“Yo, missus!” I turned… a tattooed yob in shredded denim with more piercings in his face than you would have thought possible held out my phone. “Your bag’s open… you dropped this.” My handbag falls open with alarming regularity. I smiled and thanked him and winced as he smiled back, fearing the damage the piercings could do under the strain. I was genuinely grateful. It wasn’t the best of areas and I would probably have given him and his friends a wide birth after dusk.
When I first landed in the south and was asked in what part of the town I lived… a town I had known nothing about and moved to by the simple expedient of sticking a pin in a map blindfolded… folk would do that thing with their lips, sucking in air as if I had mentioned the unmentionable. It was, they said, a bad area. Granted, it was not the prettiest part of town, but the house was nice…spacious… with a cosy, private garden and the neighbours some of the nicest people I have ever met. The place was convenient. I could walk the boys to school every day and walk to work in the town and back; to be fair, I had to… I couldn’t drive back then. There was never any trouble, it wasn’t noisy or covered in graffiti and the gardens were all nicely kept. As a bonus there were both supermarket and countryside within a few minutes’ walk.
Not that it would have mattered much, for in many ways it doesn’t matter where you live… once you have closed the door you are home and the world stays outside. I have lived in some beautiful places, and lived in some of the worst. I have lived, too, for a brief period, without a home and I don’t recommend it; at that point anything with a roof looks good. Admittedly, it is far more pleasant and less nerve-wracking to live in an area where you are not constantly looking over your shoulder as you walk home, but once that door is shut the world outside almost ceases to exist.
The outside of the house barely matters; the road, the area… they are not the place upon which you put the stamp of your personality. It is not there that you play with colour and texture and make a room that says ‘this is me’. Or perhaps, ‘this is what I think I would like you to think is me’. We do have a tendency to conform to what we assume others will be impressed by, find pleasing or to something that meets the current trend.
You can tell an ‘honest’ room the moment you walk in… it may be untidy or kept in pristine condition. It may be full of costly antiques and artworks or done to the tightest and most creative of budgets… but the things that are there are real expressions of a personality, traces of a life lived and the interests of its occupant. There is a specific feel to the place that has that indefinable quality of a real home.
I had occasion to call at a little shop today near that first house in the town and it was there I almost lost my phone. The economic downturn over the past few years, the death of local industries and rising unemployment have all taken their toll on the area. I watched the local businesses that sustained the community close down one by one over the years, shattering lives and families that depended upon them. Council spending cuts and minimal maintenance of the streets have dragged the area visibly into poverty. No doubt behind many of the doors there are lovely homes; many of the gardens themselves are still neatly kept, but there is a feel of grey despair on the streets.
It reminds me of deep depression… that state of mind when you are emotionally exhausted and can no longer be bothered how you look or what you wear, or even if you have combed your hair before going out.
The people too, clustered outside the little shop that now sports bars on its windows, all have that grey, despairing air. Their clothes are scruffy, hair unkempt, skin lacking the lustre of health. It is as if the poverty is a spreading infection leaching the energy from them, setting up a cross contamination between the area and the people.
I was reminded of a recent report I had read on the impact of poverty, both physiological and psychological; how the scars of childhood poverty can remain in the adult brain, how adults living under the constant stress of reduced income…the ‘relative poverty’ that affects so many in an unequal society… see reductions in executive function and even functional IQ that helps perpetuate the circumstances that cause them. It is a vicious cycle.
I found it infinitely sad. And pulled myself up. Who am I to judge? I, in my scruffy grubby clothes from walking the dog, with no make-up and hair blown to unkempt extremes? Isn’t my exterior the same as theirs? Are my circumstances any different, balanced on that knife edge that robs Peter to pay Paul? Would I look any different to an observer? No. They are me, and I am them.
Does it change who I am… who they are? Deep down? No. It may change the surface, it may alter the way in which you face the day, but a decent person remains a decent person regardless of circumstance, bank balance or social standing.
Chastened, ashamed of the judgemental thoughts, I went home, opening the door on a tidy house that I keep as best I can. It smelled of polish and disinfectant, the product of the six a.m. cleaning… overlaid with the vague inevitability of dog. She was waiting for me, tail thumping the ground, eyes bright and eager, ball at the ready. Does she care how scruffy I look or if I have showered today and done the make-up? Not a bit. She doesn’t judge by appearances, couldn’t care less what I look like. She works on ‘feel’, just as we do when we walk into a room. She doesn’t care about exteriors, she loves those she loves for who they are, not how they dress. If it feels right it is right, regardless of the surface. She has a lot to teach me; after all… I’m only human.