The first place I ever lived in on leaving home was a grim arrangement. It was a bedsit on the first floor in an old Victorian house near to the centre of town. It wasn’t savoury at all. I was 17 years old and was sharing the flat with my 41 year old boyfriend, Barry. It was 1988. It was his flat and having no job at the time, it was cheap enough for him to afford. Well, cheaper than cheap. The word cheap doesn’t cover it. Moving from the middle class suburbs to there was a bit of a culture shock.
The house had 3 floors, with 8 bedsits, 2 kitchens and two bathrooms. There was no cleaner for the communal areas at all, the garden was a wildlife sanctuary and if you expected a visitor you had to listen out for someone hammering on the front door and answer it yourself. You also had to wait for the postman coming if you were expecting anything of value.
Our room was large and airy, with huge sash windows that rattled in the wind blowing the brown striped curtains about. The furniture consisted of a single bed which we squashed into at night, a little Formica table and chairs, a wardrobe, a green plastic settee with floral nylon cushions, a brown velour armchair and a deathly looking electric fire. The carpet was beige hair cord and the walls were chipped magnolia. Barry had a small black and white television with a coat hanger attached to the top for tuning purposes. If you wanted to change channels you had to get up and turn a dial and engage in a strategic battle with the coat hanger. I usually stuck to BBC1 and learnt to ignore the snow storm raging on the screen. He also had a record player with a worn out stylus which you needed to balance a penny on to get it to play without jumping all over the discs. Apart from a few books and a camera, this was all he owned. Something should have told me he wasn’t much of a catch. There were no pictures on the walls, just a strange shrine to me which he’d made by sticking photos up over the big marble mantle piece with yellowing sellotape. I didn’t think this was creepy and was oddly flattered.
We had no washer and washed all our clothes in tepid water and then dried them off in a little spinner which skittered round the kitchen like a mad thing. The kitchen had a 1950s lemon yellow fold down unit made of Bakelite and a 4 ring cooker which I once got stuck to. I was stirring a pan of soup with a metal spoon (I know, I know) and the ring became live where it had worn through. I was literally stuck to the cooker. Luckily, the ten pence in the meter ran out before I dropped dead. No one used the kitchen much and I was a bit territorial over it. I scrubbed it with Vim and left acidic notes in Biro pinned up telling people how to behave. There was a fridge in there which was like an experiment in culturing penicillin. I used to throw the mouldy stuff out only to be confronted by notes saying things like “Whoever took my cheese put it back!” I often cooked elaborate homely meals in there, my repertoire was poor. Shepherd’s pies, Bolognese, curries or stews were my staples. Mince was very cheap. The other residents would look at me with shock when they staggered in to make toast only to see me, cigarette in mouth, apron on, grilling chops and boiling carrots.
The bathroom was beyond description. It had a shower which fused out on a regular basis but no other hot water. I had to shave in a mug in the room. One of the blokes in the attic used to wee in a milk bottle in the night and empty it out the next day, leaving the bottle, with traces of stale urine in, next to the toilet. Naturally, I had words. If you wanted to have a bowel motion you had to carry your toilet roll in with you as if it was left there unguarded it soon went missing. It was a bit embarrassing if you had visitors as you had to ask them which function they intended to perform when they went to the bathroom, so you could pass them the roll. It was also a little but mortifying to have to walk down the corridor, toilet roll in hand. You might as well have worn a sign advertising your intentions and regularity.
I set about cleaning Barry’s room (now mine too) and washed the walls, arranged my books and records neatly and brushed the carpet down thoroughly. It looked almost homely, although a migraine attack of colour. I bought pot plants, posters and tried to make it homely. It worked a little but the place was noisy and cold. Luckily, like most teenagers, I could sleep well under even adverse conditions. Like most drunks, Barry slept well too. We eventually got given an old fridge and I went to sleep each night listening to the hum of the fridge in the room. I’d occasionally forget to top the meter up with 50 pences and it would be rancid by morning in hot weather.
The other residents were colourful. They changed constantly but a few were more memorable than others. There was a thin man who looked like Dennis Neilson and gave me the creeps. A gothic girl with a calliper lived in the downstairs room at the back and allegedly kept a pet rat which terrified me. A couple of builders lived in the attic, one of whom was very cheeky and would stand leaning against the kitchen cupboards, watching me cook and make saucy comments which I giggled coquettishly at. He also liked to beat down the jungle of weeds and sunbathe on an old mattress below our window in tiny white shorts, which provided me with hours of fun. It was the first six pack I’d ever seen in the flesh. His brother was squat and ugly and would get drunk and Hoover at 3am. He also had a Bontempi organ which he often played tuneless renditions of Tina Turner songs on in the middle of the night. I’d bang on the ceiling with a brush; shouting “Shut the fuck up!” and flaking off bits of plaster.
On our floor lived a very handsome boy who oddly left for work each day in a suit. Barry nicknamed him “the pretty boy” but I called him Speedy Gonzalez as he sometimes bought girls back and the drunken fumbling of his key was always followed ten minutes later by a loud shouting of “Jesus” echoing down the corridor as he ended the act.
I made friends with the woman in the next room, a divorcee in her 30s who was quite bohemian. She worked in a shop in town selling bongs for dope, hippy clothes and ethnic jewellery. She’d regale me with tales of her past exploits and tell me about her current boyfriend, a huge leather trousered man who apparently had an enormous willy and made her squeal a lot. I’d sit there wide eyed, loving it as we made clouds of cigarette smoke which settled in her Indian hangings. I’d never met a woman with tattoos before.
The resident who scared me most was a girl who lived in the front downstairs room. She was from a rich family, privately educated at Rodean School but had taken to heroin more than lacrosse. She’d stumble out, grey skinned and track marked and glare ferociously. She had an intermittent boyfriend who was a six foot four Rastafarian with amazing dreadlocks. He took a shine to me and would often come up and knock on the door when I was alone. He’d then make himself comfortable on my green plastic settee and talk away whilst smoking joints. I never understood a word he said as he talked entirely in Jamaican patois but he didn’t seem to notice if I nodded enough and made him tea.
The most unwelcome visitor of all was an escaped ferret. I was getting a bottle of lemonade out of the fridge one day when a little champagne coloured head shot out for under the bed and a ferret ran up my leg. My scream was so loud that it summoned half the house and the neighbours collectively chased it and stunned it with a broom and returned it to the house next door which it had escaped from. I, naturally, stood on the bed, white faced and shaking, whilst they did this, shouting “Get me a cigarette!”
Thinking about it now, I feel like I was happy living there but in truth, it was cold, noisy and primitive. I felt like I was free from my disapproving parents but in truth, I’d gained a disapproving controlling boyfriend. I was happiest when I was alone, reading my books and listening to my Smiths records or bopping round the room with a duster to Bananarama. I was like a child at times, playing house, just glad to be somewhere that felt secure and taking pleasure in the little things, like my records and the magnificent six pack of the man upstairs.