It was the middle of winter. The kids were in bed and the heating was off. My ex-husband had stopped paying child support again and I had 2 inches of heating oil left in the tank. I was going to use my savings to pay for more heating oil, but then the brakes went out on our old Tarago. There was no contest… we needed to be able to drive the car. I was receiving the sole parent’s pension but that needed to stretch between paying the mortgage, the bills and the groceries. Heating oil AND brakes weren’t an option.
The challenge was to get through the winter without using up the heating oil. The boys were aged 7, 4, 3 and 2. The routine was that I’d get them up and dressed. They’d wear a coat over their clothes all day. When their little hands turned cold, I’d turn the heater on. That was usually around 5PM. Those little boys’ circulatory systems were EFFICIENT! After they’d been fed, had their bath and then put to bed, I’d turn the heater off, pour one glass of cask wine, turn off all but one light and snuggle down on the couch under a couple of blankets to while away the night before bedtime as cheaply as possible. Thank goodness for free-to-air tv!
There was one thing I hadn’t taken into account. Because the heater was barely being used, a family of mice moved in behind it and they started to venture out in the evening. If there’s one thing that really adds to the ambience of single-parent squalor, it’s mice. The morning after I saw the mice, I bought some mouse bait and set it up beside the heater.
That night, as I sat there in the dim room, hands freezing and watching 3 mice eat from the dish containing the mouse bait, I cried. How was it possible that a tertiary-educated person in a nice middle-class suburb in a rich country like Australia could be living like this? How had it happened? As the sound of disappearing bait pellets knocking against the sides of the dish filled the room, I vowed that I would never put the boys and myself in this position again. We would never be this cold and vulnerable.
That night was nearly 20 years ago. Since then the boys and I have come a long way.
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