“Belief is not available to me. It is a stuffed bird, up on the shelf.” — Harold Bloom
“I wish I had a God gene”, says Martin, who is in the middle of filing for bankruptcy when I meet him. He is 36 years old, has a 12-year-old son, and was made redundant from his construction job over a year ago. We meet in the back room of his parents’ council flat, and drink instant coffee from chipped coffee cups. I have mine white with one sugar; he takes his black.
For a long while we just sit and neither of us say anything. Martin is a private person, and would not usually agree to be interviewed, but today he has an agenda.
“I want to get the message out to the governments and people of this world that we can’t keep living this way”, he tells me. “A few years ago when I was working, we were supposedly in the middle of a boom period. We worked long hours and most of the weekend too. Houses were going up all over the place. We were riding along on this bubble and we never dreamed it would burst, but burst it did.”
Martin’s story has a compelling, yet sorrowful quality. He recounts how house prices grew, and financial institutions gave people the ability to live beyond their means. He recalls working on homes that were repossessed and developments that were stopped mid-project because the funds dried up. All this eventually lead to the closure of the firm Martin worked for, after 40 years of business.
“How has life changed for you since then?”
“It’s the simple things that we take for granted. Like, I have shaved all my hair off ‘cause I can’t afford to buy shampoo. And I just don’t have a purpose anymore. When I left for work in the morning I used to feel a sense of pride even though my job was hard. I would come home at the end of the day and have some beers ‘cause I felt I deserved them after my labour. I don’t have that feeling now – I miss it. It’s horrible to feel expendable.”
He pauses. “My marriage broke up too. We were already having problems, and the stress of having one less income coming in was the final straw. It broke us. It gave her one more thing to resent me for.”
After we finish our coffee, Martin asks if I have a car. I nod. He tells me he wants to go for a drive and show me something. We head out to a new subdivision. Martin shows me a couple of houses he worked on. One is standing there incomplete, just the concrete foundation, and wooden framing for the walls, daylight streaming through. Another house is finished, but a mortgage sale sign is on the front lawn, which is in desperate need of mowing. I wish I had brought my camera.
Martin looks downcast. I ask him how he feels being out here among these houses, and he tells me what going bankrupt will mean for him. “I will never be able to own a house – hell, I will never be able to have a power, phone or internet bill in my own name. People treat you differently too; they look at you like a failure and a con artist, but really it’s the system that is screwed up.”
“Do you feel like a failure?”
“Of course – how could I not. I’m living with my parents, my son is living with his mother ‘cause I can’t afford to feed and clothe him. Some days I wake up and I don’t even want to be alive. I just don’t see the point.”
“I’m so jealous of these people that believe in God, and believe like everything will work out in the end. I crave the peace they have. I’ve tried to connect with that part of life, but I just feel more alone when I try. It’s like all these religious believers have this special gene in their DNA – and I, well, I just don’t have it.”
“Are you envious of other things too? People with money, for example?”
“I don’t want to be rich and own all these material goods. I don’t value that kind of life, but what I wouldn’t trade for financial security. I’m angry more than anything – the people at the top use their money and power to oppress people at the bottom. We live in a very unequal society.”
As he continues talking, my mind lingers over earlier pieces of our conversation. He has tasted hardship for sure, but what I can’t get past is how casually he mentioned the break-up of his family, and the disruption of his relationship with his son, who is now living apart from him. I want to ask so many questions: if he will visit his son, and how he really feels about this disconnect, but I am sensing Martin has told me as much about that as he is willing to, and that if I press harder, this precarious relationship that I have been building with him will be washed away in seconds. I restrain my curiosity, though I am unable to separate myself from the growing sense that this is a man, so trapped in the oncoming headlights of his fate, that he has forgotten to run towards what is really important, and instead remains frozen, and evading real attachment.
I feel a dissonance between the two worlds that I represent as I talk to Martin. One world is the world of writing, of pressing deeper, eliciting, following and making linkages between the silky strands of his story. The other world – the one which pulls me stronger and that I feel ethically bound by – is my role as a counselor. I am conscious of not cutting open emotional wounds and drawing blood too rich and too deep for Martin to suture together. I am a visitor in his world, and when I leave here today I go back home to my strong emotional network and financial security, whereas Martin on the other hand remains confined within his situation, clinging tenaciously to life in its various hues of darkness. I want to leave him a light to illuminate the cavernous places, but when I leave all I can do is give him my phone number and a hug.
Thirteen days later, Martin calls me. He is drunk and sounds very down. I go over to visit him, not entirely sure what I will be walking into. I arrive at his place; no lights are on, just a few candles. Martin opens the door in a disheveled state, clutching a bottle of gin. I take the bottle from him, and set it down on the table, and we talk until the early hours of the morning. He tells me everything – his whole story start to finish – things I am not at liberty to discuss here.
Our conversation is still continuing.
Martin, in the words made famous by the U2 song, “still hasn’t found what [he is] looking for”, but as we meet up once a week and talk, part of me thinks maybe this relationship that is growing between us, the time and the space that we are allowing to have his story told and heard without judgment (off the record), is part of the antidote. I certainly hope so.
Author’s Note: The name and certain identifying details of the interviewee have been changed in order to protect privacy.
Michelle has had an emotional month writing this piece. She has also just joined Twitter. You can follow her there at @MichelleBunt1