled out paperwork for me to make an emergency claim for additional housing support.
She was the same person who came with me to the eviction hearing itself. Maybe she could tell there was something wrong with me. I don't recall her face but then my memory for faces is not good. I only know I sat there, feeling about as much as the mannequins in the cheap clothes shop window next door, while she filled out forms.
I tried to sound like I was doing my best to get back on my feet. This is always my objective, the way my particular autistic camouflage has always worked. I try to please you, to show you that I'm working super hard, despite everything, that this is only a temporary setback.
I'll be fine next week.
I won't. Confession: aside from when I'm teaching or out running, I'm pretty much bedbound. I'm too exhausted with this world to be anything else.
Anyway, whatever I said, she did her best. She came with me to the hearing.
The other person who came to the hearing was the building director and I have absolutely no idea why this came to be, or how. She's a great person. Lively, outgoing. She has cats, one of which has no concept of "up" because it's a rescue and started its life in a cardboard box.
She drove me to the hearing. A different building, this one the most unexpected of locations for a court. If my imagination was still working, it might have conjured something out of a TV drama, with wooden panels segmenting a chamber of appreciable size.
Instead what we got was one building in an odd low-rise office block, one of those places where solicitors and accountants take up space with the sort of surnames you never see anyone actually have. Shyster, Flywheel, and Shyster.
This particular office-industrial estate was a collection of small buildings like islands in a car park sea. They were octagonal, or some other shape that an architect presumably thought was innovative at the time. The courts were up another flight of stairs that I don't remember because I only remember the waiting room—yes, again—and staring at the floor, and the court itself.
The office may have been more salubrious than the CAB at Shopping City, but waiting rooms like these are populated by the same sort of people. There are the solicitors, who are all smart and carry paperwork. Then there are us, their charges. Either wild-eyed or dead-eyed and confused because this is not a navigable world. We carry too much emotion for such a small space. The chairs are only slightly better.
I stared at the carpet, at people's shoes. Faces were too much.
The court was a small office. Here's my recollection of the room itself. It was almost exactly like the sort of seminar room I'd teach in during my postgraduate years at Lancaster University. Think a set of three rectangular tables of the sort you get in school or college, clustered together to form a larger rectangle. The surfaces are smooth fake wood, with chipped plastic edging.
For some reason, my memory also tells me that much of this room was taken up with cardboard file boxes. I struggle with this. Can that be true? Am I imagining this? In my head, I sat with the building director on one side of me and the CAB person on the other, while across from us sat the letting agent rep with their solicitor. The judge and an assortment of clerical personnel took up the top table.
But all around us were boxes, like the sort the Lehman Brothers staff carried out of their offices.
I can't tell you much about what happened because I was numb, staring at the table. It was the end of October, 2009. The letting agent argued they wanted me out of the flat in fourteen days. The woman from the CAB argued for longer. A case was made: I was doing my best; I was applying for additional support; I had been to the doctor, I had been diagnosed with severe depression.
This is true. You see what I mean about the pieces of a jigsaw? Somewhere in this time, I went to the doctor and he tried me on some antidepressants. But I can't tell you about that because I only know that I went, a fact out of time and space. I know the office I went to, and its associated waiting room, but that's only because I visited many times in the next ten years, so it has its own set of neural connections in my head not specific to that time.
I can only recall moments when I was out of the flat. I don't remember being in the flat. What I did with my days, my nights, when I was inside that place, I cannot tell you.
The judge was sympathetic to my case. The argument for fourteen days was denied and I was given twenty-eight instead. And this is where the little boxes on the 2009 circular train-track in my head all turn grey and for a month, a whole twenty-eight days, there's nothing there.
Emptiness. I can't tell you what I did or how I spent my time. I lived alone, so there's nobody else to fill in the details, colour in the spaces I've left blank.
All I know is, when my twenty-eight days were up, I was awarded a lot of additional housing support. It's a terrible anti-climax, but I was allowed to stay in the flat.
I'd done nothing to attempt to move. As I sit here now, I can tell you some facts I know not because I recall doing or experiencing them, but simply because they must have happened. My memory itself is a dead zone. I applied for and was transferred from Job Seeker's Allowance to Employment Support Allowance, which was the new form of disability benefit. I no longer had to go to the Job Centre to prove my worth every other week.
I have a vague story about how this came about, but it belongs to an entirely different jigsaw puzzle. I'd been on a special "start a business" course. I'd won second prize in a funding competition (which, yeah, I know, how the fuck ever did I do that?), but the business support coach who saw me one last time in yet another office on a sort-of industrial estate I'd walked miles to, thought I was too sick. Thought I needed to rest.
I was sinking fast and I think the only friend I really talked to back then made the same kind of judgement: I was too sick to do anything. I had to stop. I must've been to see the GP and got a sick note and been transferred to ESA but I don't recall any of this.
I made a phone call to the letting agent, asking if I could stay. It was easier for the landlords to keep me on, so I stayed where I was. And that is the last thing I can recall at all, for months and months into 2010. When I resurfaced, so much later, I had to face ATOS assessments and DLA applications and HMRC conversations.
More waiting rooms, more dingy offices.
I'll save that for next time. A week gives me time to scratch around my memory, hunting for details. Right now all I know is that I woke up one day and realised my clothes were literal rags, my mattress had collapsed and I hadn't changed the sheets in so long I don't even dare whisper that truth.