“It’s very early in the morning here,” James tells me.
I look at the clock and work out the time difference. It’s eight a.m, not early, I retort, while munching on an apple and he laughs, telling me, “actually having something important to do at eight a.m is a BIG shock to the system at the moment.”
I ask him to tell me how lockdown’s been for him. He giggles, “erm,” and pauses, mouth open, looking around the room like he’s searching for words, “…rubbish,” another pause, “mostly.”
I must have pulled a face, because he looks at me, “oh, don’t do sad faces, it’s okay. It could be a lot worse.”
He speaks slowly, pausing often, considering his words. “I was thinking about this yesterday, trying to work out what the overriding emotions are..were, and I realised it very much followed a grief pattern, initially, because I lost everything.”
“I’ve lost the life I knew, which is quite strange, and now one of the most prevalent emotions is anger, which is really annoying to try and live with, as I’m not normally quick to get angry. There’s so many things that have angered me over the course of lockdown; I’ve been sitting on my own and seething at the state of the world and people’s stupidity. Which is not a healthy thing to be doing.”
I ask him what kind of things and he looks at the screen, “erm..everything,” and he breaks out laughing, telling me about his frustrations with the British government and the media. He’s been angry with himself too, in that even though he has lost a lot, he’s doesn’t think he’s in that bad a position compared to some people.
“It’s an old cliche, but it’s a rollercoaster.”
The only person he’s seeing is his Nan, and even though it’s only to drop off shopping from a safe distance, he’s not taking any risks. James lives alone and so hasn’t ‘seen’ anyone for nearly two months.
He’s also lost all his income, possibly his career. Over a year ago James left his full-time employed job to go freelance and has spent the last twelve months carving out four different income streams, spreading the risk, “so if one failed, I had three others to fall back on. No one could have anticipated a situation where all four would go pop at once. In the space of a week I went from a full diary to…nothing.”
I ask him if he thinks it’s temporary or permanent. “The event management and running [coaching] will all return at some point, in some form, but what’s really frustrating for me is that I can’t say when. At the moment I don’t have any income and I can’t put a date in the diary, so I don’t know when my next opportunity to earn any money is going to be. If I knew, I could see some light in the end of the tunnel and so it makes decision making now really tricky.”
The UK government put measures in place to support people, but James fell through the cracks. He doesn’t own a company (who get a one off payment), isn’t employed (80% of wages if unable to work) and hadn’t yet submitted a tax return for his first year of freelancing which gave self-employed people a payment based on their earnings. He’s applied for Universal Credit which takes at least six weeks to process, and still doesn’t know how much it will be, “it’s frustrating.”
He’s wrestling with the notion of having to apply for an employed role for the security. “If I go back into full time employment it becomes very difficult to go back into my freelance work, but I might not have the choice because I need to bring in some income. Because of the way the events industry works, if I’m not available for the few events I might have left, then I’ll lose the contracts and they’ll be gone.”
James has spent the last year building up his work and his contacts to fill his diary and survive financially, plus the opportunity to pick up more work as the year went on. Potentially losing that for an employed role for a few months is a big risk.
“The biggest challenge is the uncertainty. If I knew when work might restart, I could likely make it work and just about cope. I can live on beans. I need to take action now, but that action might preclude me from doing the work I love.”
Freelancing gave James the work-life balance he wanted; periods of hard graft in event management interspersed with downtime spent either working in outdoor instructing or travelling and enjoying the outdoors.
Several people have come forward wanting to help James, in different ways, and I ask him why he thinks that is. He shifts in his seat, looking uncomfortable, “essentially they must think I’m a pretty nice guy, and they want to see me succeed, which is lovely.” I smile and ask him how he feels about it, “flattered and uncomfortable,” and I laugh. I knew he would. I ask if he’d take their help, and there’s a long pause while he looks serious.
“I don’t know. It goes back to the whole uncertainty. If I needed help to pay the rent this month, knowing that next month I’d be working, then I might possibly reach out. When I don’t know what the future holds, it makes it a bit more difficult to accept help from individuals because I don’t want to be in that same situation two or three months down the line and their generosity not actually have helped make a difference, if that makes sense?”
I ask if he thinks those individuals would see it that way too, and he strokes his chin, “I don’t know whether they would or not.”
I put a suggestion to him perhaps people offered because they want to see him carry on living the life he’s worked so hard to create, and that he so obviously enjoys, and would rather support him than have his dreams quashed for the sake of a bit of money for a few months. Because James is also the type of guy to not want to ditch a new job after a few months, it “doesn’t sit well with my morals”.
“I think you’re right. I’ve told people if I do end up accepting their money, I’d rather go and do a day’s graft for them than just take the cash.”
We pause for a while, the subject finished. I ask him if there’s anything else about lockdown that he wants to share.
“I’ve learnt a lot about sitting with and working through my own emotions, on my own and for a long time. I’ve noticed more things, like realising my Easter Cactus has beautiful flowers with an incredible yellow stamen that open during the day; I’m never normally here to see it.”
“If I just knew the date this would all be over I’d be loving life right now, making the most of it, and this’d actually be a really enjoyable period of life. If only that uncertainty didn’t pervade everything.”