All I ask is a chance to prove that money can't make me happy.
- Spike Milligan
When I was about eight, my sister and I opened up a bunch of cool, shiny batman figurines in the toy aisle of the Shoprite. With our boundless stealth and cunning minds, we assumed that Batman, Robin and Catwoman could have a quick adventure, and nobody would be the wiser. An assistant found us, obviously. My mom had to pay for the toys, obviously. And they were what, R50, maybe R60 each? Big money. She took our pocket money away, and a measly R10 a week would go towards the toys until they were paid off.
In the long run, my mom made a profit out of that embarrassing day, because she never restored our pocket money. It's been fifteen years, and I'm still paying off that bloody Robin.
Here's the thing about money.
People who have it don't think it's a big deal.
I kinda hate those people. And I kinda am one of those people.
My formative years (do people still say that?) I didn't have a lot of money. My dad loved casinos more than he loved our house, and he ended up trading the latter for the former. My mom worked at a deli and then as a taxi driver to keep the family afloat. I can't remember a time when she wasn't exhausted from work. We moved a few times before landlords could kick us out for not paying rent. My clothes were faded, exuberant numbers from family friends who'd clean out their wardrobes and think of poor Janet's girls.
While I saw myself as poor, I didn't have much angst about it. It wasn't a reflection on me that the adults in my life were selfish or mathematically challenged or whatever, right? And why would I want to go on school trips to Warmbaths anyway? I had my carefully curated collection of Pokemon tazos, and while I wasn't happy, I didn't let myself get miserable by entertaining the hope that I'd ever have anything more.
But things started to take a turn when I was about sixteen and my mom took a risk and opened up her own business: selling replica oil paintings at a stall at the local market. I helped out every weekend and things were painfully slow at first. We didn't have a single sale for almost four months. We'd be on our feet, showing people paintings, hope lifting the corners of our mouths while defeat dragged our shoulders down.
But one day, a nice blonde woman bought a Mediterranean scene and paid with a cheque that, to my astonishment, cleared. Money started trickling in, so slowly that I didn't realise we had any until we moved to a bigger flat in a nicer area two years later.
My sister, through sheer irrational willpower, had gotten herself through a year of university before it was time for me to apply. I told people I wanted to study publishing, because being a writer was far too foolish an ambition. Anyone can write, what made me think anyone would want to pay me to do it?
University changed my life because it changed my perceptions. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who didn't worry about money – they didn't even think about it. They had new cars and shopped in Sandton and didn't even know how much their course fees were. They had cards to pay for a R50 salad from the cafe every day. One of my first weeks there, I had a conversation with a guy who said he liked to travel, so I asked where he'd been. “Brazil, England, Greece, New York,” he began - I specifically remember my eyes widening at this point, so much so that I daren't remind him that New York wasn't a country. He was surprised at my surprise and even more surprised when I asked him how he managed it. “Well, just family holidays and stuff, you know...” he said edgily, as if I'd take all his travel away from him if he didn't justify it.
I had plenty of moments like that – accidentally making rich people feel uncomfortable by making them feel rich. Of course, making people feel uncomfortable is one of my undeniable talents, but I think I've gotten better at this particular strain of awkwardness. For instance, I no longer respond to people moaning about Paris being so crowded in the spring by sunnily saying, “I wish I had your problems.”
Though my mother's business was paying rent, I was reliant mostly upon my dad's sporadic support when it came to paying fees. For three years my stomach twisted every month's end, knowing that this will be the month that the money doesn't come together, this will be the month that they'll kick me out because I'm a fraud and these clothes belong to my mother's best friend who brought them over to our house in a big plastic bag.
But I made it through – call it luck or the law of attraction or a small financial miracle, but I got my degree. And after that, I got a year's Merit Award to carry on and do Honours, which I did simply because you don't turn down free stuff. Education doesn't grow on trees.
But the problem is that once I'd gotten out of university and out of the cast-iron socially acceptable excuse of having no money because I'm living 'the student life' (although I never abused alcohol on a regular enough basis to be worthy of that title) I've finally come to a conclusion.
I want to be rich, damn it.
There, I said it. The depressing thing is that I don't just want to be rich now, I want to be rich five years ago. I've seen life on the other side. I want to be rich five years ago, so that I didn't have to spend my weekends at the bloody market holding up paintings and grinning like a maniac, so I could drive to house parties on the other side of the world in my own car, so I could go to fests where everyone walks around in flip flops and sleeps in tents and pretend to be poor for a long-weekend. And most importantly, I want to be rich five years ago so I could take all that stuff for granted.
The truth is, I'm sorta rich now – well, the teenage me would've thought that I'm loaded. I have a whole R500 in my bank account – do you have any idea how many chip packets with the tazo-strip that'd buy? I 'work' one or two days a week (still at that selfsame
hell market) and don't have income the rest of the time, and yet a roof magically stays over my head and the good pickles are still stocked high in the cupboards. I spend my days writing, pushing, straining to get something of decent quality out of the hormone-soaked creative cesspool of my mind. I've written over twenty-thousand words this month, and all but eight of them are ugly.
I'm living a borderline-moneyless existence, while almost everyone I spent four years studying with are driving their lovely cars to work in posh buildings, or overseas traveling or studying or suffering the crowds of Paris.
And while I know it's only temporary, that maybe one day my words will be pretty enough to sell, I can't help but feel like I'm still paying off that bloody Robin.