When they moved out, instead of selling up, they rented the house via an agent to the local authority housing association. At the time they wanted to move because they didn’t want their son to go to the local comprehensive, gangs were rife. I was sympathetic, however, was of the opinion that the local schools would improve if more local people and incomers sent their children to the school rather than put them into private education or through entrance exams for ‘honest not a Grammar’ school outside the borough. Ironically this did happen and when our eldest daughter left primary school we found that we were outside the catchment area for the school, which was on its way to Academy status
On the swings and roundabouts of trendy London, we are currently on the up, so their decision to hold on to the house was a good one financially.
Over the years we have had a number of different families in different circumstances living next door. There was the Turkish family where the children could speak English but the parents couldn’t. I had to use the neighbours from two doors down as a translator when I explained that I didn’t appreciate a disembowelled typewriter dumped over the fence. Two of the three boys were sent over to clear it up. The three boys used to come over and use the paddling pool, have water fights with our daughters, play football or swingball. Then there was a single mother with three daughters, again lots of fence crossing and exchanges.
There were others who came and went, barely making an impression, the depressing transitory life of homeless families, some of whom were refugees from war-torn countries.
Then one day, they arrived.
I spoke to the landlord, our old neighbour, and he said that they look like they were going to stay for a while as they had their own furniture. Four children, one boy, three girls, younger than our girls but not by much. Mother, a local, father from Northern Ireland, as is my father. It could have been very different.
I don’t go for the ‘hard’ or ‘heavy’ drinker tag, lets call an alcoholic an alcoholic, he never spoke to me unless he was drunk, he variously thought that I was a decorator or a plumber (I’m neither), I don’t know where he got those ideas from. She could scream for England, I don’t know if she screamed because he drank, or he drank because she screamed. Either way our daughters learnt so many new words, not any they could use at school, but increased vocabulary is always good, isn’t it?
Over the years, the disturbed nights, the ferocious arguments and the verbal abuse we could hear through the walls would prompt us to contact social services or the council or the school, concerned for the welfare of the children in that house, but nothing changed, nothing improved. We were reluctant to involve the police, but they would turn up regularly, other people obviously not having the same disinclination.
Then one day he threatened me. I was shaking with anger. I retaliated with calls to the anti-social behaviour unit, social services, local police. Everyone was sympathetic, assured me that they would look into the situation.
The years passed. They are still there. He died last year, and now the children, having grown up in a poisonous atmosphere, now react and fight back, so now the noise is from mother and son, or brother and sister, or sister and sister, or mother and daughter. A few weeks ago I thought that maybe we had a Cement Garden situation; father died last year, I hadn’t seen (or more realistically heard) the mother for a while, the eldest (around 17) seemed to be looking after his younger siblings.
Not to worry, she was in hibernation and awoke with a roar and normal service was resumed.
When you hear, as I have recently, the mother tell her 17 year-old son ‘to f*ck off and die, you c@nt’ you know that the future is bleak.
I wish I were making this up, wish that it was an account of Victorian times from the slums in the East End of London, with the fear of Jack the Ripper in the air. But no, this is in a trendy, up and coming if not arrived part of London, men wear beards, coloured cropped trousers and have no lenses in their glasses.
Philip Larkin didn’t know the half of it.