CHAPTER 12 – Bushmills or bust
Home life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt
As the days got longer and warmer, Dawn Landais squeegeed her Southend-on-Sea business dream into existence.
By early May, she was on first-name terms with nearly 200 drivers who stopped regularly at the Eastwood lights. They were nice, cheeky, plain, miserable, ugly and downright rude. Female drivers demanded clear, clean screens. Some of the blokes would never get past their dick fantasies. One had suggested they “play in the foam until my suds run down your face”. Nonetheless she began to think of the collective as her ‘tribe’. Familiar faces, ceding their coins. Money, money, money.
At home, different adjustments had unravelled. With his borrowing ‘spree’ illuminated and unadorned, Steve had plunged into morbidity. Returning one late afternoon, after her second shift at the lights, Dawn found her husband home early, reading about a man in Bolton who set himself on fire, having fallen behind on a ‘payday loan’. She hugged him. They were still assimilating their new reality, more than a month after she had found the credit statements in his shed.
Initially, for three long days, she had let the numbers run around her head, disbelieving the figures, numbly hoping there was a comforting explanation. And quickly making the bones of a plan.
She confronted him on a Friday evening. With Genevieve out, Dawn threw the statements on the table. “Well?”
Steve went white. He looked around the room, pursing his lips. She waited. “OK,” he started. “Here’s the thing.” She waited.
“Ah shite. I’m sorry Dawn.” His hands were trembling. “It’s not good….I am currently paying out these companies some £2,200 monthly in minimum repayments on a pile of debt worth around 95 grand – no, over 100k if you count the car loan.”
Even more than she had thought. “Jesus Christ Steve. How?”
Robbing Peter to pay Paul, for over five years, it transpired. Small sums at first, before he had realised that lenders loved customers who repaid promptly. He had 13 credit cards, and a sparkling credit score. “You just pay the minimum. They keep upping their borrowing limits, and don’t seem to check on who else is lending to you.”
He staggered over to the kitchen cupboard, liberating a bottle of Bushmills from the shelf. “You keep using the higher limit to pay off the others, who then give you higher limits.”
He poured for them both, sheepishly. She preferred Scottish single malts, but this storm needed a port. “How long?” As if he had been in an affair. She was 99.99% sure he had never strayed. That was important. But this?
“It started five Christmases ago. We didn’t have enough for the presents.” He carried on, unable to hold her gaze. “A cheque came through the post, for a grand, inviting me to cash it and repay after two months’ grace. Then we took out the car loan. It was beyond our means, but you loved that motor.”
She had already decided what to do. She looked at him as he talked. He was once tightly in control of their money. They never used the overdraft. If they wanted something, they saved. “Does anybody else know? Were you ever going to tell me?”
He topped up his glass, throat constricting. “I was very near to spilling the beans.” He was nearly crying. “It’s a bloke’s thing. You’ve said that before. We compartmentalise stuff, bury it if need be. Nobody knows except me….and you now.”
What a stupid bastard. And a good dad.
“The bank manager has been pressing me to come and see him for a financial update. He’s rung me twice this week. It’s amazing how imaginative you can get with excuses, but they exhaust themselves, and I’m sick of it.” He looked drained.
They were in a murderous debt noose, whatever way you shook around their wages from his job at IKEA, up at Lakeside, and her call-centre money. Bankruptcy was one option. She had thought it through. But that might last several years and could cut into money needed for Genevieve’s higher education. Their 17-year-old daughter was bright as a button. And her younger brother Nigel was no mug.
Looking in on the screens, God saw way past Dawn’s pragmatic head, and her compassionate heart. There was something far greater in her house, like a lit bulb, that could no longer keep the light within itself.
Dawn outlined their best shot. That debt management, negotiated firmly, might just keep their heads above the water. Creditors kept at bay, with a minimum monthly payment. It depended on keeping every penny of her income hidden, so they could eat decently, stash away a rainy-day fund and have a few extra quid in their pockets.
She told Steve her provisional target. 400 regular punters, buying one screen wash each week. £1600 tax-free as a monthly income base, plus all the occasional clients. Working just half the time she had spent in the call-centre, and about 50% more income. “Not a penny for your creditors or the taxman.”
They might get by. Might. While some friends and peers were buying second houses. “Where did the money go, Steve?”
“I stopped keeping track. Roughly? Half was for us: stuff we bought, holidays, cars, every monthly hole left after our shit wages. Every need for the kids that came along. Maybe a quarter on spiralling interest payments, the rest on betting.”
The Bushmills was astringent. She needed another. She remembered how he used to put aside defined sums of betting money each year. The horse racing database he had built up. The betting syndicate he had run. Steve was talking about how the advent of the Internet, combined with easy electronic credit, had changed everything. “My punting used to be a disciplined, enjoyable sideshow, never more expensive than any other hobby: sport, CDs, fags, beer, cars or DIY. But when you sit on a growing heap of debt, desperation sets in, and rules go out the window at the click of a mouse.”
She knew some women would kick him out. “It must have felt like hell. How did you cope?”
“I’d have to get up and leave the room when programmes about bailiffs came on. But every month saw Genevieve and Nige get older and stronger and happier. That was worth double, maybe treble what I owed.”
For her, the hardest question of all. “Did you ever think about suicide?”
“Bloody hell yes! But only if it could be made to look like an accident.” He was serious. Bloody male logic. “No point unless you and the kids could have an insurance payout.” For the first time that night, he smiled. She couldn’t.
“All the time, I’ve been reading more and more stories about people who are worried about their ‘runaway’ debts of five, ten or even fifteen thousand pounds. Honestly, I chuckle and call them ‘wusses’ under my breath.”
She ignored that. “I’m insisting on one thing Steve. If you have to bet again, you tell me, beforehand, and do it with cash, in a shop, so that you can see and touch what you are risking. Your online days are over.”
For the first time since she was a child, Dawn prayed that night. On her knees.
“God, are you there?” She had never seen much evidence. She opened her eyes and peeked outside. No lightning.
“If you are, you know I’m humble. And so grateful for my life, whether it’s an accident or part of your plan. But how have you let things get so far out of hand?”
Maggie was sitting next to God, listening keenly. Rested, recuperated and refreshed. Raring for action.
“Not just my family, but the whole bloody world.” Dawn was seething. “How did you come up with this stupid nonsense called money? That can’t be your idea, not if you’re a loving God. If it is, then sorry, but you have made a terrible mistake. Please, please do something to sort that out.”