As the twentieth century became the twenty-first, I was living in the basement flat of a house in Lordship Lane in East Dulwich. The house was owned by Bill, my landlord, an amiable octogenarian residing in the two upper storeys to whom I had become if not quite a substitute grandson, then possibly an ageing sidekick. The first floor, immediately above my residence but still a sort of underworld to the realm of Bill, was another flat, one which had remained empty ever since the mysterious Miss Tibbs went to live with her brother a couple of years earlier. Bill, having become accustomed to a quiet life, hadn't put much effort into advertising the place, possibly fearful of taking on a tenant who would turn out to be a serial murderer or who might fail to pay rent on time. In any case, the flat, the result of a slightly half-hearted conversion carried out many years before, was probably something of a hard sell. Essentially it was a front room, bedroom, bathroom and tiny kitchen all off a single hallway, specifically the single hallway leading to Bill's part of the house. In architectural terms it was an appendix, and the bath itself was of a peculiar truncated kind I've never seen before or since, room to sit with knees tucked up under one's chin, but that was all.
Unfortunately, as the millennium drew near, Bill learned that he would be required to pay additional council tax on the unlovable and still vacant flat and so stepped up his advertising campaign, such as it was. A young woman came to take a look around, but she had a child, and it really wasn't that sort of flat. I coaxed my friend Paul into giving it a look seeing as he was due to be turfed out of his own place, but I think it freaked him out a bit. The front room and bedroom were both pretty large, but the latter was almost completely taken up by the biggest bed in the universe, so it seemed.
The months passed into September so I went to stay in Mexico City as briefly became my annual habit up until about 2005, and I came back to the news that Bill had at last found another tenant, George Ramshall, a chef working at St. Christopher's Hospice where Flo - Bill's wife - had spent her final Christmas a few years before.
'He was in the army,' Bill told me with visible enthusiasm, 'and he's a chef, so I suppose he must be all right.'
We were both stood on the doorstep having one of those conversations we would get into on Mondays when I went up to pay that week's rent. I glanced at the bay window immediately to my right, that being the one behind which the mysterious George now lurked. The curtains were drawn, and it was two in the afternoon. I realised I had not seen them undrawn since the arrival of my new neighbour.
'He keeps himself to himself. That's the main thing.'
Bill's first impression, whatever it may have been, was clearly and understandably overridden by the relief of having the flat occupied by someone who, so far as he could tell, wasn't going to turn it into either a crack den or a brothel.
Myself, I was just curious, even a little enthused, spending the next few days in waiting for the right moment to swap introductions with this person. Whoever he was, the assessment of him keeping himself to himself had been accurate. I never saw him either coming in or going out, and his presence could be determined only by a shifting of the floorboards as heard through my ceiling, or occasionally the sound of a television tuned in to Coronation Street. Gradually I began to notice a pattern, the ordinary sounds of a person moving around usually building up to an evening of energetic creaking. It would begin about seven in the evening and carry on until after I'd gone to bed. Initially it sounded like rusty bedsprings under the influence of someone who just couldn't get comfortable, but someone who just couldn't get comfortable for three or four hours with occasional breaks as he went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea; and yet I knew the room above was not the bedroom, and anyway it didn't even sound like that, not exactly. On bad nights it worked up to something resembling someone prising apart floorboards with a screwdriver. It wasn't loud, but it was constant and defied explanation, and that was annoying.
Still, I tried to not let it get to me. I've always considered myself reasonably sensitive in terms of actions which may aggravate one's neighbours, mainly because I don't like things which aggravate me. I've never enjoyed overly loud music being as I find the prospect of someone smashing in the front door and then attempting to insert a vinyl album or even an entire turntable into my colon tends to spoil one's listening pleasure; and I'm pretty sure this preference for low volume isn't just me playing the innocent as my friend Carl once regularly took the piss out of my quiet music, describing improbable scenarios in which I would have my amplifier wired up to two tiny Walkman earphones, each mounted on a mahogany stand at either side of the room.
Hiss hiss hiss hiss hiss hiss...
Because of this I gave George's creakery the benefit of the doubt, reasoning that whatever he was doing was probably something he needed to do, and accordingly I had kept my music particularly low ever since I returned from Mexico. Then one evening, listening to the quietest Jay-Z album ever recorded, I was startled by three robustly expressive stamps upon my ceiling - Bang! Bang! Bang! - George's foot, possibly booted and pounding the floorboards. I was shocked, but I knew there would be a logical explanation for how someone could have inadvertently transmitted the universal morse for turn that shit down, you fucker. He had fallen over rhythmically, or was perhaps attempting to stamp upon a fast moving insect, or maybe even the mouse from the Tom & Jerry cartoons.
A minute later it came again.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
I looked to the volume control on my amplifier and saw that it was down low at around the second notch, noting how the music was not so loud as to cover either the noise of cars passing along Lordship Lane or the sound of a tap dripping in the kitchen at the other end of my flat. I was not, by any definition, playing loud music.
I turned off the stereo system, went outside, climbed the steps and rang the bell. The curtain to my right twitched ever so slightly. I took a breath and made ready to be entirely reasonable.
The door flew open, the mysterious and presently wrathful George bursting forth to jab his extended finger hard in my chest whilst bellowing, 'I'll tell you what it is, Pal,' - I didn't hear the rest. I was too shocked.
He was in his fifties and resembled comedian Sid Little after five wilderness years as a meths drinking park tramp. His lower jaw protruded like in a child's drawing of a particularly stupid caveman and was covered in grey stubble. The engorged pupils of his eyes swam left to right behind Coke bottle lenses like angry fish looking for something with which to pick a fight. He smelled like a betting shop and had a strong Manchester accent. I understood immediately that this was a man with whom I would not be able to reason, someone who would not respond to logic.
He worked shifts and slept during the afternoon, he told me, and every day I would deafen him with my music. He had a hard job and he needed his sleep. This was the essence of his argument.
The Jay-Z album had been the first thing I'd played on my stereo in over a week, and it could only have been deemed loud by someone with enhanced hearing as their mutant superpower. I was reluctant to point out that it looked a lot like he was imagining things from where I stood, but reasoned that maybe the deaf Jamaican guy who lived next door had been blasting out his own music, and this was what had deprived George of his sorely needed beauty sleep. I personally hadn't heard a peep out of the deaf Jamaican guy in a while, but who was I to tell someone else what they could hear? I may have mumbled something in this general direction, but already knowing I would not be able to reason with this man, I'd resigned myself to future music appreciation being conducted by means of headphones.
All went quiet, excepting the routine four hours of rattling and creaking during the evening which inevitably became a source of unspoken resentment. Bill was glad of the additional rent coming in, and the fact that George kept himself to himself, whilst admitting that he was a queer sort of feller, using the term in its older context.
'Still, so long as he behaves, that's all I ask.'
I said nothing.
Well, I said nothing to Bill. I certainly vented a quota of spleenage to friends on more than one occasion, at least once attributing the nightly four hour creakathon to a hypothetical scenario in which George spent evenings strapped into a home-built autotorture machine, a Professor Branestawm style system of levers and pulleys designed to repeatedly tantalise George's sensitive bits whilst delighting him with a mechanical carousel of images of small boys' bottoms revealed in close-up. It was an admittedly hysterical assumption, but I still had no idea what that noise could be, and there was something unusually unsavoury about the man. He'd been in the flat a year, the curtains kept drawn with the lights turned off even after dark for all of that time. He received no visitors. He paid his rent by direct debit so Bill never saw him, and on the occasions when my landlord knocked on the door in order to communicate some minor detail concerning the gas or electricity, George would refuse to answer, even pretending he wasn't at home. His occasional and irrational complaints, as I later discovered, placed obsessive emphasis on security issues and matters to which he referred only in terms of their being nobody's business but his own. He was secretive to the point of pantomime. Bill began to find this behaviour increasingly odd, not least when entering the shared hallway just to catch a door snapping shut, George retreating into his dark, smelly sanctuary like a trapdoor spider.
I would pass him in the street, or even in the betting shop at the end of the block which I entered when delivering mail, but we never acknowledged each other, partially because I'd seen the guy so infrequently that I was never entirely sure of it being him; excepting the one occasion when he hid around the corner of the dry cleaner's as I approached. I saw him catch sight of me, then duck back and flatten himself against the plate glass window like a character in an animated cartoon, apparently not understanding that he could be seen from the other side.
'Hello George,' I said as I passed, only later realising I should have offered some comment about how his powers of stealth were a testament to forty years well-spent in Her Majesty's forces.
Aside from the regular rattling and creaking, another year went by without incident when I noticed loud music emanating from somewhere above my bedroom, loud enough at least to distort the speaker from which it came. It was obviously a radio left playing in a large empty space, and I assumed that the deaf Jamaican had bought in someone to decorate his flat. The music blasted on through the night just as it would have done had hypothetical painters or decorators simply forgotten to turn off their radio as they finished for the day. By this time I'd taken to wearing earplugs at night so as to prevent being woken by the cries of urban foxes, so it didn't bother me significantly.
The next evening the radio was still on, which was just too much of a coincidence. It was George, and I had no idea what could have pissed him off this time. Based on the rage inspired by a Jay-Z CD played so quietly that I'd been unable to hear it once I stepped out of the room, I knew it could be anything, and it took me another day before I plucked up the courage to confront him.
'I'll tell you what it is, Pal,' - he was almost screaming this time and I thought he was going to hit me. He worked hard, he told me, and he needed his sleep, and he had a hard job that was hard. Every day he endured my constantly slamming of doors. Every day he was woken by my alarm clock going off, which was no bloody good for someone working hard at such a hard job that required him to work so hard.
This was bullshit and I knew it, and I found myself laughing.
'I also have a hard job,' I told him. 'I don't particularly like having to start at six but there it is. I need to get up in the mornings, and so I have an alarm clock. What else am I supposed to do?'
Amazingly, he had no answer. He hadn't really thought beyond his own righteous fury and had assumed that a radio left on at sonic warfare volume as a taste of my own medicine would speak for itself. I didn't even bother to comment on the suggestion that I spent the best part of my afternoon slamming doors just to see how loud I could go. I walked away and the lesson-teaching radio fell silent.
I saw nothing more of George until spring when he volunteered to look after Bill's garden. Bill had been a keen gardener for the first fifty years of his life at the house and was particularly proud of his roses, but now in his mid-eighties he was no longer up to anything more demanding than the occasional bit of pruning; and although his friend Jim mowed the lawn every month or so, the beds were returning to jungle. George offered his horticultural services mainly, he claimed, for the sake of something to do. Unfortunately he had no experience with either plants or gardening, but having spent forty years in the army had assumed that there was no obstacle which could not be overcome by simple application of military efficiency, and so he approached the garden methodically as he might an unfamiliar piece of hardware.
He spent the first six months digging up the flower beds and sifting every last ounce of soil so as to filter out all but the tiniest stones, building a mountain of pebbles at the far end which, so he instructed Bill, would require collection by the council. In other words he rationalised the soil, but lacking an understanding of how stones are essential for drainage in heavy clay, the plants under George's care were rotting away at the root. His work succeeded only in creating something resembling the trenches of the first world war, and with a soft litter-like consistency which drew cats from miles around. Occasionally he would take a break from ethnically cleansing the earth and mow the lawn instead, down on all fours with a pair of scissors, back and forth working methodically for a full three days until the job was done. Bill had an entirely serviceable lawn mower, but George preferred his own method.
Other times he would just rest, bringing out a deckchair to sunbathe with a copy of the Daily Mirror.
'Nice weather,' I observed on one occasion as our paths crossed in the alley at the side of the house. Somehow neither of us had seen the other coming, so we hadn't been able to take evasive action.
'It's glorious.' George had been sunbathing, and although he didn't smile, for once he didn't sound angry.
That was the only real conversation we ever had.
Another year passed and the sight of a ruined expanse of soft clay seen each day from my kitchen window had become too depressing. George had lost interest, which was probably for the best, and those plants remaining were beginning to die in the sodden deoxygenated ground. I suggested to Bill that maybe I should take over care of the garden, and he almost seemed to gain an inch as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. It took a while to get it all back into shape, and the first month was spent mostly turning the cat litter back into soil by reuniting it with all those naughty stones. By summer it had begun to resemble a garden once again, and more significantly I'd reclaimed territory from the nutcase. I had seen him watching from his kitchen window when I first got started with the spade. He'd pulled back the curtain, gawping in disbelief like an enraged chimpanzee bewildered by visitors in gorilla suits.
The final confrontation came another few months down the line, and this time it wasn't directed at me. I heard Bill rattling the front door as he did each evening, testing to make sure he'd locked it properly before retiring for the night. This was followed by shouting, obviously George. Bill was old and small so this worried me, and I went upstairs to provide either moral support or a witness.
Outnumbered, George calmed a little and explained that he worked hard at a hard job that was hard work, especially for such a hard job; and after a hard day's work at his hard job he resented having to listen to Bill rattling the key in the lock for two solid hours every evening. Then he turned to me for support, but I'd honestly never before noticed the offending rattling.
There were two doors, the inner door to the upstairs hall, and the outer door which was left unlocked during the day so as to allow parcels and milk to be left in the porch. This, Bill explained, was why the outer door was left open during the day, and would then be locked at night.
George suggested that it was a security issue affecting his right to privacy, and that both doors needed to remain locked at all times. This was clearly something he thought about at great length, judging by the selotape with which he sealed up his doors on rare weekends away. He liked the phrase security issue, using it often as though the door in question was all that stood between him and the forces of anarchy. It reminded me oddly of a documentary I had seen in which a convicted and unrepentant paedophile had avoided answering questions posed - despite presumably having agreed to appear on said programme - instead preferring to rant about what he saw as the real issue, namely the brutal circumcision of very young girls in African villages. Gutless moral cowardice, I call it, he blustered over and over as the interviewer failed to engage him in discussion of his own repulsive convictions, gutless moral cowardice!
George's security issue was that the unlocked door might be breached not by the forces of anarchy but by coloureds. He described an incident in which he'd woken during the middle of the night and found one of them in his hall, presumably having just wandered in to take a look around. 'Black as the ace of spades, he was.'
Quite aside from the whole point that both doors would have been locked at that hour - which was in any case what George wanted - this was getting ridiculous. He invoked the image of this mysterious black man as his winning hand, clearly believing Bill and myself would recognise the scale of the problem now that coloureds were involved. How can we fix this, George? we would ask. What do you think we should do?
He didn't seem to realise that we now understood him to be a small child telling us he'd seen a dinosaur with lasers on its head and it had eaten a man and the man's head had come off and the dinosaur had looked at him. Bill was of the generation in which casual racism had been commonplace, but if he himself ever held such views, I never heard him express them.
George moved on to raise an additional complaint about the noise made by Bill's television set. To be fair, Bill was almost deaf and would watch football with the volume so loud as to be heard at the end of the street, but it had never even occurred to me to be bothered by this.
Exhausted and with no new understanding beyond the extent to which George valued his privacy, we left it at that.
Next day, Bill and I compared notes. We'd never really spoken frankly about the other lodger. I had no wish to seem like I was whining, and I think he felt reluctant to admit that he'd leased the first floor flat to someone who was obviously mad.
'I don't know what's wrong with the bloke,' he sighed. 'It's not like I'm having bleedin' orgies up there or nuffin'. I can't make it out!'
I told him about my earlier confrontations, the alarm clock and my supposedly slamming a door every three minutes for the best part of the afternoon.
'Don't you worry, mate.' Bill slapped me on the shoulder. 'Good as gold, you are. I've no complaints about you.' He thought some more. 'Problem is, he's not in the army now, you see. He still thinks he can order everyone around, but it's not like that. When you're sharing a house you have to expect a bit of noise.'
I agreed, and now that we'd broached the subject, it turned out that Bill had a lot to get off his chest regarding George. 'Always going on about his bleedin' hard job up at the hospice - heating up a tin of beans for people who ain't got no appetite 'cause they're all on chemo and about to kick the bucket - how bleedin' hard can it be?'
I shrugged. It was good to hear this. I wanted to ask if Bill had considered telling George to piss off, but it seemed pushy, although he was already some way ahead of me.
'I wish he'd move out. Might get a bit of piece and quiet then.'
George did move out, or specifically he went to visit some relative in Oldham and never came back. Being secretive and tending to creep around, neither Bill nor I realised he was gone for about six weeks, by which time a few months of unpaid rent and a few years of unpaid council tax had become overdue. Bill opened up the flat and found it empty but for a box of old seven inch vinyl singles. These were mostly eighties hits by Erasure, Culture Club, Bronski Beat, Gloria Gaynor, Divine, the Weather Girls, the Village People and others; and further to the obvious realisation suggested by this selection, Alan who moved into the same flat a little later described how he'd found a number of photographs of men dressed as ladies beneath the bed. This had been George's big secret, it seemed, but it made no difference to me. It inspired no outpouring of sympathy nor excused the fact of the guy being roughly the most massive cunt I've ever met. He'd spent forty years in the army and had clearly never been what you would describe as bright; so it was a shame in some respects and, I suppose, a sad story; but then the world is full of sad stories, and there are very few of us who get an easy ride. He was gone, and I understood at least part of why he'd always been so angry, and that seemed like enough.