Lifesaver

Lifesaver
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In memory of Matt & Muzz

Walking up Crouch Hill is like reading an essay titled “Class Divisions in 21st century Britain” with your feet. At the bottom is Crouch End, with its Morrison’s and local library. Up top is Muswell Hill, all fancy-bijou cafes and an M&S food hall. I’m stood half way up, in front of the leisure centre, about to walk down a small drive that runs down one side of it. On the drive is a large ex-NHS building rising Victorian-ornate next to the squat modern exteriors of the nearby architecture. The windows are dark. No one lives here anymore. I’ve just come back for my post. 
None of us had any idea what the building may have been originally used for. Wards, perhaps. Or a nursing home. Or a home for nurses. If you keep going past it, continue along this path, you get to a large forest that’s good for dog walking. I stop half way up the drive and am now standing slap-bang in front of the large wooden front door. It’s locked.
 
“Do you reckon we can kick it in?” asks Matt, the streetlight glistening off his stubbled head.
We’re looking up at the large double door in front of us. Occasionally one of us glances over a shoulder to check no one can see us from the leisure centre that’s still got its lights on.
“Don’t be daft,” says Nick, pulling his duffel coat tighter against the cold. “They’re bound to have locked it properly, and look at it.” He gives it a shove. “Looks pretty solid to me.”
Jess pops her head over the fence. “What are you lot doing? We can get in the back round here.”
With that, we all scramble over the fence.
 
Locked. This doesn’t surprise me. You expected a security team to do their job. Past the door there’s a section of flimsy-looking fencing that continues the line of the brickwork. Above that is a double-door set behind a small balcony. Climbing up onto the fence, I glance behind me to check no one’s going in or out of the leisure centre  clear, so hop on over. There’s a large garden, with a patchy lawn and straggles of once-were flowerbeds. It’s in reasonably good condition though, considering noone’s looked after it for several years now. I’m pretty sure none of us did any work to it, except maybe dig the odd hole.
  
Muzz is still stained with blood. His eyes rimmed with red where he’s been crying. We all feel terrible for him. “She just ran out,” he says in his deep Brummie accent.
He’d come in wailing, holding her lifeless body. We’d rushed to help him but there was nothing that could be done. Millie, Muzz’s beloved dog, was dead.
We have something of a small wake: cans of cider; stories of her life; trying to keep Muzz from breaking down completely. Then someone finds a spade and we set about burying her. Muzz digs the grave, with any offers of help being stoically rejected. Once he’s got about three feet of it done, Chris and I help Muzz lower her down into it.
We stand around the grave with our heads bowed.
“She was a good dog,” says Jamie quietly.
“No she wasn’t,” says Muzz. “She was a nightmare.” This raises a small murmur of agreement from our congregation.
Muzz goes off to the back of the darkened garden. He returns hefting a paving slab. “I don’t want any foxes getting at her,” he says. He stands back, shaking. I pass him another can of K cider.
“Thanks mate,” he says. “You’re a lifesaver.”
 
Millie’d had a good innings and all, but you never want them to go like that, do you? I circle the building to the main back door. Boarded over. A half-hearted pull at the boards reveals they’re nailed shut proper. Wondering what to do, I head back round to the double doors on the balcony above the fence. I should be able to get up to them easily enough. I begin to climb up but then stop dead as a woman with two kids comes out of the leisure centre. I stay frozen, uselessly holding my breath. She  doesn’t take her eyes off the kids. On the balcony I think about breaking one of the small windowpanes to get in. But if the door is locked that won’t do me any good. Frustrated, I pull at the door handle. The door swings open. Someone wasn’t doing their job so well after all. The first larger room to my right, past the small toilet, used to be Nick and Megan’s. 
I flush, wash my hands, and head back toward the living room. Nick and Megan are sat in their room with Jess and Pip. They look furtive, so I pop my head round the door.
“What are you lot up to?”
“Nothing,” says Jess,  faux-innocent.
Megan holds a broken light bulb and plays a lighter over its surface. She grips a foil tube between her teeth and through it breathes in the fumes that are rising from the “pipe”.
“What’s that?” I am, to say the least, intrigued.
“Crystal-meth,” says Nick with a swagger.
“Where’d you get it?” Up until now I only knew crystal-meth as the stuff of myth, a drug for southern-fried hillbillies.
“Matt has a mate,” says Nick. “You wanna try?”
“Sure,” I say.
 
Our self-plumbed bathroom’s all still in place. The bathtub raised on wooden blocks like a too-short politician. I check the taps. They work. The kitchen’s pretty much good to go too. I think someone’s even scrubbed the stainless steel surfaces. All we’d need to do is bring the fridges back in and we could set up here again. We won’t though. Once a place is done it’s done. You’d never get the old magic back anyway. 
 
I’m walking with Matt up Muswell Hill. “Come on, mate, I’ll race ya!” he cries, striding ahead, leaving me squeaking along with the empty shopping trolley.
“No you won’t,” I tell him, deadpan. “I’m knackered.”
Matt’s eyes dazzle in the streetlights. “Do you reckon there’ll be anything good?”
“I bloody hope so. We better not have traipsed all the way up here for nothing.”
We walk straight across the roundabout using the middle of the road. At the M&S, we head down the alleyway. Near the end is our target. Matt opens up the bin and jumps in; “Nope… Rubbish… No good… ” He rustles through its contents. “Aha!” His head pops out with a grin on it. “Check this out! Potatoes!… And cheese!” He hands the goods to me and I load the trolley. He dives back down and comes straight back up. “Oh oh here we go!… A whole chicken!” He’s on a roll now. I can feel it. “No way,” comes his muffled voice. He surfaces again like a pearl diver holding treasure.
“Strawberries!”
 
the main staircase until I get to my room. I go in, and there, in the middle of the room, is my old mattress. I lie down on it. The worn springs dig into my back just like I remember them.
Fun. Politics. Necessity. Just three of the reasons we found ourselves here in this little oasis of rent-free, anti-consumerist communalism. Many of us had known each other since we’d kicked around putting on warehouse parties: jump-starting the regeneration of Hackney Wick, caning it through the dereliction that lined the north circular, havin’ it in the old GLA building across the water from parliament. We also knew each other from the protest movement: clandestine meetings where phone chips were removed from mobiles, cutting through fences to trespass on military bases, full-on riots in central London. And few of us had anywhere else to be, or go. Some had moderate to severe mental health problems. Some just had trouble fitting in.
Back out in the corridor I head toward the main living space. A large wooden dining table sits in the middle; Lord knows where it came from, but there it is. I remember all those dinners we had, like a patchwork family that had been stitched together by a drunken grandmother. 
It’s Wednesday night. We’re sat round the table in the upstairs living space. Nobody mentions the purple-blue bruises that cover my face. I’ve already been told off by Jess. Chris and Jamie are in the doghouse too, and the three of us exchange sheepish glances. Last night we’d had a drink and done a bit of brown – and I did too much. Chris and Jamie had to spend over three hours walking me round, slapping me to keep me breathing.
“Pass me the pasta, Jack,” Megan says with a scowl.
I do. Silently.
I head back toward the big, beautiful, curving staircase. Behind me at the bottom is the door to the garden. Down the corridor to my right is another large room painted with the “Peace Now” mural we’d left. There were 20 to 30 of us living here at any one time. Friends came and went off on various European and worldwide jaunts, knowing this – if we were still here – would be a place where they’d be welcome: hot food on the table, ready ears to hear their tales. At the bottom of the stairs was Jess’s room.
  
“Which one d’you want?” Jess asks me.
I’ve had Ralph for nearly a year now. Funny how animals can teach you things. Like how caring for another, and by extension yourself, might be the key to a better world. Or something. I’m still squatting. And I’m still me. But now I rarely feel the need to get so completely out of my head. Sometimes it’s nicer just to be out with Ralph in the forest, inhaling the fresh air.
I have to take a lighter out to see in the gloom of the front hallway. Below me are piles of post. I’ll take everyone’s back to them, but I’m looking for something in particular. I can’t see any of it properly, so try the door. It swings open, just a Yale lock after all. The daylight streams in. I shuffle through the letters until I come to one addressed to me. It looks official. I open it. It is official: a letter conforming that I am now employed. I had been told that this should have been posted here, when I rang to enquire, and so be waiting for me now, but can’t quite believe my eyes. Probably best I don’t mention too much
of my recent story to my new employers though. I step outside and leave the door on the latch in case anyone else needs to get in. There is a sudden noise  a strangled, repeated cry. I look up to see two swans beating the air, long necks pointing upward to Alexandra Palace Park. They rise with the hill.

Jack Houston

About Jack Houston

Jack Houston lives in London with his wife and two children. He works in Hackney’s Libraries where he regularly holds free poetry workshops.

Jack Houston lives in London with his wife and two children. He works in Hackney’s Libraries where he regularly holds free poetry workshops.

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