Poverty and materialism on a wet, grey Sunday

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The Independent Culture
ACCORDING TO a recent report in the Independent, "The 1995 edition of Social Trends demonstrates that household disposable income has increased in real terms by more than a third over the past 30 years. As a result, our homes have mutated from being functional shells to multi-faceted activity centres, equipped with all the trappings of our technologically advanced society."

This is very interesting, but it seems to apply to nobody I know. We all complain about the size of our mortgages (immense); the compar- ative smallness of our houses ("My parents earned far less than us and they had five bedrooms"); and that nasty damp patch at the back of the kitchen that might be dry rot. As for the trappings of our technologically advanced society: yes, we have washing machines and tellies and the odd computer, but does this make us happy? No. Go to anyone's house on my street on a Saturday night, and you will find the inhabitants complaining that they have lost the Lottery, again.

This obsession with the Lottery is not simply greed: it is - in my case at least - driven by a simple desire to pay off the mortgage, which seems to eat up more of our disposable income every year. (As for acquiring more of the trappings of our technologically advanced society: well, I'd prefer a new sofa.) There is, of course, one big problem with focusing your entire financial future on the Lottery: we never win, not even £10, and it makes me feel like a failure.

This was why last Sunday went wrong. The pall of our useless attempts at the Lottery hung over us from the night before; it was raining, the house was a mess, and what I hated most about it was the sofa. This sofa is nine years old exactly. I bought it for my first flat, and it was once a thing of beauty, upholstered in pale grey linen with cream piping. But over the years, it has become stained with Ribena and chocolate and mud from small dirty hands; mildewed biscuit crumbs lurk in its inner recesses, and one of the cushions is torn because Thunderbird Two ("Ready to Launch!") crashed into it last year.

We cannot afford a new sofa (the Lottery's fault, again), but I was suddenly gripped by a brilliant thought: machine-washable loose covers! "Why can't we take the children to Habitat?" I said to my husband. "We could buy some fabric, and then go to Mothercare and get some child-proof drawer locks." (My idea of fun on a Sunday afternoon: pathetic, I know.)

We drove to Habitat in the rain; fortunately, the dismal weather no longer mattered, because we had a purpose. But when we got there we made a big mistake: we looked at the sofas that we couldn't afford. Why couldn't we buy a new sofa? I had done once upon a time, when I was young and free and single, and I bought myself new clothes too in those days, and I still had money left over. I didn't have a huge mortgage then, nor did I have two children: instead I had a very tidy one-bedroomed flat with pristine white walls and clean grey carpets - and an immaculate new sofa.

We dragged ourselves away from the sofas, hardly able to look at each other. (What had happened to our lives?) The furnishing fabrics didn't help either. The ones we wanted - soft, jewel-coloured plaids - were marked "dry-clean only": no good for small children. The ones that would go in the washing machine were boring, sludgy browns, for boring sludgy families like us.

In a foolish attempt to salvage the situation, we went to the Habitat cafe. It was full of young childless couples, planning what to put in their elegant flats. We somehow dirtied the place up, with our buggy and snotty baby and small boy who said, "Do they sell crisps and Ribena here?" There were no crisps, just croissants stuffed with goat's cheese and sun- dried tomato, and no Ribena either. "Look, you can have some apple juice," I told my son. "It's freshly squeezed, OK?" I put the baby on the floor, pretending he had nothing to do with me, and we drank our tea (Darjeeling) in silence. Then my husband went to look around the shop by himself. When he came back, he sat down heavily and said, "When I win the Lottery, I'm going to buy a new bed and a wok and a terracotta pizza dish. And I'm going to have my own workshop to make things in."

"Where are we going to find room for a workshop?" I asked.

"In our new house," he said witheringly.

We finished our tea, and remarked on the attractive cups - so much nicer than our chipped mugs at home - and he paid the bill (£5.55). When we left Habitat, I thought, I have turned into a loathsome human being; I am filled with discontent and all the while there are homeless people who do not have beds, let alone sofas. And then I proved how truly loathsome I was by dragging my family to a shop across the road to look at some different sofas: these ones cost £1,000, but the price included a free set of washable loose covers, and you could pay on interest-free credit! We could buy a new sofa and pretend to be rich and carefree, all on the never-never. It was a bargain!

Luckily, before I embarked on this act of madness, the baby started grizzling, which rem- inded me where my true responsibilities lay: namely, Mothercare. So we went there, only to discover that it had closed 15 minutes earlier. Then we walked back to the car, in the rain, which mattered because we hadn't bought anything, not even a wok. "If we lived in the country, we wouldn't do this sort of thing on a Sunday afternoon," said my husband, accusingly.

"Yes we would," I said. "It would be cold and we'd be bored, and we'd end up driving to the nearest shopping mall."

When we got home, the house still looked like a dreary mess, rather than a multi-faceted activity centre. That's probably why we felt like social outcasts in Habitat; it's also why I can hardly wait for next Saturday's Lottery. !

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