On Tuesday, as I'm inspecting my navel (see past and indeed future blogs), out of the blue I get a call from the head of HR at the company that has been my main employer for almost four years.
"Hello Mark, we're having to make a few savings by cutting back on freelance reporters at the moment so we won't be requiring your help anymore. We'll pay you for your next four shifts but you won't be expected to work them."
In a daze I hang up: I even forget to swear. Maybe I was taking the reporting job for granted - Wife says I never stopped grumbling about it. Three nights a week I'd disappear into my office to churn out breaking news reports for six hours before collapsing into bed. After almost four years at the company I suppose I took the job and the money it provided for granted.
A zero-hours contract suited me because of the flexibility it allowed me to write my own stuff. Though there were some negatives - no holiday pay, no sick pay (which meant three days after a major op I was back at work), I could do the school run, empty the dish-washer (and then wash the dishes).
A little cursory research online and a call to ACAS confirms that as a self-employed contractor, a member of the so-called gig economy (which sounds more glam than it is), I have no rights and won't be able to claim redundancy. A "thank you note" might have been nice, considering the unsocial hours I worked, sometimes stepping in to work weekends at short notice, working late into the night when a terror attack took place. I can't even email my colleagues to say goodbye because my email account was blocked before HR called me.
It begins to strike me that I'm in a bit of a pickle. I have few savings; my CV will have to be revised to say I'm between jobs; and unless another gig comes up soon, I'm going to be dipping into the money we stashed away for our Great American Road Trip, now just weeks away.
I still have two few hours before collecting the children and decide the best plan of action is to go to the pub. Easier said than done: the Palmerston is closed, as is The Star. Taking this as a sign not to be so bloody feckless I go home and start looking for work. I soon become dispirited and check my Amazon sales. I worked out recently that if I can sell 2,000 books a month, I won't NEED to work. How many have I sold today?
About now it strikes me that turning fifty has been, frankly, rubbish. A few days after my birthday my publisher, who had been considering my comedy, "Kidology", for 18 months, turned it down because they "don't publish comedy." Humour doesn't sell, apparently. Especially dark comedies about a lecturer who hits fifty and turns to crime when he loses his job...
Having confirmed I've yet to knock JK Rowling off her perch I work out my incomings - zero - and outgoings - credit cards, rent, bills... What about the mind-bogglingly expensive singing lessons for Daughter, 13? Or the new trainers for rapidly-growing Son, 10? What about our Great American Road Trip? Can I get a refund on the tickets, motels, the rather extravagant 4WD we hired to drive up the West Coast?
In a daze, I walk slowly back up London's biggest hill to school to collect Son, 10. He's an unusually sensitive child: every day on collection he surveys my face for bad news about Nan, 95, whom he adores and is realistic enough to understand she might not get the telegram from the Queen. I smile as brightly as I am able: Son, 10 scrutinises me closely, suspicious.
"Are you okay, daddy? Nothing... bad happened today?"
"Of course not!" I laugh, OTT-ly. "Everything's - fine!"
We walk home. I feel nausea, fear, a big fat 50-year-old failure. How can I be a good role model to my kids when I can't provide, can't even look myself in the mirror? In January I was being interviewed by Eddie Mair on Radio 4 and published in the Sunday Times magazine and now I'm toying with the idea of housing benefit. How did it come to this? Oh my God - what am I going to DO?
"Daddy," says Son, 10 as we walk through the park, my bipolar despair deepening, darkening, even as my face whites out. "Can I ask you something a bit... personal?"
Oh Christ, now what? I think. Swallowing, I brace myself.
"Um - yes, son?"
"Daddy... how many human years are there in a pterodactyl year?"
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