28th October 2019. My 50th birthday. I like birthdays. Especially mine. No matter how old I get, I always get that happy feeling on the morning of my birthday – a feeling that nice things will happen, there will be cake, and friends and good stuff. As a result, I’ve had some memorable birthdays. When I was four, I was so excited that I was sick, and I missed my birthday party. When I was 17, I had friends round and my best friend (slightly the worse for wear), fell asleep against my Dad’s newly planted, fledgling, tree, it never grew straight after that, tilting at an alarming angle across the garden for the rest of it’s life, forever known as S’s Tree. When I was 18, I had, what I thought was a very sophisticated dinner party, we danced to George Michael’s Faith, I wore a Laura Ashley dress (it was the 80s) and my sister’s boyfriend dressed as a Gorilla Gram and chucked me over his shoulder and ran round the living room with me. My 20th, my first birthday away from home, was spent drinking too much in my University kitchen. My 21st was spent with family and then at a party in my student house where this time we danced to Vogue (complete with dance moves thanks to a very talented friend who taught us the Madonna dance – my moves were considerably less impressive than his, especially after a bottle of cheap Merlot). My 30th was marked by a party, where (because it was held on Halloween) DEATH, complete with scythe, turned up trick or treating – there was much delight in quoting “It’s a Mr Death, he’s come about the reaping”. When I turned 40, E took me to Paris, where we stayed at Le Meurice, a hotel frequented by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, drank expensive champagne and walked for miles.
As my 50th approached, I know I couldn’t do much (I’d had no child maintenance for a year, so no chance of a party this time. However, whilst I wasn’t expecting party, when I was thinking about it, I was hoping for a relaxing day, maybe lunch with friends, definitely a glass of wine in the evening. This was all thrown into disarray, when I finally got my notice from the County Court re my hearing with E. It was set for 28th October 2019.
This was the first birthday I have ever woken up with an absolute sense of dread. This was the last thing I wanted. Ever since E had withdrawn his child support, almost exactly a year ago, I had tried everything I could to resolve things amicably. I had emailed him (ignored), I had contacted him via my legal representative (he did respond to her, but not with anything constructive, just complaints about, well, everything), I had gone to mediation, and sent him the information so he could go too (ignored). In the end, I was in such an untenable situation, that I had no choice but to apply to the courts. Even then, there was a three-month period, during which we tried to come to an agreement that the court would ‘rubber stamp’ for us, but nothing. E didn’t want to engage and there was nothing I could do to make him.
It costs a fortune to go to court. The court asks for over £200 just to hear the case, and legal representation varies, but in my case, it was £800. I’d paid a fortune (that I’d borrowed) and I knew, that in all likelihood E wouldn’t turn up. Nonetheless, I got myself ready and got the train to Luton, stomach plunging every five minutes, feeling sick, unable to eat, and aware that nothing would probably be resolved when I got there.
I’m not sure what I expected court to be like – impressive, marble walled and echoey I suppose, like on all the episodes of Silent Witness, or Morse, or all the detective tv programmes I’d watched. However, Luton County Court is probably the most depressing building I’ve ever seen. Located in a concrete jungle, it’s a 60s nightmare of functionally severe architecture. There’s no reception desk, just a couple of doors leading to a couple of lifts, and a board telling you where each department is located. I took the stairs to the second floor, they were multi-story carpark-like – concrete, cold, the sort of place you’d expect to see someone shooting up in a corner. When I got to the actual family court, I was reminded of the kind of office you’d expect to see Reggie Perrin wanting to escape from. There was a tiny area where they did bag searches and body scans (they confiscated a glass bottle of perfume, I’m not sure what they expected me to do with it – scent E to death? – but it was considered a security risk, so away it went). I then took a seat waiting for my lawyer, and flinching every time the door opened, just in case it was E. The room was full of weary looking people, black suited female lawyers and cravatted male ones, who all gradually ended up talking in hushed tones, trying to negotiate something before they went before the judge. I watched one black suited lawyer talk to her client, then head off, notes in hand to talk to another black suited woman, then come back and explain the terms she’d suggested to her client. People disappeared into rooms, then came out bearing files, the receptionist was coldly impartial, not cracking a smile, the security guards were friendly, but irritated, because lawyers kept walking in their way when they were trying to do body scans in the two square metres of space they had available to them.
After an hour or so, my legal representative arrived, and we joined the huddles of people talking in barely discernible whispers. We were called for 10am, and at 9.55 there was no sign of E, so we were preparing to explain this to the judge and ask for another date (another £1,000 for me), when I got a text from my sister, who was en-route to hold my hand for the day. She was on the same train as E! I flippantly suggested that she shared a cab with him (or pushed him in front of one), but the fact that he was actually coming completely threw me.
When my sister arrived, my lawyer went in search of E (she’d asked me what he looked like, my description – fat, balding, ginger – was apparently remarkably accurate). She then spent about half an hour talking to him and came back to me with what I thought was an acceptable deal. He agreed (subject to talking to P) to take a percentage of the house sale but pay me back the child maintenance arrears he owed out of his percentage, I would then take the remaining percentage. He also agreed to pay child maintenance at the rate previously suggested by the Child Maintenance Service (subject to me agreeing to call off the CMS and let him pay privately). I was amazed, that we’d sorted it so quickly, and appalled that E hadn’t just talked to us before.
However, being at court means a long waiting game. They call lots of people for the same time, on the basis that some cases will take minutes. E (naturally) was too busy and important to hang around, he told my lawyer that ‘he had to go’. So they agreed that, if the judge couldn’t see his before he had to go, he would sign a piece of paper saying that he agreed in principle to everything, would send over all of his information (including vital financial disclosure) within two weeks. We could then send it to the court to be stamped, and all would be sorted.
Up until this point, I hadn’t seen E. I’d been at one end of the floor; he was at the other. At about 3pm, our names were called by the receptionist. Assuming this was a call to go before the judge my lawyer and I made our way towards the courts. In fact, it was because E had decided he had to go, and all he wanted to do was sign the paper. As I approached the reception desk, my knees buckled. This was the first time I had seen him in over a year, and I was completely unprepared for how much it would overwhelm me emotionally. It wasn’t love, it wasn’t really even hurt, but seeing him brought everything that had happened over the last three years back in a body-slamming rush. I looked at his face (he had his ‘contrite’ face on) and had to look away. It felt like being plunged into icy water. It felt unreal. This was the man that I loved, this was the man that I’d planned a lifetime with. This was the father of my children. This was the person who had treated me with utter contempt and had nearly bankrupted me (he may yet do so). And yet, he was just sitting there like a normal human being, like someone who had done nothing wrong. Nobody in that court, apart form my lawyer, my sister and I, had any idea what he’d done. It was strange, it was unreal, it felt like a shock.
In the end, I had to go back to my seat (all E wanted to do was sign the piece of paper, so I wasn’t needed). When I got there, I realised I’d almost not breathed the whole time I was near E. I then, embarrassingly, burst into tears (breaking my golden rule – never cry on your birthday). My reaction felt, to me, totally over the top. I was shaky, I was tearful, my stomach was churning. It felt disproportionate – after all, all I’d done was look at E – I also felt E didn’t deserve that level of emotional reaction from me. I was angry, confused and embarrassed.
After E had left the building, I did relax a bit. Knowing we’d reached some sort of agreement made me feel better and I almost felt I’d got over the worst – I could see him again without that reaction, I was prepared now.
We finally got called before the Judge at about 3.30. If I’d found the court unfamiliar and strange, going before the Judge was another level. He was sat, slightly higher up than us, shielded by a wall of books and files, in a room that vaguely resembled a small classroom. I didn’t speak a word; my lawyer did all the talking (calling him Sir and being very deferential). He swept one brief look at me, and then just spoke to my lawyer. We were in there for five minutes and it was all over.
I left the court feeling unsettled, E had agreed to everything ‘in principle’ and his track record suggested that he might put up a few more hurdles. But also, as part of the agreement I’d agreed to lose the safety net of the CMS collecting payments for me, and I had the massive job of selling the house in front of me. I knew I should feel happy that things were getting sorted, but I had a feeling that they might not be. I spent the rest of my birthday fretting over ‘what next’.
Of course, inevitably, E didn’t send back the documentation needed within the two-week period agreed. In fact, just a few weeks later he arbitrarily cut the amount of child maintenance he’d agreed to pay by £250, and wrote to my lawyer demanding more money, and suggesting that I owed him £8,000.
We were set for court again…