I met Jules Carmichael when visiting my daughter Laura, in hospital. Laura has suffered with Anorexia Nervosa since her early teens. It’s a terrible illness and I know she can’t help it but now, when the wards are full of malnourished kids who can’t afford to eat . . .well, I’m struggling to deal with it.
To think that I helped to let this government in because I was silly enough to believe Russell Brand was right when he said we shouldn’t vote. Then he changed his bloody mind! I never thought this lot would get in again though. To my dying days I will never forget realising what a terrible mistake I’d made when I watched the PM give his speech on TV. “It has been evident for some time that it is the supply of free food by the Food Banks that is creating the demand and dragging our country into an abyss of self pity. We all need to tighten our belts but remain dignified.” Most of the population had to tighten their belts because their trousers were falling down. Not him.
“It must be very upsetting for you” said a voice behind me. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it was Jules Carmichael from the TV. I knew she must be thinking that Laura was one of the malnutrition patients. I started crying then. Crying in front of a TV star! It didn’t bother me though, strangely, and I didn’t feel I needed to hurry up with my crying or my interminably long story of how my only daughter was anorexic and I didn’t have the slightest clue why or what I’d done wrong.
Before Jules Carmichael left she did a funny thing. She knelt down, lifted the cover from Laura’s foot, kissed it and said, “She’s going to be fine.” It was a bit embarrassing really and I thought, “Yeah right. Why should my Laura deserve to get better rather than that little boy in the next bed?”
It was like Jules had read my mind. “They will all be fine.” she said “From tomorrow they will start to wake and by Thursday they will be well and gone. All the answers are in the bible. Read Matthew 6, verses 25-34”.
That freaked me out a bit. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, she’s a member of the God Squad.’ Not being religious myself, I find all that a bit scary. Wacko and the like.
I didn’t have a bible so I went down to the library to have a look at theirs and guess what? They didn’t have it. I thought every library in England had to keep a reference copy of the bible but that’s not the case. So that’s when I popped across to the Methodist church. I wasn’t even sure the Methodists used the bible and I felt a bit silly asking but they were very nice and yes, they had a copy and said I was welcome to take it.
I was just about to leave when my neighbour’s youngest, Gavin emerged from the Men’s. I was surprised because none of them are Methodists. “We’re just having some soup” he said, all innocent and I didn’t hesitate to follow him into the hall to say hello to Shirley and the other two boys. She looked terrified when she saw me and that’s when I knew something was wrong. When I looked around the room at the people eating soup, I noticed they each had a white carrier bag at their feet. When I spied the tins of beans and soup in Shirley’s I knew the Methodist’s must be giving out illegal food parcels.
“I’ll tell you what, why don’t you all come back to mine and we’ll demolish the Victoria sandwich I made this morning?” I knew Shirley wouldn’t be able to say no to that. If her kids were hungry and I’d offered them my homemade cake there was no way she was going to deny them. Especially as they’d wolfed down their soup and were up from their seats with their coats on before I’d barely finished asking.
It all came out over the tea and cake. I thought Mike must have lost his job as a social worker but no, he was still in work and Shirley was still at the hospital. “The trouble is that we’re both on zero hours contracts so we may work 30 hours one week and then find out we’re only working 10 hours the next. We didn’t have the money for the rent one month so we tried to borrow it from the bank. The bank refused because we had no security because of the contracts. So we had to get a Wonga. We paid the rent up to date but then had to borrow again just to buy food. Ironically, Mike and I have both had more work since so many people have been taken into hospital but those loans are crippling us. We can‘t get straight.”
It broke my heart to hear her. My next door neighbour and a nurse at that. I didn’t need to ask why she hadn’t come to me. I knew how proud she was and how ashamed she would have been. She said that she finally hit rock bottom the month before the government made the Food Banks illegal. “I put off asking for a food parcel referral until there was nothing left in the cupboards. The day I went to my doctor and asked him to sign that slip for a food parcel was the worst day of my life. I was convinced he would take the kids into care. Then the next month they go and shut all the Food Banks down.” Involuntarily I glanced at the white carrier bag. “Don’t tell anyone about that.” said Shirley “They could go to prison for giving us that shopping and they’re lovely people. Why were you there anyway?”
I told Shirley how I’d met Jules Carmichael when I was visiting Laura. “I didn’t realise she was religious.” said Shirley, “What’s the bible passage she told you to read then?”
We read it together and neither of us could stop the tears. ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink . . . Look at the birds; they do not sow or reap and yet your heavenly father feeds them.’
Why had Jules asked me to read that? God wasn’t providing. His people were dying on the streets. The bible seemed more like a book of questions to me than a book of answers.
“She’ll be on in a minute, Shirley.” I said. “Come on kids, let’s finish that cake while watching Jules on the telly.”
It was an incredible programme. Last week she’d been in St James’s park showing people how to collect edible mushrooms and salad leaves. She said we didn’t have to worry about picking poisonous toadstools or weeds anymore because they were all gone. The edible varieties had become the dominant species and had taken over all the inedible ones. Marvellous. This programme was even better. She was in Trafalgar Square and was literally pulling carrots from the cracks in between the steps leading up to the National Gallery. They looked like weeds but as she gently tugged, out came the bright orange carrots, one after another. Jules said we had to open our eyes and look around us; all this sudden vegetation must be a result of the Incredible Edible planting that had gone on over the past year.
Those guerrilla gardeners who everyone had called mad hippies had been planting vegetables in all the cities’ flower beds and Jules said that seeds must have blown into the most unlikely places. Now there were vegetables sprouting up everywhere. She pointed to the church, St Martin-in-the-Fields and its front columns were
covered in strawberry plants, with big, red, juicy fruit raining down on to the pavement.
The camera found Jules again. “That’s all for this week and remember, if you are hungry, take and eat. The food is free but share, don’t sell it and don’t waste it.”
So maybe God was providing after all.
When Laura sat up in her hospital bed the next day and said, “Have you got anything to eat, mum?” I couldn’t believe it. When was the last time she’d said that? I gave her the guilty Snickers bar from my handbag and she ate it there and then. Little Laura who absolutely could not ever think of eating in front of anyone.
Then the patients around me began stirring. One by one they asked for food. The staff brought food supplement drinks. I wished I’d brought more Snickers bars.
“I told you so.” It was Jules beside me again.
“I didn’t believe it when you said yesterday that they would get better. How did you know?” Then I told Jules about what I’d feared could happen to all the patients in there. My own little conspiracy theory.
“I thought the government knew people would end up in hospital when they banned the Food Banks. That it was just their way of culling the poor. One minute it’s badgers and the next it’s the poor sods who can’t make ends meet. The ones like my neighbour on zero hours contracts, the ones being paid less than the minimum wage because they daren’t argue about it. The thing is, they wanted us to believe that all the people starving were the ones who were too lazy to work but we soon saw the lies in that. When buses were cancelled because there weren’t enough drivers anymore, when the streets piled up with rubbish, when the army had to step in at the hospitals, not just because there were so many more patients but because there were so many less nurses. That shocked people, nurses ending up in hospital beds because they were not making enough money to feed themselves and their families. I worried that the men in black would creep into those hospital wards in the dead of night and put something in the drip feeds to quickly do away with the lot of them. Every morning when I went in to visit Laura, I held my breath and prayed to God that I wouldn’t find all the beds empty, everyone in the morgue.
“So you do believe in God then?” Jules had a cheeky grin on her face. She’d caught me out.
“In times of crisis, I suppose. I don’t actually expect a miracle but it doesn’t stop me asking.” We laughed then.
“Your daughter should go home today. Have a party to celebrate her return. Invite your neighbours and have a feast.” I’d certainly be inviting my neighbours and not just for this night.