meet a guest Barbara

I’m a Hoxton girl. I was born in Sillitoe House on the Colville Estate. We had no electric, just a little gas cooker on legs and gas lights. Mum, dad and 5 children in 2 bedrooms. We moved out of there to a 3-bed maisonette, which we thought was very posh – height of luxury. It had electricity! We didn’t realise mum had to put money in the meter and we’d run around playing the lights. My dad was a Long-Distance Lorry Driver, my mum was an office cleaner and a School Dinner Lady. The neighbours were a bit snooty about mum working and leaving her children, but mum believed she was giving us a better standard of living – and she was. We were never hungry or cold or without shoes or winter coats. We all had bronchial problems and the old Metropolitan Hospital advised us to move out of London. We did a Council House exchange and moved to Haverhill in Suffolk. I missed London so much – I’m a London girl!

After 7 years in Suffolk we came back to live in Edmonton. I got a job at Villiers Shoes – it was owned by two brother who’d escaped the Holocaust – they had their numbers tattooed on their arms.  We sold old stock High Street brands.  My job on a Monday morning was to clean off the brand names with methylated spirits. I earned £11 for a 6-day week, but I always had all the latest shoes.

I got married at 17, my family were dead against it but gave in eventually. He had a motor bike, long hair and a leather jacket – bit of a ‘Greaser’ I suppose. He was a huge man, very violent – physically, verbally and emotionally. I ended up in hospital three timed with broken ribs, black eyes and broken nose. The rest of the time I just put up with it – put on a brave face – put up and shut up. After he’d been violent, he always said he loved me and promised he’d never do it again. I was 21 and we were all going to a party. He was going to be late, so I went on without him. When he finally arrived, I opened the door to him and the next thing I knew, I was coming round in Chase Farm Hospital. He’d knocked me out and I was in hospital for three days.

I went home to mum and dad, they never said, “I told you so”. It was 1978, I was 21 and I didn’t have another relationship till 1990 when I was 33. I was a canteen assistant and he was a removal man. We were very happy together, we didn’t drink or smoke but we enjoyed going to the pub for the Darts club – bit boring I suppose, but we liked it. With hindsight, I suppose I was a bit of a dogsbody for him and his family, but I didn’t mind, they were my family too.

Things took a turn when his mum fell ill. Me and his mum got on really well, I was her main carer and saved her life a couple of times. My partner became very anxious and difficult around his mum’s ill health and it put a huge strain on our relationship. I suggested we try to talk about it. He refused to discuss anything and said “If you don’t like it, you can **** off –  it’s  not your ****ing house.” I popped out to get his mum’s medicine and pension and when I returned, he’d locked me out. The family tried to mediate, but he just wouldn’t budge. After 28 years, he just wiped me from his life – rubbed me out. When my niece finally made contact so I could collect my ID and belongings, his sister said, “We don’t want anything to do with her – she’s out of our family, she’s out of our lives.” I was in total shock, we’d had a really good strong relationship until his mum’s illness. His whole personality seemed to change .  I was absolutely devastated – I was heart broken.

I sofa surfed with friends and family for 17 months. One day I’d just had enough of imposing on everyone and I left to live on the streets. I stayed in Libraries all day, I’d shower at my sister’s and friends would give me food. I stayed awake at bus stops all night.

One day I was at the bus stop outside Mildmay Library and a woman from the flats opposite came over with tea and toast and said, “Excuse me, but are you homeless?”  I asked why and she said, “Don’t be embarrassed, I’ve been there myself” She told me to go to the Manna in Canonbury.

I’d been on the streets 5 weeks, all during The Beast from the East.  I wasn’t frightened, I’d just come to the end – I never thought of killing myself, I just didn’t care what happened to me anymore. No one realises how mentally and physically exhausting it is on the streets. Will I be safe, will someone attack me, when will I eat, will I fall ill – you’re constantly on alert. I pitched up at the Manna on the Tuesday and by Friday, I’d got a bed at the shelter. I was in pretty poor shape, I’d lost loads of weight.  My first few days were very emotional. I hadn’t slept in a bed for 5 weeks.  People were so kind and supportive – didn’t judge me. I had a shower and got my clothes washed, had a lovely, proper cooked, hot dinner – there was company, people who cared.  I could finally relax and feel human again.  The Counsellor at the shelter really helped me get some perspective on the things I’ve experienced.

We’ve finally sorted out my paperwork – it was a real shock to have to prove my existence for the last 28 years. I’m waiting for an assessment for supported housing – my own proper little home for life – maybe a little bit of a garden? I’d love a garden, I’m good with a garden. It will be the first time in my life I have ever lived on my own.  After 61 years, I can’t wait.