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I opened the front door, and at first it looked as if nobody was there.  Then I noticed the pale face peering through the bars of the iron gate where the path meets the road.  She had heard my dog barking, and had run away to hide, and she cowered as my dog ran round my legs to greet her.

She said she was hungry, that she had run out of money and that she had a baby to feed.  She said she had been to the parish office opposite our house and that they had been rude to her.  I asked her questions.  She told me she was waiting for her benefits to be sorted out, that she had left an abusive partner, her second, and that she was trying to live by herself with her baby, that she had been rehoused by the council, but that they’d given her somewhere too big for her small family, but that she was having to pay the rent still, and that her housing allowance was not covering it because it was limited by the needs of the smallness of her family.  And that she’d had Crisis Loans.  She said she was starving.

She was thin and grey, but clean.  She had long mid-brown hair tied back.  She looked like a prostitute with a drug habit.  I know what prostitutes with a drug habit look like because I’ve seen quite a few.  But she could have been a woman who was having a really bad time, because that’s all prostitutes are, the huge majority of them anyway.

She said my house was big, and she asked if I had managed to keep a relationship going.  I said that I had, but that I hadn’t always been so lucky, and that I hadn’t always lived in a house like this, and that things hadn’t always been so good, and we connected, or I thought we did, and she seemed to relax a bit.

I gave her a big bag of food.  I gave her all the Toffee Crisps we had, and milk and bread and pasta and tins and lots of fruit. 

I told my daughters about her and was surprised by their reaction.  Lola B could not believe that I had given her all the Toffee Crisps.  And afterwards I thought about her quite a lot, and wondered if she was a prostitute with a drug habit, or just a woman trying to put an abusive relationship behind her.  When I walked past the road she lived in, I wondered what had become of her, and remembered the women I used to act for who returned to their abusive partners time after time after time, addicted to the wisps of niceness they wafted in between the violence.  After a while I stopped thinking about her.

The doorbell rang again.  It was dark, and cold and raining.  There she was again, about a month later.  Shivering, thin, not enough clothes.  She said she needed sanitary pads, that she was having her first period after her baby, and that she had not been prepared, and that she had no money.  I gave her sanitary pads and £30.00.  I told her that she needed to get some help sorting out her benefits, and that the Citizens’ Advice Bureau would help sort things out with her.  My daughters hovered around in the background.  Afterwards they told me I was mad, that she’d only use the money to finance her habit, that she needed to get a job, and that I should not give her money. 

Christmas came and went.  She came back a few days ago.  She was clutching a plastic bag weighed down by four litres of milk and a multi-pack of potato crisps.  The food had run out again, she said, and she was worried that the electricity would as well.  This time the parish office had given her the milk and the crisps, but she needed proper food to feed herself and her baby.  My dog sniffed at her boots, and she smiled at him.  She said she was getting used to him now.

I asked her why she never brought the baby with her.  She said she left it with a neighbour.  I asked her if she had been to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.  She had, and they had helped with her benefits.  She was getting these regularly now, but they were making big deductions to recover the Crisis Loans in instalments, and she was finding it difficult to manage.  She said that the CAB had arranged for her to see a woman with one leg who runs a local charity.  I smiled.  This woman is a one-woman miracle who has provided beds and pushchairs and clothing and cookers and endless oddment to assorted people who’ve falled on hard times.  But she still needed proper food, and some money for electricity.  She commented on the size of my house.  Huge she said it was.  Must take a lot to look after it, keep it clean.  I nodded.  It does.

I gave her some pasta and a tin of tomatoes and an onion, and a block of Lola B’s cheese, and a tin of baked beans, and some bread and butter.  I asked her if she could cook, and she said she was lousy at cooking, so I told her how I’d make a sauce for the pasta with the food I’d given her.  I took her to our shed and found the box of dirty organic vegetables that had been delivered that day, and I gave her the carrots, and a bag of potatoes, and apologised for them being dirty, and I gave her £10.00 for the electricity.  I thought she looked better.  Her hair was clean, and tied back like the tail on a draught horse, with descending elastic bands.

And my daughters sang the same chorus, and asked if she would come back and break into the house, and their friend told them I was crazy and just making her dependent on me, and I shook my head.  And the thought crossed my mind that she might come back and break into the house and I was sorry that thought crossed my mind.

The next day she came back, when I was out.  She hid behind the gate while the door was opened by the person who has helped me in the house for the last twenty years.  She said she wanted to see the other lady, and she left her name, a sort of old-fashioned proper name.   The person who helps me had thought she was a friend of my elder daughter to begin with, but then she’d changed her mind, and she had put the chain on the door, for the first time ever. 

We talked about her, and we both remembered what things were like when my husband and I first bought the house, and I first met the person who helps me and how then, when she had first started working here, her life, alone with two small boys, had been very hard, and I remembered a bad relationship I had stayed in far too long, and we would have found it very difficult to refuse to help the girl with the horse tail.

My neighbour phoned this evening.  She said that the girl had called at her house yesterday evening when we were away, and the girl had said that she normally saw the lady next door, but she was desperate and her electricity had been cut off and her house was cold and dark, and my neighbour, who is very kind, gave her £10.00 and her husband said she was a fool, and she wanted to know what I would have done, and we talked about, and we decided that we couldn’t give her any more money, either of us.  That it wouldn’t solve her problems.

Image: Nick Hedges, Mother and Children, 1969.  “Hedges’ work continues the tradition of socially committed documentary photography in Britain established in the 1930s and 40s. His seminal photographs for charitable organisations such as Shelter and MENCAP evidence hardship and poverty in the margins of 1950s and 60s society, providing an important historical document of the everyday lives of the disadvantaged, economically or otherwise, from the period. The works embody an impassioned sense of social purpose, a desire to confront reality and lay it bare to a wider audience.”
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