My adventures in penury land me with two job applications on my screen, one for MI6, one for Sainsbury’s.
Do I become a spy, or stack shelves in a supermarket? The vacancies are on a recruitment site called Indeed, one after the other: Counter Assistant, Sainsbury’s. Intelligence Officer, London. Just like that. I began googling jobs in a panic because embarrassing things started to happen.
For example, a friend who runs a tack shop gave me a broken bag of feed for the horses, saying, ‘Please, take it, I can’t sell it. Really, you’d be doing me a favour.’ Word has evidently got round that I am succumbing to the pressure of a mortgage and vet bills while persisting with the damn fool idea I have pursued all my life of neither cultivating wealth myself nor marrying into it, instead doing silly things like writing books. What an oversight.
The worst bit is all the suggestions, which invariably begin ‘why don’t you’. This month, friends and relatives have suggested:
‘Why don’t you submit another book proposal? Why don’t you retrain as a teacher? Why don’t you start a daily YouTube broadcast where you do those hilarious impressions of yours? Why don’t you launch a website and get so much traffic that companies like Marks & Spencer pay you to advertise on it?’ And my personal favourite, ‘Why don’t you pick daffodils and sell them in the market?’
The answer to each one is the same, boringly. I can’t afford to spend six months writing another book and not make a penny from the sales (the standard publishing arrangement if you’re not Pippa Middleton); I can’t afford to spend two years working in ‘challenging’ inner-city schools earning a grand a month (my nerves would never stand it, even if my bank balance could); I can’t afford to pay a web engineer to design me some online thingummy so I can tell people jokes for free in the hope that it occurs to Marks & Spencer that the future of its business lies in sponsoring the mental meanderings of a writer in the grip of a midlife crisis; and I can’t afford to pick daffodils from municipal displays on roundabouts and grass verges and end up in prison for thieving.
Back in the real world, I work odd days in a friend’s clothes shop and do Airbnb — more about that another time. I also sit slumped in the leather reading chairs in Waterstones with a writer friend of mine, looking at all the unwanted books, like abandoned puppies.
‘Why bring another one into the world anyway?’ I ask, as she stares blankly ahead, huddled in her coat.
We agree that books are cute when they’re babies, but they grow up into monsters that have to be promoted with tours of places like Stornoway, and getting up in the middle of the night to talk to radio stations in Western Australia. No, books are best left to the wealthy, who can afford to look after them properly.
I decide to cut back. I forage for cheaper car insurance by ringing the Co-op, after getting quotes on CompareTheMeerkat.com. It takes ages because, as usual, they can’t find my occupation. The nice lady on the end of the line says: ‘Shall I say you’re in publishing?’
‘No. Because I’m not in publishing. That’s the problem,’ I say. ‘Oh, right. What about booksellers?’
‘Same problem. I’m not selling books.’
‘Oh dear. Well, I’m not sure what to suggest. Hold the line and I’ll ask my supervisor.’
She takes ages and then comes back to say there is no way of describing me so they cannot help me.
‘But I need your cheap quote! Please! What about “Art”? I am in art, in that I am suffering for my art.’
‘Oh yes, that should work,’ she says, cheerily. And so it does.
Next, I ring Bupa to cancel my health insurance. But I can’t get through on the ‘If you want to cancel your policy press 4’ line. Like Sky, if you want to cancel, they make you hold until hell develops a light covering of frost.
So I go on Rightmove and find a cottage near Farnham with an acre of land, which might just be enough to keep the horses on a budget.
When I arrive to view, it’s down an unmade track and reveals itself to have no central heating. The agent, who looks like a pallbearer in his long black overcoat, leads me around the house with a morose look on his face, grimacing at the tiny rooms and damp patches.
A sweet old lady is sitting in the living room next to a Calor heater. ‘No mains gas,’ the undertaker intones, shaking his head. No gas bills, I think. ‘It’s perfect. Will they take an offer?’