About two years ago I moved into a property buried deep in a London suburb. For reasons that will become clear the location will remain undisclosed, though It is owned by a housing trust and leased out to an agency; who fill it with people like me in order to keep vandals and sex workers from illegally squatting in the empty building. It's a regular fixture in the London living scene (especially for struggling artists) so I won't bore you with the details.
My particular hovel is former sheltered accommodation. Having lost NHS status some years back, the lower floor was emptied and has since fallen into disrepair. For around five years the building was a damp nest for squatters and prostitutes. In fact, a brothel actually operated out of the room that I am currently typing from. If I close my eyes, I can still smell them.
Within a week of living here, and under the assumption it was still a functioning sex house, somebody had tried to knock down my front and back doors.
Whoever it was, was trying to get to the flat above. Now, at first I thought the aforementioned flat was one of those everyday, low life hangouts; the kind that spills a green haze from it's windows beside a constant stream of earthworm shattering baselines. But then the sound of slamming doors became an almost constant feature in the daily soundscape and I started to notice a long string of vehicles pulling up outside the kitchen window.
As a concerned nosey neighbour, the view from the window gifted me all the information I needed. The flat was actually a drug den, and not the simple kind. This place is heavy and it's business is dangerous. The guy who's flat it is deals crack cocaine and, most likely, Heroin. I know this because of the burnt out spoons and flaccid syringes that litter the doorstep. Almost hourly, small bags and wraps of white are handed palm to palm. I see more shaking of hands through car windows than if David Cameron was at Goodwood Revival. Furthermore, the shaker in question scarcely stays to chat, which is perhaps another similarity between career politician and gang lord?
I learnt more when I started taking regular turns around my bountiful, yet desolate back garden. The sound of toothless addicts growling down the intercom has become as ordinary as morning birdsong, or the ever present urban siren. I must say, It Affected me more than I had imagined.
These people, the addicts, are so utterly desperate; beyond anything I had previously thought or witnessed. They prowl for hours, banging doors, screaming, often crying down the intercom until the door opens. One woman, who's face is that of your standard smack head, is such a regular that I now know her by name. Helen. Daily she stands beneath the open window performing a strange rendition of Romeo & Juliet, which normally always ends in Helen screaming so loud that you can hear her 20'a'day stained vocal chords tearing apart.
About a month ago the police turned up with a view to gaining a foreclosure notice which- they hoped- would eventually lead to the dealers eviction. Clearly unable to arrest the man (who's flat is now a feeding paddock housing the cattle) the officer asked me if there was any strange behaviour apart from the attempted break in's.
"He lent me his mop?' I replied, to a stone face.
The truth being that the dealer in question, is very pleasant. I see him as I walk to the shops. We chat and he asks me how I'm doing. The man is polite, diligent and- like all drug dealers I have ever met- fizzing behind the eyes. Strangely, I thought as I told this to the officer, we have found ourselves living beneath his umbrella protection. Even they know not to bite the hand that feeds them.
The other night I opened the door to two middle aged women.
"Where's my boyfriend? One said, her middle finger quivering along her bottom lip.
I told her he didn't live here, to which she replied "He might not live here...but he's definitely in here!"
Having seen my relatively harmless appearance, the other woman started saying 'leave it" like they do on the telly. Eventually the woman calmed and I directed her to the flat in question
"You must have hell living round here!' She said.
I nodded, but I didn't actually agree. Life has been strangely serene since we moved in (finds wood to touch) However what did strike me, as I watched her plead via an intercom, was a sort of realisation.
All those cars, the ones that sat there with the engine running, often helmed by concerned looking adults totally at odds with the neighbourhood.
I imagined that they could be Husbands or wives collecting an errant spouse. Worse still, Mothers and Fathers making the best of a bad situation; shepherding their children to and fro the arms of their dealer.
Such exspansive carnage caused by the actions of one individual. The man in the flat above me who fizzes behind the eyes when he stops to chat.
I saw him yesterday carrying and old stool. He was 'up-cycling' it but as he told me his design plans, my mind wandered. All I could think of was how much death he must have seen or, indeed, not seen. I imagined the decay that could have happened above my head as I scrubbed burnt pans or swept away mouse droppings. I wondered how much of it he was actually aware of. After all, he just shakes hands through car windows.
"You got that mop I leant you?' And suddenly his kindness seemed all the more peculiar.