Slumpton by Chris Green
The door to number 16 slammed in Harry’s face, as it had more times than Harry cared to remember. Its split green and orange panels were all too familiar. Familiar too were the plywood and chicken wire that were nailed over the space where the window should have been, perhaps in a bygone age where a window once was. The force of the sudden closure caused a liberal sprinkling of masonry to dislodge itself from an upstairs window, landing on the shoulder of Harry’s paint-smeared donkey jacket, where it did not look out of place. Even so, Harry brushed it off with the palm of his hand, and moved on down the street, past two boarded up terraced houses and a pile of rubble where others had until recently been, before arriving outside number 28. Sounds consistent with marital discord could be heard from within. Harry shuddered. He felt a strong urge to go back home. He was too old for this kind of aggravation. He lit a Woodbine and struggled to regain his composure. He must be resolute, he told himself. After all, the Luker family had been slum landlords since the thirties and this was 1980. His grandfather, George Luker had collected from these very houses during ‘the blitz.’ What would George have thought if he knew Harry was such a wuss?
His composure restored, Harry rapped firmly on the front door with his knuckles. This had the effect of bringing a corpulent, unshaven hulk of about forty face to face with him across the threshold. This was Natt, or ‘Nasty’ as he was known locally. There were signs of either a recent breakfast or perhaps last night’s vomit, on the front of Nasty’s vest – which was, in fact, the back, Harry observed, the garment being both back to front and inside out. Nasty towered above Harry and looked far from pleased at having been disturbed.
‘M’morning N’nasty,’ stammered Harry. ‘Nice day again.’
‘Pishoff,’ snarled Nasty. He was not wearing his false teeth.
Wasting no further energy on social pleasantries with unwanted visitors, Nasty returned to the arena of family strife. Harry wiped his glasses with a grubby handkerchief, doubling as it did for an old paintrag. A black and white dog with one eye missing sniffed around his heels. Harry motioned to kick it. Resisting the temptation to sink its teeth into Harry’s leg, the animal slunk off to explore the gutter. Harry wondered how long it would take it to find the remains of the dead cat.
Next door to Nasty’s, the heavy bass line of a reggae track pounded out. ‘A Babylonpolicyafolicy’ chanted a flat and mournful voice. The volume grew alarmingly as Harry approached. Through a haze of ganja smoke that had certain times of day seemed to envelop this particular stretch of the street, an assortment of brightly clothed and dreadlocked children bounced out of the house. The eldest was no more than seven. They formed a circle around Harry.
‘Money missa!,’ demanded the biggest boy, holding out his hand. They began to pummel Harry’s lower body with their fists, chanting in unison. A downstairs window opened and the space was taken up with a rainbow of colour, a mass of braids and locks as a large Jamaican woman appeared.
‘A oo dat a knock pon di door, Ras ‘im not ‘ome,’ she bawled, ‘im ain’t bin ‘ere since long-time so.’
‘Ras claat ‘im never ‘ome,’ mimicked Harry, missing the rhythm of the patois by a considerable margin.
‘Aint no mi fault mon. ‘Im not come round no mo’ mebbe. You wan’ buy ganja mon.’
Harry indicated that he didn’t.
‘Then goweh now you dam lagga head.’
Harry’s reply that he had come to collect the rent was swallowed up along with the reggae rhythms by the agitated roar of powerful motorcycle engines. The ‘Desperados’ were revving up their machines with some venom outside number 48. They were wearing full ‘colours’ They seemed to be off out for the day. Harry was cheered a little by this. It would mean he had one less call to make. Each time he had called at number 48, a different and progressively more menacing ruffian had answered the door. Harry could only guess at how many of them lived there but it seemed to be well into double figures and he had to admit he was terrified of each and every one, more so even than he was of Nasty. This was not the basis for a successful landlord-tenant relationship.
Harry glanced at his clipboard. This must have been instinctive for he needed no reminder that he had collected no rent on this particular morning. He turned over a few pages as if playing a game with himself to see who owed the most rent. If so, there was no doubt about the outcome of such a contest, for in the three years he had lived in Slumpton Terrace, Nolan Rocco had paid no rent at all. Nolan Rocco was the bane of his life. If Harry could find a way to get rid of Nolan Rocco he would be able to put up with all of life’s other disappointments.
The Tacklers’ had a new board nailed to their front window. Already it had been daubed with offensive comments. Roy Tackler had once been a footballer. Scoring four own goals in Slumpton United’s 4-3 defeat to Arsenal was the only time however that Roy made the headlines. Without his dubious contribution, Slumpton would have made the semi-finals in the cup for the only time in their 95 year history. What made matters worse for Roy was that the fact that his last two own goals had come in injury time. After 90 minutes his side had miraculously been leading 3-2, when Roy’s mistimed overhead kick surprised goalkeeper, Gareth Garry, and went in the top right hand corner of the net. This was reprised two minutes later by his backwards header into the top left hand corner. He was summarily dismissed by his club. After this, Roy gave up football. He tried his hand at a number of occupations, failing, sometimes dramatically to fulfil his potential in each one. He now lived here. Even his long-suffering wife, Deidre had left him, Harry had heard recently.
Harry reminded himself of Slumpton United’s brief glory days before the FA had closed the ground. Slumpton United had nearly been promoted to the Third Division. He prided himself that he could still name the entire first team. Slumpton was a place on the map then. There were three cinemas and a gymnasium, where you could learn to box. Slumpton had had a thriving Sunday morning market , one of the most prestigious in the city. The dog track that now was only of interest to those dumping toxic waste had once attracted thousands every Thursday and Saturday night. There was hope on the horizon then for residents of the borough of Slumpton. There were bingo halls – and pubs that still had a licence. And there were several Jewish tailors. Now, what was there? Prostitution, all night blues, boarded-up shops, the longest dole queue in the city. – And the likes of Nolan Rocco. But Nolan Rocco was another story.
A Police siren struck up from across the car park. It was still euphemistically thought of as a car park, although it had fallen into disuse and become a rubbish tip of some renown. Cars no longer parked in Slumpton. Taxis refused to take fares within several blocks, and even Police cars could not be left unattended. Harry had been around long enough to remember the days before the riots when Slumpton was ‘up and coming.’ It had not always been a no-go area.
Harry sidled down the street, examining the graffiti on the walls of the houses – and blocks of flats, these run by the Slumpton Squatters Estate Agency, Harry’s only serious rival in the area. Even graffiti was subject to declining standards, he reflected. What had become of the imaginative daubings of yesterday? – gems like ‘IS THAT A LADDER IN YOUR STOCKINGS OR THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN’ and ‘PLAIN CLOTHES DRUG DEALERS ARE WORKING IN THIS AREA’. Now, what graffiti there was was monochrome and unimaginative. It was all ‘SHARON SHAGS’ and ‘FUCK OFF HOME PAKIS’ And here was a new one ‘HARRY LUKER IS A FUCKING CHILDMOLESTER.’ It was all so personal. He reached number 52. Cats had attacked the black bags outside and their rubbish was strewn across the pavement. A rusty bin full of holes and minus lid stood beneath the window, its contents incinerated. Arson was one of the major pursuits now, Harry reflected – that and ram-raiding, except the latter was already in decline since there was nothing much left to ram-raid. Harry looked up. The guttering had detached itself from the upper part of the house and hung groundwards like a drainpipe. The drainpipe had long since gone and there was a slimy green stain all down the wall. There were few unbroken windows. The odd thing was that Tardelli did not seem to mind the squalor. While other tenants would tackle him periodically about repairs, Tardelli never did. He differed from his other tenants in every way. For one thing, insofar as Harry could judge, he was educated. What was it Tardelli had told him he did when he had met him in The Builders Shovel public house on the night the O’Niells were arrested? Write film scripts? Tardelli had charm and charisma, rare commodities in these parts. Why then did he choose to live in such a slum? And even sometimes pay rent – after all few others on the street seemed to bother with this nicety.
‘Tardelli,’ shouted Harry, for the front door such as it was was already open. ‘Tardelli,’ he shouted again as he peered inside into the gloom. In the hallway stood a huge dresser, which housed a collection of stone jars and old stained glass bottles. On the floor was a tall pile of yellowed newspapers and a couple of open holdalls that appeared to be full of dog-eared paperback books. The walls, where they were visible were painted a dark brown and one or two cheap Indian dhurries hung from them. A sour and musty odour hung on the air. It reminded Harry of his National Service days in Singapore. An inside door opened and the sound of an operatic tenor singing a Puccini aria floated through. Tardelli emerged from the shadows, a tall, lean, almost skeletal figure with dark Indian features and slicked-back hair, which even in the half-light was noticeably greying. His style of dress seemed to belong to a younger man. His blue jeans had reached the peak of their fade and were almost white and he wore a pink T-shirt with the logo ‘I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT’ emblazoned across the front. A red silk scarf was tied around his waist.
‘Harry,’ he beamed. ‘How nice. Come on in.’
Harry followed Tardelli along the hallway. He was of a broader physique by far than Tardelli. He edged himself carefully past the dresser and a pile of cardboard boxes full of assorted bric a brac. He ducked beneath the painted alligator skin and found himself in a room piled high with sundry lumber. The walls were decorated a la Jackson Pollock, although it could be argued without the artist’s flair. A black corduroy blind over the window kept daylight out with a vengeance and the room was lit by oil lamps. A large black paraffin stove heated the room – unsparingly. It probably heated the whole block. Harry’s eyes nervously explored their surroundings, as he tried to establish where he was, even who he was and what he had walked into. After all, he and Tardelli had in the past always conducted their business at the front door. The room that they were in was or probably had been the kitchen, but with so much disorder, it was difficult to tell. There were no pointers, like cooker, fridge or food. The room certainly fulfilled no culinary function. With a graceful gesture or at least without the use of his fist, Tardelli led Harry through to another room. This room too was dark but at least the walls had been painted red. On the floor a stone sink was filled with water with guppies swimming in it. The sink itself was painted luminous green. An abnormally large ginger cat was lapping up what appeared to be blood from an intricately sculptured bowl on a marble slab, balanced, precariously on a purple trestle table. Papers were scattered everywhere. A cuckoo clock was stopped at twelve o’clock.
‘To what do I owe this pleasure?’ Tardelli enquired, picking up a bag of carrots and handing one to Harry.
‘You seem to owe me some rent,’ said Harry, as he wondered what to do with the carrot.
‘It’s a carrot. You eat them,’ laughed Tardelli, for he could see that Harry had not come across such a vegetable in his travels.
‘Yes. A carrot.’ agreed Harry finally.
‘You seem tense Harry. Loosen up.’
‘You don’t have to collect rent in the Terrace on a Saturday,’ offered Harry by way of explanation.
‘And neither do you, Harry. You choose to. If it upsets you, don’t do it.’
‘That’s all very well’
‘Look! How do you think I manage to live round here? Do you think I’m completely insensitive to my environment? Do you think I don’t notice how bad things are?’
‘You seem not to.’
The tenor had given way to a soprano. The music was, Harry noticed, coming from an old radiogram in the corner of the room, underneath a large poster of Ayatollah Khomeini, holding a 50p piece aloft.
‘For the gas meter,’ explained Tardelli, for he could see that Harry was puzzled. ‘I’ll tell you my secret, Harry. I fantasise. I put my fantasies into writing you see. I create my own world. This way, dreams can come true. If you could, what would you have happen in your life right now.’
Harry considered the question for a moment. His fingers played almost instinctively with the papers on his clipboard. Taking the piss was one thing. A slum landlord had to be used to people taking the piss. But three years. And after all he, Harry had done for him. Not to mention the business with the O’Niells. If, if only – he would be able to put up with all of life’s other disappointments.
‘It can happen, Harry. Take my word. But perhaps you may not need to take my word. Now! About the rent. I can let you have some next week when my advance arrives. Is that OK?’
‘I suppose it will have to be. It’s the nearest I’ve come to a result today,’ Harry whimpered, pathos not absent.
‘Don’t be so negative, Harry. Loosen up. When you step out of here, you are the master of your own destiny. The author of your own script, Harry. If you believe in, in well in almost anything at all then something will happen……..You’ll see.’
With an air of despondency and a marked feeling that Tardelli too was taking the piss, Harry negotiated the obstacle course to the door and stepped outside.
A profound feeling of time disorientation hit him in the way it did after a lunchtime session at the Shovel. Perhaps Harry felt, more like the time he had been spiked with acid when he had collected rent from the Dohertys on the night Boozy Farrell was arrested. The street seemed to have altered somehow, it seemed less hostile. He thought he could hear birdsong. Surely a songbird could not have found its way to Slumpton. There were no trees. A brass band seemed to be playing, although it was rather a dull tune, with just the two notes.
Slowly as if he was coming to consciousness after a dream, Harry began to notice that a large crowd had gathered a distance down the street. Two police cars and an ambulance were parked. Outside Nolan Rocco’s in fact. Harry watched spellbound as a stretcher bearing the body was carried slowly out to the waiting ambulance. It couldn’t be …… could it?
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved