On Monday morning I went to the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau, the charitable organisation that gives free advice on legal, financial and other useful issues. The local branch is in Harlesden which, as Wikipedia points out, has excellent transport links. However what it doesn’t point out (but might be deduced from the line In 2001, Harlesden was revealed to have the greatest amount of gun violence in Britain) is that it is a very poor area.
People in and around Harlesden have a lot of problems. Problems of a range and magnitude that I hope I never have to experience. The service offered by the CAB is much in demand. This much I knew before I made my way there for the first time on Monday. I also knew that on its website the Harlesden CAB informs us Telephone advice – an adviser is available by phone but that on the large number of occasions I’ve called the number I’ve never had any reply – no engaged tone, no message, no nothing except a long period of ringing followed by a click and then silence. So it is perhaps rather surprising that I read the words Drop-in advice times – the bureau is open to give advice and gave them credence.
So off we went, secondspawn and I, with a large bag of books and toys and food because I anticipated that whatever else happened we would have a really really long wait. Imagine my surprise when the premises appeared all but abandoned. My heart lifted. I approached the woman behind the reception desk with a bright smile. She smiled brightly too. “You haven’t been here before” she said, very much more a statement than a question. “Er, no” I confessed.
Turned out the office can only see 20 new cases per day and they are decided on a first-come-first-served basis in the mornings. Except Tuesdays. “Come back on Wednesday” she said. “We open at 9.30 but you should be here before then. You’ll see the queue. The earlier the better.”
So on Wednesday morning I roused my two spawn and an overnighting friendspawn at an unreasonable hour for the school holidays, forced food into them, clothes onto them and their bodies into the van, hurtled round to the house of the very long-suffering mother of the visiting spawn, hurled them all onto her doorstep at 8.30 and screeched off, without even checking to see if they got through the front door, to the bus stop (no parking anywhere near the CAB).
Despite this extraordinary feat of child-herding I didn’t get to the building until 9.00, rather later than I’d hoped. But it turned out it wouldn’t have made much difference. The queue already stretched the length of the CAB, on past a rather non-descript derelict-looking office next door, the length of the Fonetastic Internet Caf’e and along the mouthwatering fruit and vegetable display arranged outside the broad frontage of the exotic food emporium. I took my place behind a group of vivacious Somali women with a sinking heart. I didn’t bother to count the people in the queue ahead. There were, I knew, considerably more than 20.
We waited. It was cold. The person behind me (Guyanese, I think) chain-smoked and blew ash and smoke all round my head. I examined, in great detail, boxes of papaya from Brazil and Peru, persimmon from Israel. Then I studied the feet of the man in front of the Somali women. He was wearing flip-flops despite the cold and his toes were heavily callused and some had open sores. Then I spent some time admiring the wooly hat covering the dreads of a tall man further along, knitted in self-striping wool in camouflage greens. The effect was oddly pleasing.
The length of the pavement along which the queue extended was railed off from the road, a sensible precaution given it is a busy thoroughfare and obviously semi-choked with a queue of people most mornings of the week. Where I was standing, by the entrance to the exotic food emporium, was also next to a bus stop serving six different routes. Much time was spent trying to get out of the way – of customers entering and exiting, of people running for buses, of shop-keepers wheeling heavy trolleys stacked high with yet more produce to be displayed on the pavement.
At 9.30 there was a small flurry of activity by the CAB’s entrance, which I could just see if I stood on tiptoes and craned my neck. Then nothing. Then slowly we inched forwards. It only took 40 minutes or so to get as far as the door from where it was possible to hear the receptionist repeating the same exchange with each new hopeful supplicant. “We only have space for 20 people and all those spaces have already been filled. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.” This would be followed invariably by a broken plea of urgency and despair from the disappointed putative customer and the receptionist would then ask if the person had any children 11 years old or under. If no then she advised them to return the following morning but to arrive earlier. “Before 8.30”, she would say, brooking no dispute. “I always tell people to come before 8.30. Otherwise you don’t really stand a chance of getting a slot”.
If, however, there was a young child in the family there was apparently hope. It was obvious that some people were agreeing that yes, they did have a child under the age of 11 when in fact they almost certainly did not. This, however, did not seem to bother the receptionist. She would beam and say “good, good. Take this ticket, fill in this form and give it back to me. When the number on your ticket is called out you will go and see my supervisor and she will see if she can allocate you to one of our children advice centres”. Or at least I think that was what she called them.
Eventually it was my turn. Yes, I had a child under 11 “and”, I added for good measure, “I’m a single parent”. “Excellent!” she beamed, positively rubbing her hands together in glee. I filled in and returned the form, took my ticket (blue, 38) and settled down for some more waiting, tucked away in a dark alcove of the small, very crowded and eccentrically irregularly-shaped space.
There was a fair amount of coming-and-going since there were three sets of people waiting – the lucky first 20 in the queue who had yellow numbered tickets, people coming in for booked appointments who were distinguishable by the large numbers of documents they were carrying and those like me hoping to be reassigned to some other source of help.
Closest to me was a Pakistani woman of breathtaking beauty. She had with her her small daughter, possibly about 18 months old, toddling, but with the wizened disturbingly ancient-looking face that some young children have. They were in possession of a yellow ticket so presumably they’d waited for more than an hour in the cold before waiting inside where it was at least marginally warmer and there was a seat. The child and I smiled at each other. She then removed her dummy, reached into her mouth and offered me what appeared to be chewing gum. When I politely declined she replaced her dummy and proceeded to demonstrate the stretchy and adhesive properties of the gum by pulling it into long strings and sticking it to her coat. When her mother saw this she produced some toilet paper from the pocket of her coat, made a stab at clearing up the mess and took a biro and piece of paper from the counter to distract the girl. As she sat back down again and crossed her legs the plastic shoe on her raised foot slipped to hang precariously on the edge of her toes revealing the most exquisite hennaed patterning on her skin.
My turn came eventually. I showed my pieces of paper to the supervisor, a large, efficient and very kindly woman. “So you see,” I said, “even if I sell the van we still have £202 per month less than we need to survive on”. She’s seen everything before, certainly my situation is more than commonplace. I have an appointment, next Monday, to see an advisor who will, as the supervisor said, help me to “maximise” my money. There is a time and a place. That is a very good start.