Got the first draft of a new story just about wrapped up before lunch today. Now comes the good bit – going back through, changing this and that, finding out what the thing’s really ‘about’, seeing if it hangs together. Then, when it’s as good as I can make it, comes the really hard part: trying to find a magazine or journal that might be interested. ‘Write for yourself first’ Stephen King booms from his excellent book On Writing. Well… I do, Steve. Be nice to make some money as well, though.
After a quick sandwich, I take a walk into town. Books back to the library, a couple of bits from the greengrocer’s. Then, the weather being so hot and still, I nip in the Pound Shop for a cold can of ginger beer and sit for a few minutes in the pedestrian area to drink it. It’s one of the best parts of town – a bit like a piazza, and about the closest we’ve got to a café society atmosphere: buskers, stalls, tables and chairs set up outside pubs and coffee shops. People lounging over a beer or a cuppa – doing nothing in particular, dressed for the Med or the back-garden barby. No traffic either, which is always a bonus. People pass me, having in-depth conversations with their mobiles. I sit with my back to the crowds, with the sun on my neck, facing along a short lane between a pub and a second-hand shop.
At the end of the lane, blocking my view to the sea, stands a residential home where dad spent a couple of his last years – the two happiest years he had over the difficult final ten-year period of his life. He had 2 rooms there in that time: the first on the top floor, overlooking this part of town; the second downstairs, on the same side – taken when his legs could no longer manage the stairs so well. It was a shame he couldn’t have stayed there, but there were complications between him and the management. The woman running the place turned out to be a tyrant and the care standards weren’t high – and dad, unlike the other residents, still had the faculties to challenge it. He made himself unpopular, so they gave him notice. We finally managed to find him somewhere else – further away, unfortunately. Not long afterwards, the woman was done for something and the place was shut down.
And shut down it’s remained, for the last two years or so. There it sits now, this huge, rambling, 18-bedroomed seafront edifice – empty and desolate, like a bombed-out mansion in a war zone. The downstairs windows are boarded up and a wire mesh fence has been strung around the perimeter. Where the washing used to hang, now stands a skip full of junk. The back yard is weed-strewn and graffitied. Bloated bin-bags are scattered around like dead bodies. Dad’s second room, which was under the fire escape, and from where he could look out towards the pub and the milling crowds – to me if he’d still been there – has been blinded by a plywood board. A tattered rope dangles to the ground from the first level of the fire escape, which is blocked off at ground level. The place looks haunted. For me, it certainly would be.
I sit there looking at it, remembering the times I used to visit dad in that room and yarn away a couple of hours with him over a few cans of beer. It wasn’t so long ago, really – yet the decrepitude of the place makes it seem like half a lifetime… like the time-traveller’s house in The Time Machine.
And as I’m looking – getting down my can and half-wishing it was the real stuff – something odd happens. A man steps into view by the home’s perimeter fence. He stops, puts down a bag he’s been carrying… then lies down on his back on the pavement. He’s about 80 yards away, but it’s close enough for me to see that he looks pretty healthy and respectable: dressed in smart casuals, neat hair-cut, 40-ish. At first I think he’s been overcome by the heat and is taking an impromptu (if eccentric) rest. But then I notice he’s moving… shuffling himself sideways. He then stands up again – and I realise he’d been wriggling under the fence and is now on the other side. He dusts himself down a bit, then reaches back under, grabs his bag and pulls it through. If he was a teenager, I’d suspect a bit of a game was going on – but all I can think in the circumstances, and given his age and appearance, is that he’s a workman or someone from the Council: a surveyor, perhaps, who’s left the gate keys in the office.
Things soon become clearer, though. He walks over to the fire escape, then grabs the end of the rope and threads it through the handles on his bag and ties a knot. Then he goes to the back of the fire escape – by dad’s blind window – and clambers up it, agile as a monkey, to the first level. He then reaches over the railing, grabs the rope and hauls his bag up. Now I see. Ingenious. Once he’s untied his bag, he drops the rope back over the side and lets himself in a hidden window. All done in a couple of minutes, in broad daylight, with people walking by – paying it about as much attention as they would to someone walking down the road wearing a funny costume: something to look at briefly, perhaps with slight amusement, then carry on as usual.
I don’t take a hard-line attitude to squatting, simply because - like so many other social issues - it’s not something that can be generalised about. In my view, if a place is empty and unused – like that old home – and someone needs a roof, then providing it’s not trashed and no one’s being harmed, I don’t have a problem. As Shelter puts it: ‘Everyone should have a home’ – a sentiment that takes on extra sharpness when you consider that we live in a country where there are more empty properties than homeless people, and where affordable social housing is getting harder to come by. Maybe people don’t see it as enough of a priority. That’s especially the case around here, where I’ve heard plenty of fixed views on the subject: the ‘if people want to make themselves homeless, that’s their look out’ kind of thing – as if it’s some sort of lifestyle choice. When I did voluntary work with the homeless a few years ago, I was often amazed at the people who sought refuge at the hostel: professionals, sometimes, whose lives had been blighted by drink or debt or job loss. Alongside them, some of the more usual cases. People who’d run away from abuse. Elderly people with no families. People with health problems, who’d slipped through the net and who literally had nowhere else to go.
I’ve no idea what this chap’s story is – though I might be interested to find out. I do wonder, though, which room he’s taken for his own. Whether it’s dad’s old room on the top floor. And if it is, whether he sits there of a night wondering about the former occupants. He can doubtless smell the stale, sourish taint of cigarettes – always so strong in any room dad ever lived in because he smoked so much. Maybe he can pick up a faint vibration, too – a sense of a past life, imbued in the wood and brickwork. A whisper in the night, perhaps. A banging door. Some dust settling. A draught along the hallways. An odd murmur of something somewhere – a rumble in the pipework… or the fading embers of an ancient conversation, trapped like air in a capsule, echoing around the walls forever after. A conversation between an old man and his son, it could be… punctuated by the chuff of beer cans opening, the click of a lighter, the match-strike throatiness of a cough or a laugh – rising and fading constantly over time, like that other tide just over the road.
I finish my can and get up to leave, thinking I may pop back later, after dark, and see if I can see a candle flame or a gas lamp glimmering somewhere inside that mouldering pile.
On second thoughts, maybe I won’t.
Maybe I’ll let it lie.