Nearly all the component parts of the story of ‘Cathy’ were in place by the end of January 1965, when I wrote the following story line for the play, to be called ‘The Abyss’, later to be renamed ‘When Cathy Came to Town’ and finally ‘Cathy Come Home’.
She’s 17, attractive, freed at last from ties to her family, heartwhole, at the age of consent but unconsenting as yet, fed up with boring job, hitches a lift down to the great city.
Arrived, she gets a job in a garage, falls for Reg, a delivery driver. They get engaged.
Five years later. Cathy now has three children. They have been living with Mum-in-law. Now there’s a flaming row. Finishes with Cathy saying: Alright, we’ll go.
In the local shop, an old crony tells Cathy: You shouldn’t have done that. It’s hard to get a place of your own these days.
But they get a place of their own, a couple of rooms, and they’re happy enough. Various scenes show this.
The rent is dear, about eight pounds a week. They can just scrape through on this till Reg falls sick. Then they fall in arears (they’ve got HP commitments).
They move to a slum that they can afford. But a local health inspector tells them he’ll overlook it for now, but they must not allow any more additions to their family.
Cathy is once more pregnant, they are evicted. Once again Cathy trudges round the notice boards. But they realise that there’s no longer any place that they can afford. Reg manages to rent a converted bus. They drop a rung and are alright again. But Reg has had to leave his regular job. He gets casual work. But this means a drop in income. They get to know the strange world of caravan dwellers, and chalet dwellers, many of them dislodged householders like themselves. They feel at home. But their new found placidity is shattered.
A new housing estate is completed nearby. The inmates are hostile. A neighbouring van catches fire and five children are burnt. They are told they can’t stay here.
Reg has saved £25 now, pays it illegally in key money on a flat. But as they enter a bulldozer approaches from behind. It was condemned property. They have been tricked.
An attempt to sleep in the open ends disastrously.
They blow their last fiver on a night in a hotel where they dine as musak plays. Next morning Cathy sends the eldest girl back to the country to stay with her Mum.
Cathy and the other two kids go into the Home for the Homeless. Reg is not allowed with them.
Marlon contracts the disease endemic in the walls of the place and goes off to hospital. As time passes Cathy deteriorates.
A committee tells her that the new flats that she had hoped to move into are no longer allocatable to her. She will be moved into another institution as she has been ‘uncooperative’. Her husband has not been paying her fees.
In the new place, Cathy finds herself in a sort of spiritual no-man’s land. Some of the people here have been here for years. Reg comes and says that he’s going to see if he can get a job in Belfast. Cathy at first pleased says: You can get a place there and we’ll come and join you. Then she realises that he’s not coming again.
Mylene ill again.
A year passes, and now Cathy has only one hope – that a journalist who has come to interview her may ‘rescue’ her. But he doesn’t. Cathy gives in to despair. Her husband coming no more. Brutalised by what has become of her, she assaults one of the staff.
Cathy had by now arrived fairly close to the bottom of our social setup and you’d think that from now on things could only get better. This was not true. There was a lot lower that she could go yet. By now all available institutions were sardined to cramming point, and the number of families seeking admission was now at least 50 each week, 50 families going into the nether world which Cathy now inhabited. And when these families have been there some years, and still can’t find a place, what happens?
Even indefinite sardining them can’t ultimately stem the tide. Those who have been there longest, particularly the ‘rowdy’ or ‘uncooperative’ ones, are asked to leave. Cathy had not been rowdy, but she had frequently argued. She had always tried to put her case, she had always protested at what she fancied was injustice. One day she received a letter couched in the impersonal curt phrases of the local authority:
It was decided at the meeting of members of the Welfare Committee on 27th Sept 1961 that you should be required to vacate the temporary accommodation now provided for you and your children on or before 18th Nov 1961.
It must be clearly understood that the temporary accommodation will no longer be available after that date.
Chief Officer of the Welfare Department
She asked: What’ll happen next?
The others knew but they didn’t say.
In the days that followed she trudged the streets again, forlornly putting coins into the telephone, making last appeals to friends she once had, once more calling at house agents and scanning notice boards, even trying to contact her husband.
She found that her attitude to her stall had changed – it had become her home. She needed it now.
On the last morning, rather than wait for eviction, she packed her belongings into a pram, and left the building with her children, passing, in a fit of defiance, through the Tudor style front entrance that normally the homeless families were not allowed to use.
At midday she bought them some ices out of her pocket money from an ice cream vendor in a nearby park. Dusk came early and it saw her and her children wandering through the mists of the park. But it was too cold to remain there. As it grew dark she came down from the park, and she and the children got on a bus, heading for the station. Now she had four and threepence left, and when they arrived, trailing up the tall steps, she spent all except threepence on a cup of tea and some individual pies. She wrapped the children up and put them to sleep on benches in the waiting room. She told them her usual goodnight story. They slept. Until midnight no-one disturbed them – they could have been waiting for a train.
She sat, hunched beside them, their heads on her lap.
But after that, as the lights began to go out in the mammoth station, two men approached her. One stayed by her, the other put through a telephone call. She now had not the energy to move on any more.
Two women approached. They explained that they didn’t want her. It was the children. Cathy fought them, was subdued.
Cathy watched as they went, and called after them not to cry.
Then, without any more purpose to her life, she turned back into the station.
She went up to an all-night tea bar and spent her last threepence on a cup of tea.
High over the spindly roof of the station a moon was rising.
The breakup of one family by our society was complete.
And Cathy was free, free again as she had been that first evening six years ago when she left Manchester in the cabin of a lorry surging down the M1.
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