When I was about twelve years old the bailiffs came to our house. While everyone was out they let themselves in the front door by a key which hung down inside the letterbox on a piece of string, carried out two worn-out old armchairs, a shabby old sofa with the springs poking through the cushions and a wobbly dining-room table and chairs, loaded them all onto a van and drove off. On our return from visiting a neighbour my mother and I found an empty living room.
I knew nothing whatsoever about bailiffs and so instantly thought we had been burgled, but my child’s mind could not at first take in what anyone would want with such old rubbish. Even now so many years later I can picture the furniture, the old armchair I curled up in to read my books, the sofa my younger brother and I used as a trampoline when our Dad wasn’t at home, the table we sat up to for meals or to play games of draughts and ludo, and I still cannot imagine the kind of men who would be prepared to do such a thing. Were they fathers themselves? Were they so much in need of a job that they would willingly, without heart or conscience, without one kind thought for us, take all the comforts we possessed? Nowadays of course I know that they would; I know that the system divides workers, encourages us to think ill of each other, to compete with each other, to blame the unemployed for their predicament, to disparage the homeless and the poor. Indeed now there is a telephone line so that all we need to do if we know some unhappy soul who is seen to leave the house too early in the morning to be unemployed is to make a phone call and suggest that he or she is picking up a little extra in order to supplement their dole. So yes, why shouldn’t the bailiffs have come to our house and nicked all we had? This was 1946 mind! So what’s changed?
The bailiffs came to our house because my mother could not find the money for the last few monthly instalments on the furniture. She had almost finished the payments which was why our few precious sticks were so well worn, but during those last few months my younger brother and I had need of clothes and shoes. Not that my Mum would have expected the bailiffs to work that one out. After all they were only doing their job! So my mother put her face in her hands and wept. Normally she should have sat down to do this but as there were no chairs this gesture lost some of its usual power to disturb me. She said “I wrote and told them about it, they knew.”
Meanwhile I wondered if the bailiffs would look like Hollywood gangsters, but when I was unwise enough to express this view aloud my mother said I was being “very silly”. Then I remembered that I had left my Richard Crompton book, William The Anarchist, under one of the cushions on one of the chairs, and so our loss became even more acute for me. It was a library book and I was intimidated by the assistants at our local library; they looked very strict and I constantly felt that if I did not bend to their authority then they may expel me from membership and I would fail to fulfil my ambition to read every single book in the junior section by the time I was fifteen.
Later my father came home from work and we sat on the floor to eat our stew. Dad believed his children should know why such a thing had happened, so he talked about the “nature of capitalism” which explanation few of us grasped and my mother pointed out that Karl Marx wasn’t going to pay the bills, was he? For some reason this remark caused much hilarity between my four brothers and in next to no time they were all trying to outdo one another with their witticisms. As a little girl I was anxious to know about the “nature of capitalism: so didn’t think my brothers were very funny. Altogether it was a strange evening; Mum gloomy, Dad thoughtful, and me still worrying about my book.
The next morning a table appeared as if from nowhere on our garden path. In the afternoon three bandy-legged chairs arrived outside our front gate. And of all things a pot of home-made jam was deposited on our front doorstep. An even more battered sofa than the one the bailiffs had taken was offered to us by a woman at number twelve. “Thought you could make use of it” was all she said.
My brothers and I helped Dad haul the “gifts” into the house and arrange them in the living room. We tried out the chairs and bounced on the sofa. My mother said it was very kind of the neighbours, but I watched my father leave the room and go out into the back garden.
He was pretending to do some weeding. “It’s a bit like socialism, isn’t it, Dad?” I asked. He was sniffing (exactly the way I did when I was crying privately). He kept his head averted but just the same he put an arm around my shoulder. “Not quite, Liz, but it’ll do for now” he said.