Flying solo at Centrelink
The thankful anonymity of standing in a queue of other dead-eyed citizens was a numbing introduction to accepting, nay needing, welfare; until the screech of bored children and the frustrated ranting of grown men crystallized our common sense of desperation and futility.
I’d never separated with my long-term partner before so this was all new territory. Obviously the question of how my now meagre wage would cover the mortgage, car repayment and private school fees was a burning one, but so was the mystery of how people could actually go down town in their pyjamas. I’m serious! Flannelette Winnie the Pooh pj pants, faux-ugg boots, an oversize ACDC shirt and a synthetic pink beanie with built-in plaits, and that was just the mum!
Then there was the professionally attired senior lady with an appointment but, after introducing herself to the roving clip-board wielding ‘maitre d’, was left waiting 45 minutes before being told there’d been an error (read: a double booking). She would have to make another appointment for another day to discuss her superannuation arrangements, never mind the impact spending more time off work would have on her relationship with her employer!
And I felt so sorry for the bewildered older gentleman forced to use a Centrelink courtesy phone to call Centrelink because the Centrelink employees present were not allowed to discuss his options. He had been laid off from his roof carpentry job when the economic downturn halted the building boom and needed an income to stay afloat.
Hard of hearing and distracted by background noise, the man couldn’t understand the operator so jarringly and repeatedly cawed “ayyh? I can’t hear ya, can ya speak up please mayht”.
He left none the wiser but, in typical fashion, I was beginning to see a silver lining – Centrelink was an untapped resource of human drama, a contemporary snapshot of ordinary Australian society, a soapy reality spin-off of Neighbours and a budding author’s dream location for air-conditioned people-watching and eavesdropping.
I visibly cringed as my name was called but dutifully followed a shuffling man who looked more miserable than his clientele, to a cubicle where I answered personal questions about separation dates, living arrangements, pay scales and bank account balances.
And so, it became official. I was a sole parent (I reject the ‘single mum’ label; it conjures unfortunate and probably untrue images of cigarette smoking, bourbon- drinking desperados on the look out for another man, any man, with a pay packet) and the Australian government was going to help me make ends meet. Phew! Thank you fellow taxpayers.
It was at once grateful and perplexed. I felt brave but dreaded what my next move would have to be. The fear of the unknown was raining down on me and reality was dawning – the predictable life my children and I had known, was over.