As I write, the people of Great Britain eagerly anticipate two imminent deadlines: the results of Sue Gray’s investigation into the No 10 lockdown parties, and my tax return. I wonder if Gray employs the same delaying tactics that I do – the kimchi-making that simply cannot wait, the sock drawer that must urgently be sorted. But I finally found myself inexplicably wide awake at 5.30 this morning, and with nothing better to do, I loaded up the dreaded Government Gateway.
If you’ll allow me a slightly rogue reference, there’s a passage in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Whatever you make of religion, I have found truth in these words: my Monzo app routinely tells me each month that most of my spending is on eating out. The energy with which I approached online shopping in the immediate post-break-up months was symptomatic of my heart searching for somewhere to be.
Perhaps it is just the ungodly hour, or the need to find a creative source of entertainment in the midst of P60s, PAYE reference numbers and student loan repayments, but old bank statements are full of curiosities. Trawling through a tax-year’s worth, line by line, reveals not only how much I spend and what on (too much on pints, not enough in savings), but how what I spend – what I choose to invest myself in – has changed.
This tax return, of course, covers almost exactly the first year of the pandemic. The £135 a month I once spent on a travel card disappears, replaced by takeaways, Curzon Home Cinema and an amount of running gear that is quite unnecessary, considering I have never managed to complete Couch to 5K. I switched, too, from doing the weekly food shop at Morrisons (a habit, along with putting on all my clothes rather than turning on the heating, that I haven’t shaken despite my student days being long behind me) to making the pilgrimage to the big Sainsbury’s in Haringey. For a few short months, I allowed myself the small, comforting luxury of Lavazza coffee beans, fat, sticky Taste the Difference hot cross buns, and vintage reserve cheddar from the deli counter.
Predictably, behind my dwindling bank balance in the early weeks of lockdown are Waterstones orders – more books than I could ever realistically read – a new set of acrylic paints, and a wildly proliferating number of streaming services. In late April I spent a small fortune on a sewing machine, and the following months are marked by a number of fabric orders that borders on obsessive and totals far more than what I owe HMRC by 31 January. I lived for much of 2020 in a world of seams and drape and buttonholes – a world of more safety and reward than the real one outside.
Come September, the mundanity and expense of moving between rental flats is everywhere: deposits paid and returned, Ikea trips, bargain furniture hard-won on Ebay. Most depressing is the marked rise in bills that follows. Trying to persuade flatmates to join me in putting on more clothes rather than turning on the heating was irritating, but in hindsight a fair trade-off for having someone to split the bill for said heating with.
My ex’s name appears, strangely alien and formal in its fullness, and I am pleased to find this no longer throws me as it would once have done. Every transfer from him appears alongside the reference “craic money” – an Irish word for fun, not a reference to hard drugs. I note, too, the month I started seeing my therapist, prompted by circumstances that are too private for even this confessional column.
These pages are the closest I have ever come to keeping a diary; all previous attempts were abandoned somewhere around day five in favour of 15 more minutes in bed. But in this unexpected place, a slightly close-to-the-wire 5.30am tax return, I find a record of a life that now feels as though it belongs to someone else; I find where my heart rested, once.
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under