Day fifty-eight. The pompous classical music, a tinny recording of fugues now associated with feelings of helplessness, rage and defeat, plays from my phone for 44 minutes. Still waiting, ever waiting.
It may seem wrong to loathe an organisation that gives money to underprivileged Australians, but for those who have listened to the unending liquid pain as they wait on hold for 57 minutes, for those who have waited in tiresome lines to be told that they can do something online when the website told them to go to their nearest branch, for those who have filled out train-twisting forms, and for those who have waited months for something they are entitled to, hating Centrelink comes as naturally to Australians as knowing that Vegemite is far better than Marmite.
It all started when I turned sixteen. With mum, I stepped through the billowing curtain of air conditioning that welcomed us to the realm of monotonous waiting and weirdly shaped green armchairs. The first visit of countless to come. As mum and a uniformed woman discussed me over a desk, I vaguely understood that I would be given some money every fortnight. Great. Money wasn’t important to me yet, but a sense of entitlement had already started to bud inside me. The money went into mum’s account, I was given weekly allowance, and I was as happy as a hormonal Supre-wearing teenager could be.
Soon I moved out of home, started renting, and took for granted the Youth Allowance and Rent Assistance that almost entirely funded my life. It was like having a perpetually clean house and a maid you never saw. Things went smoothly for years, until that fateful day. The 18th of January 2016. Fifty-eight days ago.
I had just arrived back in Australia, jet-lagged, disheveled and experiencing culture shock. But there was one thing I had to do immediately: reapply for Youth Allowance. My bank account was in dire need of replenishment after a year of travelling. Eeexcellent, my inner Mr Burns crooned as I thought of the prospect of getting Centrelink money again. I filled out the online application form with the buoyancy of hope, barely noticing its excruciatingly difficult and seemingly irrelevant questions. I was elated with expectancy. Not long now, I thought.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Days, weeks passed by. Centrelink was as silent as the stars. The only information I had was that my claim was ‘pending’. Thank you Centrelink. Really helpful. I borrowed money from my parents, even though they barely have any themselves. It won’t be for long, I repeated with decreasing conviction.
A month came and went and I moved to Melbourne. Surely this metropolitan coffee-drinking graffiti-painted vintage-wearing city will have a job for me. Wrong again. University began and suddenly I had to think about money and assignments. This formula = stress. I harassed Centrelink like a deranged lover, calling them over and over, checking my online account three times a day, visiting them bleary-eyed in the morning, with just one question on my lips: how long will it take? Silence.
I went through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, then turned to other ways to keep me sane while I continued to borrow money from my parents. Yoga, meditation, jogging, the law of attraction. My urge to burn down the Preston Centrelink building subsided (somewhat).
Until this morning, when I awoke from a dream that showed me what I must do: throw a tantrum in Centrelink till they stop avoiding me and let me get answers. I felt empowered, in control of my life, willing to do anything to get the money I really truly need. Because I’ve only got $116 left in my bank account.
I strode through the billowing air-conditioned curtain, confident that I could cry on demand, and waited in line. (Un)fortunately I was seated in the waiting area and didn’t get to wail and flail my arms about. I sat next to an elderly Italian man and waited, repeating to myself that I am in control of my fate. Law of attraction. I can make this happen.
A woman incorrectly pronounced my name to the room and I followed her to her desk. I asked the usual question. Answer: another month at the very least. I felt the air exhale from me like a whoopee cushion. I was flattened. Defeated. Not in control. Fifty-eight days I’ve been borrowing money from my poor parents, eating rice because it’s cheap and filling, drinking goon instead of real alcohol, averting my eyes every time I walk past an op-shop, finding hair-ties on the ground instead of buying them and using beer bottles with sticks in them to decorate my room. Fifty-eight days!
The fake tears I had been storing turned into real ones as I rushed through the automatic doors into the heat and found an alley to crouch in. I need my precious money, I muttered as I stared at a reflection of myself in a puddle. Yes precious, my reflection crooned back at me, we must have our monies. We won’t eatsies without our precious monies. I nodded and felt sorrier for myself than ever before.
Fiscal uncertainty isn’t fun. Waiting isn’t fun. But when I do finally get my Centrelink money, I’ll be richer not only in the bank but with wisdom, patience, being able to cry on demand and knowing how to light a building on fire. And those are skills that money can’t buy.