Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings’; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.
See also: Edward Heath’s Feet
From Open Dalston, 20 December & 11 February 2014:
From Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire* by Iain Sinclair:
Once a street is noticed it’s doomed. Endgame squatters, slogans. DALSTON! WHO ASKED U? PROTECTED BY OCCUPATION. Torched terraces. Overlapping, many-coloured tags. Aerosol signatures on silver roll-down shutters. Scrofulous rubble held up by flyers for weekend noise events. THIS WORLD IS RULED BY THOSE WHO LIE. They said, the ones who make it their business to investigate such things, that there was a direct relationship between properties that applied for conservation status and arson attacks, petrol bombs. Unexplained fires. Moscow methods arrived in town with the first sniff of post-Soviet money. Russian clubs were opening in the unlikeliest places. We no longer had much to offer in the way of oil and utilities, energy resources, but we had heritage to asset-strip: Georgian wrecks proud of their status.
* Hamish Hamilton, 2009.
D.S.: The shameful saga of Dalston Lane is a microcosm of the fate of the East End as a whole: a sorry mash-up of corporate and council greed flying under the discredited banner of ‘regeneration’. The cynical, Blairite language of contemporary urban development expressed by developers and local authorities deserves a study in itself: ‘affordable housing’ (i.e. ‘unaffordable affordable housing’); councils ‘competing’ with other boroughs for resources (food? water? air?); ‘conservation-led schemes’ (wherein conservation is a synonym for demolition – along the lines of, ‘We had to demolish the terrace in order to conserve it.’). It is language that might have been invented by Orwell. The fact that a Labour council is responsible for such wanton cynicism towards its own residents is deeply depressing and makes one despair for the fate of the city. The death of Dalston Lane is the death of London.
For further reading on this long-festering matter, see Bill Parry-Davies’ site Open Dalston.
* © David Secombe 2011.
THE LAST SQUAT IN HACKNEY
a short story
by Tim Turnbull.
It’s on the bastard telly. I can’t believe it. The bloody house. I’m not really paying attention to the newsreader but I see it when I look up from yesterday’s paper. It’s like a vertigo, like going over the top on a roller-coaster.
I’m staying with Alice in Deptford, just visiting. I don’t go up nawf Landan any more. She was out, I had the telly on as background noise and there it was – house collapse in Hackney; homes evacuated, search for casualties, concerned neighbour–yadda yadda, structural engineers, talking head policeman, blah-blah-blah. It was the helicopter shot of the cordoned off street and I recognised it straight away. Not that I’d ever seen it from a helicopter or even a crane. I might have had a few out-of-body experiences round there but I never got that bloody high.
Anyhow, I see it and whoosh, I think, that’s the fucking house. I’d missed the beginning of the article and I couldn’t wait for the story to come round again so I had to rush out and get a Stannaaard to check the address. Sure enough, there it is in black and white – 67 Millgrove Road. I hadn’t seen it in ten years; had tried not to think about it for as long. I thought, what the shitting heck are they going to find? When Alice comes in I say look at this and show her the paper, go to the rolling news and wait for it to come round.
She says, ‘What about it?’
I say, ‘That fucking house. I used to bloody live there, mate, sort of.’
She says, ‘And?’
I say ‘Fucking hell.’ and then I realise I’ve never told anybody because it was too bloody weird by half and the police would have got involved and you’re better off out of it and, to be frank, I couldn’t be sure. Sometimes it’s better to remember what you want to have seen instead of what you think you saw. ‘You remember Patsy?’ She says she doesn’t but from the look in her eye I know she does. She gets jealous even though she’s not my girlfriend, although, when we’ve been really out of it, we have been known, you know what I mean?
So I tell her. I mean, it was ten years ago but I still have nightmares, which could be a clue. I met Patsy in Camden at a Bored Stoats gig. She followed them for about half and hour – that’s how long they lasted. They were shit except if you’d had some acid or a very lot of booze. If you had both they went back to being shit again, and no other drugs worked. Anyway they split up because of artistic differences – they thought they were good, but their public thought otherwise and stayed away in flocks. Well, to cut a long story, during their moment in the sun, she invited me for a moment in the dark and we ended up on a 38 bus, chewing each others faces off and having a sly grope up the back seat, by way of a warm up, so to speak, and then spent a night of passion in her luxurious rooms in Clapton Pond. Room.
I was particularly taken with the decor when I surfaced in the morning. Her mattress on the floor was as comfortable as most of the mattresses on floors I’ve slept on, possibly even in the top ten. I liked the plastic sheet jammed between window frame and the brickwork, aesthetically that is, it didn’t keep out the cold or even all of the rain. The pans on the floor, positioned under each of the holes in the ceiling plaster, gave an interesting effect as well. Her clothes were mostly strewn about the place, a little pile of muddy knickers in the corner. Some the recently laundered items seemed to be trying to crawl into a bin bag to escape, possibly to die.
She brought me a mug of tea and I sat propped up against the wall and took it. There was just about enough un-chipped edge to drink from without abrading your lip and not that many white flecks of sour milk-fat whirling round in it and it was very kind of her.
‘Good night?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she said.
‘Stoats were alright?’
‘Mmm, not bad.’
‘Alright then, they were shit.’
‘No. Neither can I.’ and then we spent the rest of the morning fucking. Alice is squirming at this and asking if it’s relevant and I say ‘Well yeah. It is in a way.’ because, you see, I started seeing quite a lot of Patsy and that’s mostly what we did and she was mad for it, but there was a sort grim determination about the way she did it. It was like she was running really fast and flapping her arms, grimly determined to take off, but not in a charming way, like a kid, more like a complete maniac. You knew, whatever it was she wanted, it wasn’t going to happen but still she kept going. We’d do it like this and then we’d do it like that, (and Alice, here, is wincing), and she’d shout out ‘Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me!’ which was bizarre because I was, actually, already fucking her.
So, I started going round there regular. We’d have tea together, cross legged on the mattress on the floor. Mixed boiled veg with rice or sometimes noodles. It was a shared kitchen which was on the landing really, not in a room and you’d have to extract the plate and pans and things that you needed for making tea from the pile of washing up in the sink and make sure you didn’t let them out of your sight until you’d finished cooking, served up and slotted them back in the pile, because if you turned your back they’d be gone.
Terry in the room next door was the worst and there was not a lot you could do about it because he was enormous. I mean built like the proverbial shithouse, and completely fucking crackers. Not the sort of, (and I put on a wacky student voice for Alice’s benefit), ‘Hey, hey, hey. I’m a wacky student,’ mad. Not ‘Look at how weird I am. I believe in a lot of fucking rubbish like astrology and I wear odd socks in lurid primary colours,’ mad. Not ‘I’m a useless, unreliable, flaky arsehole,’ mad.
No, no, no. He had really, truly lined his room with silver foil to stop the radio waves from MI5 and the CIA. He really, honestly looked at you, in ever such a calm, gentle way, as though he might rip your head off if you said something he didn’t want to hear. Like, for instance:
‘I was going to boil some rice in that pan.’ He’d just stand and stare, looking faintly quizzical, until you shut up and went away. Everyone liked him, don’t get me wrong, except when he watched Star Wars, on video, over and over again, all night, at full volume to stop the security services hearing what he was thinking. That was a bit tiresome. On the upside it did mean that he couldn’t hear me and Patsy shagging, which I was embarrassed about at first, but then you have to say, hang on a minute, does it matter if he hears her yelping like a demented fucking vixen? No, it doesn’t because he’s a complete fucking head-the-ball.
The people in the house liked Terry and they looked after him. I had a chat about it one day with Charlotte, in the kitchen/on the landing. Patsy had gone off to Art College, which she allegedly attended, and where she was learning how to not make things. I think she must have been top of her year because, while all the other little posturing tossers were drifting in late to sit about not making things, she rarely bothered going at all, unless it was about a bursary or the hardship fund or something. She was very concerned with the relationship with the body and how we do something something about the body and she wore a hat sometimes. Important, groundbreaking stuff relating to abuse and things. No, really.
Charlotte also was very concerned about the body and maintained hers, I would guess, with vans and vans of cake. I often saw her wandering out of the kitchen with a mug of powdery coffee, demolishing something in a foil wrapper, a Lyle’s Golden Syrup Cake perhaps. I wanted to say ‘Good thinking, Charlotte. Anorexia can creep up on you so fast it’s not worth risking it.’ but I thought better. She must have weighed in at about nineteen stone but she had a very pretty, plump face and a teeny-weeny cupid bow mouth. Also in her favour she was the cleanest person in the house, a fact, methinks, not unrelated to her Canadian-ness. She was an erotic dancer too, and I’m not an expert, but I think it helps not to stink like a badger’s arse in that line of work. Unless you’ve got a client who… no, let’s not go there.
So Charlotte, her ample buzoom trussed in a leather basque, was scoffing cake and telling me how she was really concerned about Terry, because he was basically a nice guy, y’know, but Lilith had him wrapped round her little finger and there was no way he’d ever get straight with her around and, Lord knows, he’s tried. They’d thought about telling his brothers, who had strong Murphia connections, were probably Murphia themselves, about Lilith, but it seemed a bit drastic. In truth, that’s as far as it was likely to get: thinking about it. Even Charlotte, who had actually finished a college course right to the end, had that disconnect. You know, it’s like you think about doing something, then there’s a vzzzzt and you’re whisked off to another, parallel dimension and vzzzzt you’re back, instantaneously, and you’ve already done it. Then the problem recurs and the same thing happens again, ad infinitum. I saw a science fiction film like that once. The protagonists were trapped in a loop forever.
Anyway, this Lilith, I’d seen her a few times hanging round in the park up the end of the road. She was ultra-goth. I thought she looked fit but when you got closer, under the velvet gear, she was dead scraggy and who knows what state her skin was in behind the smeared-on panstick. She had that wary, stupid look of someone who’s as thick as shit but’s blessed with a low exploitative cunning, I thought; and bless me, I must be a decent judge of human character, because that’s exactly what she was. Those who’d spoken to her said she thought she was a vampire. The problem was that she didn’t mean it metaphorically, otherwise it would have been an extraordinary and uncharacteristic piece of self-awareness and insight.
She knew when Terry’s dole day was and she’d wait up by the pond and watch until everyone went out, and then puff, she’d materialise like Bela fucking Lugosi on the doorstep. Early days she’d miscalculated once, rang the bell, and got Charlotte who’d bust her nose with a very tidy left jab, as demonstrated later and often in pubs and clubs. Mostly though, she’d get Terry and tell him she loved him, shag him and then whisk him off, first to the Post Office, and then on to the friendly neighbourhood smack dealer. Then, in my head at least, there’d be another puff of smoke, some echoey cackling, and she’d be gone for another fortnight.
‘What’s the problem?’ I said. ‘He gets a jump?’ This provoked pursed-lips and an irrational shouting match with my own inamorata. I forgot to say that, in between all this hot and athletic sex, it was mood swings a-go-go. Recrimination, bickering, jealousy and all those other things that make a dull life more interesting. Not all the time though, you understand.
Alice blows a ‘pff’ to say, serves you right and says: ‘Yeah, okay, but what about this house.’ I tell her I’m getting to that. I thinks she’s got a sense of the squalor, but not the whole picture. It was when Hackney Council had a purge on squats. There were loads of them all over Hackney, mostly council houses, and they decided enough’s enough and there was a massive evacuation of bohemians and deadbeats throughout the realm and a great erection of steel doors. This one, however, remained because it was privately owned but no one was quite sure by whom. It wasn’t council. Charlotte said somebody told her the owner was an Arab, or at least had an Arabic sounding name, an ‘el’ or a ‘bin’ or something. The inhabitants weren’t in a rush to find out. They’d jiggery-pokeried the electric and got that going, and they had a telephone and as long as the bills were paid it didn’t look like the utilities cared who lived there.
The neighbours can’t have been that thrilled. It’s a terraced street where all the gardens are tidy and the woodwork well-maintained. I used look at the fridges out the front, the broken telly, the cracks up the wall, the decaying guttering and think ‘Bet everybody’s delighted with this.’
Round the back was worse. It was the wildlife refuge. Mostly rodent wildlife, I suspect. It was rank with elder bushes, nettles, thistle and willowherb all growing over a mountain of spoil. Fly tippers had hoicked crap over the wall at the bottom of the garden and Terry did his bit to preserve native fauna by chucking food waste out of his window. I got a closer look at it when he decided to install Sky and we had to hack our way in. He’d been an electrician, I think it was him who jiggery-pokeried the electric, and he knew about ariels and satellites and the like. He needed, apparently, to arm himself with six hundred channels of shit to try and outwit the government, who were either feeding on his dreams or implanting messages in his brain. Probably both.
Then there was Alec and Maisie in the basement. They had one big fuck-off room that took up most of the floor. I used to take Alec some Eccies every now and then. He was a Scot with forthright opinions on everything. He knew that the revolution was just around the corner and was biding his time. He was so relaxed about the timing of the revolution, in fact, that he spent most of his days in a dressing gown, slippers and a pair of tracky bottoms. I imagined him, when the conflagration arrived, making a last brew, skinning up a fat one then sauntering up to the surface world to see how the cadres were getting on.
‘Aye, well done, lads. Yer doin’ vairy well, boys. Let me know when ye’ve sequestered me a fuckn palace and I’ll get right on the case wi runnin thengs n’ that.’
He had no time for ‘sad little nine-to-fivers’, and spent most of his days in the basement room surrounded by joss sticks, drinking coffee, and reading with the telly in the corner constantly on and, almost invariably, playing a porno tape. He had stacks of them, up to the ceiling and, while he didn’t always have the sound up, there was always one running. He had them on like I have the rolling news, as background. You’d just be chatting about what was on at the Dublin Castle next week and you’d notice somebody putting something into somebody else in the corner of the room, most disconcerting. So that was Alec’s life watching porn and waiting for the revolution. He seemed to think they were connected, revolution and sex, and that perfect sexual freedom was a prerequisite for a successful popular uprising, so he was trying to get himself as sexually liberated, down there in the basement, as was humanly possible before it all kicked off.
Maisie, however, was not so doctrinaire and had a job. This meant they were comparatively well off. When I first got there they even had a dog. It was a manky looking Alsatian called Suki with gammy back legs and every day Maisie would manhandle it up the stairs and drag it down the pond to shit on the grass. The basement stairs led down into a passage which led to their big room. In the passage there was a washing machine which worked, and a freezer which didn’t but was stacked with great tins of economy dog food. The dog’s bowls sat out here and they weren’t washed very often and they stank and the dog stank but this did help to mask the drainy stink of the house, a stink which fluctuated in intensity but never quite went away.
As it was the biggest room that’s where they held house meetings. Alec turned the telly off for house meetings but there weren’t many of them. Most problems were sorted out by shouting, crying, stamping and recrimination, or where Terry was concerned, Terry carrying on doing exactly as he pleased. Terry, of course, wasn’t invited to the house meeting to discuss the Lilith problem, which, as far as I could establish, was the only problem deemed extreme enough to require such a convocation. I was invited partly because I spent such a lot of time there. I kept my bedsit, which the state payed for, but I’d been doing a bit of bar work, evenings, for cash and it was on the 38 route, so I just went back to Patsy’s because I knew she’d be up for it most nights. Things had got interesting in that regard as well. There were experiments with hot candle wax and a length of clothesline and a straight-backed chair. Alice winces at this. ‘I don’t need to know. Way too much information,’ she says.
‘Look, I didn’t set out to be a fucking pervert. It’s just, if it’s offered, you get curious, and it’s not like I was ringing call-box dominatrixes or shuffling off down King’s Cross to get pissed on by some fucking crack addict,’ I say. I flush bright red. I can feel it, and Alice starts laughing at me.
‘I didn’t know you were a dirty deviant.’
‘I’m not. I’m bloody not, it’s just …’
‘Yeah, it’s just. I know. It’s just men,’ she says. ‘Get on with it.’
The other reason I was asked to the meetings was that I had a regular supply of some very nice skunk, which always helps any meeting along. I mean, it can make them overrun a bit, and it’s often difficult to get to the nub of the matter, but on the upside nobody minds being there, or if it’s quorate or anything.
It transpired that they thought Lilith had gotten hold of a front door key as things had started going missing and not in the usual way. Stuff was going from people’s rooms and there was no sign of a forced entry. As far as I could see, even taking into account the skunk, it was all a bit nebulous. Maisie was elected to try and ask Terry if he’d given Lilith one, matron. Charlotte would have done it because she cared about Terry’s well-being so much, but he seemed to have an irrational and deep-seated loathing of her, and she didn’t feel comfortable asking him for anything. She yabbered on about how he made her feel and that for half an hour or more until finally Alec got the proceedings back on track. Maisie would try and have a word with Big Tel and see if she could persuade him to extract the key from our night bird.
A fortnight later, a bicycle pump, lights and basket had gone from the hall and Maisie reported back that Terry denied ever having given Lilith one, matron. He then did his staring thing, which always tended to shut down the conversation anyway, but as he’d now taken to sporting a steel colander on his head, a chin strap improvised from inner tube strung between the handles, he didn’t need to do very much staring at all.
Anyway, I thought I saw Lilith in Camden one night as we were coming out of The World’s End. We were on our way to see a band, some industrial shite, upstairs somewhere, at Charlotte’s behest. We were going to love them. We didn’t but I kept my feelings to myself because it was Maisie’s birthday and even Alec had been dragged up to the surface world. He moaned and grumbled a bit, about Camden being a shit-hole, like that’s a revelation, and we were bundling out the pub on our way to the next venue. I got ahead, because there was some fannying about needed doing by everyone else, and as I turned to offer encouragement to them, I thought I saw her come out of the tube. It was difficult to say, because at the time Camden was fairly well infested with goth-clones. Alec was next out and I pointed and said, ‘Oy, isn’t that Lilith?’ but by the time I looked again she was gone.
‘Doubtful,’ he said. ‘Unless she’s eaten all the babies in Hackney.’
‘Who?’ said Maisie, following on.
‘Our resident night monster.’
‘What Lilith? She doesn’t stray far. I doubt it.’
‘Mebbes she’s seeking fresh virgins to feed on. Silly bitch.’ That was cue for a bit of surreal badinage and by the time we got to next boozer I’d forgotten about her. We got a taxi home after the gig though and I paid the driver while the others stumbled off down the road. As he drew away, I saw her again standing in the dark, among the trees by the pond. She was a long way off, just staring at me. It gave me the fucking willies, but I didn’t even bother to mention it. Alec invited us down for a smoke and a tinny, but Patsy smirked at him and shook her head. She jerked her thumb in the direction of upstairs and dragged me off. I heard Alec, Maisie and Charlotte laughing, dirty laughs, as we went, Alec’s being the filthiest of all.
‘Yeah. I can guess what happened then,’ says Alice.
‘You’re right, but hold on, other stuff happened after that.’
‘Get on with it.’
The next thing was the dog died. There was a great wailing and gnashing, and an overflowing of cheap sentiment. It’s funny how people who look forward, eagerly, to a bloody and destructive insurrection, to the violent overthrow of civil society and all the death and suffering and mayhem that would entail, could get so upset over a manky fucking dog. Alec was in tears. Maisie was in tears. Patsy was in tears. Terry locked himself away in his room to mourn in his own special way, mostly by jacking the volume on his telly up. Charlotte wasn’t that bothered but she spent a lot of time comforting the bereaved and talking about how they felt, and how she’d felt in the aftermath of some equivalent personal fucking tragedy or other. I thought good riddance, frankly. One less smell in the place. I thought, great they’ll be slinging the stinking dog bowls out, but the dirty bastards didn’t.
We took the poor old thing out into the rodent sanctuary and buried it in the pile of spoil with an improvised marker. There was talk of a more permanent memorial in wood or stone but it never happened. This period of lamentation went on for a couple of weeks. I mostly couldn’t believe Alec. All his Glasgae hard man facade collapsed for a couple of days, and if you saw him you’d have to be very careful what you said because his eyes would well up and he’d be off again. Slowly though, the crust of cynicism formed again. There was talk of getting another dog but no one acted on it, which was a relief. I thought a cat might be better but Alec looked at me as though I was mad.
‘Fuckn cats. Fuckn parasites.’ And off he went on one about dogs, devotion, loyalty, obedience, etcetera; cats, independent, wilful, evil, etcetera, so I left it alone.
It got a bit rocky after the dog bereavement. Patsy seemed more jealous than ever and would give me the third degree, about women she imagined I’d been flirting with, or looked at the wrong way. If I stayed at my own flat she’d want to know why. It was generally because I wanted a shower with actual proper hot water. That wasn’t a good enough explanation though. It was: who have you seen and was it that cow you were talking to in x the other night. I’ll be honest, I felt like belting her sometimes or just leaving, but just as I reached breaking point she’d have a personality quick-change and we’d be rutting like beasts again and I’d forget what a bastard she’d been.
There’s another bulletin and we stop to watch it. The neighbours are saying that the place has been abandoned for three or four years now. They’ve been on to the council about it many times but got no joy. The council claim they can’t trace the owners and the environmental were in the process doing something but it all takes time. I don’t recognise any of the neighbours. The next door has had to be evacuated and there’s a brief and tearful interview with her. We get a cup of tea and a Kit Kat.
‘When did you leave, then?’ Alice asks, and I have a long think about it. It would be November, ten years ago. I know it was November because it was a few of days before my birthday. I got flu. I’d stayed the night and I woke up with the sweats and feeling like complete shit. Not just a cold or a virus, but the fucking business. Alice laughs, the cow.
Honestly, I couldn’t move and Patsy said she’d look after me. She got Lemsips and tucked me up and I sweated and sweated and shivered and wished I was somewhere else than in her shitty flat. I couldn’t even have fed myself. She got all nursey and went out for tins of soup, took my keys and went and got me clean clothes. Everyone came up to the room to see me. Charlotte pitched in with some proper, albeit vegetarian, food. Terry offered me some speed, which I suppose was him being thoughtful in his way.
On the third night I was there, it would be a Friday, Patsy went out with Charlotte and Maisie and left me on my own. Terry was off at his brother’s and the house was quiet for once. I had an electric heater and Charlotte had lent me ‘The Name of the Rose’ because I told her I’d liked the film and I propped myself up in the corner to read it and enjoy a bit of peace. I’d already got to thinking that me-and-Patsy wasn’t going anywhere so I might as well cut my losses and get out of it. Given the colourfulness of her temper though, I realised I’d have to be in pretty robust health before I told her.
All in all I was feeling quite good about things, fever broken, decisions made. I went out onto the landing/kitchen with a sleeping bag draped around me and put the kettle on for a cuppa. While that was boiling I went to the bog. I put shoes on because the toilet floor was all rotting and soaked and you didn’t really want to be standing on it. I wondered, while I was pissing, where you’d end up if it went through. Charlotte’s bedroom I supposed. She had the two rooms on the ground floor. It’d be okay if she was in to break your fall. I was chortling about this as I made my way back to the kitchen/landing when heard a rattle down stairs. It was bicycles being knocked against the wall. It was dark down in the hall. ‘Hello.’ I shouted but it was quiet. I hadn’t heard the door. ‘Alec, are you in?’ No reply. I walked down the first couple of stairs, pulled the sleeping bag around my shoulders, peered into the gloom and there was Lilith, in the shadows.
‘How did you get in?’ I asked. She didn’t reply, just stood there frozen, with her little rat claw hands hooked in front of her. She glared at me. I took another three steps down. ‘Terry’s not here. He’s at his brother’s.’ She looked like fucking Nosferatu in the half light. ‘How did you get in?’ Still she said nothing. Two more steps.
‘I’m here to see Alec.’ I looked round the corner, over the banister to the door to the basement.
‘I’m not sure he’s in.’ She looked at me suspiciously, not sure whether to believe me or not. ‘How did you get in?’
‘Just did,’ she said, all mysterious, and smiled a little know-it-all smile. I walked towards her very softly and slowly, as though she was an animal I didn’t want to frighten. She put on a coy face and said, ‘There’s something you ought to know. It’s a secret.’
‘Yeah?’ I stepped between her and the route to the basement. ‘I’d like to know how you got in.’ She laughed and stepped towards me.
‘That’s nothing,’ she said. She reached out, put her hand under the sleeping bag and stroked my bare chest. Her hand was cold and small. She moved closer, ran it up my chest, onto my shoulder and started to massage my neck. ‘Let me tell you a secret.’
She pulled me towards her. I was starting to get the horn, feeling her skinny fingers gently rubbing at my neck. She lifted her face up to mine and I bent to meet her. Her cool cheek brushed against mine and she whispered into my ear, ‘Alec is fucking evil.’ and then she drew back and sunk her teeth into my cheek. It hurt like fucking hell and I screamed and pulled away but she hung on.
I dropped the sleeping bag and punched her as hard as could on the side of the head. She let go and I fell over backwards, bounced of the banister post and landed, with a thump on the floor. There was an almighty crash as the bikes went over and another as the front door flew open and slammed into the wall. I heard the thump of footsteps coming up from below and, as I picked myself up, Alec appeared.
‘Fuckn hell’s going on?’ he said.
‘Fucking, Lilith,’ I said. ‘She bit me.’ He started to laugh.
‘Are you one o’ the undead now then, son?’
I rubbed my cheek. It was bleeding.
‘It’s not funny. It hurts.’
‘Aye. It’ll hurt even more when you realise you cannae die and you’re damned to roam the earth forever.’ He guffawed as he picked the bikes up and stacked them against the wall. ‘Listen.’ He looked out down the street. ‘Is that the music of the cheeldren of the night? Nah, it’s some cunt wi’ his drum an’ bass up too loud.’ He shut the door and put the hall light on. ‘Let’s have a look at ye.’
‘It hurts.’ I felt like kid who’s been caught fibbing.
‘C’mon. Let’s get you patched up, my wee soldier.’ He gave my good cheek a little tweak.
‘It does though, Alec. Really. She’s fucking mad, isn’t she?’
‘Aye. She’s all that.’
‘She says you’re evil.’ Some of his geniality seemed to fade away here, but he dabbed at my cheek with the corner of the sleeping bag. I pushed it a bit. ‘She said she was here to see you.’ He furrowed his brow and sighed, as though there was great weight on him, then looked me straight in the eye.
‘She’s got a slate off, right enough.’ He escorted me back upstairs, made me a cup of tea and sent me off to bed. ‘Take no notice of the silly bitch,’ he said before he left. ‘Something needs done. Oh, and get tae the doctor and get checked for Hep C as well.’
Patsy rolled in, off her head, at some point in the early hours, blundered around in the dark and passed out beside me. In the morning she was unwakeable. The best I could get out of her was a grunt. I was well enough to gather my bits and pieces together and make my way back to my own flat. It took two days to get a doctors appointment. He told me I’d to rest though or I might do myself some permanent damage. It was proper flu you see. You can knacker your heart. You can.
Anyway, Patsy turned up at mine and stayed one night. I knew it was off now, but I didn’t have the energy to tell her. Everybody, even Terry, sent their love and they were all sorry about what happened. They’d had another house meeting and decided that something had to be done to retrieve the keys from Lilith. Obviously they weren’t going to involve the law or anything like that. We spent our lives trying to stay below the radar; there was no point drawing attention unnecessarily. Patsy was actually very subdued, almost gentle, nearly affectionate. I wondered if she sensed that I’d had enough.
I was thinking about going up north to see my folks for my birthday, but I didn’t feel up to it, didn’t want to go out boozing, wasn’t really good for anything. She stroked my hair and told me I’d soon be better and when I was back on my feet we could go on a spectacular bender to celebrate. In the meantime, she’d try and sort something special for me. The following day she called me and said that she had a surprise for me and could I stay at hers tonight. It was the night before my birthday. I said I wasn’t sure I was a hundred percent yet. She said the whole house thought I’d had a rotten time and needed cheering up. I gave in, had a long shower and made my way across town.
When I got there, there was, indeed, a surprise. On the landing/in the kitchen the rubbish bin had been emptied, someone had swept the floor, the washing up had been done and all the plates cleared away. She’d set the little table with two places and there was a bottle of white wine with an actual cork and a pan of chicken curry. She’d bought some poppadoms and chutney. Terry came out of his room to get a cup of coffee while she was boiling the rice and you could tell he was trying to be considerate. He still had his colander on his head but was trying to make himself as small as possible – no mean feat when you’re six foot five.
The food was smashing, the wine was alright, and there was also Czech lager. We had After Eights to finish off. She got me to skin up and I was so chilled that I started to think maybe things weren’t so bad after all. She sat on my knee and nibbled at my ear while we saw the joint off, then she said she had another surprise for me and she didn’t want any peeping. She got a scarf out of her room and folded it over to make a blindfold. She tied it tight around my eyes so I couldn’t see a damned thing.
With what we’d been getting up to, bedroom-wise, I thought I had a pretty good idea where this was going. The old gentleman sensed it too, more so when she hooked her fingers into the belt loops of my jeans.
‘Follow me,’ she said, and tugged. I shuffled after her, reached out, found her shoulder with one hand and a wall with the other. I scraped the chair back, and away we went, very slowly. We seemed to be going in the wrong direction for the bedroom. I started to giggle and she laughed as well. ‘Careful, careful. Mind the stairs.’
She took hold of my leg and guided it down a step. I clawed out and got a hold of the banister rail. Once I’d gauged the first step we clumped down the flight of stairs.
‘Where we going?’ I said, sniggering stupidly.
‘Sshh. No peeping,’ was all she would say. We shuffled along the hall and I heard the squeak of the basement door. She tugged at the belt loops and her hand rubbed against my fly. What with the skunk and the urges, my head was spinning. She steered me round the corner and down the basement staircase. I heard a faint giggle and a shush up ahead and my heart started to pound with excitement. They must have a present for me. God, the drains are whiffy tonight. She manoeuvred me round the next corner, into Alec and Maisie’s room, with both hands and brought me to a halt. I could hear movement and breathing. There was a noise behind me and someone muttered ‘Okay’. The stench was appalling though now.
‘Are you ready for your surprise?’ she said. There was a ripple of laughter around me.
‘I suppose so,’ I said.
‘Take it off,’ a voice hissed. Maisie. Patsy reached up and whipped the scarf from my eyes. The light was blinding for a second and I blinked and tried to take it in. Maisie was kneeling on the bed, in her underwear, grinning, Alec standing there in his dressing gown and boxers, grinning and massaging his cods. Patsy was looking up at me with a savage and expectant smile. Alec was holding a riding crop and behind him there was light coming up from the floor. The rugs were all thrown back and there was a trap door, light flooding up from it, with wooden steps down.
At first, I thought it was a new dog, or an animal of some sort but, as I adjusted to the light, I realised it was a man, emaciated and grey. He was naked and crouching on all-fours, stick thin, with his face buried in a bowl of dog food. I looked at Alec, Maisie, Patsy. They laughed. Alec swished the crop, adjusted his balls through his boxers and said,
“What do you think, son?’ I took a step back and a hand clamped on my shoulder. It was Terry. I just wanted to get out but my head was whizzing and I felt nauseous. ‘Meet oor landlord.’ Alec laughed. ‘This is what happens to the boss class, son. D’ye like it?’ He gave me a conspiratorial look, as though I was supposed to approve. The man looked up from his bowl. His eyes were pitiful, pleading and his whole body was trembling but then he couldn’t stop himself from eating. Alec whacked him across the backside and they all laughed again and the hand on my shoulder relaxed just enough for me to spin out of Terry’s grip. I put my head down and charged into him. He was off balance but grabbed my shirt. I bulldozed him over and wrenched my shirt from his grasp. The material tore as he collapsed into the pile of Alec’s porno tapes, and I ran, mounted the stairs in two bounds, sent the bicycles flying on my way past, flung the door open and didn’t stop running until I was halfway home.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Alice says, ‘What did you do, then?’
‘I got home packed my things. The telephone rang but I didn’t answer it. I packed as many of my clothes as I could and headed down to King’s Cross. I never went back.’
‘And this landlord? Was it a game? Was he a masochist?’
‘I don’t know. I never saw any of them again. I didn’t ask.’
‘Shouldn’t you have called the cops?’
‘I don’t know, but that wasn’t the worst of it.’
‘Jesus wept. What?’
‘Well I couldn’t swear for certain. It could have been the light.’
‘In the cellar. I thought I saw something.’
‘I thought I saw arms and hair, hanging, upside down.’
‘I don’t. I thought it might have been her.’
‘Was she alive?’
‘I don’t know. It could have been a trick of the light.’ She’s shaking her head and I’m crying and crying now. I say I was well out of it, what with the booze and the gear and the flu on top of all that. ‘I might have imagined it.’
She un-mutes the telly. New news. Bodies.
‘Think you’d better ring the cops.’
© Tim Turnbull.
* Cab drivers and locals will spot that this terrace is in Finsbury Park, not Hackney.