Registered In Flesh and Blood: If Bill English could see what his numbers added up to, I wonder: would his calculations be different?
BUDGETS ARE WRITTEN for the sake of abstract nouns: Prosperity; Stability; Productivity. But they are experienced by people who are all-too-real. And, if the decisions of our Finance Minister are expressed in numbers, their effects are registered in flesh and blood. If Mr English could see what his numbers added up to; I wonder: would his calculations be different?
THE POLICE CONSTABLE stared at the blank page of his notebook and took a deep breath.
“Can you tell me why your father took his own life?”
The young woman seated opposite him lifted her head slowly, as if the knowledge inside it was too heavy for her body to bear.
“He’d lost everything that meant anything to him. His wife, his home, his job, his self-respect. I think he looked ahead and saw nothing but uselessness and loneliness. In the end, I reckon he just didn’t see any point in going on.”
“He was an educational consultant?”
The young woman snorted.
“That’s what he called himself after he’d been made redundant in that first round of cuts. Used nearly all his redundancy money setting himself up in business. God, he was so keen. But there were no contracts – not one. His whole life had been devoted to research. He picked the eyes out of other countries’ education policies and fed them into the Department. But no one wants ‘back-office bureaucrats’ any more. These days everything’s for the ‘workers on the front line’. He went bust.
“And your mother?”
The young woman smiled wanly.
“She tried – she really did. But the mortgage was just too big for one salary to service. They got behind. The bank was pressuring them to sell. Dad blamed himself. He got more and more depressed – started drinking. There were arguments – fights. In all my life, I’d never seen Dad raise a hand to anyone. But one night I got a call from Mum – she was crying. Dad had hit her. I told her to get out: ‘Go to Women’s Refuge’, I said. Mum just laughed. ‘You’re behind the times over there in Australia’, she told me. ‘The Government’s stopped funding the refuges, most of them have shut up shop.’ I told her I would fly back as soon as I could get a flight, but she told me to stay where I was. ‘They’ll be after you for that student loan of yours’, she told me. ‘You save your money. Your father and I will be all right’.”
“But they weren’t.”
“No. Dad thought he’d go back to varsity – do a law degree. But the Government had stopped lending to mature students – reckoned the over fifty-fives would never pay them back. Seemed like everywhere he turned someone slammed a door in his face. Mum says he just spiralled down and down. His GP referred him to a private psychotherapist, but they couldn’t afford the fees. The public mental health service was no bloody use – just filled him full of lithium. Mum said he was like a zombie. He’d just sit and sit and sit. She couldn’t bear to watch. The house was sold. Mum set Dad up in a little flat – arranged for him to go on the Sickness Benefit. What a joke that was! All he got were endless hassles from the MSD. Told him that if he wasn’t actively seeking work they’d stand him down. A Master’s degree in Education and they had him sweeping floors at the local primary school.
“And that’s where they found him?”
“Yes, that’s where they found him. He’d hanged himself from a metal beam in the school’s reception area.”
The young constable closed his notebook.
“I’m very sorry for your loss.”
The young woman looked out the window at the grey winter sky and blinked.
“You know what Mum said?”
The constable shook his head.
“She said: ‘Dad gave his whole adult life to the back office – but that wasn’t enough to save it from the bottom line’.”
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 May 2011.