Friday, 7 April 2017

Bad to Worse

Bill Edney, my landlord, died at King's College Hospital, Camberwell on Monday the 26th of June, 2006. He'd been admitted for treatment the previous week following a fall in which he broke his hip. I'd grown close to the old bugger since moving into his basement flat ten years earlier so I was going to miss him, and above all I knew I was screwed. I had paid fifty pounds a week for the flat when I first moved in, and since that time it had gone up by a mere tenner because Bill owned the house and hadn't really needed the money. Even if I could find something in the same price range, I already knew it would be about the size of a cigar box. London was getting expensive.

'Immigrants?' someone once asked with lurid anticipation as I related the story, although it was really more of a proposal than a question, made in anticipation of my nodding my head sadly, thus allowing him to expand further on the subject of not being a racist but...

The real problem was gentrification, white people with too much money driving up the cost of living, forcing the rest of us out of the places which had been our homes all of our lives, or most of our lives, or long enough for it to feel that way.

Resigning myself to the fact that I would have to pay more to live somewhere which wasn't as nice, I started looking even as those remembered in the will did their best to extract me like a bad tooth. Whilst alive, Bill had explained how his will stipulated that I would continue living in the basement flat, but people always find a way when there's an inheritance to be had.

One day in October I came home to find a sign nailed to a post in the front garden announcing that the entire house would be up for auction at the end of the month. This was followed a few days later by a letter from John Buckley, a solicitor who told me that as I had no written rent agreement, I had two weeks in which to fuck off elsewhere. Strangers began to knock on my door asking to come in and have a look around my flat in preface to bidding. They referred to my dwelling as the property and spoke to me as though we were equal partners, somehow working together to have my ass turfed out on the street. Unfortunately for John Buckley, I actually did have a written, signed and dated rent agreement, which he would have known had he bothered to ask.

I sought advice from the housing department at my local council. They told me that it was all highly illegal and that I should stay put for the moment.

I hadn't sought advice from Marian, my girlfriend at the time, but she had taken to dispensing it regardless. She seemed to think it a bit of an adventure, perhaps seeing herself as an older, stumpier Ally McBeal. She had been born to wealth and privilege in Twickenham and had accordingly spent most of her life in active rebellion against these aspects of her own existence. She would often tell me about the time she'd lived in a squat in Camberwell. She knew all about housing problems. She'd helped her fellow squatters fill in forms. She knew all about it. She'd lived on the front line. She'd helped those people because - oh dear - well, they had been a bit thick, some of them, truth be told - dreadfully naive; lovely people but not awfully bright, it has to be said.

Since September of the previous year, I'd been Marian's latest project. She was saving me from myself, and this would simply expand her work into other areas of my existence.

'Who signed this?' she asks me with storm clouds gathering as she studies my rent agreement. She has bad news but she requires that I play along so it can be delivered with full dramatic impact.

I look at the signatures - my own and that of Florence Edney, my landlady. I've spent most of this week in a state of shock. I'm a rabbit caught in headlights.

'That's Flo's signature.'

'What about Bill's signature?' she asks in the tone of someone who just can't get the staff, her impatience with me growing to boiling point.

I realise he didn't sign the rent agreement. It was ten years ago and Flo looked after that side of things when she was alive.

'Oh Lawrence!' Marian screeches.

How could I be so fucking stupid? She is furious with me for reasons I don't even understand. It's almost as though I've been actively trying to have myself evicted.

Isn't she supposed to be on my side? Isn't that what she said?

The next time I visit the housing office, I tell them I know I'm screwed because Marian told me so. I explain the deal with someone other than Bill having signed my rent agreement, and the person who actually understands this shit tells me that my girlfriend is mistaken and has probably had no relevant experience of housing law.

Marian's next recommendation is that I move myself and all my worldly possessions into her house, or specifically the house given to her by her mother. She's going to rent her spare room to me, which will work out well for everyone. The room is fairly small. I have too much stuff but she tells me that some of it can be binned, given to Oxfam, or stored in the loft.

I keep looking.

The auction is postponed.

Mrs. Patel who runs the corner shop tells me she has a flat in which I might be interested. It's occupied but she's trying to get the tenants out for non-payment of rent, so I have a look. She takes me up there, even though the three guys are all at home, sat around smoking and drinking tea. They don't speak much English, but Mrs. Patel tells me I should pretend that I'm there to fix something. She doesn't want her tenants to know they're on borrowed time.

The flat seems great, the price is okay, and it's on Lordship Lane so it's in the same area. I can't afford to move too far away because I need to be able to get to work and I don't drive. I need to live near my job otherwise I won't be able to afford rent, but the average cost of renting in the area in which I live is beyond my means. Marian gets angrier with each passing day. She tells me I am stubborn. If I move into her place - which is just around the corner - and pay rent to her, I'll be helping her out. Why do I have to be so selfish?

Months pass.

Every few weeks I ask Mrs. Patel whether she has managed to evict her existing tenants. Eventually she tells me that they have been paying their rent on time and that she never had any intention of evicting them. In addition to this, something or other is my fault because she never said something I clearly believed she'd said, whatever it was. It's confusing and annoying, and then by chance I discover that the basement flat of 301, Lordship Lane is vacant and has been vacant for the past year, and that I can just about afford a monthly rent amounting to half of my wages. It's only five doors down from the haunted house in which I'm living on borrowed time, so moving will be just myself walking back and forth with boxes for a couple of weeks.

Marian isn't happy, but is for once unable to explain why this is the most stupid thing I've ever done because it would contradict her previous assertion of my being incapable of making decisions for myself. I get the impression she's allowing me to learn from my mistakes, or at least that this is how she rationalises it.

My new landlord is Ken, a brusque upper-management alcoholic. He dresses in pinstripe and embellishes a face of burst blood vessels with a tidily authoritative beard. He works in the city but I occasionally see him staggering back from the Castle - the Irish pub in Crystal Palace Road - almost too pissed to stand. I know him from delivering his mail and having been his neighbour for the last decade, but he doesn't remember me and even seems confused by the suggestion.

The flat is slightly smaller than the one I'm leaving, but it's clean. As landlord material, Ken seems a little inflexible, but I tell myself that this at least means he'll probably be on the ball when it comes to getting things fixed should they require fixing. I ask about a washing line because I notice there isn't one in the small paved quadrant which will constitute my back garden. He says no on the grounds that it will somehow lower the tone, so I guess my clothes will just have to dry inside on a clothes horse. He also says no to my supplementing the blinds with net curtains, because the flat is suitable for a young professional or some shit like that. I dislike blinds because they make the room appear cold, plus I like daylight, and if I have blinds open during the day this will mean everyone who passes will get a good look at me ensconced in my world of books and records and crap. It will be like living in a zoo enclosure but - fuck it - Ken's the boss. He also tells me he's going to have to wack the rent up at some point, but I've just spent nearly a whole year dreading the future and what it may hold, so I'm not even going to think about that one right now. Hopefully it's just something a landlord says so as to establish his superiority, a reminder of my lowly position.

I ferry all my shit across. Once my old front room at 311, Lordship Lane is sufficiently clear I briefly turn it into a workshop. I order a ton of wood from the yard down on Barry Road and make shelving for the new place. I buy a new bed, or at least I buy it second-hand for about eighty quid from the Oxfam place on the Walworth Road. I was initially going to hump my old bed along from the haunted house, but Marian complained. I suppose to be fair the old bed had seen better days. Finally I move my plants into the new garden, along with the bench I bought from Do It All a couple of years back, and then the frogs.

All the rear gardens along this stretch of Lordship Lane are full of frogs, many more than I ever saw as a child growing up in rural Warwickshire. Apparently someone up near the shops had a large pond which they filled in with concrete, causing a mass amphibian exodus. Because I like frogs, I made a small pond in Bill's garden and kept a re-purposed fish tank outside my back window which would regularly fill with spawn and then tadpoles each Spring. I relocate the tank next to the fence at the side of the house beneath a bush. The fence demarcates the communal path by which tenants of the flats above mine get to their sections of a garden neatly divided into four. I haven't bothered to tell Ken about the frogs, because I don't see why I should have to. They're wild animals rather than pets, and are in any case apparently native to the gardens along this way.

I move in, and eventually settle as much as I am able. On Sunday the 29th of July, 2007, in a letter to Janet Baldwin, I write:

I've been here about two months now. It's okay, a nice, largish place and very clean. The bedroom has French windows opening onto my own garden - a large patio with a good sized flower bed at one end. I've dug loads of stuff out from the old garden - lots of ferns - and have them here in the bed or in big pots. It looks very Mediterranean. The drawback, keeping in mind that this all could have turned out much, much worse, is that the landlord is something of an arse. The rent is extortionate. He won't let me have net curtains in the front window, and he still hasn't fixed the gas boiler after two months of nagging. The flat isn't as big as I had thought, and I still miss the old place and especially Bill, but what can you do?

On the subject of Bill, one year later and I'm still the only person who has visited the place where they scattered his ashes. So much for those fucking relatives who turned up out of nowhere.

Things with Marian seem to be going okay at the moment, although I'm not sure I'm cut out for coupledom. Our future aspirations don't seem particularly compatible, mine being to move to Mexico, to continue smoking, and to continue getting out of bed before midday.

Going okay is something of an overstatement, because I don't want to seem like a moaning cunt. If I'm honest, the relationship is joyless, one exercise in damage control after another, and it's killing me. I want to be left alone but I'm trapped within my own fear of being alone at this stage of my life. I'm not getting any younger, and I'm pinned to an exhausting job which isn't getting any better, and I can barely afford the cheapest rent I've been able to find.

I meet the neighbours when they use the path at the side of the house. The second and third floor are occupied by people I never see, young professionals. The top floor is occupied by a couple, a black guy and his Polish girlfriend. He has a cream-coffee complexion and dreads. He resembles Noah Tannenbaum from The Sopranos, polite, excruciatingly middle class, and - fuck it - the guy is whiter than I am. He's the archetypal honorary white guy by which Jake and Marcus and the rest of the media studies gang get to have a token black friend. He's like really cool, they tell anyone who will listen; and I tell myself I'm allowed to think such uncharitable, arguably racist thoughts through my hanging out with the black guys at work - real black people. They're sharper, funnier and significantly less full of shit than most of my fellow Caucasians.

It's summer so I sit outside on the bench I bought from Do It All a few years back and I smoke, because I'm not allowed to smoke in my own flat for which I'm paying rent. This is when Noah Tannenbaum and his Polish girlfriend pass, off to water the pretentious herbs they grow in their quadrant of the garden. I must seem like an old man to them. They've probably never met a manual labourer, at least not unless they've paid him to do something.

We talk because it would be strange not to do so, but it's mostly horseshit of the kind you expect from people who live lives in orbit of whatever is listed in that week's issue of Time Out. They think East Dulwich is really cool. They seem cautious and guarded. Had I turned up on their doorstep in uniform with a clip board rather than the key to the front door which we all share, they would probably address me in much shorter sentences as though talking to someone a bit stupid, like a security guard or a cab driver.

Marian naturally thinks they are amazing, the sort of friends I should be cultivating. This comes as no great surprise, and seems to confirm some of my estimates regarding the width and depth of the gulf between us. She is delighted when Noah Tannenbaum and his Polish girlfriend go on holiday to Poland for a couple of weeks, leaving me in charge of watering their plants. I guess she sees this as cementing the friendship, and no doubt we'll all be inviting each other to dinner within the next couple of months. The couple return from Poland with a bottle of Bison Grass vodka as thanks for my horticultural service. Marian drinks most of it because I've never been particularly keen on vodka.

The proposed friendship falters when Noah Tannenbaum tells me that he would appreciate it if I could get rid of the fish tank I have beneath the bush. His Polish girlfriend passed by on the way to tend their pretentious herbs the other evening and a frog jumped out at her. She was so traumatised as to have been unable to sleep for the past few days.

'I feel kind of bad having to ask.' He smiles the smile of one of those strangers who used to knock on my door because they wanted to have a look at the flat upon which they would soon be bidding. 'She hates frogs, so I'd really appreciate it.'

'Right,' I say, smoking my fag and waiting for him to fuck off. Later I have a look in the tank and find it is empty of frogs. There's just water weed. They tend to move around a lot, from one garden to another, so I suppose the problem - if we're really going to call it a problem - has sorted itself out.

The next evening I get the same from the Polish girlfriend who tells me some story about how she was terrorised by a frog when she was a child. I suppose batrachophobia is a real thing, but so far as I'm concerned she can go fuck herself. I pay my rent, the frogs were here in this area before I provided a body of water for their occasional use, and it's not like I'm practising my fucking tuba at three in the morning; but of course I don't say any of this. God - I hate my life.

Ken whines about my frogs when I pay the rent at the end of the month, because of course Noah Tannenbaum had to mention it like the good little soldier that he is. Eventually he fixes my gas boiler after eight months of nagging, then announces a rent increase, as promised. He works in the city, and by my estimate nets close to an additional three thousand pounds a month in rent from the tenants of 301, Lordship Lane, but I guess there's no such thing as too much fucking money. There being no other option left so far as I can tell, I admit defeat and move into Marian's spare room. I am fairly certain it will prove to be a mistake, but there doesn't seem to be anything else I can do; and logically I have to concede the slim possibility of it not being quite such a terrible move as anticipated.

It's worse than I could ever have imagined.

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