The best of both worlds

Kara was tired, worn out in more ways than one. Up all night, almost, comforting a crying three year old Calum, his cheeks as red as his sleep-suit, his nose dripping, there was no shifting that cold.

Looking out of the window of her eighth storey flat she could see above the multitude of mainly boarded up and metal shuttered windows that the sky was grey and darkening. It was going to be another bitter and dreary late February morning.

Heading for the kitchen Kara switched her radio on to the local channel to try and add cheer to the dimly lit room, and had a cursory glance at the now switched off fridge. “Why do I need a fridge anyway, the cold and draughts in here keep things cool enough” she said out loud, to herself, only half-jokingly.

The kitchen cupboards were mostly empty, apart from some food and milk for Calum, salt, pepper and a bag of sweeties that Mrs Grant, from across the landing, had handed in last night. Kara almost lost it then, when she thought of the lovely old lady, wrapped up in her winter jacket and gloves, often offering hot homemade soup and sympathy. She would even sit with Calum on occasion to let Kara run down to the chemist to get him his prescription.

Mrs Grant’s kindness brought back happy memories of her childhood with her mum and dad in the sprawling council estate, then on the edge of her home town, with the countryside beyond. She’d known, or knew of, just about everybody in her street and most others in the crescent behind. Her extended family dotted around the estate, aunties, uncles and cousins. Happy times and happy homes, where, if you were playing in the near vicinity of a relatives house with your friends around meal times, or if you were thirsty in summer, you would be guaranteed a “peece” or a cool drink.

Both dad and mum were now gone. Dad, a hardworking man, only ever interested in seeing to the needs of his family, apart from ‘his’ time, a Saturday afternoon, with his pals at the fitbaw, a wee flutter in the bookies, never more than a few bob, or in the pub for a well-earned pint. He’d never really recovered when they shut the engineering works down. Cheaper to manufacture in Taiwan the boss had said, on his way out the door to retirement in the south of Spain. Dad couldn’t quite accept that after all of these years they didn’t need him anymore.

Mum hadn’t lasted very long after dad. Her health had been failing over many years, forcing her to give up her job in the factory. She’d suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. The majority of Kara’s surviving relatives had moved on, out of the estate, out of town, several even out of the country, seeking work and a better life.

She remembered, again as a child several years before, her uncle Bill, a lovely man, quoting a prominent government minister of that time, as she was watching, distraught at her girl cousins in tears packing for their flight to Canada, saying “If you can’t find a job get on your bike he tells us. Well we’re well and truly getting on our bike!”

Now, in this high rise existence for the past two years, Kara knew very few people around her, only Mrs Grant, Debbie, the young lassie from the floor below her, and Mr and Mrs Jina, who owned the shop on the ground floor.

As she prepared Calum’s lunch. it dawned on Kara that she herself hadn’t eaten for twenty four hours or so. This, in conjunction with her lack of sleep, would explain the slight feeling of wooziness she was now experiencing. Financially she hadn’t really gotten out of the bit from the period of time, several months before, when the social had cut her benefits as a result of her not completing a benefits review form the size of a novel properly. “Sanctioned” they’d called it.

Kara had always thought that sanctions were something you heard about on the news, something one country who felt they had the moral high ground did to another who was doing something despicable. The word didn’t seem right somehow. She just wanted to care for and feed her child.

Always used to working in her adult life, having retrained from garment-making into customer services in a call centre, Kara had had a dramatic change in fortune following the stormy ending to an abusive relationship with Calum’s father, now long gone. Her elusive ex-partner was now, it seemed, one step ahead of the Child Support Agency, his mother hinting in the passing that he might be working out in Dubai somewhere.

“Rationalisation and refocusing of staffing towards our Basingstoke office” was how her supervisor had put it at the call centre, her tenuous contract being not really worth the paper it was written on she had felt she had been lucky to get her four weeks notice. Unemployment and subsequent unmet mortgage payments on her three bed semi-detached has brought a new home for Kara and baby Calum.

As she cradled her now quiet child who was concentrating on his bottle, Kara considered her options. She had visited the Food-Bank, which had sprung up in the community flat in the block behind the swing park twice before. On the morning of the initial visit she had been hesitant at first, but then as that day had worn on she had found herself in increasing desperation, her son crying for hours with an empty belly.

Leaving Calum with Mrs Grant she felt that she had taken one of the hardest steps of her life as she crossed the threshold of the flat, identified by the small nondescript sign as being the Food-Bank. In fact she had circled the block twice before going in as there had been people huddled outside the door at first whom she vaguely recognised as she had approached the building.

Inside she was greeted by Judy, who looked like she was in charge. There was no judgement, no curious looks, no pity, no prying, just a smiling face, and kindness, in abundance. Judy had initially briefly led her round the range of shelves showing her where various items were before leaving her to it to consider what items she needed. When she had finished doing so Kara a bit awkwardly approached the counter where Judy was busy unpacking and shelving tins, which had arrived that morning in several cardboard boxes, an unexpected but welcome donation by two young workmen in a local building firm’s van.

A hot sweet cup of tea and a biscuit, and some mutual sharing of photos later, Kara had made a new acquaintance and had been reassured that she could come again whenever she needed to. Judy had told her “The wee man will not go hungry as long as there is food on these shelves, and you need to look after yourself too. If we can help you darlin’ we will.” Feeling unable to express her gratitude enough, taking her leave with her brimming plastic bags, Kara had cried quietly to herself all the way up the steps and along the path to her block.

The second time she had went to see Judy had been several weeks later, this time, after a small windfall of forty pounds on a very rarely purchased lottery ticket. In gratitude, Kara had brought with her on her visit a donation, a small shopping bag of tins of non-perishable foods, something, if not much, she felt, to help repay the kindness she had herself been shown.

Now, today, with the last chill of winter still lingering the bills were stacking up behind the clock on the kitchen table. She was back in the same situation. How had it come to this?

Reaching for her jacket and unfolding Calum’s buggy from out of the cupboard for the journey down to the community flat, Kara became aware that the lunchtime news had replaced the music on her radio.

The headlines were familiar. MPs of the Westminster Parliament are to get another pay-rise, just months after a previous 10% rise, there will be further corrective measures employed to meet the continuing challenge of austerity. These plans, to freeze benefits for four years, will affect 7 million children in low income families, and UKIP leader Nigel Farage has dismissed the recent EU renegotiation deal, demanding controls of the UK’s borders.

Then the bulletin changed to local news

The announcer said, somewhat sullenly, “A spokesman for the Scottish government stated today that Scotland could lose out on funding for essential public services of around 3 billion pounds over the next decade if it agrees to Westminster’s fiscal framework proposals as part of the proposed Scotland Act currently working its way through parliament.”

Before returning to the music the last item covered the news that unionist campaigners are set to hold an event on March 23rd in Edinburgh as a celebration of Scotland’s decision to reject independence in favour of the protection and strength of the UK. It is believed the SNP are set to ignore the significance of the next day which was due to be “Alex Salmond’s Independence Day.”

Switching off the radio as she headed for the door Kara spotted the worn blue and white sticker, facing outward on the safety glass, with the word YES emblazoned on it,that two badge-wearing cheery ladies with a positive attitude, and hope, had delivered to her more than a year before. She had almost forgotten that it was there.

Now that it was all over, well in the past, and things had gotten back to normal, Kara thought to herself I’ll kill a spare ten minutes of a boring day later on, whilst Calum is having a nap, scraping that sticker off.

She sighed quietly as she closed the door and headed for the lift.

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