Issue 14: Bloody Neighbours

10 Jun

Welcome to the fourteenth edition of the Feminist Jumble Sale.  Neighbours from hell; we’ve all had them.  Perhaps some of us have been them.  Whatever, the trials of living in close proximity to other people can certainly bring the worst out in even the best of us.  Emily, Jim and Celia take you on a tour of the madnesses, petty politics, jealousies, varied music tastes and subversions that rear their heads through flimsy partition walls, concrete ceilings and over garden fences.

Next issue will be out early August, and we’ll declare the theme once we’ve thought of one.

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CONTENTS

Onward Christian Soldiers – by Emily

From Hell – by Jim

Bubble Gum – by Celia

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ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS – by Emily

041

My sister, dad and I celebrated the day Mrs Wagg moved out from the flat downstairs.  We had got in from school to find removal men loading up a van, while Mrs Wagg barked orders from the doorstep.  My sister and I watched the rest of the progress, cheering when the Hammond Organ was taken down the path and out of our lives for good.  Over a special tea that dad made when he got home, of avocados and mayonnaise, vegetable moussaka and  tinned peaches blended with yoghurt, we talked about the peace we would enjoy with no more all-day renditions of Roll out the Barrel, and no more of Mrs Wagg’s double-standard complaints when we turned Top of the Pops up too loud.

A few weeks of quiet and freedom later, some new people moved in.  Two women in country tweeds and riding boots, they stared at us from their window when my sister and I got in from school.  “They seem a bit odd, don’t they? I said.  “Yes, but there’s no sign of a Hammond Organ!” said my sister.  We stared back, for a laugh, but took little notice.  Later, dad said he’d met them; they were a mother and daughter.  He found it strange that they dressed as if they lived on a country estate, rather than in a housing association flat in the centre of Peterborough.  I found the way all adults dressed a bit strange, so didn’t really have an opinion on this.

When we found them standing in the front garden as we left for school, my sister and I started feeling a bit unnerved.  They didn’t say anything, just stared, and we hurried off.  The next weekend we were at dad’s the banging started.  I often lay awake at night in that flat, because of dad’s snoring which reverberated through the woodchip-papered wall between our bedrooms.  I would stuff cotton wool in my ears and pull the duvet over my head, but the snoring was powerful and incessant.  I heard what sounded like a broom handle being bashed against the ceiling.  It was slow, and rhythmic at first, starting at one end of the flat, and building in frequency as the neighbours seemed to march up and down the flat.  It was strange; Mrs Wagg had only banged on the ceiling when we were being noisy.

Over breakfast of toast and Marmite, it was clear that dad and my sister had slept through it.  Dad didn’t seem to believe me, but I swore it was true.  “Oh come off it,” he said “Why on earth would they be banging on the ceiling if we weren’t making any noise?”.  I was tired and  angry, “Perhaps your snoring kept them awake too!” I said, before grumpily picking up my bag and heading down the stairs and out the door.

The next Thursday we were there, dad admitted he’d heard some strange banging a couple of times too.  That night we all heard it.  It was louder, and went on for hours.  I went into my sister’s room at the other end of the hall, just as the singing started.  We strained to hear the words, was it Onward Christian Soldiers?  It sounded like one of the hymns we secretly enjoyed singing at school but we couldn’t work out which.  We dared each other to bang on the floor, but this made the singing louder, the banging faster.

Dad went round to see them the next day, but the women refused to answer the door.  The next time we saw them, they stared, as usual, and then the older one shouted at us “Comb your hair!” We laughed, and said “No!”  My sister added, “Our hair is none of your business” but they said it again.  What did this mean?  Our hair wasn’t that messy, and anyway, it was the mid eighties. We quickly went inside the flat and closed the door, but they shouted “You are the devil’s child!” at us through the letterbox.  We told dad that they really were mad.  He advised us not to speak to them, and got in touch with the landlord.

Every alternate weekend and Thursday night we were there, and  the night time ceiling-bashing and hymn-singing continued.  Every time we saw the women, they told us we were the devil, that we were evil, that our hair was a mess.  “What a mess!” they would take it in turns to shout after us as we left the flat to return to our mum’s.  Sometimes they quoted what sounded like bible nonsense at us.  One day I was so exasperated, I shouted “Fuck off!” but  ran inside, scared, slamming the front door.

It was one Sunday when my sister and I were hanging out some washing. We backed to the end of dad’s side of the garden as we saw their back door open.  “Oh shit, here we go” I said.  The younger woman crossed from her side of the garden, and started telling us we were the devil.  How could we both be the devil, I thought?  How could we be both the devil and the devil’s child? She had a bucket in her hand, and quickly marched up to my sister, and after saying “How dare you!” tipped water over her head.  My sister screamed and I rushed over.  The woman quickly went back inside, and shut the door; both of them staring at us through the glass panel as we gathered up the washing and headed back into dad’s flat.  “How dare we what, for fuck’s sake?” I said as I tried to comfort my sister.  She was soaking wet and crying.

It was after this that mum said we couldn’t stay at dad’s any more.  She was already worried by the night time disturbances, and I was exhausted from lack of sleep.  Dad upped his pressure on landlord.  We still spent time there, and one Saturday when dad was out, we were in the flat, messing about in the kitchen.  We had opened the kitchen windows wide to air the flat; it smelled of stale cigar smoke and bins, as dad mostly stopped with his girlfriend now.  We had the radio on, and were quoting The Young Ones at each other, making each other laugh.  My sister was being Neil, and I was being Rik.  Then suddenly something came hurtling through the open window.  It hit the far wall, and we saw it was an egg, it’s slimy contents sliding down the woodchip.  We swore, as another one, and then another followed.  There was egg all over the wall, but we didn’t dare go to close the window for fear of being hit.  The women were chanting, “Get out! You are the devil!” We managed to get to the sides of the window, each pulling down a sash, as more eggs came flying, hitting the glass, and spattering all over the window frame and sill.  We were really scared now, we locked the windows and I ran down to bolt the front door.  What would be next, after the bucket of water and the eggs?  Dad called the police when he got back from the market.

It took a while but eventually they were evicted.  We had hoped to see them in court, as we stood there to give evidence, our hair neatly brushed, and wearing crucifixes borrowed from school friends. But they didn’t show up.

The following summer on a day out to a local stately home with dad and his girlfriend, we saw the mother and daughter walking arm in arm in the rose garden.  They had on their full country outfits: the mother in a Barbour and deerstalker, the daughter in tweed jacket and flat cap.  My first instinct was to hide, but we braved walking past them to see if they would do or say anything.  They ignored us, and continued walking about the garden, slowly, heads held high, as if they owned the place.

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FROM HELL  – by Jim

042

The crowd for the solar eclipse was the biggest gathering on that beach since a similar occurrence three thousand years previously, when, fearing a demon was consuming the sun, villagers had yelled and beaten drums to scare away the evil presence. They thought the rumble and shaking of the earth was the titanic struggle between the demon and their thunder god, who had come to help them fight off the sun-swallowing devil, and danced and cheered in the returning sunlight, even as it shone victorious through the perfect thirty foot wave that washed them away, along with their dwellings and almost all trace of their community.1  Knowing nothing of that calamity, the modern locals mingled in an atmosphere of muted excitement, a cross between a picnic and the build-up to a wedding service.  Neighbours who had last spoken harshly over a boundary dispute or car parking problem now waved awkwardly, estranged spouses shuffled past each other with their current partners in tow and hard-nosed tradesmen grinned and shrugged, as if they’d been spotted entering a fortune teller’s tent. It was all a bit hippyish, and they could just as easily have been watching from their own back gardens, but something drew everyone to the beach – possibly the rumour that there’d be live music and a burger van.

As he wandered along the water’s edge, Dan, normally used to doing things on his own, felt strangely self-conscious at the sight of his downstairs neighbour from the block of single people’s flats in the town. It was like being pulled up short by your own sad reflection as you sat on a bar stool.  Not that he looked exactly like his fellow resident, who was a dead ringer for Nosferatu – bald, drawn, with pointy ears and dreadful teeth; but Dan, if he was being honest, was quite monstrous in his own right, his face a network of scarring left after a previous neighbour’s pitbulls had gone berserk. The fact that there were no pets allowed in the current premises had been a major selling point.  As well as his fiendish appearance, Mr Ground Floor, from the one time Dan had heard him talking to the postie, had an odd way of speaking, like a record being played too slow. But you didn’t end up in that block unless you had a few problems, be it ill health, addiction or previous imprisonment. It was often in the paper and, though folk complained how hard it was to get a house, few would accept a flat there; the address was Brae Foot and it was nicknamed Beirut.  And Dan hadn’t been encouraged by the greeting drawn in the grime of the cracked glass panel in the main entrance: “welcome to hell”.  He’d been burgled once since moving in, a neat job using a crowbar to unhinge his door.  After taking the telly and lap top, they had simply put the door back in its frame, leaving it to fall on Dan’s head as soon as he touched the handle.  There were a few young people in the flats and some of them partied a lot.  Along with the noisy guests, paramedics and police were no strangers to the place.  One night a girl jumped out her window, but from just one floor up she’d only broken a leg.  Dan called her an ambulance and, a few days later, as she struggled up the stair on crutches, asked how she was, only to have her whimper and squeeze past in a panic, maybe freaked out by his appearance but more likely not wanting to get caught talking to another man by her boyfriend – after his Good Samaritan act a young bunch had given him the hard stare outside, different from the usual looks of horror he attracted.  Nosferatu and Dan didn’t normally draw attention to themselves if they could help it, though the former certainly liked loud music. He had good taste, to be fair, and incredibly varied – Dan didn’t think he’d heard the same track twice. Although well out of context on the beach, Dan and Nosferatu gave each other the briefest of nods, exactly as they would have done in the hallway at home. Dan didn’t want to sit too close, but felt like making some gesture of affinity, so picked a spot just a bit further down the same slope at a distance of fifteen or twenty yards.

A few minutes before the eclipse, the birds fell quiet and the calm spread to the human audience.  A few had set up projecting devices with cardboard boxes, others had welder’s goggles or special sunglasses that had been on sale at the shop.  When the moon started to cross the sun, an eerie band of shadow raced over the sea, then a weird twilight came, the wind dropped and friends and families stood together in silent groups.  The uncanny stillness lasted until the sun was fully out again, sparking a dawn chorus and relieved chatter along the beach.  As the spectators dispersed, a small boy passing the dune where Dan and his neighbour remained sitting in alignment, said, “Look, Dracula and Frankenstein!”  He was immediately shushed, but the two men shared a chuckle, even if Nosferatu’s smile was even scarier than his serious look.  They walked back together, quietly at first, but Dan broke the ice by mentioning Nosferatu’s eclectic musical tastes and, in terms of age group and influences, they did have a lot in common.  It took Dan’s neighbour longer than normal to articulate himself but by the time they got home they were laughing like two battle-hardened veterans of every youth sub-culture and pop trend since the seventies. When they turned the corner towards Beirut, however, they were confronted by a scene from the apocalypse: black smoke pouring from Dan’s windows, broken glass everywhere and a trio of young women shouting and screaming on the pavement.  “We thought you were still inside,” cried the girl who’d broken her leg, full of relief. “We’ve called the Fire Brigade.”  Her and her pals made out they didn’t know what had happened, but Dan surmised Broken Leg’s bloke had gone on the rampage, smashed up her flat and torched Dan’s place as an extra touch of malice – a  punishment for getting involved before.

Dan was decanted to a B&B while his home was fixed up.  The guy in the next room was a foreign doctor – a locum surgeon, in fact. He was interested in Dan’s scarring and urged him to seek a referral: “You can be good looking once more.”

“I’ve never been good looking.”

“Perhaps for the first time, then. Plastic surgery has come a long way.”

Dan watched Champions League football with the doctor and got used to the landlady’s French toast, so it was with a heavy heart that he returned to Brae Foot.  But Nosferatu pulled back a curtain and gave the thumbs up as Dan fumbled with his keys, and no sooner was he back in the re-painted flat than there was a knock on his door.  It was Broken Leg and her two pals:  smackheads the three of them, all tiny, with shadowed eyes, prematurely aged.  Huddled together, they looked like one soulful, multi-headed being, apologising and hoping he’d be okay; then they disappeared.  He’d been given a few sticks of furniture by the recycling charity and, as he put his feet up on the settee, music started pounding downstairs. He realised it was “A Song from Under the Floorboards” by Magazine and, from there, the undead DJ traversed the punk era, new wave, the outer reaches of the Manchester scene and the highlights of hiphop, Britpop and beyond.  Dan felt he’d been under a shadow for years, but with the three wicked witches wishing him well, a dedicated playlist courtesy of Count Dracula, and even the prospect of a new face in the bathroom mirror, life in hell was definitely on the up.


1 A shadow of these events survives in a local legend about day becoming night and fish pouring down chimneys.

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BUBBLE GUM – by Celia

044

I knew it was her, even before she turned to me and exclaimed, “Celia!”

It must have been twenty years since I had last seen her, but it seemed the only difference was the bright red lipstick she now wore. It looked like she had stolen it from her mum’s drawer.

She carried an oversized designer handbag and I remembered reading in the paper of her brother who had becoming a multi-millionaire after inventing a giant plastic spoon which made it easier for owners to throw balls to their dogs.

Standing there on a Tuesday evening, sober, in the kitchen of the church hall, waiting for the meeting to start, I found myself quivering. I shifted my posture slightly in the hope that she would not notice.

I remembered standing in her kitchen alone one summer all those years ago. On the table lay her two last pieces of Coca Cola Flavour Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum.

I looked behind me and then with great urgency I ripped open the wrappers and pushed both pieces in my mouth. Immediately realising that I could not cover up this act, I walked out into the garden. She stepped out after me, looked at me and saying nothing, she turned and ran into the house. I heard her say to her Dad, “She’s eaten them! They are both there in her mouth!”

Feeling dizzy with panic and exhilaration I ran from the garden and all the way back to my house.

And now I had been caught again, standing next to the tea urn in the kitchen of the church hall. I was still here, but then of course, so was she.

 

 

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