Wednesday 22 May 2019

A Life in Shreds

by Gill James

cold coffee

Gladys switched on the shredder. Why did the darned machine keep overheating and keep stopping? She looked at the pile of papers still sitting on the dining table. Would there ever be an end to it? The intention had been, hadn't it, to do this every January and clear out anything over six years  old. She wished she'd done that. Well, once this job was done she would be more disciplined. And perhaps it wouldn't be so bad the next time. She received most bills and statements electronically these days. Thank goodness. That might help to save the planet. Who needed all this paper?
The papers were strange to touch. They'd gone brittle. Presumably keeping them in a cold but dry garage had made that happen. They hadn't burned to an ugly brown colour like her old paperback books. It was almost as if they were coated in plastic. Was that what made the machine keep overheating?
She counted out four more papers. The manufacturers said that it would take eight at a time but it seemed to overheat more quickly if you put in eight and as it took nearly an hour for the machine to cool down again it was actually quicker if you only put in four papers at a time. She fed them into the machine. It crunched and grunted and what looked almost like smoke filtered out of a tiny hole between the cutters. Paper dust. Better not breathe that in. Then came the familiar clunk that meant it was shutting down. She touched the top. Yes, it was pretty hot. The bin was full too. She busied herself emptying it and pulling the trapped slivers of paper from between the blades. Hopefully the new shredder would come soon. Would she get this all done before it was time to move?
An hour later, after much rummaging through her wardrobe and deciding to throw away two thirds of its contents Gladys sat down again at her machine. She picked up the next four papers. Store card statements from nine years ago. Had she really had that many? And just look at the amounts of money on them. Thousands of pounds. Just a little paid off each month. She remembered the juggling. That awful day when all of their bank cards stopped working. She'd tried to log on to Internet banking to transfer some of her savings into the current account but all of her cards were frozen. Somehow she'd managed to get petrol into the car - one card somewhere must still have had credit on it. Later, she'd gone into a branch in another town far away from home. It was soon sorted. There was enough in their savings account to bring their current account back within its overdraft limit. But it was still tight. It wouldn't be long before something similar happened again.
It was enormously satisfying so watch the papers being shredded. That was all in the past now.
On the next batch she noticed she'd been paying PPI. Scoundrels. At least now she'd got it all back and had used it to help pay off her unsecured debts and in fact some of their mortgage.
"There you go," she muttered to herself as the blades started crunching.
Just why had she needed all that? Now, she hated shopping. She couldn't stand all that fiddling around in changing rooms. She hated looking in the mirror and seeing how she'd aged. She wore things now until they fell to pieces. She only fitted in a bit of clothes shopping if she had to wait for a bus or if she got stuck at the airport. She smiled to herself. There would be even less of that after they moved - eighteen busses an hour would go between their home and the city centre. And Brexit probably meant she wouldn't bother going abroad again.
She guessed the need to spend, spend, spend had had something to do with her demanding job. She had had to compensate for it somehow. Treat herself. Now, every day was a treat: a garden full of birds, a walk along the river with the retired guide dog they had taken on and interesting sessions with her local U3A group. It wasn't difficult finding the five things to be grateful for each day. Her Buddhist friends had taught her about that.
she was grateful for this shredder as well, even if it was limping along. She was putting a questionable life behind her.              
It was sobering when she came to letters about her properties. Failed mortgage repayments, but only once, thank God, on their own home. Repossessions. Some of the properties sold off really cheaply meaning she had to pay bills even though she was getting no income. They should have tried harder, shouldn't they, to sell them for a reasonable price? Does it really help anyone if they do this? How might it affect people who needed to rent? Was there any point in making landlords bankrupt?
Thankfully this was all in the past. She'd paid off those debts too and even got one of the properties back which she'd now managed to sell and she'd paid the capital gains tax. All was in order. She needn't look at that again. Into the shredder then.
Next came a County Court Judgement for non-payment of a service charge on one of her flats. Hmm. The service charges were scandalous. £2000 a year. That was the problem with flats and leasehold in general. The leaseholder could do what they liked and you just had to pay. What happened if you couldn't? Well,here was what happened. How would those ex-council tenants manage? If she couldn't she didn't imagine they'd be able to. A lump sum from one of her pensions had settled that bill nicely and now it was more than five years since the judgement. Into the shredder, then.
Next came that annoying letter from a solicitor. They were demanding £600 + for non-payment of £50 worth of ground rent on a flat she owned - well at least paid a mortgage on. The person she'd spoken to at the solicitor's office had been quite sympathetic.
"I've never been billed for it," she'd said.
"Can you prove the ground rent invoice was formerly sent to you home address rather than the property?" the young woman had said. It seemed as if she'd had quite a few of these queries. Solicitor and head landlord after a quick bit of cash? More scoundrels.  
She probably could have if she'd had the time to go through the garage. In the end, she'd paid the bill. It had been easier than taking the garage to pieces. And yes, as a result of the particular decluttering exercise she was doing now she'd come across the evidence she'd needed back then. Another reason to be tidier in the future.                 
The shredder stopped again.
Next in the pile were her late father's papers. She should sort through those carefully anyway. A lot of them are out of date now. But she should keep the death certificates and the copy of his will.
He'd scribbled on his bills. She noticed the handwriting getting more spidery as time went by. What happened to the notebooks, she thought, the ones where they used to write things down that he needed to know because they couldn't make him hear? Perhaps she'd find them soon. They would make good reading, wouldn't they?
Ah yes. The bill for the nursing home he stayed in whilst they took a week to move house. And then the bills that kept on coming after he'd moved back in with them. It might have been funny if it hadn't been so serious. Was there some other old gentleman sitting there? Still? Had his relations forgotten him?
It had got sorted eventually, hadn't it?
He smiled to herself as she remembered the hankies, underpants and socks she had bought him all labelled with the days of the week.
"So you know which ones to wear, and so that you can figure out what day it is," she'd said.
Her husband had arrived that Friday with her dad and the cat.
"They both snored all the way up here," he said proudly.
"Where are his meds?" she asked as they unpacked.
"What meds?"
Was that why they wanted to carry on charging for her father because they still had his tablets in their drug cabinet?  
There's been a dash to the emergency doctor to get a prescription. At least it had helped her to get to know the area.                  
The doorbell rang. Would that be it? The new shredder.
She heard her husband go to the door. Yes, he was definitely taking delivery of a parcel. Seconds later the front door closed and she could hear him dragging something across the hall.
"Here it is, then," he said as he opened the door to the lounge. 
"It looks sturdy enough."
"Shall I set it up?"
She nodded.
As he moved the old one out of the way, plugged the new one in and switched it on she studied the next batch of papers.
Yes it was getting lighter. Now the monthly payments were going down. Statements were showing a surplus in the bank at the end of the month.  She remembered conversations with the mortgage provider about "spare money".
"What's that?" he'd asked.
"Just what I have left at the end of the month. I want to use it to pay off the mortgage."
"Must be nice," he'd mumbled.
It was. But it was only because she'd had help. There had been some painful conversations, then regular payments and no interest.
Yes, it had been better for a few years now.
And here she was shredding some of the more respectable statements. 
It didn't take long. The new machine was much better than the other two they'd had. It gave a final clunk. The table was now clear.
At that precise moment the phone rang.  She heard her husband go and answer it. What might it be? She hoped it wasn't a problem with the new house. 
She held her breath as she waited for him to finish.
She heard him put the receiver back on its cradle. The he opened the lounge door slowly. He grinned. "We complete on Friday," he said.
They were safe now.
They would soon be living in a house that they owned.
She patted the new machine. Her old life was now in shreds.    

About the author 

Publisher, writer, creative writing lecturer and editor of CafeLit, she likes finding the bizarre hidden beneath the veneer of everyday life. 

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