It is all a bit different from her last visit. Way back in the ’80’s when she was experiencing her summer of love. A personal rebellion against the constraints of South London surburbia – living in exciting sin with Oz in his Liverpool bedsit. A complete success in the appalling-your-parents stakes, made even more so, by her refusal to return home and get a job. Instead, she and Oz slept all day, and spent the evenings among the pseudo-anarchists he called friends. The men dressed in black trousers and roll-neck jumpers, wore National Health glasses and smoked roll-ups. The women had long dark hair, wore flowing dresses and hennaed tattoos on their arms..They talked till the small hours about the Contra rebellion, the miner’s strike, the virtues of free love. And every Thursday, they queued up with the rest of the unemployed in the foyer of the smoked- filled dimly-lit dole office. The concrete floor was covered in discarded chewing gum, the rug in the corner, marked with cigarette burns. Grey paint peeled from the wall, and the unsmiling staff gave out the weekly cheque from behind reinforced glass. It felt authentic. Real. That they were living the rebellion already.
It’s not like that today. Dole in the twenty first century comes courtesy of IKEA. Bright blue sofas adorn the foyer, air-fresh and cleanly-lit with white striplights. The walls are painted pale yellow, the carpet, a soft fawn. The reinforced glass has been replaced by cheery security guards, who take her details and tell her they’ll call her for her appointment. She might as well be at the doctors.
Back then, she and Oz convinced themselves they were on the side of the oppressed. Claiming the dole brought them into contact with Thatcher’s victims. By opting out of the capitalist labour market, they were refusing to prop up the corrupt system. They were young, free, in love. They were going to change the world. Till she came home one afternoon, and discovered Oz practising free love with one of the dark haired anarchistas and realised there was more to life than revolution. She returned to her studies with enthusiasm, graduating, much to the relief of her parents, with a first that propelled her ever upwards.
Until now. It’s unreal and unsettling, but here she is. With the redundancy money gone, her savings eaten up by mortgage payments, what choice does she have? She looks around the room, and for the first time, sees her fellow claimants. When she and Oz queued up in the old days, they never thought about the preoccupations of their fellow unemployed. Now, Oz is too busy being a media darling, he wouldn’t be seen dead here. It is left to her to look across at the bald man with the bewildered air, and wonder whether he has just lost his job, or has been coming for a while. And is it stereotyping to think that the young mum trying to control her toddler has never had a job? Or the lads coming in from their quick smoke out the front are boasting about skirmishes with the law? But most of all she wonders about herself. No lover, no parents, no end of degree to fall back on. What is she going to do now?
The security guard calls her name and indicates the lift. Second floor, third desk on the right, Ellen Chapman. She picks herself up with a slight sigh and follows his pointing finger. If this is going to be her life from now on, she’d better get used to it.