Graeme has a place waiting in the recently requisitioned Walpole Bay Hotel and Nick puts him in a USG minivan with a few other recent arrivals. The rooms are all full and so a series of bunk beds and spaces for sleeping bags have been set up in the downstairs lounge. He sits in the corner feeling vulnerable, his bag held tight, wishing he hadn’t flushed that spliff away; he could do with a smoke, calm his nerves.
How much will his records get sold for? They must be worth six, seven grand if he could get full price for them, probably they will go up for auction on one of the Government’s Clawback sites and be sold for whatever anyone bids for them, anything that isn’t sold after a certain point goes to charity shops for free. He thinks maybe he can sell the records he has in the bag to pay off his debts and buy back his own stock.
The room is filling up now. A dazed looking group in black hoodies is being processed at the doorway and let into the room one by one, activists, he thinks he recognises a few. He doesn’t want to hug the bag of records too close for fear of alerting someone to their value or loosen his hold on them for fear they might be taken. If he loses this he loses everything. He can’t seem to get any kind of signal on his phone down here and needs to get online, to contact his buyer and arrange something. Money no object, they said. He’s seen tape collections go for ten, twelve grand, getting bid up on ExecutiveCollector. This is all a mistake he can rectify if he can just get online.
On the other side of the room he spots another couple of familiar faces, Giveback Partners from one of the refit jobs they did in Elephant and Castle six months ago, a horrible experience that got Graeme ever more frantically pursuing his record trading afterwards in order to stave off ever having to do it again. A group of ten of them in Giveback Boilersuits jogging in lockstep from the branded Giveback van, the team leader, ex-Army, barking instructions at them, the public spectacle of it as much a part of the exercise as anything, letting the poor know, this is what’s waiting, allowing the rich to savour the discipline.
He approaches tentatively, knows faces but not names, they all seemed alright even though they hadn’t communicated much, each one locked away in a pocket of anger and shame that seems here in the light and space of the temporary encampment to have been broken open.#
Alright boss, Graeme says. I know you mate, from Giveback up in Elephant. We did that housing estate, ripping all the old carpets up and that. For a second they look blankly at him then one of them nods, yeah, yeah, bruv. Yeah that’s right. They got you too.
What’s going on? I need to get back up to London. He’s here coincidentally, accidentally he explains, came down on some business and can’t get back up there now, hasn’t had time to sell or stash his stuff, nothing more than the shirt on his back and the phone in his hand. Can anyone get a signal? He needs to ring Matty, he’ll come and get him, ring his contact, let him know he’s got stuff, start negotiating a price. Ring Joolzy, ring the OkupaUK crew, anyone, just to let them know he’s here, that there’s been some mistake. They all shake their heads. Signal’s been jammed, something’s going on. You could try the internet café down on the front but you are not supposed to go more than quarter of a mile from your centre. How can there be no wireless, he asks, no phone signal? They’ve turned it all off. Simple as that. Plus, one of them says we know you yeah, but don’t talk to anyone you don’t know. Lot of undercover narcs about.
One of the group is telling them a story about how he had to go and work for Pret A Manger making sandwiches on a Giveback placement in a big, cold warehouse up the river, standing at a long line of other workers in white coats and hairnets at scratched silver trestle tables. He is tall, six foot three and the bench was little too low. He asked the supervisor if there was any way they could raise the table but he looked at him blankly. That’s the table we use here, he said. Then could he have a chair to sit on? We don’t have chairs, they told him. No one else is sitting down. Yeah, but I am taller than they are. The supervisor smiled. Find a solution, he said. Don’t mention it to me again.
An older guy, maybe early fifties, with a beer belly and glasses has drifted over to join them. Find a solution to being tall? Every day the pain in his back started a little earlier in the shift, until even after a weekend of lying in bed just trying to recover, using the muscles as little as possible, on the following Monday morning the pain was instantaneous, adjusting his posture slightly to pull the first two slices of bread out of the box a strap of raw muscle started heating up until after thirty minutes it was burning and making him nauseous. Every time he finished a sandwich it was pulled across the table cut and boxed then sealed. He began to slow down dramatically, shifting his weight from side to side bending and stretching, pausing as his teammate scowled impatiently at him from across the other side of the table. Each pair was assessed for productivity, each team competing with other teams, each section with others and each individual performance logged, someone would lose out, the least productive pair in each team put the whole table in danger of being deemed to be showing insufficient enthusiasm, efficiency, motivation and penalised, benefits cut, more Giveback hours extended, or worse, both. You could find yourself working more hours for free, racking up Giveback hours for a bare subsistence in terms of on-the-job food allocations. He tried to keep going he said but by the afternoon the pain was unbearable and in the half hour break he sat and wept in the company toilet wondering what the fuck he was going to do, whether they would even let him leave and dreading the sanctions they would apply, the medical tests he would have to go through, which would find him fit to work and give him pain-killers, a privilege he would have to pay for with more Giveback hours. In the end he couldn’t take it any more. And so.
Yeah. Yeah. Everyone nods.
How come you are down here? They ask a guy in his early thirties. Hi alright, he says, I am Charlie. Charlie sounds a little bit posh. He said had been stopped at the turnstile at Charing Cross by some private security guards asking him why he wanted to come into Zone 1, what the purpose of his visit was, asking why a Claimant would have any need to leave his particular, they used the word designated, Zone to come down here. I want to go to the library. You are not a student though, are you? You can do all that online. I want to go to the library, the museum, a gallery, window shopping whatever, what’s the problem with that? Loitering with no clear purpose then. Looking at your Viability Index you have got no money to spend and I am refusing you entry on reasonable suspicion of attempted non-authorised financial solicitation. ITB. Intent to Beg. After some protesting and refusal in which he was very careful not to lose his temper he was eventually escorted into a side office while his details were checked, then he was taken away and kept in police custody for 24 hours as they went round and trashed his flat looking for suspicious or subversive material. Lucky for you we didn’t find anything, they said, though we could have done if we had wanted to. Two days later he received notice that the Giveback hours incurred through the time being held in the police cell had pushed him over some preprescribed limit and that he was to report to the office down here.
They are getting serious; they are cracking the fuck down. Another guy on one of the camp beds at the back chipped in that he had been refused entry to a pub in Blackheath after his Claimant Card set off some kind of alarm behind the bar. He refused to leave and a group of big guys in rugby shirts made the fact that he was not welcome clear to him: fuck off out of here or you’ll be claiming disability from now on, one told him, to raucous laughter.
Well, she said, I was coming back home on the bus one day and I just decided, fuck it, I am going to go full default. I was working in Rootz making £6.37 an hour and I had debts, you know? There was no way I could pay it back, no way, and the interest was accumulating all the time so, I mean it was scary to do it but I’d just got paid and I knew I was going to see all of that money disappear, go to the landlord, on transport, to pay back student loans, to cover credit card bills. Already I was living in a shared house, right, in the cheapest room and every month I am just digging myself in deeper paying bills and expenses. So I ended up looking around for a cheaper place to live but they were all even further away from work so then there was extra transport costs. What can I do, right? I’m not going into one of the Beehives. I can’t live. I am working all week and I can’t live. Do more hours, work two jobs maybe but I am already doing an extra ten to twenty hours a week overtime just to show willing and keep my job at Root and Branch, so about two months ago I thought, well, I can either go back and live with my Mum and Dad or I can go full default, in which case I have got about a two week head start before the bailiffs are on to me. So that means no phone, nothing, you’re looking at five years for some of the debts to be cancelled, some of them never, always trying to stay ahead of the bailiffs, always having to find work from someone who won’t ask questions, no benefits, people always ready to grass you up, you know? The only thing worse than being a Claimant is being a defaulter as far as some people are concerned, but me, I had no choice. I couldn’t see any way out. My Mum and Dad don’t have any money to give me a leg up, you know. I worked through University, I got a good grade, I wanted to keep studying but then the prices went up, the credit dried up, the only jobs I could get were minimum wage, I didn’t know if I would be working from one week to the next. And nearly everyone I knew was the same, some of them had help but I didn’t have any lifelines, you know. So I just had to leave.
How long did you manage?
Six weeks. Immigration raided this meat packing plant I was working in up near York. There were three Brits in there; everyone else was foreign, y’know, from all over. I got shipped back down here.
How much have they got you for?
Giveback? She swallows.
Fucking years and years and years.
Carl Neville lives in London and is the author of Classless and No More Heroes. Resolution Way is his first novel and is out now.