Cathy's Not Come Home
With her two young children, a typical young working class mother arrives at the Belgrade, a big city derelict hospital which has been squatted. There are ferocious looking characters protecting the doorway, which has been barricaded with wood and wire mesh. In her case, though, they are not ferocious. She and the children are clearly in distress. They are homeless. They let her in. They've seen her like before.
Carrying one child, leading the other, she finds her way to the former kitchens. They've lit one of the stoves with debris from skips. A young man of West Indian origin is superintending cooking supper for 60. He's attempting to run this place as a 'commune'. The children sit frightened beside her. But she is appalled by the squalour and the couldn't care less attitude of some of the squatters. 'Why don't you tidy the place up? It could be quite nice here.' 'Wouldn't waste my energy on this pissing hole.' A 'holy' young man befriends them and gets on her nerves, though the children like him.
Next morning sees her trailing the children to the nearby local authority Housing Assessment Centre. She's had enough of it all. The children are whining. She's had more than enough. She explains she is not able to return to her home town because of a violent husband.
The council official offers her a place in their emergency accommodation. This turns out to be a series of long wooden huts on the side of a hill. Formerly they were World War II Army Diphtheria Isolation Huts. Her heart gives a lurch as a bus finally dumps them at the entrance. Inmates, mainly young women and children, crowd round her. They help her to find what is to be her temporary 'home'.
However, as the days pass she learns that it's not all misery here. There is a desperate camaraderie among these families, mainly one-parent families, who have washed up on these further shores of the Welfare State. The run down condition of the huts and caravans is appalling. The patronising ways of the male warden get on her nerves and she speaks her mind more than once. A 'prowler' is said to roam the place at night, intimidating the mothers and children. One evening the alarm goes out that he's been sighted. But it turns out to be Rob, her former husband, who breaks in and threatens her. He's finally driven out by the inmates, but vows to return.
Now she is told the council have investigated her case and have come to the conclusion that she is not their legal responsibility. They are aware of her predicament, however, and have arranged with her original local authority for her to be accepted into emergency accommodation back in her home town.
She's terrified at this prospect. Her taxi is ordered but, just before the deadline, with her and the kids packed and the taxi waiting, Jeff, the husband of another woman here, offers to drive her and the kids to another town, away from it all. There is one child of his who is travelling with them. Jeff says he hopes that in another town he may be able to find work and get out of this tragic downward spiral.
To a passer-by, catching sight of them through the windows of the van, they might seem like a parody of a happy family. But the mood of both of them is grim. She says, 'Are there no ordinary happy families any more? Sometimes I think the whole world is in emergency accommodation. Generation after generation. I know I was. In and out, in and out, as a child. I wanted to do better for my kids. When I met Rob I thought I'd met the right man to see his kids would never want.'
(A brief flashback)
She's sixteen. Her shy admission to Rob that she's in care, in a council Home. A series of short scenes. Courting. Marriage. Rob's job on the oil rig. Her first child on the way.
The excitement of buying his council flat. Another child. Rob tells her he's having problems with keeping up with the mortgage payments. The day for repossession approaches. Rob increasingly blames it on her and becomes violent. The bailiffs arrive and she and the children escape to a nearby refuge for battered women.
It's crowded and she and the children have to sleep on mattresses on the floor. Also, she's basically a fairly conventional young woman and she is upset by the politico cum lesbian attitude of the women who run it and some of the mothers here.
One day she gets talking to Paulette, a homeless young hippy woman who is parked in her living truck with her daughter in a nearby street. Paulette speaks of the difficulty of life in a converted lorry. Asked why she doesn't live in a house like everyone else, she says, 'Oh, I'd never live in a house, even if I could afford it.'
(Time present. Follows 1)
Arriving with Jeff in the new town. Jeff has cashed his giro and they use that money to book into a private hotel. Desperate, she tries to get into bed with him and he rejects her. 'Not in front of the children!'
This time she wants to stay clear of the local authority, if she possibly can. Leaving the children with Jeff, she's going round checking the prices of flats for rent, but she can't find anything she can afford.
She is beginning to become aware of the huge number of homes that are lying empty. She even sets out to track down the owners and gets evasive answers. Increasingly it strikes her that it is scandalous that so many properties should be empty when so many are homeless. When she was married she accepted her husband's basically Sun Reader complacent assumptions. Now she begins to question for the first time the values of a society which leaves a million homes empty when there are so many homeless people.
While exploring one empty property she is surprised by a group of hippies who are doing a recce of the building prior to squatting it. It is a culture shock, this meeting between this young woman who, in care, has been given a 'respectable' and institutionalised upbringing and these shabby hippies with their arrogance and aggression. One of them is Paulette, who she met before. The hippies are patronising, and shocked when she tells off one of the children in a way that they feel is too severe. Paulette is more friendly. She advises her to 'drop out' like them but she is appalled at the idea.
Jeff's money runs out. He moves on. She's sad. Despite his rejection she had come to feel she might make a go of it with Jeff. She and the children can't afford to go on staying at the hotel and so, with a certain grim despair, she once again takes the children on the long trudge to the local authority Housing Assessment Centre in this new town, here called the Homeless Unit. As before, she is allotted space in their Emergency Accommodation while her case is being investigated.
This Emergency Accommodation, however, is quite a surprise. The Leisure Fayre Holiday Motel, to which she has been directed, at first sight seems extremely plush. But, as she learns all too soon, the cosmetic facade hides overcrowding and misery. And, in fact, they won't be staying here long. To start with she views with great suspicion a pressure group of young black mothers, who are trying to achieve better conditions at the Motel. Her days are made slightly less intolerable there by her friendship with a young black lawyer, working with a charity, called Peter.
Recklessly, she joins the pressure groups and experiences an intoxicating sense of her own power, gets carried away and goes too far, loses her temper and yells at the warden.
She's already been warned about what might happen. She and the children are 'transferred'. Their destination is what is known as the Punishment Hotel, a gaunt inner city building with peeling stucco. It is a terrible place with a repressive and abusive management. There are fights at night. Many inmates are on largactil. The place has no facilities for cooking so they have to live on snacks. As one empty day follows the next, she is worried that the children are showing signs of being disturbed and are not getting enough to eat from take aways.
A weeks visit to a seaside hotel, arranged by a charity, emphasises the unhappiness of their condition. By chance, her former Mother in Law, who had taken her side against Rob over his violence, lives in a rose covered prefab nearby. Near to tears, she asks her to take the children for a while since she cannot bear to see them suffer in the hotel. 'Yes, I'll look after them for you, dear, while you get back on your feet.'
In tears, she returns to the Punishment Hotel on her own. Heartlessly, the management point out that, alone, she cannot stay. She realises she's pregnant again.
She returns to the Urban Hospital Squat which we saw at the start of the film. It has deteriorated and the people have deteriorated too. There is now a nightmarish quality to it. A notice we didn't see before says 'For God's Sake Give the People Homes'.
She wanders out to an open air squat nearby where many people are sleeping under the concrete pillars of a road extension. There is a momentary alleviation of her unhappiness when an old guy, drunk on special brew, points out, 'It may be pissing desperate, darling, but there's one thing. There's lots of us in the same boat. You're not on your own.'
Finding she misses the children too much, she telephones to say that she's coming to pick up the children. Her Mother in Law sounds strange on the phone. She arrives to find that, with collusion of the local authority, her Mother in Law has had a care order placed on them, under the 'parent homeless unable to provide' legislation. There is a council worker waiting who explains the situation to her. 'You took them away from the accommodation provided for you by the local authority and it appears that you have no home to take them to. Of course, as soon as you find a home for yourself and the children, the council will be only too willing to let you have them back.'
She says goodbye to the children and the council worker drives her back to the station. Emotionally numbed in her misery, going who knows where, she stops at the counter of a streetside caravan café and sees, pinned on the notice board of a newsagent on the crowded pavement behind, a card advertising a flat. She's about to walk away when she suddenly realises that the price asked is one she can afford. She goes to find it and it's still available. She says she'll have it but there's one snag. If only she hadn't spent her money on train fares and phone calls. She'll have to get her housing benefit in advance from the 'Social'.
But, as she tries to sort this out in a sort of excited despair, it transpires that this is no longer possible. Housing benefit is now paid in arrears, no longer in advance. While this is being sorted out she loses the accommodation.
She meets Paulette again, the young woman living in the converted lorry, who urges her again to join her on the road and says she will come with her to get the children. She finds Paulette fairly repellant. She's every inch of a hippy and has about her that rather 'wild' quality which attaches to those who don't live in a conventional house. But it's her only chance.
She knows where the council has placed the children and down at the seaside town they manage to waylay and 'kidnap' the children, who are delighted to see her. They explain they're all going off for a holiday. The kids are thrilled. 'But why aren't we going back to get our clothes?' they ask, not really understanding the situation.
Mother and two children have now dropped one more rung down the social ladder. There are many things about their new life she finds appalling. The joy of being back with the children and having 'her own front door' again outweighs all other worries, even though the front door in this case is a flimsy affair in the side of a lorry. At any rate it is better than the inactivity of the council hotels.
Through Paulette she meets other homeless people living in lorries and bender tents on common land or by the road. A part of her is becoming enamoured of this bucolic way of life. She meets Paul, a hippy of whom she would have been suspicious in the old days. They have conversations about 'But why don't you wash?' There are things about him that make her flesh creep. But the children are enjoying the open air life.
With the kids she moves into Paul's bus. A friend warns her, 'It may be alright in the summer, but wait till winter comes.'
So it is that her next baby is born on the floor of his bus as Paulette looks after the other two. They're waiting to be evicted from this roadside and fear the worst when a car draws up. But it is some local traditional travellers with ancient remedies, and next comes a young council midwife. She says she asks to have all the hippy cases because she likes them so much.
She is happiest when it is just them on their own but Paul is gregarious and feels it a lot harder for 'the authorities' to evict them if they are in a group. So they move in with many others living in vehicles in woodlands.
The kids are playing nearby. Word gets round that the police are coming. Paul is nowhere to be seen. She herself drives the vehicle out of the woods, since the other vehicles are being trashed. In the confusion the two older kids can't find her. As they stand, terrified, crying, they are picked up by hippies in another vehicle, also in the rout.
Once free of the police and the vigilantes, she parks the vehicle and pauses to take stock of her position. She has arrived in a sort of limbo, without access to fixed addresses or telephone, or the cooperation of the police. Those who have all these things may find it hard initially to appreciate the considerable problems she will face in getting the children back together.
Paul reappears and dedicates himself to finding the children with her. But this search is to become a nightmare. There will be many incidents and near misses as she seeks to find them.
And she is getting tired of life on the road. At last she finds a home in a condemned prefab chalet in the woods. Now that she has a fixed address she believes it will be easier to find the children. She's aware that the council will also be looking for them. It's possible they may even try to take the baby away from her. Paul says he can't stand living in a 'house' and returns to the road.
She got the prefab so easily because it is condemned. Its days are numbered. And she has become an angry and socially aware young woman, very different from the complacent bride who, a few years ago, got married to Rob. Learning that there is enough empty office space in the local town to accommodate scores of homeless families, she scribbles the slogan 'Homes, Not Offices' on the wall of the local rural town hall - a gesture, even as she does it, she realises is futile. Now the prefab is being bulldozed. She and the baby are out on their own again.
She joins a squatting group that has located an army camp that has been empty for many years. The squat is successful. She is thrilled when a torch lights up what she has been allotted - a pleasant officer's bungalow.
She moves in here and it is a good life although the water has been cut off and there is no electric. Security guards are placed at the perimeter fence but it's not too bad and it is her dream that when she finally finds the children they can live here anonymously under assumed names so the care order will not be activated. They once again are being threatened with eviction.
Their struggle has obtained media publicity. Now the eviction is taking place. Standing amidst the debris of the squat she's asked to say a few words for television.
Interviewer: 'But don't you agree this is all a bit of a mess? You've made it all quite ugly.'
She: 'Ugly - It's easy for you people in houses not to be ugly. Look at you. You're beautiful aren't you? We're not ugly because we're ugly. We're ugly because being homeless has made us ugly.'
Interviewer: 'The smells are not very savoury.'
She: 'Because the drains are blocked, you cunt!'
She pushes the interviewer into the mud.
Director (to Cameraman): 'Are you still running?'
Cameraman: 'You bet! Wouldn't miss this.'
The interviewer is struggling out of the mud and she is thrilled yet appalled at what she's done.
Suddenly there in the blaze of the spotlights the two children have appeared. 'Mum!'
She embraces them. Tears of joy run down her cheeks. But not only tears of joy. She's well aware that, once again she has no home to take the children to. And, with this blaze of publicity, it may be easy for the local authority to trace her and activate the care order.
Also her display of 'unreasonableness' on the television screens may endorse the local authority's view that she is not a fit mother for her children.
We see official looking figures making notes and one takes her photograph.
Our last sight of them is as they walk out of the crowd and out of the film, the romantic image of a mother, a baby in her arms, and two fantastically happy children hanging on to her skirts. But the mother is weeping because she knows they are bound for nowhere.
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