May 3, 2013 6:46 pm

First Person: Caroline Beck

The struggling freelance writer says she ‘can see the abyss’
Caroline Beck with her daughter©James Dodd

We’d always thought of this house as being our pension. It was derelict when we bought it 14 years ago, we have done everything ourselves; the painting, the flooring, the garden … But we need that money now. I can’t think of any alternative but to sell.

Roisin, our eldest daughter, has been offered a place at Cambridge university. I can’t bear the thought of her being saddled with huge debts, so we will sell up and live in rented accommodation.

I am a freelance writer, my partner is a wine merchant. Lots of people here in County Durham – architects, graphic designers, photographers – are going through the same thing. We all used to be OK. Some of them now have no work. I am still working but I can always see the abyss, my toes are reaching over the edge.

Six years ago both the children played the piano, one went swimming and my eldest daughter had singing lessons. They don’t have any lessons any more. It’s my youngest daughter Eve’s birthday next week. She hasn’t asked us for anything. We won’t give her a party because this week we had three catastrophic bills: the exhaust fell off my car yesterday; our oven blew up at the beginning of the week; and, last month, the lights in the kitchen fused.

We look at our finances every day to find out where the money is coming from. For the last two weeks of each month we live off a lot of lentils and chickpeas.

I make my own bread because it saves me £10 a week. I make all my own cakes because if the girls take a slice of it to school, they won’t spend £2 on a muffin. So much of my time is devoted to domesticity. And I find that boring.

For six months I have not been out of this jumper. I wash it. I put it on the radiator. And then I wear it the next morning because it’s the warmest thing I possess. We all have one pair of jeans, and we do the same thing. We also save by not having the heating on much.

We used to take really flash holidays. But when we went to Europe last year, we stayed in hostels. We would have breakfast in the morning, then we wouldn’t eat again until the evening.

Recently I had a voucher for £7 off my weekly shop. I gave it to the shop assistant at the till and she told me it was out of date. Although the date on the voucher said it was in date, the scanner was saying it wasn’t. So, I am standing there with my shopping … my kids are saying “Oh Mum!” There are people standing behind me, but I don’t care: I want this £7 off, because £7 off is £7 off. I never would have done that eight years ago. I would have thought: “Oh that is a crazy woman in the supermarket.” I dug my heels in, and, in the end, it got knocked off.

I went to university in the early 1980s when we were told that our generation of young women could have it all. And I did think we could have it all. I thought I could have a career. I thought I could have children. I thought I could have a cleaner and go out occasionally. When I was 21, if somebody had fast-forwarded my life and said “That’s what you will be doing”, I would have said: “No, no, no. That’s my mother’s generation, I will not be doing that.”

It won’t bother me not owning a house.

What bothers me is getting us all through the next decade, so we can get our children to a point where they are self-sustaining. Right now that seems a long way off. We are not living in a Victorian novel. We are healthy, we are happy, we are together. But I can’t see an end to it. I don’t know how they are going to ever afford to buy a house. They are going to be living in rented accommodation for the rest of their lives.

At the end of the day it’s a house. It’s a house that we have done up and we love and we have been really happy here. But it is just a house.

“Tales from the Squeezed Middle”, by Rosie Millard, will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday May 6.

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