Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Nostalgia Factory (iv)

My Bleak Year

My neighbours must be wondering what's going on in my office. I've been hoovering and decided, despite the cold and rain (it is July 31st after all), to air the house by opening all the windows and getting rid of the doggy and stale smoke smells. When I finished that I got an urge to listen to something noisy and very loud. So I put some Fuck Buttons on; music that really, truly, isn't the kind one would normally expect of me (except it is); and I put it on ear-bleedingly loud. I think the dogs have got the impression I'm holding a rave inside a steelworks in my office and have decamped for the living room. If the wife was here she'd probably hit me with something.

I can't tell you how delighted I was that Danny Boyle used Fuck Buttons in his opening film sequence for the Olympic Opening Ceremony; the man must have some good stuff knocking around his record collection; but he is good friends with Underworld (who were Freuer in the 80s) and they did the soundtrack to Trainspotting and also featured in the ceremony.

I rarely listen to loud music any more; the idea just never comes to me much as I've got older. I think I went off the idea of it when I lived in Scummersley Terrace back in 1999/2000. Living next door to a crack dealer with a teenage girlfriend with three kids, who he used to 'hire out' when he was short of money, made me realise what it was like to live next door to someone who played music so loud it hurts your ears.

Oddly enough, when we moved to that house of mixed blessings, things in our life were pretty damned good. I was still at Comics International and still earning a really decent living from that and other freelance work. We still owned the house in Wellingborough, which we'd rented out to a friend and while we were more than aware we were moving into a complete and utter shit hole, in a region of Northampton dubbed Beirut by the locals; we were buying a house that was about 40% cheaper than every other property in the area. The reason? Nothing wrong with the house; lots wrong with the neighbourhood.

The day we moved in was not without some inauspicious moments; the first and still most memorable was arriving at the house about half an hour before the removals van, driven by my dad, and finding two kids, an old pram and lots of soiled nappies in the bottom of the skip. I got out of the car - my brand new Fiat Punto - and asked the kids what they were doing in the skip. One of them turned to me and said, "We're not in the fucking skip." The wife looked at me and struggled to force an ironic smile.

The first two weeks were the honeymoon period; not only we were blessed with an Indian Summer which allowed us to completely clear out the garden, but the wife and my dad (who needed something to do now my mum had gone) set about stripping out the house and redesigning it. The garden was a treasure trove of crime; we found all manner of things buried in the very large garden, including a payphone - I kid you not - and a chest. This caused us all some consternation; the wife had this vision of it being stuffed with bones; I dreamed of it being full of money; in the end it was full of ... nothing - a few cobwebs.

Then the weather changed; and more importantly, the crack dealer got released from prison. Warm October turned into bleak mid-autumn, the leaves fell, the sun got low in the sky and suddenly Scummersley Terrace started to look a bit ... scummy.

The house cost us £34,000; it had originally been on the market for £50,000 and we'd been to see it then, because we could afford to go up to £60k without having to sell the Wellingborough house. The first time we drove down the cul-de-sac we both immediately knew that we would never buy the house. But, three weeks later and still without a house, we saw the place had been reduced to £40k, so decided to go back, have another look and see if the place was as shitty as we remembered it. It was and this was the beginning of June 1999, a nice month. Then the house was reduced again to £37,950 and we discovered the building society was selling not an owner - it was, naturally, a repossession. My brother, who hadn't seen the house said for a joke that we should offer them £30k; so we did and they came back and said £35k and we settled on £34,000 - we had, as they say in the trade, a bargain.

The house itself was a big old council house with a front porch that lead to a hallway. The bathroom was immediately to the right, the big living cum dining room to the left. The kitchen was directly in front down the hall and there was a cubicle toilet where one might have a cupboard under the split stairs. Upstairs were three bedrooms; a massive one that could easily have accommodated an en-suite and two other really adequately sized others. The only problem with the house, and this might have been because it sat empty for over a year, was it was very cold and superficially damp - well, not damp as such, it was a corner terrace or semi as snobs like to call them and had north and east facing walls which hardly ever got any sun on them, so the heat from inside the house against two walls that seemed permanently cold caused a lot of condensation (this was only ever temporarily solved). It had a 100 foot long back garden that was about 25 feet wide; it was a massive space, which had a garage in it - there was no access to the garden from a street, so heaven knows why it was there - and a patio and a lean-to or small crappy conservatory, which saw the sun in the summer, but only for about two hours in the evening; the rest of the garden though was usually bathed in it whenever the sun shone. If the house had been anywhere else it would have been delightful.

I think I've tried and largely succeeded in blotting this 13 month period out of my head. I've joked with the wife that my mid-life crisis was wanting a sports car half a dozen years ago and then regretting it; but I think 2000, if it wasn't the year I had my mid-life crisis, it was the year that I had an actual mental breakdown. Well, mental breakdown might be far too strong a description; but something major happened in 2000 and Scummersley Terrace played a huge part in that.

Believe or not, my memories of that year in hell are really sketchy; the more I sit here and try to remember anything more than isolated incidents, the more my mind throws up this wall and says to me quietly don't go there.

I remember setting my office up and thinking there was too much space. I'd finally moved out of my cubbyhole and into a real room and I think that inspired me; what also inspired me was the fact that my then employer had discovered things called IRC - which is basically the first working Internet chat forums and he used to spend ages on these things and as a result, I started to fool around with them, but and this is no bullshit, they was so such chaos and cacophony and I didn't really see what the point was. But, I was also entering a period of my life where I wanted to write again. I don't know if it was the space or just years of pent-up frustration at not fulfilling my ambition to be a 'proper' writer, but one night standing over Dez's shoulder in Finchley watching him chatting to some woman from Texas and thinking; neither of you know anything about each other; you could both be fat psychos sitting naked in front of your keyboard hoping for the typewriter equivalent of phone sex.

Bingo!

An idea came into my head and the idea grew and grew. I now had this room to let my ideas have some air, I sat down just over two weeks after we moved there and wrote a book. 80,000 words poured from my head over a three week period. It was like an express train; all those years of want came pouring out of my hands. It was really a pure and simple act of catharsis, but what landed on the 'page' was evil. I had dragged up things from the depths of my instinctive brain; wrote things that would have suggested a really, really, fragile and potentially dangerous person. I wrote a story that while, in many ways I was proud of (I still think it's paced beautifully), but would never, ever, admit to writing.

While I was writing it and while the express train mention is an old cliche, it really was one of those as soon as I got to the tipping point, there really was no turning back. The closer I got to the finishing line, the more time and effort I poured into it. By December 1999 when I finished it; it was full of hate and that reflected my life perfectly... I was exhausted; stressed from everything that was going on around me and I began to hate comics with a passion.

The wife's got a few 'heroes', among them David Niven, David Attenborough, Hugh Laurie (but she never watched House) and Stephen Fry. Imagine her surprise when we have Steven Fry move in next door. However, this Fry was tall, blond, lean, wore a lot of bling and tracksuits and was a crack dealer, who took an instant disliking to me because I was male and I lived next to him and I'm not exactly a shrinking violet. It was the middle of November and the wife said, "There's someone outside the living room window," and true enough when I pulled the curtains back there was Fry beating the crap out of his teenage girlfriend.

Now, what would you do? Call the police? Go outside and ask them to take it somewhere else? Well, that's what I did. I went out, by which time they knew I'd seen them and were making their way to the two foot fence that separated our front gardens. "Take it off of my garden please," I said, without a hint of malice in my voice and suddenly he's in my face; I mean doing an angry gorilla impersonation; nose to nose, arms in the air, hooting at me like a fucking deranged donkey. I have a reactionary temper at the best of times, but I was also well aware of the 'if you hit someone, they can defend themselves' law and the 'if he hits you first you can have him for assault' law, especially as 'MeeeShell' was screaming at him that he'd go back to prison if he touched me. But, he hadn't quite finished howling at me about his turf, his manor and he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to and I was not going to stop him. I actually wanted him to hit me by this point and I saw a hammer on the window ledge, picked it up and brandished it at him, muttering something about bashing his brains in if he so much as touched me or came near my house again.

The upshot was our first meeting with our new neighbour went about as catastrophically wrong as was physically and mentally possible. From that point on, for six months, he made our lives hell and guess what the council did? Diddly squat.

2000 was tumultuous; we spent it round RnB's because we didn't want to be in the house, especially as they had a party which was still going at 10 in the morning. The one reasonable thing was our bedroom was as far away from their house as possible and with windows shut, we barely heard anything, much. We might hardly ever have seen him, but we knew he was there; if he wasn't screaming at his bitch, he was shouting at the kids or playing dub music so loud it made the walls vibrate.

My car got damaged - the insurance assessor reckoned someone repeatedly threw a pushbike onto its bonnet. The new fence was broken; the two ducks were killed and I became more and more withdrawn. I had a period, probably around 1996 or 7 when I became a wee bit agoraphobic, but in 2000 I got the same thing, but what compounded it was two other things. The emergence of skunk as the smokers drug of choice and the fact I didn't feel safe leaving the house to go to the car, which was parked 20 feet away. I became this curtain twitching recluse and I'd started writing another story; not as grim as the previous, but almost as nasty.

I was about 25,000 words into a story about a hitman and the life he lives when he isn't working. The dual life he leads without his wife or friends knowing what he really does for a living. The story was based around the old copper's adage - never shit on your own doorstep - or never bring your work home or near home because too much of a spotlight can fall on the things you don't want people to know. The hitman and his family move into a new, nondescript house, in a slightly average neighbourhood, but within days, the hitman realises that he wants his neighbour dead.

I've got this mate, lives down in Hastings, he's a copper and a lovely bloke who I've always gotten on really well with; when we first met he must have had no allusions to what kind of person I was, with my bum length hair and obvious love for herbs illegal; but we were both comics fans and retailers (he did the ordering for his mate who run a book and comic shop) and when I came about to write the previous novel, I asked him for information regarding police procedure as far as serial killers, missing people and other nasty shit. He, naturally, didn't help me; but undeterred, six months later I'm again asking him questions about police procedures in murders, dealing with contract killers and even if they really exist. He didn't answer again, but then again, he is and has mainly always been just a community bobby; he wouldn't know CID murder procedure if it showed him its warrant card and helmet.

Anyhow, things had started to get a bit hairy at work; I felt trapped in my own house and towards the back end of the summer, the wife finished the d├ęcor and we decided that we needed to get out of there. I remember sitting in the cubicle toilet, on a hot August day wondering if the nightmare would ever end, as speakers placed outside the front door, broadcast music, broadly speaking, to the mass public whether they wanted it or not. By the late afternoon, when the wife came home I went out to meet her and she looked at me, looked at the human wastage sunning themselves to whatever the 2000 equivalent to dubstep was and shaking her head. Fry had been quite quiet for a while; we'd had the council in and I reckon he'd gotten wind of it, because things had gone quiet and almost like magic, the loud music came back out the day after the listening equipment went back to the council with barely a sneeze on it. But today he seemed to resent the look on my wife's face, so he was up at the gate suggesting we fuck off somewhere because he was in charge of this street.

Again he was up in my face, screaming at me to hit him, to give him an excuse to put me in hospital, but I'd wised up a little and stood toe to toe with him, saying all manner of vile things to get him to hit me. By this time MeeeShell had warmed a little to me and the wife; I think she realised that we weren't bad people and we actually gave a shit about her, but she was loyal to the man who beat her regularly, so she joined in and before you know it there's a crowd of people watching me and Fry going at it. I even considered at one point in finding out if any of my less than desirable mates fancied earning a £100 to give this twat a good kicking.

The confrontation over, the wife was on the phone to the estate agents and the house was on the market - but with no for sale notice - by the end of the week. It was on for £60,000, which was about £8k less than the going rate at the time, so it was priced to sell and make us a tidy profit. To add to the stress and strains of being recently bereaved, working for the king of all arseholes and living in hell, my best friend at the time suddenly changed; becoming even more cynical and seemingly disappointed when the first people to view the house put in an offer of £57k. He had claimed, quite boldly (and coldly) that we would never sell the house because of the neighbours and the location. When we did, his entire attitude towards me changed - I was suddenly this bloke who always landed on his feet and had never had to suffer real hardship for very long before something came along and sorted it out. That sounded pretty much like what most people of my social standing go through in a lifetime, but, go figure. He stopped talking to me in the August of 2000 and didn't speak to me again until almost the same day in 2001.

The wife was quite upset because the house was perfect in many ways for us and we had, initially, had plans for it, we were now trying to find something else to buy; but fortunately for us, the buyers of our house were moving down from Scotland and we had plenty of time to ensure the chain didn't go on forever. Then something ironic happened that lifted the shadow almost immediately. I'd been listening to some fractious arguing next door for about an hour when I heard a window break. I rushed upstairs into my office to see what was going on and there was a group of people hanging around outside. My first instinct was to call the police, because some of them were armed with logs, bats and possibly other things; but another part of me sensed the hostility in them and it was directed solely at Fry.

They dispersed, eventually, but after they left, there was a frantic race by Fry, MeeeShell and one of his dodgy looking mates to bundle as much stuff into the back of his crappy little Escort XRi as he could. MeeeShell and the kids also climbed in, leaving Fry alone. The car drove off and everything quietened down. However, shortly before I was due to take the dogs out for a walk, I heard the Escort return and Fry and his geeza were now trying to get huge speakers into the boot and assorted other 'essentials'. Fry stopped and looked around, he said something to his mate, they dumped the speaker, shut the boot and climbed into the car. They had travelled no more than 50 feet when something got lunged through the air at the car and a big breeze block landed squarely on the windscreen, busting it inwards. Suddenly there was a horde of people heading towards the car; the ones who had been there earlier. I had the window open and I heard Fry screaming at his mate to 'DRIVE, DRIVE, FUCKING DRIVE!" and the car almost ploughed through the angry mob, down the street and that was the second to last time I ever saw Steven Fry.

Between then and us moving to where we are now, life became simpler, quieter and the neighbours all relaxed and started talking to each other. It was becoming the street it could have always been, but it was too late. Some funnier things happened in our last days there, including listening to a husband and wife discuss why she really didn't like anal sex at 3:00am in the morning (well, any time from the sounds of things) and the 13 year old having a conversation with one of the young mum's about not hardly being able to wait before she gets pregnant; but when we moved out - at night, because we were still bothered about repercussions; the wife finally collapsed in a flood of tears, released stress and joy, coupled with utter incompetence from the estate agents, previous owners of our current home. Unexpectedly, Roger provided the extreme comedy moment of the day to lift her spirits and make things better, by walking into the pond without realising it was a pond.

I had some dark and lonely years in Wellingborough, especially when the shop struggled and I was smoking far too much; but the 13 months in Scummersley Terrace were the bleakest and most utterly soul-destroying I've ever had. There's this old saying about not being able to choose your family; well, unless you're really lucky, you can't choose your neighbours either; we've had some doozies over the year - mad old people, chavs, drug dealers, fuckwits, fishwives, fat bigoted women who wear curly wigs, new-age hippies, dull boring people, ditzy women and an assortment of lesser neighbours who would stretch the boundaries of belief if they were introduced into Corrie or Stenders.

Is it any wonder that one of my greatest unfulfilled ambitions is to live in the middle of nowhere? But if I got that wish, I'd have nothing to write about...

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