Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Flowers In A Dovecot

Perhaps I’m a little slow on the uptake, but the other day after yet another raucous party, I finally realised that yes, the flat below me is let out as a ‘hotel apartment.’ I checked online. Honestly, judging by the ad you’d think Dovecot Towers was a 5 star beach resort.

With no one taking responsibility for the ‘guest’s’ behaviour (most notably, the noise) I called the management company and explained my plight. Astonishingly, they sorted it out. The flat was still recorded as being owner-occupied and our management was mendaciously informed by the sneaky but stupid owner that his rowdy mates had caused the furore (what: different mates? Every weekend?) He was threatened with eviction, since hotel-letting contravenes the lease. I subsequently discovered that two other flats on my corridor are let this way, which means that, by my reckoning, around twenty out of one-hundred and forty flats are rented by the day, and at some profit.

Why does this matter, you ask, since I’m moving out?

Because I was organising a collection to send flowers to the service of the man who died recently. What a completely pointless and dispiriting exercise that was, as nobody answered the door, even if they actually live here.

‘Sarah’ texted to say that a flower laying ceremony was planned on the street where her boyfriend had died, if she could face going back. I wanted to contribute something. I didn’t know them, but have been incredibly moved by their tragedy (I won’t say upset, since that would imply that my feelings belong on the same page as hers.) The friends who had been with her, trying to resuscitate him had already left flowers which were stolen shortly afterwards.

I spoke with my neighbour who had heard him scream as he fell (mercifully, I didn’t.) Like all of us she had dialled 999, but perhaps wisely and unlike myself had shut the doors so as not to hear those terrible events. I told my neighbour about the flower laying. She didn’t turn up or leave anything, and she’s the nicest person I’ve met in here. I already knew that there is absolutely no sense of community in Dovecot Towers, but the cold hard reality hit home when I realised that nobody else had left a card, even if they seemed to be concerned.

I hate those shrines that appear when there’s been an accident and people who never even knew the victim leave maudlin notes, cuddly toys and garage flowers, appropriating random tragedy, wearing other people’s darkness like a badge, but this was entirely different. Despite only meeting ‘Davey’ once, I wanted to show ‘Sarah’ that somebody here cares.

I waited on the street. First to arrive were their former house-mates, one of whom had tried to give him the kiss of life that awful night, and who was clearly traumatised by the horror and devastated by grief. They love ‘Davey’ and they miss him; this will always cast a long shadow on their lives. I think they were wearing the formal black clothes bought for graduation day just a few months ago. One of ‘Davey’s’ friends left a mango (he loved mangoes.)

‘Sarah’ arrived. I asked permission to leave my flowers and generously, she consented. ‘Sarah’ was fragile, weak and exhausted from weeping. She wobbled like a faun, and needed constant support; it was terrible to be back on that street again. Her expression haunts me: gather all the sadness in the world, mix in confusion, shock and overwhelming fear, and you’re only half-way there. She saw things that night nobody should ever have to see.

Obviously, ‘Sarah’ was not keen to linger. When I hugged her, she was thin; she can’t bring herself to eat. She’s blaming herself. She believes (wrongly I know) that she could have stopped him and I am so worried for her. I reminded her how strong she’d been, how hard she’d fought to save him, and that she had told ‘Davey’ many times how much she loved him that night (I understand that hearing is the final sense to fade.) As she left that awful street forever, she whispered, desperately: ‘…it was horrible.’

I couldn’t sleep that night. Every sound convinced me that someone was stealing the flowers, but in the morning, they were all there, along with the mango. They’re still there even now.

(NB: The letting-agents are refusing to be compassionate and won’t end the lease immediately or return ‘Sarah’s’ deposit until the flat is re-let, even though she only lived there a week, having paid a month upfront. They actually expected prospective tenants to view while ‘Sarah’ and ‘Davey’s’ possessions were still in the flat. Just when you think agents couldn’t be any more callous, they surpass themselves.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Mad Max in Magnolia

Regular readers must think that Dovecot Towers looks like a scene from Mad Max, with smoking ruins dotted amongst the feint traces of some lost civilisation, all swarming with ragged feral children and their ragged feral parents. You’d be wrong. As long as you visit just after the cleaners have done their work, initially, it doesn’t seem too bad. Instead of ruins, visitors are greeted by a magnolia dystopia.

I have a theory which could explain the end result of this aesthetic desert. In central Manchester, there’s a road where drivers regularly turn left despite a ‘No Entry’ sign. Traffic management practice accepts that if people consistently repeat the same mistake, the problem lies not with the wrong-turner, but with the signals themselves. On some instinctive level the signs are confusing and lead road-users astray.

This hypothesis would explain many problems arising in the soulless urban developments covering the land. Cars roar as they jam the main road and any bare, half-arsed greenery is wilting. Once inside, there are no pictures, no colour, and nothing pleasant. The vast walls are chalky, with not so much as a solitary dribble of colour to alleviate the blankness. No bins either, since they are routinely stolen, but then residents feel entitled to help themselves, as they are relieved of service charges for very little service.

Once inside these flats, we are mostly forbidden from decorating the dispiriting white walls, or adding pleasing, homely touches to what is after all, our home. We can’t even hammer a nail in the wall to put up a picture, and - as I’ve written elsewhere - some landlords are known to inflict their own taste in art on their tenants. Rental agreements ban the fittings necessary for putting up welcoming, warming curtains (there are usually white vertical blinds, like a tax office.) We can’t add our own unique flourish. There’s no scope for individuality. We exist in an empty shell, a vacuum.

The positive effect of pleasant surroundings is well documented. Re-humanising the surroundings worked for the DWP, who stopped blocking off what are now ‘clients’ with screens, and added adornments like calming art, music, colour and plants. Attacks on staff decreased.

I appreciate that cost and safety are an issue, and don’t anticipate extravagant flourishes like tropical fish tanks, or cascading water-features alongside expensive sculptures. But is some colour on the walls other than sensory-deprivation-white too much to ask for? A few plants would be nice, even a mural. It seems so very bleak in here, and if you want to keep tenants happy and secure (so we will stay and pay your mortgage) then let us make the flat, and the building itself, feel like home.

Persistent desolation and an appalling lack of control over our environment sends a strong, if subliminal signal, just like those inadvertently misleading traffic signs. The message is clear: abandon hope all ye who enter Dovecot Towers. You are landless peasant scum. You count for nothing. This is not your home. You are vermin, infesting your landlord’s pension fund. When zoos are planned with more consideration than newbuilds, is it any wonder that tenants, so disrespected, are reluctant to stay?

(NB: The girl whose boyfriend died is absolutely devastated and utterly heart-broken, which goes without saying. I have heard from her, and she is determined to get past this appalling nightmare which - considering that her very world has come to a grinding halt - is both courageous and amazing. People stress that they were very much in love. He was twenty-three.)

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Death In The Dovecot

In Dovecot Towers, you hear a lot from people you may never see. For example, someone a few doors down loved The Arctic Monkeys. They played it loud - not annoyingly so, but just enough that I noticed.

Last Sunday afternoon I met some new people in the lift, who got out at my floor. They were Australian, and had been buying household items, like a clothes line and a bin. I wondered if they’d just moved in. They’d been here one week: it was The Arctic Monkeys fan and his girlfriend. Carefully, I did my good citizen bit and explained that they needed to ask the landlord to fit a new lock. They didn’t even know who their landlord was, since they had used a letting agency. I gave them the caretaker’s number, and wished them all the best in their new home.

At 2am the following morning I was woken up by screaming and footsteps pounding frantically along the corridor (nothing unusual there). But then I heard a woman begging someone not to touch her, shouting “Keep away from me!”

Envisaging a street attack or a drunken domestic assault, I was racing for my phone when I heard a loud bump, then more screaming, then another ominous thud. On the street below, a woman was pleading frantically for help.

Her boyfriend had jumped from the balcony. It was my near neighbour, the male half of the couple I’d chatted to in the lift that afternoon. She was calling an ambulance, beseeching them to hurry, while begging her boyfriend not to die.

Repeatedly she cried inconsolably: “…this can’t be happening…this can’t be happening.”
She didn’t know what to do, and called the ambulance again, urging them to hurry. I screamed down at her from my balcony to keep him still; that moving him might cause even more harm, but the words: “…his brains are all over road…” made me realise that moving him would make no difference now. Concerned at having heard her earlier begging someone not to touch her, I called the police, who were already on their way.

The Dovecot Towers trademark ‘Heads-Over-The-Railings-Tenants-Ad-Hoc-Residents-Association’ appeared. There was nothing to be done. Judging by the way he was lying, he had died instantly. The young woman bolted a short distance down the street, and faced the wall, shouting: “This isn’t happening!” before turning around and realising that yes, it was really happening. She was remonstrating with her boyfriend: “Oh God, what have you done, don’t die, I love you, I love you. Please don’t leave me.

Then another man appeared, clearly in as bad a state as she was. She said: “Keep away from me, don’t touch me!” then: “It’s all my fault.”
The man said he felt responsible. No ambulance yet, so they called again. She noticed her boyfriend wasn’t breathing, and they attempted to resuscitate him, but to their horror, there was blood in his mouth. A window opened and a woman yelled at her to shut up but another resident, aware of the desperate scenario unfolding below, retaliated: “Shut the fuck up yourself you selfish bitch.”

The ambulance arrived. The paramedic took one look at the broken body lying prone and bleeding on the street and shook his head. He covered the dead man with a blanket. Her remaining hopes extinguished, she berated the paramedic: “You didn’t even try!”

The police came, taped off the scene, and shepherded the girl away from the lifeless man and into the ambulance, where her visceral howling punctured the night. Suddenly police spilled out of vans, unmarked cars arrived and men in suits surveyed the scene. I heard the police enter their flat, heard her crying, and watched them leave in clean clothes, carrying luggage. She was led towards a car. Just before she got in, she curled herself into a ball and rocked to and fro, as a policeman looked on helplessly. Even the police were distressed. I heard one officer say he’d seen dead bodies, but nothing like that before.

Suddenly it was all quiet, and the dead man, with one fractured, contorted leg poking out from underneath the blanket, was left alone in a cordoned off area on the street, watched over by a solitary police van. He looked so lonely. By seven am the corpse had been moved. It was raining. A pool of brain matter was left in a gutter, until the scene of crime cleaners washed it away.

I’ve no idea what happened in that flat; what made a young man jump to his death, and I don’t suppose I ever will. As I write this, someone is embarking on a twenty-four journey from Australia to collect their dead son: the son I spoke to briefly, but never knew.

Does this have anything to do with Dovecot Towers? Maybe; possibly – but then again, perhaps not. People move in and out with alarming frequency, flats are now rented by the month, week, or even by the day. Life is tenuous, alienating, prickly and dehumanised. We don’t know each other. Problems seem larger here, isolation is exacerbated and arguments are inescapable in a tiny one bed flat.

And what about the devastated young woman, who was asking the world, the pavement, God, the sky or anyone, for help? Tomorrow, she’ll wake up and face the future alone with a ruined life, returning home to the flat where her world ended, her soul forever scarred. I’ll never forget the couple I met in a lift, and the harrowing primal sound she made will stay with me forever.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Too Late For Me

I was having some kind of episode. In quite a tizzy, I was collecting boxes and packing. Something had shifted. Any spare possessions, like more than two plates or cups, unseasonal clothing, superfluous kitchen utensils, books, etc. has been stacked in boxes and ready to go for months now.

Yesterday, I crossed the foyer where, alongside two sorely vexed community police officers, two besuited men were assessing the building. I introduced myself to the crime prevention officer and a representative of the management company from hell, i.e. the people who rule the kingdom of Dovecot Towers.

They wondered if I might have something to contribute; any suggestions, perhaps?

I recounted the numerous problems I’ve documented here (the local police were already appraised since they mop-up the consequences.) As I spoke, the crime prevention officer was astonished, to put it mildly, most notably by the ‘secret’ entry code being posted up next to a broken main door story (and my, how we laughed about the car park CCTV being stolen.) Disturbingly, when I asked for information about the incident which seems to have been a murder (tenants are still unsure) they wondered which one I meant, since there are several to choose from.

They were taken aback by my rising fury. The management fall-guy tacitly admitted that this place has been mismanaged. He’d only just taken over, and on inspecting the grand designs of Dovecot Towers was more than shocked. Even so, he still tried to blame the inmates/tenants, who keep on breaking the door. I said that a door shouldn’t break so easily. He claimed that dealing with tenants directly was forbidden; he was obliged to inform owners of changes etc. I said: many landlords live abroad, so why not update tenants simultaneously via a note under the door? The police agreed. They must be consulted when buildings are planned, but there is no legal requirement for their suggestions to be enforced.

I asked about the prevalence of communal post-rooms. Apparently, they save someone having to walk along the corridors. I said: why not conserve even more postal shoe leather by deploying them at the end of suburban streets. I think they got my point. Plans for updating the scary shut-off post-room of doom are ingenious. Really. Many great minds have toiled to invent a brilliant, innovative solution. No new post-boxes, no lock on the door, not even letterboxes on the flat’s own front door. Their cure is marvellous.

They’re only going to take the bloody door off.

The manager knows about the many empty flats and has witnessed the consequences: rents are plummeting, while landlords and tenants alike are rebelling. I said that inexperienced landlords, and the management, failed to grasp that Dovecot Towers sits between scally-central and the city centre. Mr. Management agreed, suggesting, perhaps correctly, that owners do not appreciate the responsibility of owning and maintaining property. He seemed suitably and convincingly chastened. Somewhat shame-faced, he promised a new regime: CCTV, a new (secure) main-door, bells, whistles and champagne on tap.

All these high-fallutin’ improvements are much too late for me. My landlord is going bankrupt, and so I must leave. Somehow, he’s accumulated twelve buy-to-let mortgages, you see, and nine are in negative equity.
Good job I packed, really.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

A Little Luck

I’m leaving Dovecot Towers, but am keen to avoid letting agencies, as are many landlords. The best flats are often found through word of mouth.

A little luck is what I need. In the past, informal contacts have led to my happiest rental experiences, namely the flat I pine for: my little nest in Glasgow, which was perfect. I found it when someone knew someone, who knew someone with an empty flat. This usually arises when people move in together and they’re unsure about committing, so one partner lets their flat. It’s also common when relationships break down, and the couple sit out negative equity by renting the conjugal residence. I’m not hoping any of my friends split up, but if a couple with a really nice flat decide on an amicable separation, then here I am. Choose me!

I bumped into S, who has split up with her partner, and even as a homeowner finds herself letting the home she can’t sell in this economic climate, and is consequently renting a flat from a friend in a similar situation. Word of mouth again; it leads to some welcome informality, and no ties, but usually in a good way.

Renting from acquaintances and friends has pros and cons: it’s usually slighter cheaper (no commission) and also much easier; there’s just more give and take. It’s seems less complicated; there’s altogether less pressure on everyone: you don’t mind a little slowness with non urgent repairs, and are more willing to help out, even chipping in or sorting minor snags out yourself.

The cons are insurmountable; it’s hard to be assertive when the owner is your mate, or best buddies with a mutual friend. A in Glasgow was a sweetheart, but had the hoarding habits of a magpie or a more hygienic Mr Trebus, and insisted on storing his finds, like string, bits of various contraptions, spare parts and ‘stuff’ in my flat, which deprived me of the cupboard (and regular readers know how I feel about cupboards; I covet them as much as other women value jewellery.) But it was lovely apart from that one niggle.

There is sometimes a lack of will to formalise arrangements, but tenants, and indeed landlords really do benefit from a legal written agreement, as both have a rare tendency to turn bad. If you are made to feel awkward about needing a proper agreement, or receipts for rent paid, then it’s maybe not a good idea, unless you are house-sitting. It’s harder for the landlord to let go of the property, as they sometimes cling to the comforting notion that they can move back in, if need be.

It’s obvious really. I’m playing for time because I dread flat-hunting and moving, with the accompanying hassles of viewings, credit checks, references, deposits, guarantors and removal companies.
I need a fairy godmother, with a magic pumpkin to turn into my dream flat. Nothing fancy: just a utility room, cupboards and friendly, well-behaved neighbours.
I closed my eyes, clicked my heels and made a wish.
It didn’t work. I’m still here.