Every day I write the book
November 28, 2012
I remember hearing that first buff envelope as it slapped heavy onto the tiled floor in the porch all those years ago. It sat amongst the bills and other meaningless mail; seemingly innocuous aside from those three words in heavy type just above the window that bore my name – “Child Support Agency”. I should have recognised it as an ugly seed that would grow and expand to fill three ring binders full to bursting; a litany of incompetence and maladministration that would accumulate over the next 16 years.
I had obviously heard of it, and knew its reputation, but believed at the time they were trying to do a difficult job in difficult circumstances. My head was a mess anyway; I could barely stick one foot in front of the other as I tried to cope with my ex-partner’s sudden decision to take my little girl hundreds of miles away let alone process what was happening to me.
I dutifully filled the forms and provided all the supporting evidence. A key issue at this point was the inclusion of a loan from my employer for my train season ticket (this was common practice for many London workers) which was paid back over following months. This wage slip, which was massively out of kilter with my usual take home pay, was one of three requested by the CSA. I detailed all of this in the “Additional information” section of the documentation and included a full year’s record of wage slips to illustrate this anomaly. They ignored all this – lost apparently – and based my assessment on the wage slip with my season ticket loan.
I also remember my first phone call from the CSA. I was at work. He told me that I was a ‘soft target’ as I cared about my daughter and that they could just take the money from my employer. I said that they had made a mistake and I didn’t earn that much money. He said ‘you are earning it and we’re going to take it’. I asked him how he slept nights and he rang off. I started writing my book a few days later.
It took 18 months to sort out my payments and get it based on my correct salary. It took dozens of letter to the CSA’s Chief Executive and the Independent Case Examiner – the response from the former apparently having been drafted by a small child or a chicken randomly pecking at the keyboard – but left me maxed out on all my credit cards and with no dentine left on my teeth from the night upon night of constantly grinding them. I got £50 in compensation and my payments reduced for nearly two years to recover the massive overpayment that had resulted. My case was also labelled “Sensitive” – meaning it could only be handled by a senior member of staff – as it transpired that my ex-partner was working as a civil servant in an office that was co-located with the CSA section that was dealing with my claim. The lost supporting paperwork, detailed knowledge of my personal circumstances and apparent changes to my responses on the form suddenly made sense.
I started writing the book during my long commute to work. Sometimes I would manage a few paragraphs, sometimes just a few words as I relived the events of the breakdown in my relationship. However, I rather lost thread after sixty or so pages and made faltering progress over the next few years. On the upside I did get married and soon had two more lovely children.
Three years ago the CSA made contact out of the blue; I had heard nothing from them and had simply been paying my original assessment. They snapped into action with their normal ruthless efficiency – asking for information to be provided by a date a month before the letter requesting it was dated, losing my mortgage details and assessing my maintenance liability as £795.17 per month whilst allowing my two small children £56.12 a week cumulatively. The CSA’s contact also coincided with a breakdown in relationship with my daughter (after 14 years), one of my children experiencing health problems and receiving notice of redundancy from my employer.
I found the memory stick lodged at the bottom of my old briefcase. It had been corrupted and of the original 60 pages of the book only the odd word remained. I started again, piecing together the original 60 pages, but also refining and revising to channel all this fresh venom and hate for this shambles of an organisation that was once again clumsily tearing holes in my private little life. Each night on the train I would stab at the keyboard as I thought about the original split and those months and months battling with everyone to get my case dealt with fairly and professionally. Continuity was a problem, as was holding it together sometimes with all the fresh challenges I was facing, but I tried to inject as much humour, even it was black, as possible to fleck it with a few smiles.
Another year later, more letters to the ICE, my M.P and the Agency’s Chief Executive and I got another £50 as a “consolatory payment”. I finished the book around a year later and find it difficult to explain why it helped. Sometimes it was just rehearsing the events my mind to reassure myself I wasn’t going mad, others it was remembering good friends and that short time with my little girl. However, a huge part was sticking two fingers up to certain people to show that I had made it to the other side…from hell’s heart I stab at thee.
I hope people enjoy the book. It is sad story but hopefully if you are a parent and have ‘previous’ with the CSA, commute by train, wore dodgy clothes or watched Miami Vice during the 1980’s then there will be something in it for you. Hopefully it might steel you for another exchange with the CSA or make you smile if you have just had one; if so, that would make it seem even more worthwhile. However, I have got a bit of a potty mouth if you are easily offended and don’t expect to be included on the Sittingbourne Council ‘must read’ list any time soon.
“Completely Stationary” by Mark Ludeski is available on Amazon Kindle Store. If there is sufficient interest I would also like to do a print copy and you can find me or get further updates on Facebook.