We are happy - aren't we?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

I bring it up with Curly quite casually, over dinner. “Someone put a leaflet through this morning about training courses for environmentally friendly plumbers and electricians. You know, installing solar panels and wind turbines and stuff.”

He grunts. This translates as, “What the hell has this got to do with me?” Curly, as I should know full well by now, has no interest in becoming a plumber or an electrician. He has a perfectly respectable job working as a researcher. His colleagues are nice, his boss is great about working flexible hours. The only problem is the money. Curly’s salary was just about enough five years ago, when he was a footloose bachelor. Nowadays it barely covers the weekly food shop.

This leaves me, Mrs Fancy-Pants- Oxbridge-Degree, with responsibility for covering the mortgage, heating, water, phone, electricity, council tax, car servicing, petrol, car insurance, house maintenance, clothes, day trips and activities, birthday and Christmas presents, and Abel & Cole organic veggie box; alongside the inevitable womanly tasks of child-bearing, childbirth, breastfeeding and ceaseless, unending tidying up. Funnily enough, just occasionally, I find myself getting a little bit stressed.

I have to remind myself it’s not Curly’s fault his work is not rewarded by a family-sized wage. Or that house prices are so high that two jobs per family aren’t enough any more. Or that every week the food bill seems to get a little bit closer to £200 (£200!). All of that is the world’s fault. It’s just more difficult to have a satisfying blow-out with the world, to make constructive suggestions about how the world might like to get its act together, or failing that, to think of barbed one-liners that will cut the world to the quick.

So I settle for directing the above at Curly. “I read somewhere that the green plumbing and electricity sector is growing, even during the recession.”

“Oh yeah?” Curly’s face registers fleeting, well-there-you-are-then interest. “Maybe I should look into it.”

Maybe. It’s the maybe that kills me. It’s never a yes! Or a eureka! It’s always just a maybe. How long does it take for a maybe to translate into meaningful action? A year? Ten years? Forever?

The thing is that Curly does not really see the need for action, because he thinks we’re fine living in our slightly-too-small flat and buying clothes from charity shops. This doesn’t strike him as a problem – it’s just life. His standard response when we have our regular rows about money is: “Babe, we’re doing fine. We’ve got a roof over our heads, we eat well. We’re happy, aren’t we?”

And he’s right. We are, most of the time, when I can see my way through the fog of stress. It’s only now and again that I find it thickening into a real pea-souper, obscuring all the good things in my life. Maybe once a month, or twice. Actually more, lately. At the moment I really can’t see through it at all.

I put down my fork, and the words rattle around my head. We are happy – aren’t we?

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

This article appears in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint