Squeezed Middle: Sleepless nights and Highbury flats

I tell Mum straight out what I think of her plan to buy a million-pound flat in Highbury - because we are facing financial Armageddon.

Another sleepless night. At 6am, I stagger out of bed. It is semi-dark outside. I reach for the phone and, before I have even thought about it, I dial Mum’s number. She answers straight away. She’s an early riser.
 
“Hello, darling. Is everything all right?”
 
No. It’s not. I make a weird choking noise.
 
“Oh, dear. What is it? Is something the matter?”
 
I tell her straight out what I think of her plan to buy a million-pound flat in Highbury. I don’t hold back. I tell her that I love her and that I want her to have everything in the world that she could possibly wish for – but that we are facing financial Armageddon and we need her help. She listens and she doesn’t get offended or cross. She sounds shocked. And sad.
 
“If you feel like this, darling, I won’t buy the flat. It was just a silly idea. I got carried away. And that’s the end of it. OK?”
 
I sniff. I thought I’d feel better but I don’t.
 
“OK. I’m so sorry.”
 
“Shush. Go and get some sleep.”
 
Three hours later, once I’ve made Larry and Moe porridge and brushed their teeth and wriggled them both into their clothes and washed their faces and distracted them for long enough that I can throw some clothes on – the same as yesterday, but who cares? – and tidied away the breakfast things and wiped the table and started to think about how on earth we’re going to fill the eight hours until Curly gets back from work and I can finally sit down and close my eyes, the phone rings. It’s Mum.
 
“So, I’ve been thinking about our conversation,” she says.
 
“Oh, right?”
 
“And I’ve come up with a plan.”
 
I give Larry and Moe two gingerbread biscuits each so I can fully focus on Mum’s plan. It’s an amazing plan. It’s a plan that will change our lives.
 
Mum is proposing to stay in her current house but to rent out two of her bedrooms and give the income to us every month. It will be enough money to cover our mortgage repayments. Curly and I, between us, will only have to earn enough to pay for food, bills and fun. She will do this for a year and then we will review the situation.
 
By the time I put the phone down, the world is a different place. So we will still be in the slightly-too-small flat but we will be free! We can be real people again, people who enjoy life and don’t worry all the time and even maybe go out for a pub lunch and on holiday sometimes. I can stay at home for a bit longer with the children. Curly can take some time to retrain.
 
I am so delirious that I sit smiling stupidly for several minutes before noticing that Moe has smeared his gingerbread man all over the carpet and is eating earth from the plant pot.
 
I pick him up, bury my mouth in his chubby neck and blow a big raspberry. He squeals with delight.
 
“Bubbalicious baby,” I whisper in his ear.
 
“We’re going to be all right.”
Rooftops in Highbury. Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism