By Cash Carraway
A few days after the 2015 General Election I became a wife tourist. My daughter and I were evicted from yet another private rental (one that threatened to throw us out as far as Zone 6, or even worse – racist Kent) when I received a text with an offer that no mother needing to feed and home her child in austerity Britain could refuse.
It read: I NEED A FAKE WIFE. DO IT?
Sure, I replied. What’s the terms?
I was to pretend to be some man’s wife in exchange for living rent free in his beautiful home on the River Thames. My wifely duties would include the usual; cooking, cleaning, chatting to neighbours over the fence about my wonderful ‘husband’ as I hung his underwear out to dry, attending family funerals in a stoic yet supportive capacity whenever the deaths occurred, putting up with his bad taste in music and snuggling on the sofa watching episodes of Mid Morning Matters.
And because he was gay there would be no sex involved. We needed a home – he needed a beard to ensure he wasn’t cut from the inheritance.
It was a casual job. Like an au pair. Like modern slavery. Like Camp America. Like a gap year job in an Australian bar. Like a … marriage on zero hours.
Got really into it. Like you do when you’re on a working holiday; got to explore classic suburbia through the eyes of its native middle class – a truly authentic cultural experience. I downloaded Deliciously Ella recipes and cooked them on the Aga. Wore floral dresses and ordered paints from Farrow and Ball. I could have two whole bottles of Sav Blanc in one sitting if I fancied – because whilst scrounging working class single mums have alcoholism, middle class mothers have this ritual known as ‘wine o’clock’ which means you can get pissed whenever you like so long as you post a picture of your drink on social media. And being a borderline alcoholic scrounging single mum – I took full advantage of it.
We both got into it. My ‘husband’ and me. He’d look at me in such a disappointed way – like a real husband would; scolding me for running off my political mouth at dinner parties or for snogging all the guests “You’re an embarrassment!” he’d proudly slur as he’d give my bum a sleazy slap to push me into the Uber at the end of night.
I got so into it that I even created and wrote what became a multi-award nominated blog about my perfect husband and perfect child and perfect home and perfect life and made money doing adverts for brands who exploit the stereotypical aspirational lie of the perfect nuclear family. To live with my actions, I convince myself I’m exploiting them; we’re both dealing in the currency of lies therefore our exploitation of each other is … pure. In my mind I’m mocking them and everyone who buys into the lie of my life. Yet I consider my gains more than just financial; I had been elevated from vilified single mum to an almost respectable woman living the middle-class suburban dream. I mean, I had a kitchen island and everything. All I’d had to do was forgo all my morals – because after all, what is a working-class woman with morals but a poor one?
I liked it. The women at the school gates confided in me about their terrible legitimate marriages and my daughter got invited to Build a Bear parties. Finally.
So, it was a tough decision handing in my notice. I’d fallen in love with collecting superficial things, but I was aware that I’d swapped financial poverty for an emotional depravation.
You-cannot-live-a-lie-forever. Plus, his dad had died, and he’d got the inheritance, my job was done. My zero hours marriage had to end, and it should have been easy to walk away because pretend marriages don’t require divorces, but my boss husband didn’t accept my resignation and kept us hostage for a few weeks. He said he owned us. Like modern slavery.
Anyway, we escaped, and we found ourselves in the same position we had been in after the 2015 election, although 2 years on the world appeared immeasurably worse and void of hope and there was even less housing and even higher private rents and even more stigma toward women like me, so we surfed sofas for a while before moving into a refuge in Ladbroke Grove. From there we navigated cheap B&B’s by motorways and temporary flats. I closed down my multi award nominated lie blog and started writing the truth; I was a working-class mum who had turned tricks (albeit of the non-sexual kind) as an attempt to survive in a society that doesn’t give those below the poverty line autonomy over accommodation or food. Gone were the pictures posing in front of Agas and replacing them was our real life of food banks and hostels.
And although the truth wasn’t as popular as the lie life of the wife tourist, the real wives of suburbia took a peak into my world and wanked off to my poverty porn with supportive likes, crying emoticons and comments of pity. And they were kind to me, because I fitted into the stereotype of the fallen, broken working-class woman.
But as I got back on my feet, got housed (out past zone 6, dumped somewhere in racist Kent) and my life got back on track – they didn’t like it.
I was no longer palatable.
I was no longer a victim.
My cat puked up ham on a Le Redoute rug which I owned, and I was deemed ungrateful. “How could you let your cat vomit on a rug? There are people out there who would love that rug. If you don’t love that rug, give that rug to someone who deserves it” someone actually wrote. As if I had forced my cat to do a sick on a rug that I was unworthy of owning.
“And if you’re so poor – how can you even afford a cat?”
My life was picked apart by hordes of middle-aged, middle-class women;
“She went to see an Eastern European Jazz band play on Hampstead Heath”
“She reads Camus, she wrote a play – these are not the actions of a working-class woman!” “Did you see her daughter was wearing a designer tracksuit? She’s not poor!”
The wine I drunk was scrutinised (“It costs £7 a bottle!”), the lipstick I wore deemed extravagant, my DM boots too expensive. These strangers on social media felt I was accountable to them. I took a flight (on a budget airline) to visit my family and hundreds of women asked – why is this woman going on holiday?
I was called a liar. A cheat. Undeserving. A creature of suspicion merely for being a working-class woman who had got her life back on her own terms.
Not one person had ever questioned my multi-award nominated blog of middle-class lies, yet my real life was deemed false. I think it is because a man had featured in my life back then, his presence validated me. I think it’s because people don’t want to believe that poverty can happen to smart, functioning people. I think it’s the “I pay my taxes for women like you” tabloid mentality that so much of society holds dear.
Because not only have we been refused autonomy over food, accommodation or jobs, we have been stigmatised to the point where working-class mothers are forbidden from possessing nuance. Forever expected to languish in a world where we glug undiluted tropical squash from Sports Direct mugs and cook pasta that isn’t gluten free until we either win the lottery or luck out and marry a middle-class man who will save us from our disgusting selves.
Cash Carraway is a playwright, author and spoken word artist from Penge, South East London. Her sell-out one-woman spoken word show Refuge Woman was nominated for ‘Best Innovation’ at the 2018 British Journalism Awards. Cash’s book Skint Estate, a memoir about life in the gutter, will be published by Ebury/Penguin Random House in June 2019.