Saturday, 20 March 2021

A Journey Through the Life of the Underclass

Let me take you on a journey...

Congratulations! You are now part of the underclass, and from here on out, your day is going to get a whole lot worse.

You're just eighteen years old and you're asked to leave home, completely out of the blue. You've no idea why, you're just told to go. You're on your own now. Unlucky. You reluctantly leave the house and wander around the streets of your run-down council estate, feeling confused as hell. You've no idea where to go. You don't have a mobile phone yet because you're dirt poor and at this time, only the rich kids have those. (Well, rich from your perspective anyway.) 

You don't know anyone's number and don't know who you would call, even if you had a way to call them. So you wander aimlessly for hours, kicking litter under bridges covered in graffiti and through subways stinking of piss, with only the whistling breeze for company. You didn't even take anything with you, didn't think of packing a bag, not that you had much to pack. 

You sit in a bus stop and just freeze your balls off, hour after hour, your brain totally blank. You feel like one of those animals that gets caught and knows it can no longer run or fight so it simply gives up. It just lies there and waits to be devoured because its brain is not programmed to offer any other response. All it can do is suffer now.

Maybe you can get yourself a tent, you think in a brief moment of cognisance, but you don't have a penny to your name. The night feels more lonely and overwhelming than you could've possibly imagined. You stare at street-lit front doors, dreaming of having the power to enter a nice, warm house that a simple key would provide. A power you had only hours ago.

Morning eventually comes. 

Your whole body aches and you feel a level of coldness you've never felt or even considered possible. It's penetrated your bones, your internal organs and the very core of your soul. It's funny, you always thought hell was supposed to be hot, but here you are... You feel this overwhelming urge to curl up on the ground and sleep, but know that if you do, you might never wake up.

You think back a few months to when your friend found himself in your position. You went with him to this homeless place in Newcastle to get him into a hostel, but Newcastle is miles away and you only have a vague recollection of where that place was. Still, it's your only option right now.

You jump onto the Metro with no ticket and stand next to the door throughout the journey, shivering, watching out for ticket inspectors. Three stops before your destination, you spot their bright orange coats on the train platform. Fuck. You jump off the Metro three bastard stops too early. That's a looong walk ahead and you're not even fully sure where you're going.

You wander through the west end of the city for what seems like a lifetime, finally stumbling across the place you're looking for. It's just a tiny room in a doorway at the end of a high street with a queue of miserable, unwashed faces spilling out. This is where the low lives end up. You are one of them now.

You speak to the person at the desk, arrange a place in a hostel miles away from where you've ever lived. You have no bus fare obviously, so you wander for miles beyond the city centre with a badly drawn map you were given. You're starving at this point, exhausted, and unsure how you can possibly be left to suffer so badly. What did you ever do wrong? Quite a lot, probably.

You stare up at the imposing high skyrises with blacked out windows and immense damp patches spreading over their concrete walls. It feels like they were built to house the inhabitants of hell. You look at the drug-ravaged figures hanging on a street corner and realise you are now in the Dawn of the Dead.

Shit, your council estate was a bit rough, but this place seems on a different level. Who the fuck would live among this? you ask yourself. The answer is you now.

So you find the place you're looking for: a small, relatively new building at the foot of one of those wretched towers, which actually looks like it could collapse. Paranoia has you envisioning a 9/11 moment and you expect to be swallowed by a dust cloud any second.

You enter the hostel, fill in a form, and get led to your bedroom: a communal room shared with about twenty other young men who all look like they would stab you on a whim. They probably see you the same way though. They probably feel just as nervous and uncomfortable as you are. It's horrible. You can hear every breath, every movement so loud, you wonder if going back onto the streets would be preferable.

You can't stay in this place long, but at least it has some perks: food, computer access, and warmth. They will take every penny of your benefits as payment though. They won't even leave you enough for bus fares, but they will expect you to attend job interviews, they say.

As your application for benefits is being processed, you contact an old friend, the one who was recently homeless. He's staying nearby as luck would have it. So you escape the heavy breathing of the homeless hostel and stay with him instead. Charming place he has. The walls and ceiling are nicotine yellow, the brown carpet actually seems to be crawling, and the smell... what is that fucking smell? My god.

So for the next few weeks, you two are staying in this charming flat, and neither of you has any money. Not a damn penny. By sheer coincidence, your mate signed on at pretty much the same time you did and you're penniless together, but shit, at least you're not alone.

It's just you have no food and no money to improve your situation and that makes everything seem damn impossible. This is because every step you can take to improve your situation is dependent on money. Without it you're screwed. There isn't even a Metro you can skip in this area, so everywhere you go, you're walking miles. Without food.

How can you possibly get a job in this situation? Society's conclusion: You can't because you're lazy and stupid and bad.

As you sit on the stinking, cigarette-burnt couch in the living room, music plays constantly on the hi-fi (do they still make those?) Right now it's Tupac Shakur. Until the End of Time. The lyrics cut deep.

"When my mother ask me will I change, I tell her yeah, but it's clear I'll always be the same."

"That's one line every young man in our world can relate to," you say. Your friend nods.

In a moment of contemplation, you realise something about those words. About the essence of words. A beauty and a power. They are the only weapon you truly have. It seems clear now, they are your one way to fight back. You just need to understand them, to explore the relationships between them, develop your arsenal. What the fuck else can you do?

Shit, you're starving, but at least your mate managed to get a little food in the house for now. So you decide to create. It's all you can do because in your fugue state, your underused brain, it's a fucking volcano. It's been lying dormant for way too long and it has to erupt. It's simple physics.

Next thing, you're writing poems and song lyrics. You're drawing pictures. Amazing, hideous demon heads. Nightmarish scenes constructed from a frenzy of pencil lead. You don't know why they come out of you, they just do.

Your friend's mixed-race younger brother is with you. He shuffles through piles of A4 paper, finds the page he is looking for, spits some lyrics he wrote. One line will stay with you for a long time:

"I'm a mistake, my own race, I've got half the Devil's face."

Fuck, fifteen years old and that's how he sees himself.

Weeks pass and depression sets in, of course. It was always there, but now it has a real, physical, continuous presence. You can see its shadowy manifestation swirling around you always. Or maybe that's the smoke from the weed your mate got, which he can't even afford to pay for. Guess his mental hunger feels even stronger than his physical hunger. You understand this.

That depression, it takes you to a dark fucking place. And the conversations you have...

"I will do anything, anything to get out this place now. Anything," you say.

"Yeah, I don't care who I have to hurt," your mate's fifteen year old brother says.

"Aye, my life means nothing to them. There's means nothing to me," your mate says.

Those words scare you a little, but that fear quickly subsides. Emotion isn't really your thing now. Something has died inside. You were always a good kid. Always wanted the best for everyone. And you're pretty sure your friends were more or less the same, just a little rougher than you, maybe. Anyways, who the fuck are you now? You don't even recognise yourself anymore. You have no clue who you are or how you ended up in this place.

It's like you were born yesterday as a partly-constructed adult into a world that was designed only to punish you for the crime of a birth you would never have chosen, if you were given a choice.

You vaguely remember a kid. It was you once. The smart, shy boy who some people seemed to think was going to take over the world one day. All you ever heard from them is that your dreams would come true. Those people assumed theirs hadn't through lack of capability, rather than by someone else's design. They were never given belief in their own abilities, but they thought giving you belief in yours was enough. It was all you would ever need. They had pinned their hopes on you. Fools.

You were daunted as hell by this expectation, but you truly hoped they were right. Clearly, they were wrong though. And it occurs to you, that kid, he's dead now. That poor innocent lad is never coming back. And it takes a defiant act of will to even remember anything about him. He's not just dead, he's well and truly buried. What a fucking tragedy.

Even worse, that kid was reborn as something he was always terrified of becoming, and now he has no clue how to become anything else. He just hopes his words are enough, that he can forge a weapon capable of cutting through their armour. But they have layers of fucking adamantium and he, you, have a chewed up half-pen running out of ink. This is not a fair fight and you'd best be prepared for some bruising encounters.

Great news! 

You get a phone call on your mate's landline. You have a job interview now. Your first proper one. What the hell do you even do in a job interview though? You don't know how to speak their language. You don't even have any clothes to wear. But fuck it, you have a job interview. How hard can it be?

You remember what a school teacher once said, something about honesty and hard work. That if you show people you have those attributes, you'll get far in life. What a ridiculous lie that turned out to be.

So later that day, you're walking past a shop in this place. And by this place, I mean a place where a guy was stabbed to death and another was battered to death with a hammer in the past week alone. Charming neighbourhood.

So yeah, you're walking past a shop, past the teens hanging out there, when a hand grabs your coat sleeve. Next thing, blows are raining on your head. Don't worry though, you're tough, you always were.

You were born fighting.

You swing back. Or rather up. He's bigger than you, but you're stronger than him. You're going to win this fight. When do you ever lose? Your other sleeve is grabbed. Suddenly, you have no arms and blows are still raining on your head. You call for your friends, but they run. Fucking cowards.

So it's now you versus an entire gang. You wrestle your arms free, swing in a frenzy, drop them, make them bleed, make them run, fight every single one of the bastards off with sheer force of will. How the hell does one man even do such a thing? You just did. They're running from little old you, standing there in the belly of the beast, barely five foot eight inches tall. You fucking champion.

You remember one thing you've always known about yourself: you may not always win, but you're never beaten. You assume it's an evolutionary thing, like it's in your DNA or something. But maybe it's more than that.

You run back to your friend's place, furious. Abandoned. You don't abandon one of your friends. Ever. You bang on the door, shaking, barge inside and read them the riot act. You are told to look in the mirror. You barely recognise your reflection through the mess of blood. Your head and face is cut to ribbons, probably from a knuckle-duster. You will be scarred for life, but you didn't even feel the pain.

Shit, you can't go to your job interview like this.

You're burning with anger so you reach into a drawer, grab a huge fucking carving knife. If you go back out there with that thing, you know you will kill them. Gut them like fish. The desire for revenge is almost overwhelming, but you think better of it. Take a deep shaky breath. Put the knife back in the drawer. You were that close.

So you find yourself homeless again, you still don't have a job, and you're on a homeless list with a seven year wait. You are bottom priority.

Plus, you are completely transformed now. 

You've gone in the opposite direction to where you'd always expected to go. You're one of society's write-offs and you know you're only in this position because they need people like you to be in this position. You know the underclass only exists to let the working class know things can always be worse, to stop them getting out of line, just like you know the middle class only exists to manage the working class from above, and that this whole wretched system is maintained so that all three classes can consolidate the wealth and power of the elite.

If only the masses listened to voices at the bottom, rather than voices from the top, you could topple this damn system overnight. But those other people, they're sold the lie that through aspiration, they can climb an imaginary ladder as long as they keep trampling you down. And most of them do.

They want you beneath them.

A society that doesn't even know you has constructed an identity for you based on lies, and you always deserved better than what they had in store, but now you know (or is it wrongly believe?) their lies are no longer lies. They turned you into that wretched thing they wanted you to be, in order for them to feel superior. 

You just know that now, more so than ever, you will do anything, absolutely anything to get out of this, but you are trapped in a room of infinite slamming doors, forever suffocating in the myth that anything is possible.

You've lost count of the number of jobs you've applied for. You've been met with crushing rejection each time and now you know sometimes it's your own damn fault. There was one job interview where you got so nervous and confused, you didn't say a damn thing. It was like you lost your ability to speak, lost those words you thought were your one weapon. 

But that weapon had been blunted by their unbreakable armour and it's now hopeless.

Years pass.

You get a call one day. It's your mother. You haven't heard from her in a long while and she's yelling down the phone. She'd spoken to you only a few days ago, apparently. She explains her friend had arranged a job interview at the place where she worked. It was your one shot. But you have literally no recollection of this conversation. None whatsoever. You don't know whether your mother is going crazy or you're going crazy.

You're not on drugs or anything, but maybe the depression is now so extensive, it's causing actual brain rot. That song lyric plays in your head again:

"When my mother asks me will I change, I tell her yeah, but it's clear I'll always be the same."

You start realising the world is right about you. That you really are stupid, lazy, incompetent, a waste of space. What else could you possibly be? You walk along the riverside, stare at the bridge and then the shimmering brown water. You know you'd be better off in there, sleeping forever in that bed for the suicidal. This world has no role for you, other than to be a warning to others.

Don't worry though, you don't jump...

Days later, you get another call. 

It's a friend. He's actually got a way for you to make money, you just need to hear him out. Next thing you know, you're a test subject at Charles River Clinical Laboratories in Edinburgh. Whoo-hoo! You are a guinea pig now. It's your one way to make money and all you're actually good for. Seriously, who the hell can live like this?

Actually though, you have a good time in there for the six weeks you are cooped up. It's like taking part in Big Brother, only instead of being watched by cameras, you're having experimental drugs pumped into your bloodstream and hoping you don't grow two heads. Hey, at least you're earning money now, right? Isn't aspiration great?

But seriously, you genuinely do have a great time in there. You're forming bonds, you're reconnecting with an old friend, and you're remembering what it's like to feel human again. You're having real human interactions. You're actually building friendships as well as some of your most treasured memories. In a fucking laboratory.

You talk about saving up some money, maybe even starting a business together, if only you can come up with a good idea. You're dreaming though because while the pay seems decent, it must somehow feed you until the next clinical study. Still, the new sense of optimism feels nice. The guinea pig life could be yours, once every three months for years, but at least you can earn some money, even if it's not remotely sustainable. You definitely need something better.

You get another telephone call while staying at your aunty's home, a few weeks after the study. It's your friend's little brother. Remember him? The one with "half the Devil's face." (His words, certainly not yours.) Well, he's grown up now. And he has another option for you.

His boss needs someone to do a job. 

He needs a building burnt to the ground.

He will pay you a whopping £50. 

You impress him, he'll give you more work. It's basically a job interview, or more of an audition.

You're desperate for options. You'll do it.

You walk two miles to the Metro station and skip the last train, staring through the window the whole time, reflecting on how your reality could be reshaping again, how on one hand you could be sinking into deeper depths than ever before, and yet in another way, digging yourself out of a hole. The contradiction leaves you in a daze.

You walk miles to the address you've been given. It's 2am as you sneak into a back alley and open a rotting wooden gate. You stand in the tiny back yard of a boarded up shop at the bottom of a residential street in eerie silence. A fuel can and a hammer are lying on the ground, just as promised. The hammer has no claw and you've no idea how to get those wooden boards off, so you call your friend. He simply tells you to break through the board with the hammer and the call disconnects.

So you pick the hammer up. It's huge, heavy. You stand, facing the board covering the window in the dead of night, wondering if the police are on patrol because you could quite easily end up in jail here. You whack the board and the hammer simply bounces off. The noise is like a lightning strike, reverberating around the alley, loud enough to wake the entire neighbourhood. You whack the board again. And again. You can't make a dent, you're making too much noise, and you know that even if you do somehow break through, you probably couldn't bring yourself to strike that match anyway.

You don't know that actually. You still don't know if you've crossed that line in your mind because you've been on auto-pilot the whole night, but the decision has been made for you.

You call your friend and you're picked up nearby in a huge fancy car - a Mercedes or BMW or something - you're not sure. It's dark and you weren't paying much attention. You're sitting inside the car with your friend and his boss who parks at the roadside a few miles from the shop. The car is amazing inside - all fancy leather and gleaming surfaces - and it even has its own TV, playing some RnB song with really hot girls in the video. Shit, this is what crime can get you? Missed opportunity...

You feel like such a failure, like you've let the men down, like you've failed yet another job interview, but they're actually nice to you. Part of you hopes they'll show pity, pay you anyway, offer you more work, but what exactly? Would they have you selling drugs maybe? Would that be you? Not really, but shit, would it be worse than your current situation? Maybe they'll ask you to burn down another building, just prepare you better next time, but that doesn't really appeal. 

So is it back to being a guinea pig? Is that all that's available to you now?

You've somehow reached twenty four years old. Your entire adult life has been homelessness, unemployment, occasional temporary jobs, medical experiments, and fights whenever you've walked down the wrong street. You're tired. You've lost all self-belief and you can see absolutely no way out of this. 

You're dropped off home, well, your aunty's place, without getting paid. Part of you is hoping they call you again. They other part is hoping they never do. 

They never do.

You go back to being a guinea pig for a while. During one medical study, you actually meet a girl you like. It gives you a little motivation. What if you could make something of this? Have an actual relationship. A normal life. Shit. Coincidentally, the girl, who you met in Edinburgh, lives close by. Maybe it's fate. You don't believe in such things though. Shit, you don't even believe in love.

So you're hanging out with this girl for weeks after the study, just sitting in bars all day, sometimes in silence, enjoying one another's company, barely even drinking, staring at music memorabilia fixed to the walls and dreaming again. You don't even have to say anything. It's a magical time. Something is waking up inside of you, you're feeling human again. Maybe it's the connection. She plays you an old rave song on her phone - Children of the Night - you loved it as a teen. You can't believe she did too.

She explains she knows the artist - QFX. She actually babysat for the girl whose voice was sampled for the chorus. It blows your mind. Maybe that fate thing is real after all.

You're inside a bubble of possibility now.

Then one day, you receive a message. 

It is a message you never wanted to hear. The type of message that will burst the bubble of possibility you've found yourself in and bring you crashing back to reality. It's about your friend, the one you went on the first medical study with, who you'd spent all that time rebuilding your bond with. He's gone. No more. He went to bed one night and didn't wake up.

You can't cry, you're incapable of that, but you're fucking well crying inside.

You'd known him since you were four years old. 

You picture the first day he walked into your school and sat at your table, the first time you discovered he'd moved in just a few doors down from you, the first time you knocked on his door and asked him to play out. This was your first proper friendship.

It's weird. It's like you're now physically reliving those moments when you were young and innocent and so full of dreams. Like as your friend has died, he's brought the child you once were back to life. The room has simply faded around you and you're standing in a fun fair - The Spanish City - with your friend and his mother. A huge pink elephant bouncy castle stands in front of you and then you're inside, bouncing.

Over the next few minutes, you relive every memory you shared together, many of which were forgotten, from your first sleepover to your first trip to the cinema to swimming at the pool to drinking cider as teens. 

And the next thing you know, you're compelled to return to the council estate where you grew up - the run down place with trainers hanging from trees and old mattresses and other shit dumped in side streets. 

Now you're back there and it seems so beautiful now. It always was, you guess.

You walk through the street where you grew up, pass through the car park where you rode your BMXs and played football with your little brother and the other kids. The sun is shining just as beautifully as it did back then, its golden rays meeting the wall beside your mate's house, where you'd sit, squishing green flies with your finger and eating them. Gross

You roam the neighbourhood and relive every last thing you did together when you were exploring this place for the first time. And with every corner you turn, you are utterly convinced he is going to just magically appear, that he's going to be standing there.

And you know he can't, that he really is dead, that you are now the sole holder of every memory you once shared, but you can't and won't accept this, because it was never meant to be this way. Because your journey was always supposed to have an end point that was better than the start. And if you accept his journey is over now, you're accepting your journey is over too. That you were never going to get out this place and there is never going to be a better tomorrow. Poverty was all they ever had in store for you.

One life is over now. You don't know whether yours is over too. Or just beginning again.

What do you do next?

Now there are likely two types of reader of the above piece. The first can relate because they've experienced something similar in their lives. The second thinks this is an unrealistic work of fiction that ultimately tells them nothing. But it was not a work not a work of fiction because everything I've outlined above happened to me, and that was about 0.01% of it. Although the timeline might be a little off in places, due to my fuzzy memory, and also to string together a coherent narrative, not a single event was made up.

I hope you enjoyed your day in my shoes.

If you appreciate what we do at Council Estate Voices, even the most modest of donations can help us massively and enable us to continue our work. 

Please click the button to donate
Thank you for your support