In the first KYD No. 21 teaser, Melanie Joosten investigates how the Great Australian Dream is slipping through the hands of our most vulnerable.
There was nothing wrong with the furniture at the op shop. A table performed the role of a table: with one chair it became a desk, two more a place for Neville to serve up a roast to his daughters on the weekend. He sat himself down on couch after couch, wondering about the houses they had previously resided in. How many couches had he owned in his lifetime? He hadn’t been expecting to buy another one at the age of seventy-six. At least, not one from the Salvos or Vinnies or whichever kind-hearted charity had herded all the couches into this warehouse for him to take his pick. A couch, a table and chairs, a bed and something to put the television on. He had bought a fridge, and his daughters had dropped off a washer and dryer. Was that everything he needed? When would the furniture begin to feel like his, not somebody else’s? When would his house begin to feel like home?
Neville reminds me of my dad. It isn’t physical: Neville is taller than my father and his hair is a soft, laundered white while Dad’s is clipped close to the skull and still greying. It’s not his manner either: Neville’s conversation is a polite tugboat, ploughing resolutely through the choppy waters of my questions, whereas Dad’s manner is that of a kite surfer, ducking and weaving in the hunt for a sharp aside or witty comment. But there is something about Neville’s steadfast nature that reminds me of my dad who, in the tradition of fathers everywhere, retains a sense of infallibility, a legacy of the childish part of me that will always believe Dad knows everything about the machinations of the world. Neville shares this easy confidence, which is why his story was such a hit to the gut. Listening to Neville talk, I imagined my own father coming undone and saw my own helplessness in the face of it.
‘A nice home, mortgage-free, a lovely garden, a dog and a cat. It was a nice lifestyle, you know? Brunches on Sunday, walks on the beach or a ride along the river in Perth – all that sort of stuff.’ Having worked in a senior position at Qantas for over twenty years before running his own business, Neville had set himself up for a decent retirement. But three years ago, at the age of seventy-three, he received a phone call from Diane, his wife of eighteen years. His good life, as he knew it, disappeared.
‘He had this great idea he was going to be a trader,’ said Neville about his wife’s son, Richard. When Neville and Diane met, they each had adult children from their first marriages. Almost two decades later and in a bit of a tight spot financially, Diane’s son Richard and his young family had moved in with Neville and Diane.
‘Richard had this room in our house set up with about thirteen screens and he used to work at night, trading on the American stock market. I had no idea,’ said Neville. ‘He wasn’t very communicative, you could never really pin down exactly what he was up to.’
The global financial crisis had been making its mark around the world, but Australia, particularly Perth, tiara-like at the head of the mining boom, had seemed out of harm’s way. Uncrossing his legs, Neville leaned forward in his chair, ‘The bottom line is, long story short, just after the GFC Richard’s venture failed dramatically. It was only then I found out that my wife had allowed him to use the equity in our house.’
Within two years, at the age of seventy-five, Neville found himself adrift. ‘Homeless and penniless. They’re not words I ever thought would apply to me – even then it didn’t feel applicable. But it was. I suppose I had suddenly found myself in a very emotional situation.’
Neville and his wife had been together for twenty-four years, living in a house Diane had originally bought and which they had both paid off and renovated. As Diane had made the original purchase, Neville’s name was never on the contract. The house was worth close to $800,000 when Diane signed over the equity and became a guarantor for Richard.
‘She thought Richard could do no wrong because he was her son,’ said Neville. ‘When Richard crashed and burned we had to fire sale the house, so we only got $630,000 for it, and any savings or superannuation we had went, any asset we had. We’d only retired a few years before when I was seventy, and my wife was sixty-three. So we suddenly found ourselves homeless and financially broke – we had to go on the pension.’
It was Neville’s first foray into the welfare system. ‘I’d always had work. I’d worked hard for myself and for my business; I always had an income so I’d never at any time in my life been on a welfare benefit. And while I was grateful, I found it a little demeaning. It was quite impersonal.’
The welfare system wasn’t the safety net Neville envisaged, however, because of rules that discourage people ‘giving away’ their assets to family in order to claim the aged pension. As Diane had ‘given’ their house and savings to her son, they were both only allowed to receive around a third of the aged pension. Neville found a job with a relative, doing menial work in a warehouse, while Diane took up childminding and other paying domestic tasks.
‘Well, probably at forty-five, even fifty-five, you might have a chance to get back on your feet again. But at seventy-three it’s a bit different. After everything happened…’ Neville trailed off, shaking his head.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Neville and Diane’s marriage didn’t survive. Neville left behind anything that wouldn’t fit in his car, including his dog, and drove across the Nullarbor to Melbourne – a city he hadn’t lived in for two decades.
‘Suddenly I was back here, living between my two daughters and my sister, doing the whole couch-surfing thing, and it was then it just hit me that being middle–’ Neville interrupted himself, lifting a finger. ‘Well, being old and broke and homeless wasn’t all that pleasant.’
Want to read the rest? Issue 21 will be available online Monday 13th April! Be the first to read it by purchasing a print or online subscription to KYD.
Image credit: Woodleywonderworks/Flickr