Living below the poverty line in the UK is no fun. For author Cash Carraway, it means a lifetime of temporary accommodation and unstable employment while dealing with the snap judgments of a country that regards her as a stain on society. In this abridged extract from her hard-hitting but darkly funny debut memoir Skint Estate, she writes about working as a soon-to-be single mother in a Soho peep show.
My pregnancy smells of stale semen.
The owner, Vladimir, tells me he chose the song because of its perfect wank tempo.
One £2-coin buys you 15 seconds of woman and, as the searing chorus quickly hits at just 30 seconds into the track, the familiarity of the song lulls the customer into a gentle sense of security, ensuring they are able to rub one out at leisure whilst enjoying their semi-public display of voyeurism.
During my audition Vladimir tells me that in Russia they have a saying –
Тише едешь, дальше будешь.
It means if you take things slowly you will go further.
And it’s clearly a business plan that works, Cher hasn’t left the peep-show stereo since 1986 and Vlad is rolling in cash. When I first approach him for a job, he, like all people in business, isn’t too keen on employing a pregnant woman, but I eventually seduce him on the idea that public viewings of my constantly changing body will be a source of intrigue for the customers, leading them to return regularly to check in on my progress.
Vlad takes a long hard look at me and through squinted eyes decides I look a little bit like a young Cher, and not only will a pregnant woman add a touch of the exotic to the peep show, he reckons my tragic little story fits perfectly within the narrative of the 2 minute and 36 second pop song.
I could have applied for a job at a call centre but I’m on a deadline – having just 26 weeks to raise a whole £10,000 if I’m going to ensure that I don’t bring my baby ‘home’ to a refuge or council-imposed bed and breakfast. £10,000 isn’t a figure pulled from nowhere – landlords often ask for up to six months’ rent in advance from single mums, especially those on an unstable income, and as the peep show sits undecidedly within the eyes of the law I’m unable to provide a credible work reference. And sex workers have zero rights when it comes to maternity pay.
It could be any time of the night or day, but I know it is somewhere between 10 AM and midnight because that is when my shift begins and ends. There are no windows and there is no running water. You cannot get a phone signal because we are underground and the management refuses to pay for Wi-Fi. The clock in my claustrophobic five foot by six foot sex cell stopped working sometime in the 1970s and, despite Vladimir’s obsession with time, watches are banned in the peep show – time is not sexy.
There are always two women on shift and there are four peepholes active at any one time where they can spy on Dasha, Tasha, Tanya, Misha, Masha – a rotating slew of pretty young Polish and Lithuanian women new to London. Or they can spy on me. I am by far the oldest and least attractive and sometimes the customers watch me sitting on my stool crying and sometimes they witness me puking into the bin, but my peephole is the busiest. I’m a freak show.
Each day I spray a can of Oust but nothing removes the stench. I like to think that, when the building is inevitably bought up by investors and turned into luxury apartments, its wealthy tenants will be forever haunted by the brazenly abandoned spunk that has seeped deep into the building’s bricks and foundations.
On the day of my last ever shift, when the peep show had closed for the school run, Vlad, Caterina and Dasha surprised me with a baby shower. We drank Fanta Fruit Twist in plastic champagne glasses stolen from the clip joint next door and all the girls chipped in to have a cake made from the Slovak bakery on Berwick Street.
It read: Тише едешь, дальше будешь.
"A good lesson for you!" cheered Vladimir.
I felt content for the first time in my pregnancy. Vlad’s perfect wank tempo provided a good life mantra.
When we ripped the cake apart it revealed a light pink sponge – just like my friend had for her gender reveal on her YouTube channel.
Then they blindfolded me and led me to the office. Inside it was rammed with presents and balloons. Turns out my regulars had been dropping off gifts for the last few weeks. Men delivering brand new buggies, their children’s barely used sleepsuits, a Moses basket. One man even gifted me his ex-wife’s breast pump just before he ejaculated into my booth.
At quarter to four, with a small queue forming outside the peep show as the customers returned to witness my final pregnancy update, Caterina suggests we do an impromptu maternity shoot using the camera on her phone; me and my bump next to a pile of cum tissues. Me and my bump attempting to climb the pole. Me and my bump spying through the peephole.
The next morning, I don’t cycle into Soho. Instead hailing a taxi and dragging my life from the refuge to my new flat where I’ll be able to bring my daughter when she is born in the coming weeks. I hand over six months’ advance rent to the landlord, ensuring a borrowed roof for her life to begin. The walls are heavy with damp, there is no hiding from the mould and it smells like the budget Butlins chalets where I spent every Whitsun week with Nana as a child – but at least we have a place just for us.
Poverty always has a smell. And a sound. The smell is damp. It’s a step up from stale semen.
Skint Estate by Cash Carraway is out now, published by Ebury Press.