I was recently interviewed by as part of a industry-wide ‘Ones to Watch’ podcast. The resulting interviews were distributed across a large national network of Life Coaches and clients.
The series showcased and promoted creative talent but also encouraged high-performers to pursue development goals outside their 9-5 jobs. It was a great project to be part of and I’m now excited to be able to share the final output.
This week we’re meeting Finance professional and writer Alice E. Bennett (author of comedy blog My Housemate’s a Mermaid).
Having relocated to London for work, Alice provides a first-hand insight into the challenges of renting in the capital, getting onto the housing ladder and how a career in Financial Services is continually helping to shape her success as a creative writer.
I had been living in Swindon a couple of months, having relocated in the Summer to begin my first job after graduating from Southampton University with a BA (hons) degree in History. I was living in a HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) with four others; a hospitality worker, an engineer who only utilised the room on occasion when work required him to be in Swindon, a journalist for the local paper and a woman who worked in security. The lady in security also had a unique hobby, in her spare time she liked to dress up as a mermaid.
I was shopping that one night in the local supermarket when I stopped by the toilet roll isle to buy its namesake. I was debating which type and brand to purchase when an idea came to mind. Why don’t I start writing a blog?
The moment resembled something like this:
From that minute, through to the walk back to the house in the drizzle and dark with the heavy shopping the seed of an idea rapidly grew. By the time I’d made it to my bedroom I decided on a name. I’d title the blog after the opener I used when I wanted to make a quick impression on people.
My Housemate’s a Mermaid was set up that very night and I wrote my first ever blog post in eager haste.
I was still living in the same house and working the same job. Both came as a surprise, my original contract of employment had been a nine month maternity cover, so I fully expected to have been given the heave ho after that time and been working/living elsewhere. Not that I wanted to leave or that my old boss wanted me to go, I was such a hardworking and loved member of the team he’d go on to extend my contact length multiple times to keep me on, even when my colleague returned from leave.
The extensions played on my mind, it was flattering that I was wanted but not reassuring that someone along the chain wasn’t prepared to make me a permanent fixture in the team. My mind started wondering to where my future lay in this role…
Meanwhile, outside of work, desperation to meet people and loneliness in a house where people didn’t talk had forced me to try new things to get me out and about. In January I started attending evening classes in pottery at the local college. Although my skills with clay left a lot to be desired (I made more things explode than create)…
…it was a fun activity that got me out the house and chatting to people.
After discovering the society building platform ‘MeetUp’ and being frustrated at the lack of societies for young people in Swindon, in January my Dad offered me the cash to set up a MeetUp group in Swindon. The agreement was that if I made back the £30 I’d pay him back the money he’d stumped up. I accepted the offer but didn’t see how it could possibly come to much.
I founded Swindon 18-30 Professionals on 2nd February 2015, and asked new members to pay a £3 fee to cover the administration costs. Then I set up the first event and nervously waited at what was then a club called Baker Street to see who would turn up. I sat there by myself with a drink, adamant that no one was going to come, but then suddenly people started arriving and things went upwards from there.
By the summer the monthly ‘drinks night’ had been rebranded to ‘First Wednesday Drinks’ and were now starting to draw a sizeable crowd. I’d long since paid off my Dad, the fees for the next six months of operation and was in the middle of negotiating with Baker Street a sponsorship deal that would carry into the present day. I removed the new joiner fee, taking away the last barrier and making Swindon 18-30 truly accessible to all young people in the area.
In November I was in the middle of organising the group’s first Christmas meal at Pizza Express. I was chuffed when I persuaded the venue to offer up multiple bottles wine free of charge in support of the young professional network of Swindon.
As my visiting friend from London said “you’ve really achieved something in a short space of time, don’t shrug it off!” But I still couldn’t help myself, I downplayed the whole thing.
The year wasn’t without calamity though; in the Summer I sustained face, head and leg injuries when I tripped on a paving slab outside a pub (the Gluepot) whilst walking back from a lunch break. Holding a loaf of bread and food shopping, I failed to utilise my hands to break the fall meaning that my right knee and head took the brunt on the impact. I shambled back to the office completely unaware of how bad a state I was in and, when the 111 service finally stopped asking me if the injury was a result of heavy drinking, I was told to head over accident and emergency. A work colleague sat with me for over an hour waiting and checking I didn’t drop off from concussion. She was an absolute saint.
I came away from the medical centre covered in bandage tape and pumped with drugs but luckily escaped the whole ordeal with only a slight scar to my knee which remains to this day. A reminder that while looking forward is important, you’re only as successful as the last step you take.
Blogging kept me sane throughout the year, even if sometimes the content was anything but.
I was still living in the same house as the mermaid, but by now the gripes of living in an increasingly shabby property were starting to grate.
The tenants had moved on and I started becoming aware of how little sway I had in who I lived with. When an older gentleman viewing the property started making me feel uncomfortable, that was when I knew how little input I had in decision-making.
The housemate in the room next to me started seeing a girl who was particularly ‘vocal’ when she stayed over, which was when I realised how fed up I was of being single. From late Spring I started narrowing down my outlook from meeting new people to meeting potential romantic matches. The results were mixed but through it I learnt a lot about myself and Swindon’s dating scene.
I met my first long term partner at a speed dating event in the October of 2016 and things went from there. Naturally I put my foot in it by texting him at the same time as he was texting my friend (who’d he’d also matched with) and then went on a date with his ‘then’ best mate the night after ours, unaware of their connection! He found my horror-stricken face incredibly funny, he laughed it off said no more of the mess-up.
At the grand age of 23 he was my first boyfriend, the first man who had ever taken an interest in me, let alone buy me flowers or take me out for meals or look after me when I was sick. I was completely smitten.
He was smart, considerate and incredibly patient. He never once made me feel the need to rush our relationship.
In March I had moved roles within the same company to a permanent position in a different department. For the time being I was content, moving onto an identical salary didn’t fill me with the same level of keenness compared to when I moved to Swindon originally but a permanent job meant more security.
Throughout the Spring and into the Summer I flogged myself to death organising Swindon 18-30’s first Summer ball in the grounds of Lydiard Park, the town’s fancy country house. I learnt a lot about event planning and it served as good preparation for what would come if I ever got married; organising catering, DJ, venue, photographer etc. all single handed, it pretty much felt like I was planning my own reception!
The event was a massive success and was attended by 60 individuals, a real celebration of the young professional population from around Swindon and the local area.
It even got a feature in local press.
In Autumn I started writing for a local publication called the Swindonian to help build my writing portfolio and in November I took part in National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), where bloggers around the world attempt to write a post a day. Writing a post a day whilst managing Swindon 18-30 and a fledgling relationship was very hard, but I was proud to say I achieved it.
I had not only moved out of the house with the mermaid but actually bought my own property one door down. The mermaid was no longer my housemate, she was my neighbour!
I carted out as much of the stuff from my bedroom as I could, the massive items of collated furniture sitting at my parent’s home in wait for the destined day.
In March 2017 I officially moved into my house with the help of a Luton van, my parents and my boyfriend. At 6″ 8 and a hobbyist in mixed martial arts, my boyfriend came in a great deal of use when it came to lifting heavy items of furniture up staircases. It was the first time my parents had met him and they were happy enough to have him about, even if it was noticed that we barely said a word to each other.
In hindsight I should have ended my relationship with my first boyfriend six months in, but to my dying day I will not judge the person I was then for holding out hope. Because when you have nothing to compare to how can you make a balanced choice? I’d watch the TV shows, listen to the songs, hear the colleague chit-chat, the theme was all the same. “Men are all useless, men will lie and cheat on you!” Well, my guy wasn’t any of that. He was kind, he cooked food for me, he loved spending time with me. So why wasn’t I happy? Why wasn’t I grateful? Why didn’t I love him? What was wrong with me?
This spiral got worse and worse. In August we went to Prague, during which time I snapped and ended up spending a good deal of time wondering around the city by myself. I went to a classical music concert one evening and cried my eyes out. Those next to me must have thought I was crying because of the music, in fact I was crying because I knew then my relationship was dead.
I swore to myself then that I would leave this man before Christmas. I returned the the UK colder and more distant than I’d ever been in my entire life. Time spent with him felt like a chore, it seems laughable now that we never kissed when we returned from Prague. He was not a bad man, but I was not a good woman for bottling up my emotions, I accept that.
We would stay together for another five months. Even when he forgot my birthday and shoved the bent card and a half price necklace through the letter box (receipt left in the damaged paper bag), when I sat on the stairs with my head in my hands in hollow disbelief. Despite that I stayed; a broken woman, a woman I didn’t recognise.
In September I started a new job for a organisation I’d never dreamt I’d be working for. I couldn’t believe my luck and made damn sure my managers knew I was grateful by the time I invested into learning the role. But every day I spent in my new job only made me feel more weighed down by someone who was on a completely different wave length to me. Was this the same man I’d fallen for? Was I the same woman?
Meanwhile, I started doing a few pieces of writing for The National Student. When the editor of the Swindonian found out he blocked me from publishing my work to his website, effectively kicking me off the team. Given the Swindonian was “Swindon’s third biggest news outlet” (editor’s words) I decided to cut my loses as opposed to grovelling for forgiveness. I was done with producing popular content for their site free of charge.
My family, my friends and my writing, they were the lights that kept me going. My boyfriend never read my blog so through MHAM I had a sense of independence.
I was living in London (Wapping, E1W), had been since May.
I’d broken up with my boyfriend in late January. It had been as awkward as you could imagine, he went from telling me I was the best thing he’d ever had, to begging me to change my mind, to informing me he’d go home to his whiskey and start dating women again that very night. I wasn’t phased, I returned home to find my lovely housemates having bought me wine and pizza only to be more surprised by my casualness over the whole affair.
The next day I went into work and felt nothing for the night before. When I told my manager she suggested I go home if I needed time, but I declined. This was a man I hadn’t kissed in months (and he hadn’t seemingly hadn’t had issue with!!) The relationship had died long before that night. I was able to carry on my life.
I moved to London as part of an internal transfer in May to do a eight month stint working from their Threadneedle Street office in The City. Due to work and rental challenges it would end up becoming a whole year. In that time I was blessed with a Swindon house that required little attention to support itself and Swindon 18-30 having, by now, a leadership team that could organise events while I wasn’t around to be as hands on.
London was a roller coaster to say the least. I loved how all the men around The City wore suits and dressed smart, I loved how romantic dates involved going to art exhibitions and theatre performances. I loved how I my morning walking commute took me past Tower Bridge every morning…
…or how I could hop on the tube and thirty minutes later be in a completely different part of the capital. It was a world away from the encounters I’d had in Wiltshire. Within my family (well, to my Mum), I’d created a name for myself when I made it to the dizzying heights of the BBC News at Ten.
The bars of Threadneedle Street are the only place in the world where a minority controls the majority. When it came to the financial heart of London I quickly clocked on that it was the women who held the real power over men, if they knew how to use it. I took on a certain style, a certain walk, I dyed my hair a different shade, I adopted things to make people see me differently, to stand out from everyone else. It’s a bullish world where to just be feminine isn’t enough, to be treated seriously you have to think like a man, ‘group think’ if you will. So I starting convincing myself I was the best bloody thing to walk into any room, I was a peacock on show and you were going to know it, whether you liked it or not. And you know what? It worked. I started to see myself in a completely different light, just as they did too.
‘Fox’ I branded myself, because that’s how I felt and that’s what I wanted others to feel too. I was young, single and could charm just about anyone into my line of thinking. Sometimes it was an act, but acting got you free drinks, acting got you connections, acting got you a name in writing circles.
A year in London and I learnt that where my power lay was in not being them. Bankers and investors do the same job, day in, day out. Highly paid but highly stressed roles with a high inflation of their self importance. Me on the other hand, I was just a woman with a blog. A comedy blog that was as far removed from their lives as could be imagined and yet somehow touching on relatable. They came to me like moths to a light, the draw of escapism too much to resist.
I was in a cafe in Wapping when I first heard Billy Preston’s song Nothing from Nothing. From that point on it became my anthem of London. You coming along with big ideas? Sure, but you gotta have a spring in your step and something to back it up. Ain’t nothing free in this town and ain’t no one gonna be taken for a ride.
It was also in London that I discovered one of my main weaknesses stemmed from coming across those rare individuals that took a disliking to me. The flatmate who engaged in incredibly noisy ‘activities’ multiple times a night and turned aggressive when I delicately brought it up in conversation. The same flatmate who consumed a lot of alcohol one night which was then projected all over the one toilet five of us shared. This person refused to clean it up, leaving the job for two of us to handle at 3am. She never apologised or showed remorse for her actions, that was the worst bit of all.
When my flatmates ignored the aggressive letters demanding unpaid council tax (a detail which was meant to be paid by the landlord), it was left to me to handle the bailiffs. Bailiffs are scary, especially when you’re silently hiding upstairs while they bang on the door. But the attitude of my flatmates that problems would be fixed by someone else or simply go away by themselves, it screamed a lack of maturity. I ended up sitting for hours in Citizen’s Advice and, when the letting agents ignored my calls, emailing the council myself with countless documents to prove we weren’t liable. The mould in my room, the frequent migraines that suddenly vanished when I wasn’t breathing in air pollution, I could list for hours the issues I merrily overlooked.
These were the unpleasant experiences of London that stick out in my mind, what you have to deal with living at the bottom end of the professional ladder. I got on (and still get on) well with most of my former flatmates on a personable level, but I wouldn’t rush back to a HMO any time soon as a result of my experiences.
London is a city of extremes, whether I spent the evening in a Leicester Square casino or writing in a pub where mice ran across the floor was complete chance. But it was an incredible experience all the same. Waking up to this view every morning reminded me how lucky I was to have such an opportunity, to sleep in the shadow of the Shard.
Ultimately I think this hijacked road works sign in West London sums up my time in the capital perfectly:
I was in Cambridge on my birthday when I heard The Trials of Cato, a three-piece folk group, busking in the city centre. These Are the Things is an anti-Brexit song although you wouldn’t necessarily think it on first listen. In contrast to the big smoke of central London I enjoyed spending time in the quainter spots of the South East I’d never before visited.
In November there was my first solo holiday. Bruges was an incredible city break for so many reasons and I fully intend to visit there again at least once, if not multiple times in my life. Aside from being a beautiful city, it made me realise how strong I was and how I didn’t need to force myself into a relationship to have amazing experiences.
One day during that holiday I was in a large church. I was about to leave when a local man came in and started playing the organ. I was completely stunned. I sat in the empty pews for at least 45 minutes just listening to the beautiful music being played for an audience of one. And then I started to cry, and when I realised I was crying I cried some more. Because in that moment I was so overcome with emotion, reflecting how far I’d come since the little girl who’d sobbed in Prague. I was in a new job, I was living in London, I was on holiday by myself. Above all else, I was happy.
Having donated a sizeable amount into the empty box, I left the church with a different pledge compared to that which I’d set myself a year before. I will never let anyone stop me being me.
By late October I was writing freelance pieces for the Swindon Advertiser and other places here and there, picking up fans from the most unlikely of articles. To name drop a few – the CEO of Royal Society of Arts, Matthew Taylor, Deputy Governor for the Bank of England, Nemat Shafik, and artist and TV personality Grayson Perry. While I was incredibly flattered by their letters and emails, I didn’t let it impact on my writing.
(YouTube search “Bruges Wish You Were Here?” To watch the video)
11th November 2019, where I am today…
The London grind carried as per 2018, I had my second wisdom tooth removed in January and in March I took again to travel, this time to Amsterdam. ‘Why?’ My friend asked. ‘Because I can.’ I replied.
I moved back to Swindon fully in May, full of the cultural confusion one would expect having undergone a year living in the capital. I felt more connected with the work I was paid to do, but it took me longer to reconnect with the local area. Gone were the fancy bars and influential people, nowhere to be seen were the towering buildings and the bold cultural mix that came with the crowds.
In central London being single was completely normal, but returning to Swindon I felt like an outsider in my own town. While I’d been experimenting with vegan cookery classes near King’s Cross and tackling marshmallow challenges in Waterloo pubs, many of my Swindon friends had shackled up or even got engaged. It felt weird, almost as weird as going back on the dating apps to find that I’d cleared through the search parameters in minutes. In London I never touched the sides! When I tried reaching out to guys a little bit further out, cities such as Bath and Bristol, I never got a response. When I told my friend that in London people would travel 45 minutes to for a date she said ‘but Alice, that was London,’ as if it were a valid excuse.
I needed the distraction from reality. In May that I had the best time when a friend invited me to spend a week in her villa in Granada. I’d never met the others she’d invited to join the party, but knowing her personality I put my faith in her judgement. It was trust well placed; I had an amazing time in Spain and made four great new friends out of the process, including photographer Tom who made me see that perhaps one of my biggest assets had been behind me all along.
I started a writing course in June to work on a novel and so far my tutor is loving it. While I started the course fully expecting to get critical feedback, I’m chuffed that the first draft is getting praise from well-established authors. Because of the nature of the course there’s a lot of two steps forward in draft, one step back to amend based on feedback but I’m working at great pace all the same.
26th June – enrolled on novel writing course (0 words)
1st October – 13,500 words
20th October – 28,000 words
11th November – 41,090 words
While there’s no hard and fast rule, general publishing consensus is that anything over 40,000 words could be published as an adult novel. While there’s still a long way to go, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my novel. Keep watching this space!
In July I started volunteering with the local Samaritans branch and through it learning a deeper understanding around the challenges of mental health, as well as practical skills such as line management (being accountable for retail operations which provides 50% of the centre’s income). The leadership team have welcomed me with open arms and, in the case of the Pride match, with a lot of branded material and face paint!
Swindon 18-30 Professionals
At the time of writing Swindon 18-30 is 912 members strong, a number that would have made a younger version of myself well-up in pride and disbelief.
The hard work goes on, and I’d have struggled if it not for those who have championed the group through sponsorship, organising events, telling their friends or letting me put up posters in their offices/community spaces.
Looking forward toward the rest of this year (and the next five after that) I’d love to see myself doing something which allows me to keep being who I am whilst continuing to add value to the everyday. I want to make sure that no one ever feels that they can’t be awesome or that they have to stay in a box because someone says so.
On 31st October I sat on a Brexit panel for local radio, I came away from the experience proud that I’d been able to voice my views in a balanced way and give a fresh perspective to ongoing debates. In the words of my Mum, “you never would have spoken like that two years ago. You should be proud of yourself.” She was right, I wouldn’t have dared put myself forward for anything so exposing a few years ago.
I want to make money from what I love doing most, writing, even if it’s just enough to cover the cost of some of the many coffees I consume whilst I type or scribble away. The feedback I get each and every day from people gives me the strength to keep working towards that goal. I want to get my first book published and then write some more, and more. My old Secondary School English teacher used to call me her ‘little-novelist’, I want to do my nick-namesake proud.
I’d like to find a partner, but I don’t want to settle and I don’t want to seek it out of desperation. I’m surrounded by friends and family who provide the love to survive, at my fingertips an internet bursting with information on which to thrive. I want a partner, but I need to know if it’s right for me.
Two snapshots, July 2014 and September 2019.
Maybe in another five years I’ll take a completely different opinion on how things have panned out. But honestly? In the past half decade I’ve learnt the most about myself and others through the leaps of faith and the knock backs, more than through the smooth rides. My life has changed so much since I moved to Swindon in 2014, the path to get me where I am today has been twisted and anything but conventional. No doubt it’ll shift about some more in the years and decades to come but I’m more than ready for it. Bring it on!
Below is one of my favourite songs which I discovered just before I went to Bruges. It sums up how I’d want people to embrace me; it’s fun, upbeat and a bit different from the usual (in content and language – it’s sung by French artist Zaz). In essence it’s about the singer asking a prospective partner to embrace who she is above all else.
“Je Veux d’l’amour, d’la joie, de la bonne humeur,
Ce n’est pas votre argent qui f’ra mon bonheur,
Moi j’veux crever la main sur le cœur papalapapapala, Allons ensemble découvrir ma liberté, oubliez donc tous vos clichés,
Bienvenue dans ma réalité!”
I want love, joy and cheerfulness, Your money won’t buy me happiness, I just want to die with a hand on my chest, Let’s go together discover my freedom, let you forget all your stereotypes, Welcome into my reality!
Here’s to the wonderful unpredictability of the events that we call life.
On 11th November I published this post, Five Years Ago Today…
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A room full of bits and pieces and accumulated knick-knacks gathered over the course of two years. All telling the story of Alice Bennett, the Alice Bennett Installation if you like. Small, full of rubbish and severely lacking in suitable storage. A room unable to decide whether it wanted to rival Tracey Emin or desperately try and avoid it.
As the house sale on the property next door started drawing to its intended close, I realised I was actually going to have to tidy up and clear all my stuff out. And this wasn’t something that a bottle of Windowlene and a couple of Peter Gabriel songs could solve, it was going to involve brutal woman power and an acceptance that, indeed, my room was full of shizz.
The timing for this wasn’t great, I was in the process of re-establishing my love of porridge and the supermarket had a sale on. Plus the shared kitchen gave me no space for storing foodstuffs (see – There’s Some Weird Shizz in My Cupboard) so I started the process of cleaning my room by with piling a load of oat sachets chocolate bars and varying alcohols and taking a photo of it for Instagram, obviously.
Then it all got too much and I wrote a blog article about something else.
Several days later, after consuming a sizeable amount of ‘the pile’, I remembered why I’d piled it in the first place. I got cracking with the tidy up.
It was a painful process. Because I’d achieve a mini-milestone of clearing one patch of floor space…
…to turn around and see this behind me:
That’s what hurt me most. Having to empty drawers and boxes that had previously hidden so much but now spewed everywhere. As you can probably tell, my room was tiny in the shared house, the double bed sandwiched into the small space the only way it possibly could.
The clean went on. Thanking the God’s for a decent metabolism and reasonably priced gym membership, one evening I wriggled under the low bed to pull out all the hidden ‘gems’ that had spent years in the shadows. Forget Blue Planet, my under-bed had some weirder things than the deepest depths of the Antarctic Ocean.
But it also had a couple of bottles of wine so I was prepared to overlook some of the other things I found under there.
I learnt a lot about myself when cleaning up that space. For example, I’m a closet hoarder who’s in denial. I had enough plastic bags to fill a tanker.
But then I realised I was British so quickly laid to rest my concerns. I wasn’t weird, just normal. In the same way I had been unable to throw away a handbag I like so mended it with a safety pin as a short term solution. Five million handbags later, I found it at the bottom of my wardrobe.
A week or so later (yes, that long) I was starting to see progress in the big tidy up.
I was quickly becoming numb to the difficulty of throwing stuff out. Either an item was literally falling apart or I was lazy and wanted future me in her massive house to store it. Clearing out items was as black and white as that.
When it came to my wardrobe door however I was forced to make more brutal decisions.
In rentals (or at least mine) blu tac is the substance of Satan, pretty much all landlords don’t want it anywhere near their magnolia walls. In place of that, the thin door was my only place to tac up things which meant something to me. A pin board-come-scrap-book of information and pictures that summed me up. New job cards, renters info from the Telegraph, a sassy postcard from M&S, it was, well, me. And now I had to take it all down and be a big girl for a change. Renters and school girls can do this sort of thing, homeowners with matching furniture sets and themed wallpapers couldn’t. The odd item got put to one side (sassy postcard, check!) but most of it ended up in the bin.
When the drawers were finally emptied and the shizz (well, most of) was in a black bin sack there remained little for me to do than slog over the worn down dirty mess that was the carpet. The landlord had bestowed on us a Henry hoover to enable us to keep the house tidy. Now, Alice, I hear you cry, what could possibly be wrong with that? Hurrah for landlords! Well, before you think my previous landlord was a saint…
Three storey townhouses with heavy, hose-based, Henry’s do not mix.
Never expect tenants to buy hoover bags, especially when most do not know what they are.
No hoover will revive a cheap, well trodden, carpet that hasn’t been replaced since the property was built fifteen years ago. None.
I spent hours on my hands and knees trying to suck up every bit of dirt the machine could just about manage. I knew at the time it was a joke, trying to remove a strand of hair from the dirty beige pile. At the end of it I was so exhausted that I think I lost it a bit. On a Saturday night, a Saturday night, I put this on my Instagram:
I mean seriously.
Once that was done all that was left was to wait. Until the house sale was completed a lot of items remained bagged up in assorted suitcases donated by family and random shopping bags. It looked like I was about to go to some far flung country, about to jet off somewhere new, but in the meantime I had to sit and wait it out while messages pinged in from solicitors and I scrabbled around the square of floor to complete important documents. Like I was waiting for my plane to depart.
After the sale had completed on my house I started moving items over, often taking a heavy case down to flights of stairs, across, up another two flights of stairs, then dumping the contents in a cold, empty bedroom. Then back down and up, fill up the case again and repeat. Then do the same with kitchenware and foodstuffs and you have the makings of a very drawn out, tiring, house move. My housemates would watch me carrying out the unorthodox house move in silence, whether they thought I was crazy or not mattered little to either of us.
On the last night I packed up my case with the last of the few items of clothing and put out what else remained on the bedside table.
The boiled down essentials of Alice Bennett, all laid out on one tiny rectangle. At first I was a little bit emotional, then I felt a bit let down by the basicness. Only I would rate the presence of Sudocrem and a lemon pip higher than books or make up. What scenario would cause me to urgently need Sudocrem and a lemon pip I do not know.
The duvet and bedding got carried round to the house bright and early the next day, alongside the final case of clothes which this time got left unopened in the bedroom. Into one of my many plastic bags I scooped up the bedside table contents and checked the tiny room for the millionth time. I knew that it would be clear and I also knew that living next door it would be a breeze to collect things should anything have been missed off, but it still didn’t stop me checking again.
Ironically, now the room was clear of junk and shizz it looked much bigger, I realised why I’d taken it on in the first place (well, cheap rent and location were the main reasons, but still).
I placed my bedroom door key on the bedside and with a final long look and a sigh, walked out with the latch off so that the newer housemates could peer in after I’d gone. I slipped out the front door and posted the key back through the brass-coloured letter box. Done.
There was a room.
A room full of bits and pieces and knick-knacks accumulated over the course of two years. A room which told the story of a kooky girl who hailed from Gloucestershire (or was it Hampshire or Warwickshire?) who worked in a solid job, with solid interests, yet always aspired to be more. She moved out of the busy house share and into her own home next door. Why? Because we all thought she was mental.
This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view all articles in the series (so far) click here.
With the mortgage in place and all the relevant forms filled in, my solicitors were deployed.
For cost sake, said legal representatives were located nowhere near Swindon, but their website and documentation reliably informed me they had a small office in Suffolk. The price I paid was so low I never questioned my solicitors’ insistence on email and postal communication and in return they didn’t spit in my envelope for paying them peanuts and putting Swindon-based solicitors out of business.
The next day I strolled down to the nearby pillar post box and posted off the initial fee. “Lovely county Suffolk,” I thought, “shame about all the Londoners though.”
For the best part of a month there was little more for me to do. My energies became more engulfed with buying, collecting and, in Mum’s case, painting furniture from around the region and storing it in the furniture warehouse (alias, my parent’s garden room extension).
Meanwhile, at work, people were beginning to realise why I’d been so stressed of late. Although I’d frequently commented on “looking at houses” or “difficulties with the bank”, many colleagues had wrongly assumed I was moving into a new rental property. Given my age and martial status I can hardly say I was that surprised by the confusion, in fact I was more taken aback by the ripple effect my purchase had on these same people.
Suddenly I was the Martin Lewis of home buying, everyone had a question to ask and apparently I was the girl to give advice. The hints and tips recited beside boiling kettles and in toilet queues was little more than a blended mix of common sense and random statistics from The Telegraph, and yet that was enough. I was the Marmite of the organisation, people respected me or envied my very guts. And slowly, oh so slowly, habits of those around me began to change. People stopped buying coffee, packed lunches started making a comeback, and a night in with a made-from-scratch lasagne became the ultimate date night experience. All subtle signs of people putting money to one side for an unspecified goal.
“What have I created?” I thought.
Apart from changing the psychology of my fellow workforce, up until February life was blissful (well, compared to the fiasco with BankUK*).
I suppose I was a bit naïve to think the sellers would let the house sale proceed on my terms. Throughout the entire mortgage drama there had been not a word from either of the two solicitors to suggest concern, so I guess I assumed that with things moving at a normal pace I shouldn’t have the cause to be concerned.
On February 14th 2017 the tenants of the house formally moved out. I knew this because a) They told me this when I met them to discuss buying furniture (of which I bought none) and b) I saw the van on their drive that very evening as I walked back from food shopping. The tenant had wanted me to buy his wares to avoid use of a van, which made me watching him struggle with an oversized pine bed particularly awkward. Unable to commit my vocal cords, I made somewhat awkward eye contact and mouthed “hi” in the winter darkness before scuttling into the house next door and telling myself I was not to go out again that evening.
On February 15th the chasing began. My solicitors informed me that the sellers’ Swindon solicitors were constantly asking for updates at request of their client. This was frustrating my people in Suffolk because they were not being paid enough to care or give five minute updates to first-time sellers who weren’t clients. I thanked them for letting me know and assured them that I’d see any documentation was returned promptly upon receipt and funds were moved into place ready for exchange.
To save boring legal and financial jargon, the planned exchange date fell through. The fault was not down to myself, nor my solicitors, not even the sellers, but due to incorrectly submitted documentation from my old friends BankUK.
I called Katie* to inquire as to the hold up.
“We sent both sets of documentation through, your solicitors should have read them and used the right one.”
“But why wasn’t it made clear?”
“They were sent both the first and second versions because of the difficulties we faced with your application before. If they’d read the figures correctly…”
I was already impatient. “I can’t believe this. At the final hurdle BankUK have messed up. Look, whatever documentation my people have got it’s wrong. They need a different form to either of the two you sent them. If the exchange falls through again the whole house sale might fall through. You can understand why I’m a bit frustrated, no?”
“We are aware of this Miss Bennett and looking into it now. I’ll remind you to watch the tone of your voice on the phone.”
“For Christ’s sake” I said as I hung up the phone.
I never spoke to Katie again.
I cursed under my breath but hoped that the sellers would accept the revised date and understand there was nothing anyone could do until Thursday, two days later.
That was when the seller’s fiancée crossed the line.
Before this situation had kicked off I’d met them very briefly to check out the white goods which were being included in the sale. From that I learnt the house belonged to the man and he and his soon to be wife were buying a new build on the edge of Swindon. In turn they learn my first name and I lived next door. In the world we live in that’s all she needed.
I don’t know how, but she found me. Of all the millions of Alices on Facebook she found my profile that evening and, in blatant convention of legal process and regulation, she sent me a direct message.
“Hi Alice, My solicitors have just told me we are not going to be able to exchange today due to BankUK not being in a position to go forward…We’ve been advised by our sellers that they are very reluctant to continue with the sale to us if the completion date is affected, consequently if they pull out we will have to too. Many Thanks.”
I was stunned. Was she seriously threatening me to pull out on the entire sale, over Facebook? She wasn’t even the owner of the property.
Eventually, after fully processing what I’d read I wrote back a response with the help of my parents down the phone. I sent it thinking it would be the end of it, but no the messages came in thick and fast from her, pouring her heart out with the added threat of turning at any point and making her partner put the property back on the market again. After all I’d been through and money already sunk in, I couldn’t bear the pain of living in the shared house next door, forever watching people go in and out of my ‘could have been’ home. I’d had enough, I ratted them up to my solicitor and under their instruction ignored all of the messages sent from thereon.
It transpired that the real reason why the house sale almost fell through was so petty it was almost a joke. My sellers’ sellers didn’t want to pay another monthly repayment on their mortgage which would happen if the exchange was delayed by two days. The news came to me via phone after we finally exchanged. It was one of the few times I actually spoke with my solicitors.
“But if they relisted the property they’d have to make the payment anyway?” I questioned. Surely no one can be that stupid?
The speaker sighed. “Yep. You’d think someone would have told her that before she started shouting and getting your sellers into a state. I don’t know what game she was trying to play and we don’t know why it wasn’t handled better as opposed to scaring everyone in the chain. As for the Facebook messaging, well that’s taken us all aback.”
“I suppose it’s the world we live in right?”
“Where rules don’t apply because it’s social media and everyone thinks they can be a solicitor,” there was a slight pause, “I’ll send you the final invoice via email shortly. If you can pay it ASAP we can at least complete on the original date everyone agreed to, even if the exchange was delayed.”
I did all that was required by me, signed a few bits of paper, moved a few digital numbers from one place to another and then waited. And as if by legal magic I received an email saying I owned a house.
No big deal.
(Names marked * have been changed for the benefit of this article.)
This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far) click here.
Disclaimer: names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.
Same bank, same branch, same waiting room with the same generic music. The only difference was the day. Yet another meeting with BankUK* and advisor Katie*, yet another week in mortgage limbo.
“I should be in work now.” I thought.
At this point it’s worth noting how lucky I was to still even have sniff of the house I’d set my hopes on. The offer had been accepted by the seller in November, yet here I was in January with nothing more than a Chamberlain scrap of paper to suggest the funds were in place to buy the property. Since then there had been no requests for updates from either my solicitor or the agent which suited me to the ground. To tell the truth would be buyer suicide.
I walked into a different meeting room, this one blander than the others. The other rooms had photography with inspirational sayings on, this one had a single thank you card in the small, square, window which faced onto next door’s brickwork. The only ounce of personality in a white-washed cube. I half wondered if I was living in the Truman Show, that the same utilitarian chairs, desk and room was also used by dentists, consultants and middling management. As if at any moment a forklift truck would lift up the confined box and move it to different location, to film another character in an ongoing Soap which I was part of.
Such ponderings were brief, Katie walked through the door swiftly with all the relevant paperwork for signing.
“Before we sign the formal documentation for your mortgage, I’d like to sort out this business with your complaint.” Katie opened with.
“Ok,” I replied, “what’s the situation with that then?”
Katie went on to explain in detail the nature of my complaint, that the comments in the subsequent letter sent to head office had been fed back to her. She understood my frustration but told me it was something none of them could have predicted or prevented against, that their policy was underpinned by UK law. In other words, “our hands were tied, what could we do?”
In equally “I don’t give a stuff fashion” I nodded through her comments until she got to the bit we all cared about, what BankUK were going to do to shut me up. It was clear that I wasn’t going to let this drop easily, I’d already threatened further action on the phone and in my letters. I was looking forward to a big settlement.
“So, in light of all this, we’d be prepared to offer you a cash amount to the value of the administration fee on this mortgage. Given your original application was for a different mortgage at the same interest but fee-free, we believe this settlement to be fair. We are prepared to offer you £99 today. If you accept this now, we can close the complaint and move on with your application.”
Kate slid a prewritten cheque across the desk, signed by an unknown individual, presumably the branch manager.
Silence. I looked at the cheque and then up to Katie, then down to the cheque, then to Mum who was sat beside me for support. Her face was a mirror of mine.
“And the rest?”
“Sorry?” Katie blinked twice.
“Well, this can’t be the entire settlement. Given I’m not getting the full mortgage amount I was promised and after how much I’ve been messed about. I’m meant to be at work right now, not here. Besides, I should have got the fee-free mortgage in the first place. Thank you for this opening offer, but I reject.”
I handed the cheque back to my advisor. My response to what Katie, her manager and BankUK had assumed to be a fair offer stunned the former who once again returned to the same nervous state witnessed in our first meeting.
“Urm, can you give me a moment? I need to talk to my manager.” Katie requested.
“Sure,” I said, leaning back in my seat. “Take all the time you need. I’ve got all day.”
She returned a short while later to after apparently speaking to the invisible bank manager which we weren’t allowed to meet.
“My manager wants me to ask you if you had a settlement figure in mind.”
“Yes, something for us to work with. What would it take for all this to go away?”
“Can we meet the manager?” Mum chipped in. “I believe my daughter requested this on a previous email which you agreed to.”
“I would, but she’s in meetings all day today, but if you feedback to me I can pass any messages onto her.”
That was it, I decided. I’m officially banking with the mafia.
“Well I’d have to go away and carefully put a figure together. There’s money owed for transport, time off, stress of a house sale almost falling through and so forth. I think it’s best you tell your manager that I can’t be expected to pull out a random figure out of the air without some thought and analysis. It wouldn’t be very professional or fair to BankUK.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“But that said I would like to get this sorted today. So, in light of that, I propose that I take the £99 today (as this is money you owe me anyway) and I sign the mortgage documentation so I can get the ball rolling on my house purchase. Meanwhile, I want to keep that complaint open for me to take this further with your regional managers.”
In my head all I could hear was Aretha Franklin singing Respect. Part of me wanted to flick my hair storm out of the cube room right there and then.
“Let me speak to my manager.”
Those six words marked the end of face-to-face negotiations with the white collar mafia. They accepted this temporary deal (more than anything to get rid of me). I signed the paperwork and finally secured a mortgage. Not the mortgage I’d originally wanted, but a mortgage nonetheless.
After another month of further discussion via letter and email a more reasonable settlement was agreed. In digging about to prove they were in the right, BankUK discovered that Jack*, my first advisor, had actually been in the office for several days prior to his accident. Several working days where he’d forgotten/put off contacting me about my failed mortgage application. Coupled with the birthday card and Katie’s admittance that they’d failed me, BankUK had little to use in their defence. They’d have to give out more than £99, either through the imposing financial regulators or one woman and her persistent emails. They went for the logical option, firstly by offering the higher mortgage value I’d originally applied for, followed by a request for a final figure to close the complaint for good.
I collected all my receipts and carefully justified every penny of compensation but in the end no hard evidence was required. To say they handed me a blank cheque would be over selling it, but to say they cared deeply would be false. At the end of the day they’re a bank who would be taking interest payments from me and millions others in the years to come. They weren’t short of money then and they aren’t short now. The figure on the cheque wouldn’t make the slightest difference to them, but it would to me. Was it the greatest victory in the world of small claim settlements? Nah, of course not, but it was a victory nonetheless. I’d taken on the banks and won.
The icing on the cake was my demand to sign the settlement paperwork in no other location but Swindon. Previously an unthinkable request, BankUK shoved Katie in a car with a cheque and sent her packing to Wiltshire.
I signed the documentation, took the cheque and wished her well in life. It was the closest thing to a thank you card she or BankUK were ever going to get from me. After all the stress and frustration, I finally had a mortgage and could start formal proceedings on my house purchase.
This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far) click here.
Disclaimer: names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.
Six weeks after my first mortgage meeting I found myself sat in the same bank branch, listening to the same generic music, with Mum by my side. The latter element caused a great deal of unease among the staff, the Customer Service Assistant’s face said it all. She handed us drinks and scuttled off to warn Katie* about the deeply unhappy customer and her menacing bouncer.
In stark contrast to both former advisor Jack* and her telephone demur, Katie was a quieter, more reserved figure. The sort of person who looked very knowledgeable and nice, but not built to handle stress or pressure. Like Jack she looked not much older than me, although the engagement ring on her finger suggested a higher degree of maturity and stability compared to her predecessor. Early on, as part of attempts to break the tension, she commented on her house purchase. Oddly enough, it didn’t work.
By the time my meeting with Katie had come around I had developed strong, understandable and justified reasons to be ticked off with BankUK*. Waiting for the elusive Saturday slot I’d had time to simmer, research and rebound. I’d sat in my small house share room fuming at the situation, firing off emails to solicitors promising all was in hand. The offer had been put on the property in November and it was now mid-January, unsurprisingly people on both sides were starting to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of funds. The emails I sent back were at best holding emails, at worst down right lies. I settled with telling myself they were white lies, the only thing that could hold the sale together. When I wasn’t on email I was on the phone, researching and grilling BankUK. I didn’t believe for a second that what they’d done was above board and was determined to find out more. One Thursday evening the exhaustive, repetitive, calls finally bore fruit.
“…well BankUK’s lending policy changed on January 5th. We decreased the lending multiples on that day.”
“Remind me again what date my mortgage was declined? The application which was based on the higher lending limit?”
“It was declined on January 7th Miss Bennett.”
“Right. I want a transcription of this call please.”
With this previously withheld knowledge now firmly in my grasp, Katie’s attempts to try and lighten the mood did nothing but make her look like an increasingly fragile figure.
“Now, I’m aware you have a complaint with us, but I am here to start a new mortgage application, as discussed on the telephone…”
“Yep, I remember that call,” I replied with a straight face.
“We’ll pick up the other outstanding issues once I’ve submitted your new mortgage application,” Katie quickly added with a strained smile.
It was at that time I realised that Katie was perhaps not as hard faced as her telephone manner had suggested. When the office scanner started playing up I could see her hands visibly shake. Trying to cover up her emotions, Katie squeaked “this printer always plays up!” I meanwhile sat across the desk, unsure what to make of my new advisor. “This can’t be the same woman I spoke to on the phone” I thought, “a puff of wind would blow her over”.
Watching someone get into a state is never particularly pleasant, especially when it’s over the presence of one’s own mother. Minutes later, with advisor and printer getting into an ever worsening state, the Katie dashed out of the room to find an alternative scanner.
“She’s freaking out.”
“She wasn’t expecting me to be here. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s gone to her manager.”
“I’m not angry at her, she’s not the one responsible for messing this up. But if I don’t assert myself they’ll think they can walk all over me.”
After a vacating for a lengthy period, Katie returned to the room in a more composed state. I did everything I could to speed the meeting and forced myself to think happy thoughts when I agreed to apply for the lower sum. At the end of the meeting Katie took the print outs of the emails and a scan of the famous birthday card and promised that the complaint would be looked into.
“In order to move this on, I suggest we meet this Thursday.” Katie said, shuffling papers.
“I work in Swindon during the week. Can we do Saturday?” I asked.
“I do alternate Saturdays I’m afraid.”
“Do I need to come to this meeting? If all it involves is signing the agreement can I post it?”
“Sorry, it needs to happen in Heathley branch. It’s policy.”
I sighed. “Fine, I’ll use my annual leave to sit in a finance meeting.”
“Great, I’ll see you then.”
And that was that.
Other than a quick email confirming my second application had been approved (“too ruddy right it has been”), the next time I spoke with Katie was in the second meeting. And if I thought the handling of my application was already poor, the situation was about to get a whole lot more bizarre…
This post is part of the ‘First Time Buyer Diaries’. To view the full series (so far) click here.
It’s a gloriously sunny day in the fair town of Swindon, Britain. The temperatures are scorching, children are playing about on the lush green communal lawns and there are men walking around topless who really shouldn’t be. So why do I find myself ripping my hands to shreds as I tug away at weeds and vines in my garden?
Crawling under my front hedge to pick up pieces of rogue rubbish, putting together an outdoor table and realising at the finish line I’d screwed one part upside down and thereby having to start all over again. When I bought a house they did no tell me this is how I would spend my finite time on Earth. My government sold me a lie! Damn you Teresa May!
As I look at my patio garden, now with correctly assembled three piece dining set, I acknowledge that to some the small outdoor space would hardly pass as acceptable. The fact that despite the owner’s hard efforts, vine and weed sprouts are already starting to poke through the wicker fence would be inexcusable. There is no water feature or decorative sculpture, no plants and excluding the weeds there isn’t a speck of green. Not a single blade of grass can compete with the paving stones which stretch from the back door to the boarder of my territory. In fact it could be said that the only characteristic feature of the plot is the clothes horse proudly plonked in the centre to catch as much light as possible. As I type my floral duvet in ruffling ever so slightly in the near still breeze. Foliage will make an appearance eventually, as soon as I have the money to buy pots, soil and greenery which requires zero attention to look fabulous. (As I reread that I realise that basically I’m asking to plant a tub of weeds…)
And yet do I care? Pfft, of course not! Because although it’s not perfect and it’s not a 20 acre meadow, it’s mine. Who wants perfect? Who wants to battle a wild meadow on their weekends just to use it as a five minute conversation piece at dinner parties? Not me. You can keep all that, I’ll take my perfectly small, perfectly improve-able garden. It’s not ugly but a work in progress.
It may not be full of colour, bees and landscaped features but it’s mine and that makes it more attractive than any one blossom in your garden. You mess with my garden, you mess with me and my poorly constructed table.