Friday, 12 July 2013

Ten Good Years

Around the beginning of 1995, the relationship I'd been in for the previous eighteen months was drawing to a natural conclusion. The association hadn't been without its moments but it wasn't really going anywhere, unlike my girlfriend who was off to Norwich to study fine art. We were living in London, sharing a flat in East Dulwich, and the question of whether a long-distance relationship could work hadn't been raised for the obvious reason that even our living together under the same roof had been a bit of a mixed bag.

Whilst Mandy had at least some of her future worked out - in terms of direction if not necessarily destination - I was beginning to worry. My work was based in East Dulwich, and being as I'd never learned to drive, I would be obliged to either remain in the area or change jobs, both options which seemed to presage a possible slide from poor circumstances to slightly worse. Furthermore, I liked London, or at least I liked East Dulwich, and hoped I might continue to live in the area despite knowing it probably wasn't going to happen. My weekly postman's wage was slowly being overtaken by the average cost of rent in the capital, and to make matters worse, Time Out had recently published an article pinpointing East Dulwich as the hot new place to live south of the river. Time Out is a weekly listings magazine aimed at that specific breed of cultural vulture who, lacking any real interests, seek to pass time with a regular intake of vaguely classy shit - TV Quick for people who think Damien Hirst is probably saying something important, even if they're not quite sure what it is. So, with all of the really good schools conveniently identified and the confirmed presence of at least one gastropub serving food au jus on square plates, the flood of overmoneyed braying morons began - web designers and new media consultants flocking in from Nottingham or Guildford inspiring a flurry of wine bars, latte troughs, and boutique shops which didn't actually sell anything; and the cost of living in East Dulwich became prohibitive as the locals were gradually driven out of the area.

It didn't look good for me, but Mandy's flight to Norwich was  months away and so in preparation for my resumption of bachelorhood I began to look around for somewhere I might live, refusing to be put off by the almost certain knowledge that I would fail. At the time I had a regular delivery route, the odd numbered side of Lordship Lane running from the launderette on the corner of Pellatt Road right up to the last block of houses bordering the Horniman Gardens in Forest Hill. As a point of interest, the block in question can be seen to the left of the railway line in Camille Pissarro's Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich painted in 1871, and there was for me a strange thrill in delivering to such a vaguely historic address.

Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871.

Further down the hill, just past The Plough - the pub which briefly and ridiculously became The Goose & Granite once house prices started to bloat - was a terrace of twelve four-storey and possibly Edwardian townhouses of which all but a few had been converted into flats. About half of these had flights of steps running up the outside of each building for, lacking a communal entrance nearer to the surface of the planet, most flats had their own front door.  This was therefore a massive pain in the arse in terms of mail delivery, and particularly in the case of Michael Johnson who lived on the uppermost floor at one address, and who was guaranteed to receive something in the mail twice daily, even if was just an extremely poorly targeted advert for car insurance. I had a testy speech prepared for the day we finally came face to face, something making use of the sort of profanities which can be yapped out whilst still breathless from the previous ten minutes of climbing. These fucking steps, I would begin...

When at last we met, Michael - or Mick as I believe he preferred - turned out to be effectively paraplegic and only roughly mobile with the aid of crutches, which somewhat sucked the pleasure out of my proposed tirade. Being differently abled - as I suppose is one definition - turned out to be amongst Mick's lesser distinguishing features, for he was also of Asian ethnicity, amusingly over-educated - that fourth floor flat being stuffed with shelves of terrifying philosophical texts from university days - and Liverpudlian with an accent which might have been used to thicken custard. Above all, he was a blabbermouth and very, very funny, and we hit it off immediately. By the time my relationship with Mandy had begun to wind down, I knew Mick well enough to look forward to our occasionally scurrilous conversations as we encountered each other in the street - comparing notes about his neighbours, which addresses had recently received discreet brown magazine sized envelopes and that sort of thing. On the off chance, I asked if he knew of any flats available in the area. He seemed to know everything that went on, so I guessed it was worth a shot.

'You should speak to Bill,' he suggested in fluent Jimmy Corkhill, indicating the next house but one, 'although you'd better not tell him I said anything. He thinks I'm a Paki.'

I was glad of the information, whilst also being a little shocked by the racial term, which was of course Mick's intention. I'd spoken to Bill Edney only a few times as he was one of the older, less outgoing residents of the terrace. He was a compact little man in his late seventies, but with a sparky, almost youthful quality, quick-witted and with a full head of snowy white hair which lent him a distinguished appearance.

'Funny you should ask,' Bill told me in answer to a slightly different question, at which point I noticed the hearing aid, 'but he's just moved out, so if you want to have a look...'

He led me down the alley at the side of his house to the basement flat, and I recalled that the resident, somebody or other Wilson, had not been getting much mail of late.

'Who told you it was going?' Bill fumbled with a set of keys and unlocked the door.

I've never been that great at telling lies so I spilled the beans because oh I just heard about it somewhere seemed like a terrible answer to give to someone so advanced in years.

'Michael eh?' He rolled his eyes and batted a dismissive hand like an amused game show host. 'He's a funny bloke.' Everyone was a funny bloke to Bill, which was the strongest character assessment I ever heard him make, even when it came to the dreaded George Ramshall to whom I shall refer later. As I would come to realise, Bill was not really given to strong opinions of the kind which can't be shared in reasonably polite company.

The flat had a kitchen, front room, bathroom, bedroom, hall, and separate toilet, not to mention a rear door with access to the garden. It was furnished, clean and in a good state of repair, and Bill had recently finished redecorating following the exit of Mr. Wilson. The house had originally been a single dwelling, but Bill had converted the ground floor into a self-contained flat for his sister - since deceased - back in the 1950s or thereabouts. It was perfect but obviously out of my league.

Bill and friend forging what would eventually become my kitchen.

'Fifty quid a week,' he said.

I tried not to choke, having anticipated a figure three or four times as much.

'Okay,' I squeaked. 'I'm interested.'

Bill told me that there was no television set, reluctantly confessing this like it would be the deal breaker - the rats in the wall or the body buried under the kitchen floor. He seemed almost to be expecting a frosty good day to you, sir as I stormed off to spend my fifty pounds a week rent money elsewhere.

I explained that it really wasn't a problem.

Later that week I showed up at the house following my morning delivery and met Florence, or rather Flo, Bill's wife. She would be my landlady and was the manager of all their financial affairs. Like her husband, she was small and an enthusiastic smoker. Bill was on about eighty a day and I assumed she was keeping pace. I entered their home, which occupied the two uppermost floors of the house, took one lungful of oxygen flavoured smog and understood that these people were serious about their ciggies. Each intake of breath in their deeply tanned front room was equivalent to smoking an unfiltered extra-tar Marlboro, and I could not help but be impressed. Flo brought out a photocopied rental agreement, apologised for the fact of there being no television set in the flat, and offered me a cigarette.

I moved in about a month later, migrating gradually with a couple of bags of all my crap taken up to the flat each afternoon. Bill and Flo had decided they weren't bothered about rent until I was actually living there, and this became characteristic of how they ran things, with an informal approach, their being more concerned about having a reliable tenant than raking in the money. By May 1995 I was all moved in without the usual rigmarole of unpacking and sorting everything out as I had been doing this daily during the weeks in transit; but it was not all good news, and the first few months turned out to be a little rocky, contrary to expectation. Mandy had moved with me, despite our scheduled separation, the reasoning being that her course didn't start until September, and so for the present she was otherwise screwed in terms of accommodation. It was awkward, but there weren't really any other options; and it was awkward mainly because I'd had no idea she would be moving in with me until I'd already signed the contract, and it turned out that the fifty pounds per week was per head rather than all in.

Flo called me upstairs for an interview, sat me down, offered me a cigarette and said she was very disappointed. I explained as best as I could that it wasn't my idea, and that Mandy's residence would only be short term; and thankfully, she believed me.

Bill and Flo in the garden, 1980s.

Then came the fact that we owned a cat, something else I had neglected to mention when moving in for the honest reason that I believed Buster would be going to live in Norwich with Mandy. I had a hunch that Bill and Flo weren't keen on cats and wouldn't want one in their flat, and being reluctant to have my hypothesis validated, I never asked. Tragically, the problem solved itself when Buster was hit by a car. Mandy believed he had been shooed into oncoming traffic by our landlord, but I strongly suspect it was simply a combination of bad luck and the fact that we lived on a main road; and this prompted my second interview. Flo was again very disappointed. I had the impression that Bill preferred to let his wife do the arguing as she was better at it with that formidable headmistress quality of someone who never raised her voice but would have you killed if the situation demanded. She offered me a cigarette, then explained that although she was sorry about Buster, they had a strict policy regarding pets. My heart sank, imagining I would soon be looking for some other place to live, but as she explained and offered me another cigarette, I realised that this was simply a warning. I guessed that renting out one's basement could be a bit of a minefield in London, particularly for a couple in their late seventies and preferring a quiet life; and despite everything, I hadn't yet thrown an all-night party, set anything on fire, or turned the place into a crack den, so I was on probation.

It was a difficult summer. I was upset over Buster, and the situation with my girlfriend was becoming weird and uncomfortable, but by October it was over. Mandy was at last where she wanted to be chasing that great big art rainbow, and I was happily single and  paying peanuts for a flat that was better than any I had known. No longer was I crawling from one gloomy bedsit to another, struggling to pay rent in the certain knowledge that the future would be worse, and I felt suddenly and profoundly unburdened for the first time in my life. It seemed like things were starting to work out.

I became comfortable, enjoying the flat and the garden and having a traditional landlord rather than some faceless agency. I had found a tiny pocket of decency left over from the 1960s when Tony Hancock or Michael Caine would pay rent in shillings to Irene Handl and they would all have a cup of tea and a smoke as she hung out the washing. If anything needed fixing, Bill would usually get onto it within the week, either doing the job himself or getting his friend Jim, an affable Irish D.H. Lawrence whom I gather had worked for Bill back when he'd been in the building trade and ran his own company. Repairs made weren't always the greatest in terms of craftsmanship, but the service was excellent. When I suffered an outbreak of mould - dark patches of grey and black spreading in circles across my kitchen ceiling - Jim painted over them with Dulux white emulsion before departing with a cheery, 'there you go, Lawrie. That should all be fine for you now.'

At fifty pounds a week, I wasn't complaining and besides, I'd endured a succession of genuinely dodgy landlords and letting agencies over the years, and had experienced real housing problems. The occasional spot of damp which inevitably comes with a basement flat really didn't seem like anything to worry about. When the wallpaper began to peel from my living room ceiling - prompting the question of why anyone would paper a ceiling in the first place - I applied drawing pins, matching them to the decor with correcting fluid; and if my repairing and regrouting of the tiles that had begun to fall from the kitchen wall was a bit of a lumpy job, at least the things stayed in place. If the job was serious, Bill would hire an electrician or a plumber. Everything else was handled by the ever-enthusiastic Jim.

If the mechanics of my tenancy seemed eccentric and potentially unreliable, legislated by goodwill and handshakes, the arrangement was preferable to any I had known before. Previous landlords and letting agencies had been marginally more efficient, but in my experience the more secure the legality, the greater the likelihood of getting screwed. I'd show up at the office with the customary sense of unease and as I handed over my cheque the secretary would tell me that the property was being sold in three months and I would be receiving notice to piss off in due course. With Bill, I would ring on his doorbell every Monday afternoon, wait the five minutes it took for him to get down the stairs, and then hand over his fifty quid in cash - essentially his spending money for the week as it turned out, and we would stand there on his doorstep and talk rubbish for a while. It was generally the same old jokes, but they were comfortable and always funny.

'I hope you're behaving yourself,' he would say with a twinkle in his bifocals.

'You know me, Bill. I just keep myself to myself.'

'That's the best thing. If you don't go nowhere, you can't get in any trouble.' He'd consider this, then frown and direct a pointed gaze at my rounded belly. 'Are you sure, you're behaving yourself?'

'Of course.'

'It looks like you've been interfered with to me.'

It was like living in a gentler Harold Pinter play; and with this being - as I already mentioned - a small pocket of 1960s decency somehow preserved like one of those Antarctic valleys full of dinosaurs, most of our neighbours knew one another, and of course they knew me because I was their regular postman. Next door but one was Mike Johnson, the funny bloke, with Candy and her son Joe in the flat below; on the other side were Carol and Dave - whom I got to know quite well because both Dave and I were of West Midlands extraction, and they once let me have a bath at their place when Jim was around repairing my plumbing with a roll of selotape and some chewing gum; then there was the seventy year old deaf Jamaican guy and his conspicuously younger Thai wife whom I helped one afternoon by breaking into their flat through the second floor bathroom window when they found themselves locked out; and there were the Borellis with all their cats, the lovely Lucia who shared my fascination with both frogs and carnivorous plants, and her theatrical brother Dominic, an actual star of stage and screen.

Other neighbours came and went, but these were the ones I knew best, the ones who held their ground against the engulfing tide of property development. We were an island, surrounded by economic predators thirsting to buy and transform everything into flats to be farmed off to wealthy events organisers and consultancy analysts who really needed to live somewhere with a bit of a vibe, yeah?

As I settled, it gradually dawned on me that my rent-to-wage ratio now left me reasonably well paid, and that I was relatively contented for what might almost have been the first time since childhood. I took up painting again, went back to recording my own music - activities with which I had not engaged myself in a while. I started writing, and began living, if you'll pardon the generic inspirational soundtrack music you may be able to hear in the background at this juncture. Of course, being practically minded, I was aware that mine hosts were  getting on in years and this relative idyll could not endure indefinitely, but as Damoclesian swords go this one seemed presently blunt.

Mortality entered the equation during my second Christmas at the flat when Flo succumbed to cancer. Inevitably and selfishly, I couldn't help worry about what this meant for my own situation, but equally I felt for Bill who had become something like a grandfather substitute. As a small man approaching eighty in years but sometimes exceeding that figure with his daily intake of snouts, he was as active as you would expect and still hobbled up to the shops for his Daily Mirror each morning; and he could still manage stairs well enough, even if he wasn't running many marathons. I imagined him more profoundly aged, pining away following his wife's passing as so often happens, but he carried on pretty much as usual. He was upset, but I guess it hadn't come as much of a surprise. Some mysterious relative apparently began to suggest that he move into a retirement home, but as he and his wife had been in that house for fifty years, he couldn't see the point and had told them to get stuffed.

With Flo gone, I tried to make myself useful with the occasional bit of DIY if the job was within my capabilities or involved ladders. Bill began to show up on my doorstep with a packet of biscuits or a yoghurt he thought I might like, seeing as he just happened to be passing. 'Don't want you wasting away to nuffin',' he would inform me, contradicting earlier observations made in regard to my suspected pregnancy. Suffering from arthritis in his hands he sometimes had difficulty writing, and it became a fairly regular ritual, my popping upstairs to fill out the trickier details of a cheque for the insurance or gas. He would offer me a cup of tea and a cigarette for my trouble, occasionally sharing excerpts from an autobiography it would never have occurred to him to write.

He was born in East Dulwich, just a bit further down the road, on the 16th of February, 1920. He served in the Royal Navy during the war - this detail emerging when he leant me a VHS copy of the 1953 production of The Cruel Sea, telling me there wasn't much difference between his experience and that of the character played by Jack Hawkins in the film. Florence, his wife, had lived only a few streets away, and I believe they got married soon after armistice was declared. They were never really what you would call well-travelled.

'I went abroad once,' Bill told me when I first went to Mexico, 'didn't really like it much.'

Having married, he went to work for a building company, and - so far as I recall - eventually came to own the company. Amongst those for whom he undertook building work or renovations were minor Royals and Barry Humphries - whom he considered a true gentleman, despite being unable to recall the name and having to scrabble around describing oh you know, that funny bloke, dresses up like an old bird on the telly. One of the minor Royals had been so pleased with the job he'd done that she gifted him a few hundred pounds worth of pedigree rose bushes for the garden, having learned of his then recent marriage and purchase of the house on Lordship Lane.

As Bill grew older and less mobile, he found it increasingly difficult to work the garden that he and Flo had tended for the previous fifty years, eventually scaling down to pruning the aforementioned rose bushes - now grown large and quite regal - and getting Jim over to mow the lawn every so often. For a while George Ramshall took over care of the garden. George was a lodger who was renting the first floor flat - sandwiched between mine and the upper part of the house occupied by Bill. When I first moved in, the first floor was briefly inhabited by the reclusive Miss Tibbs, an ancient widow who went to live with her brother shortly after my arrival. 'She's a funny woman,' Flo had once told me, shaking her head and reaching for her cigarettes. The flat remained empty for a few years until George showed up.

Unfortunately George was stark raving mad and spent a year transforming the garden into a scene from The Killing Fields, then lost interest. I knew I should have stepped in before he offered his services as head gardener, but feared I might be impinging on one of Bill's remaining pleasures in some way. Once I realised how much it depressed him to see his once cherished borders slowly devolving into a dirty protest, I stepped in on humanitarian grounds. George, whose level of sanity is probably indicated by his once spending three days cutting the lawn with a pair of scissors, had during the course of a year sifted every last ounce of soil in order to remove all of the stones and pebbles. The garden now comprised an expanse of nodules of obsessive compulsive clay with the texture of diarrhoea, all offset by a six foot mound of rocks and a handful of dying plants. Bill gave me the key to the shed, so I took a shovel and began digging the whole thing over in an attempt to terraform it back to something in which stuff might grow. George took this act for the clawing back of territory that it certainly was, and kept out of the garden from then on, moving out about a year later. For reasons too numerous to list here, both Bill and I were hugely relieved to see the back of him.

The flat in Lordship Lane became the first place I had lived since leaving home in which I actually enjoyed living. When I went away, I always looked forward to coming home. It wasn't a mansion, but it was all that I needed. I liked my landlord, I had decent neighbours, and for ten good years it was perfect, but of course nothing lasts forever. In June 2006, Bill missed a step coming down the stairs and fell. He was taken to King's College Hospital with a broken hip which, if nothing else, at least silenced the inevitably gleeful chorus of doomsayers predicting a cancerous end for anyone who ever did so much as walk past a tobacconist without voicing some note of disapproval. Jim and his wife Anne went to visit him and the prognosis didn't initially seem too bad. I went to visit a day or so later, and although his situation had improved a little, the experience did nothing to inspire confidence. Bill was in a ward with twelve others, and was unable to communicate due to having had no replacement battery for his hearing aid. He was effectively stone deaf. I pointed this out to a nurse who told me, 'oh don't worry about him. We sort of wave our arms and he seems to understand most of it.'

It was horrible.

Bill died a few days later from pneumonia contracted whilst in  hospital, 28th of June, 2006.

He was cremated at a ceremony at Camberwell New Cemetery attended by a handful of neighbours and a throng of relatives who had mysteriously emerged from the woodwork. As a couple, Bill and Flo had never had children and I'd only ever heard him speak of one relative, a nephew whom he regarded as a waste of space, and due to my front room being situated next to the steps leading up to his part of the house, I usually recognised his few regular visitors as neighbours, mostly people to whom I myself had delivered mail at one point or another.

A stumpy woman with dark hair whom I had never seen before in my life - possibly Flo's niece - made her presence known at the wake. 'Dear old uncle Bill,' she sighed, explaining how she used to visit him every few weeks, but of course that was all over now. She was immediately set straight by an admirably abrasive Scottish woman called Angela, a friend and neighbour whom we all knew as Haggis. 'Get tae fuck,' or words to that effect. 'Ye've no set a foot inside that house in your life, ye wee shite.'

Bill had left the house to Anne and Jim in his will. They weren't related by blood, but they were friends and had seen him more than once since 1975, which the relatives inevitably thought unfair, so it all became legally unpleasant. I'd always intended to ask Bill what would happen to my flat in the event of his passing, but I never got around to it for obvious reasons; so I was astonished when he raised the subject himself a few years earlier as we pottered about in the restored garden. 'Anne and Jim will look after the house, so you'll have somewhere to live,' he said. 'I don't want you to worry.'

It didn't work out that way, and after nearly a year of legal bullshit, I was evicted. The house was sold to a property developer who subdivided it into desirable flats in an exciting area, would suit bearded twenty-something new media arsehole wearing ironic Pogle's Wood T-shirt and one of those Pete Docherty novelty hats which arseholes seem to think lend them the rakish panache of Sinatra gone a bit Jagger around the edges, rather than simply sending out the message that here is a person of no consequence. They gravelled over the garden I'd tended for two years, and ploughed Bill's treasured half-century pedigree roses into the soil.

It was one of the most depressing periods of my entire life, but I took comfort from the fact that I'd had ten good years, and I believe his friends took a similar view - inconsolable but glad to have known him. Whenever I'm back in London, if I get the chance I still visit the gardens of remembrance at Camberwell New Cemetery. There's no plaque to commemorate Bill Edney ever having existed - a provision was made in the will, but nothing came of it, and Haggis suspected that Flo's absentee niece had just kept the money, which seems consistent with the general theme of her grieving. I spend half an hour in the garden, telling the memory of Bill what's been going on since my previous visit. I'm not sure if it really benefits anyone, but it feels like the right thing to do.

One of Bill's friends described happier times back when Flo would regularly tickle the ivories in one of the local pubs; and when the pub closed down, a group of them decided to rescue the piano. Bill and Flo had been party animals in their younger days - hence all the cigarettes I suppose - and they spent the best part of an alcohol soaked night pushing their refugee piano through the streets of East Dulwich and then Forest Hill, pausing every so often for a song and an alfresco knees-up. It struck me as a bizarre image, and I thought of the sheer racket of Flo pounding out a tune on a street corner at three in the morning with Bill and the others, all puffing away, all toasting the street lamps and singing themselves hoarse; but then it wasn't such a bizarre image, because I could never recall Bill without the association of laughter, his gentle humour, and his generosity. It always sounds like hyperbole to say someone changed your life, but in my case, that's exactly what Bill did.

I will never forget him.

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