Rats eat bait above my head. I rent in dread they will enter this annex. Not my home. Never will be. Yet I live in servitude. Like an 18th century chimney sweep. I am 33 next week. 3 As at A level, degree and Masters soon.
I have rented for my adult life. I despise landlords. I despise this landlady who has just told me the heating will be turned off for the summer. Great, I can save on the gas bill. Except that is rolled into my rent of £455 a month. Not really a saving as I will rely on the plug-in electric heaters that emit an annoying whirl. And cost a bomb. I live in Winchester. If ever there was a city where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer it’s England’s ancient capital.
My tossing and turning in the night as I cling my pillow to my ears to try and block out the sounds of rats scratching in the cavity wall beside me is a sight the city’s tourists will never see. In these moments I perspire in fear of vermin. My grandma told me a story recently of her days in the war when rats raced into the beds of the infirm. Her nurse’s eyes catching them before they scurried back into the ceiling one Egyptian night in the 1940’s. The image lingers in my mind like the fetid stench of dead rat that perfumes my abode’s atmosphere. The decomposed carcass of one is still visible beneath the white paint my landlady applied to the ceiling. Disgusting. They are in the walls…
My pleas for the landlady to call in Rentokill go unheeded. That would cost. And she prefers to keep my £455 for her holidays. Yes, these words are laced with resentment and jealousy and annoyance. Perhaps if I became a landlord I would do things on the cheap too? ‘Stick with the bait and the electric zinger’ I paraphrase her. A mantra. I politely keep my patience during these text and email exchanges that have rumbled on for months. ‘Just fix it’ are the words I wish to say. My inferior position (perceived or real) and sky high overdraft means such cathartic expression remains but a distant dream. ‘You catch more bees with honey’ they say. But honey don’t catch no rats.
This is Captialism. Hell, rent’s just gone up to £470 this month. But am I to blame for my situation? This question plays on my mind normally when I enter my abode. That word is ill fitting with the reality of my accommodation. Dump. Dive. Shithole. All so more apt. My entrance is the garage door, a door in the winter weather adorned by slugs. Charming. ‘Want to come back to mine, honey?’ Love life isn’t great at the mo but safe to say my embarrassment would be palpable if I struck lucky.
I live alone here. Have done for the last twelve months. Why? Because two alcoholics too many in Manchester put pay to me ever sharing again. That was 2006. Two belt sizes ago. I eat now. Eat because I am unhappy. I would have used the word ‘depressed’ but that would recognise too much my state of mind. Linguistically suppressing the reality of my existence there. Cheaper than doing it by my tried and tested method; booze.
My enjoyment of Fargo was curtailed by the ceiling noises. Those rats. They got super ones in these parts apparently. Staring at the air vent above my head I contemplate opening it and luring the little/big bastards out. A brief contemplation. Who am I kidding? I am not cut out for I’m a Celebrity. The ceiling leaks. Drip. Drip. Drip. Glass bowl to catch the water. If I looked in the mirror I’d fill that bowl with my tears.
I choose this. Annexes are scarce but offer a single person the chance to live alone. They are often attached to the landlord’s property. This I have found changes the relationship between slave and master. I dutifully say hello here as I did in my previous mould ridden granny annex in St Cross. I begged then as I do now for repairs. The fact that I saw these people frequently enabled a faux friendship to develop. After all this is just business. Pay the rent every month and they are happy. They don’t want any issues. Any that do arise will be handled at their pace and at a cost they see fit i.e. Cheap. Like at my current ‘home’ where only after months of mice or rat presence and failed bait attempts does she contemplate calling in a professional. My twelve months here have hardened my thinking in this area. The last landlord in St Cross advised me to use a bucket to catch a leak through the kitchen ceiling while he buggered off on holiday. I doubt he would have tolerated that in any apartment block. He certainly didn’t tolerate it in his adjoining B&B whose beautifully painted room was visible to me before I unlocked my front door. The reviews on trip advisor mentioned not mould.
Other lowlights of my time in Winchester’s wealthiest streets included a wasp infestation through the old fireplace. Repeated pleas for a chimney cap went unneeded. I guess you don’t stay rich by helping the poor. I survived there for three years without central heating. An electric one had to do the job. It was very old and painted black. I doubt it had passed its electricity certificate. The bathroom didn’t have a window. The extractor fan didn’t serve to stop the festering black mould that resulted from my showers. Horrific to look at. My friends were too kind to say how unpleasant it was.
There is more. The stench of mould and damp clung to my skin and clothes for three years. I would dry my clothes on a heated clothes horse all day whilst at work with the window ajar. I would come home to a dry set of slacks but a damp drenched room in which I slept, ate and watched TV. About 7ft by 9ft. I used to spray deodorant twice. Once for the pits. Once for the clothes. Ironically I would perspire at the thought of someone telling me I stunk. Maybe they smelt. Too British to say perhaps?
I entered that annex up the fire escape. Metal stairs. Green paint peeling off. Barely wide enough to walk up due to the ivy and bush. Bloody dangerous in the snowy and icy winters. I entered into the kitchen by sliding in by the sink. The door only ever half opened. If you pushed it further paint and ceiling would chip away. It was too high. The kitchen like the living space was unpleasant due to the damp drenched walls. As my dad says there is always someone else who will move in. Sure enough it’s just had a let agreed. For £550 a month now. 1 year on and £60 more! There’s always another poor soul.
Funnily enough at least that place had a proper cooker. Currently I am using an oven microwave combi. Never heard of it before. Never want to again. The oven door back then came off once. Landlord ‘fixed’ it by using a metal attachment, like a piece of string that held it together. Dangerous. Eventually his common sense prevailed weeks later and he stumped up for a new one. Happy days, I naively thought. Back from work one night and the shiny new cooker needed a gas attachment which the kitchen didn’t have. How stupid are these people? And so I went through a lot of matches.
Some reluctant credit must go to my master for asking my neighbours (bloody teenagers) to not play their music at such a late hour (I WORK!). Always enjoyed those nights banging on the wall in vain. Another low point came when they installed a running machine. It made watching horse racing on TV strangely interactive as the floor reverberated. How I wanted it to stop. Still pride and touching 30 precluded a return home. Luckily my parents have a door open policy for me. I dread to think what happens to those renting a dive who can’t call in their parents. There is an eye opening documentary in that, I expect.
They (landlords) must be aware of my poverty. After all who would put up with this life if they could afford to leave it all behind. To some other poor sod. I could pay more. I did once in a studio flat in Winchester centre. Bar End for those in the know. More up together. Poxy though with its James Bond bed an arm’s length from the fridge and cooker. The bed was my sofa for my year there. Electric 7 heating. I learned that was appalling. Only heated up after hours by which time I was asleep. Nice view of the cathedral though. £525 a month back in 2009 plus bills left me with little disposable income so I chose a cheaper life. Annexes it was. Such a far cry from my pre-university days growing up in suburbia in a detached house with central heating and drinkable water. Mid recession and my university admissions job was hardly dolling out pay rises that compensated for higher grocery prices.
The deposit. When you are stuck in a dive you really are. Stuck because raising this is hard to impossible. £1050 out to a grateful recipient. Crippled me. One month up front and one in advance. All to sleep in a James Bond bed that folds into the wall. I Increased the overdraft to cover it when I moved out of home again at 28. I had been at home for over a year after returning cap in hand from a hellish renting experience in Manchester.
And so to Manchester. Crying. Living in fear. An experience I never wish to repeat. At least these rats don’t threaten me physically. Alcoholics do not make for a good roommates. This is a euphemism. Describing my months under the same roof as them as a nightmare is not.
The dream was to move in early 2006 up to Manchester and rekindle some of the old university magic. That didn’t happen. After becoming bored of my call centre work in Southampton I made a few calls to friends up North who were working in the city. Sadly, their circumstances meant they could not move in with me as planned so I ended up transferring to Natwest call centre without a home. Not to be recommended. My parents dropped me off at a B&B north of Strangeways which was to be my home until my friend said I could stay at his parents until I found somewhere. Moving was my choice. Not forced by my parents. You get itchy feet after you have come back from university and need your space. Parents need theirs too.
I found an attic room in a large Edwardian house in West Didsbury. On the bus route with plenty of bars around and parks in walking distance. A place for the 20 something’s to live and relax. The gunshots from Moss Side barely audible a few miles up the road. Affordable.
Housemates seemed fine. A guy and a girl. Quiet. One played the guitar I recall. Thank God I had a place to live and settle. A man needs a roof over his head. We all do.
The attic room was very small. But clean. Had to walk up some very steep stairs from the landing. Or climb as I did after a night on the beer. Just glad there was never a fire or I would have probably perished. Getting out of the small sky light would have been a challenge.
A few weeks in and my quiet flat mates moved out. Enter the alcoholic. Reflecting, there would be value in current tenants having the right to vet new tenants. Not that that helped Ewan McGregor with Keith Allen. Or perhaps go for a few drinks with them and see how quickly they turn to the Tenants Super.
The spring and summer of 2006 was undeniably sad for me. It scarred me in such a way that I would never rent with others again. Crying down the phone to my parents 250 miles away as my dad said he would come and collect me, putting an electric heater outside my door to try and prevent the alcoholic entering in the middle of the night, hearing him listen to The Bends; no one should experience this. These are scenes that play out far from the housing decision makers. We need affordable housing. We need security. We are people not just tenants.
He seemed ordinary enough when he moved in. Similar age. Liked football. In a menial job. Liked a drink. We had things in common. The passing years make it hard for me to pinpoint when it started going wrong but wrong it did go. He drank super strength lager. Got me to try it once. Once was enough.
We went out once or twice. Such great memories of him persuading me to go to a crack house. Didn’t have many of those in Chandlers Ford when I grew up. I decided against stumbling into Moss Side in the wee hours looking for some Class A drugs. He was clearly trying to drown some serious psychological issues.
I recall him saying to me one morning over breakfast, whilst accompanied by one of his female drug addicted looking friends, ‘this is the day the person I loved the most was born. And died’. I never worked out what that meant. A lost child perhaps? It was an undeniably sad line. But not one I really wanted to hear. He had previously told me that I was not the type of person he wanted to hurt. Always nice to have a veiled threat over your Shreddies. Time to move out but not enough money for another deposit and locked in for six months. Around four to go.
Other low points included his parties downstairs. I never went down to see the guests. Fear. I clung the pillow to my ear in a failed attempt to sleep. I once went to the toilet as one reveller left having urinated all over the toilet lid. I cleaned it myself. That was degrading. He was too drunk or uncouth to care. I was too scared to tell him to leave. I never found out if my alcoholic roommate indulged in prostitutes. I figured he did as those walking in and out of the toilet in the wee hours looked like filth. Spoke like it too.
One time earlier we had been to a club in town. He ordered beer after beer then engaged us in a conversation with a man who looked like an ex con. Turns out he was essentially homeless. I persuaded him his idea of letting the man stay at ours was not a great one.
I was grateful that in early summer I started seeing a Greek girl from work. She had an apartment in town. I would try and stay there as much as possible. She was usually receptive. Certainly more receptive than the landlady and landlord who took ages to take any action. I recall time spent on the phone debating whether to return home. My phone calls in the middle of the night describing the horrors of my existence were frequent. ‘You are dealing with serious issues relating to the psychological well-being of two people here so procrastination is not the answer’, I wanted to bark at them. But didn’t.
Eventually the landlord, a big bruiser came around and opened the door to the alcoholic, Tenants Super in hand. The proof he needed. He would be evicted that night. I overheard the conversation from the top of the stairs. Cowering like a child witnessing a parental argument. I crept out past the alcoholic who turned to me to say, ‘I have always tried to good things for you John’. Or something to that effect. Deluded. I stayed with my girlfriend that night. Returning to an empty house the next day I was relived. More so when the locks were changed. The thought of that poor soul accosting me in the street one day meant I walked with fear for a long time.
I celebrated of sorts by going to Edinburgh for a few days of World Cup, culture and football. A celebration punctuated by a call from the landlady. I persuaded her that I would vet any new tenants. She agreed.
So it came as a surprise when I returned to be greeted by my new tenant; a massive, beer swilling, tattooed City fan. The irony. The fear again. One of his first anecdotes involved telling me how he yanked a take away server over the counter in a dispute. I knew where I stood then.
He stockpiled crates of Guiness and Boddington’s by the fridge. Divorced. Saw the kids now and then. Another lost soul in the world of renting trying to drown his sorrows. In a nation scarred by its rental crisis.
(Written in the spring of 2014)