(Sorry it’s slowing down. I have to fill in my tax form. It’s not complex, I just hate doing it. On every level).
I expected to be back in real work (I mean in the legitimate world of work) within six months. In the end, it took eighteen. I had not considered the impression an employer would gain from an interviewee who looked and smelled as if they had spent the night in the seediest shack in town. Well, it was a roof, so things were looking up, but they weren’t looking up enough yet. I had no money to spare for long-distance applications, I was limited at first to local openings and there weren’t many. It took saving, rationing, a move into a less damp hovel and a decent set of clothes – and those took time to accumulate. That first real job was a fixed-term contract as a lackey, but it was a foot back in the door and I kept it there.
But that hadn’t happened yet. I still had to deal with that Righteous every day because I was spending as little cash as possible so I still visited the soup kitchen. She wasn’t always there but when she was, I kept quiet. She had enforced a clampdown on those who ‘weren’t entitled to be there’, as if the place was some four star restaurant and anyone who could afford a good lunch would elbow their way in just to eat the stuff on offer. Really, if you have money for lunch, you don’t go to a soup kitchen unless you’re a masochist. The food isn’t the best, the choice is eat it or don’t, and some of the clientele are deranged, a few of them dangerously so.
Anyway, I had fallen out of favour by that time. As one of the ‘settled in’, there was no more need for indoctrination. The haggard, defeated look was enough to make me appear a long-term visitor. No need to convince me I had nowhere else to go, as far as the Righteous was concerned. Any new arrival was lavished with attention and sympathy, but within that sympathy was something poisonous.
What she did, I found, was to appear sympathetic while instilling defeatism in her new victims. It was a snakebite of sorts, a poison that got into their brains rather than their blood and took away any hope of ever changing their circumstances. It was all done on the you-are-a-victim principle. Watching it was like watching an emotional succubus at work.
She would listen to their story, then she would repeat it back to them, slightly changed. They would try to correct her, she would repeat her version until they accepted it or gave up arguing. Then she’d change a little more. And more, and more, until the poor sap believed her version of their lives. Her version was always the same. Someone else did this to you. You have no power to fight them. One day, they’ll get theirs. In the meantime, you stay here with us. Where you’re among friends. Where you’re safe.
In my case, it had been me telling her I’d borrowed too much and ended up losing everything. Her first approach was repossession: those evil rich taking away all the poor man’s things. Once I’d stopped openly fighting the idea that I hadn’t been responsible for losing those things, that they were taken from me, she moved on to the evil rich making loans far too easily available. Then they were all loan sharks, advertising with the hard sell. If she had continued she might have had them beating down my door and leaving a pile of cash and a contract signed in my own blood.
My version: I borrowed it, I spent it, I left a paying job for a studentship, couldn’t pay it back and lost the lot. Still owed a fair amount at that time too.
Her version: Rich men persuaded me to take their money and pretend to be like them by spending it, then waited until I couldn’t repay it and stole all my stuff. They will take more if I ever get more so it’s safest just to stay there with the dropouts.
Her edited version was much the same for everyone. All of those who had spent their way into destitution now all had the same life story. All those who had gambled it all away had the same life story too. So did the alkies, the druggies, everyone. Someone else did it. Not a single one of those who visited that kitchen were to blame for anything. They were all victims and the Righteous was their saviour. It looked like lack of imagination on her part but it was really very clever. Instead of having to remember a few dozen life stories, she only had to remember one. Her version. All she needed to do was persuade everyone to conform and she was in control.
The shocking part was that almost all of them fell for it. I can see why, in a way. Their lives had fallen apart and to have this woman tell them that it wasn’t their fault, that someone else did it to them, that they could not have done anything to avoid it, must have been a crumb of comfort. Hell, I nearly fell for it.
The derelicts never discussed their lives. I think, deep down, they knew the Righteous version was an illusion but it was a comforting illusion. One they didn’t want to break.
In the meantime, I was caught out when one of the proto-Righteous volunteers asked how I was enjoying the increase in benefits. Caught me completely off guard. I hadn’t been claiming any. My reasoning was that I was paid cash in hand, working for a dodgy character, so already risked trouble with the authorities. Drawing attention to myself for a few extra quid a week was a bad deal. Anyway, I was still too proud to ask for benefits and had found that job before I'd cracked. So I had not registered with the local SS at all.
I shouldn’t have gone back the next day because I knew the Righteous would be informed that I was apparently living without any income and what’s worse, smoking too! I had to go back though. I had a very good idea what would happen but I had to see it for myself.