A family of sorts.
They call them flats in England, everyone else in the English-speaking world calls them apartments. I’d bounced out of one place on the planet Zharg and straight back into the world and a totally different spot on it called London, north London to be precise, and ended up in a succession of all-bloke shared flats. Same-sex shared flats, in my experience, are a total bloody disaster. If they’re all blokes, the only one who might actually do some cleaning eventually gets fed up, buggers off and the whole joint spirals down to some sort of bio hazard zone of serious concern to those CDC guys in Atlanta.
All girlie flats are just as bad, if not worser. My future wife, someone I thought of as a smart cookie, made what I’d thought was the mistake of taking me back to her shared flat and looking around it, I felt relatively pampered. At least, there was no danger of trench foot or being eaten alive by Ebola in my own particular corner of flat hell.
In defiance of any notion of fuses, electrical logic or even your basic human survival instincts, water was slowly dripping off a blown light bulb in the stairwell down into an overflowing bowl thoughtfully placed on the landing below, one of the girls was growing a certain type of mutant mushroom in a loam-filled suitcase underneath her bed and there was a big black disintegrating bin liner in the kitchen which had been festering there so long in the sweltering summer heat, that maggots had hatched out of the rotting meat of too many kebab takeaways and were humpy-back crawling out of it and all over the floor.
Of course, that was precisely the reason I’d been invited back to her flat. So much for my powerful sexual magnetism then …
After a bit of triple bagging, I hauled it downstairs past a petrified collection of girls flattening themselves against the wall in sheer terror, but I couldn’t resist flicking a few stray maggots at them, just to hear the girlie screams and panic. I nearly got one down the cleavage of the one who liked to parade herself around half-nekkid when someone else’s boyfriend was about. After me hauling the offending trash away, they could all venture back into the kitchen again and hot cooked meals, never mind a pot of tea were once more back on the menu.
Anyway, I’m not that tidy a person but after a while even I realised I’d lived more hygienically in a lot more hostile environments than the one I was currently struggling back to most evenings. In the end, it was either going back to the same old business of shaving all hair south of my chin to stop the jungle rotting your important bits or just getting the hell out of my current flat.
A girl I’d knocked around with for a while took pity on me and saved me by finangling an interview in an all girl flat stuffed full of her mates who for reasons of simple financial desperation, needed to fill an empty room. Everyone in it was called Sue except me. I think I cracked the girlie intensive interview by my potential flatmates by grumpily volunteering to change my name to Son of Sue just as long as I had my own bloody room and there were no knickers or tights drying on the bathroom rail when I was trying to have a shower in the morning.
Yes, okay, admittedly I was a bit raggedy-assed burnout at the time, in some sense just going through the motions of living, a young man in a daze, auto pilot fully engaged and way beyond anything so silly as giving a damn about anything off what I considered to be the mainline. Socially, I was a disaster wobbling towards the next disaster, to be frank.
My friend hit the ceiling but the girls for whatever reason took pity and decided to adopt me, and it turned out to be a very happy flat. I could be relied on to do all the really practical things like wiring a plug for a new hair dryer or changing a light bulb without losing a leg or taking out the power for five city blocks. Yes, I knew I was being shamelessly manipulated but I always knew it, even if they didn’t realise that. There was no real badness in it, so I didn’t mind.
They did a few favours in return, like not letting me out of the place on a hot date unless I was turned out exactly just right.
House pride – that would have reflected badly on them. Hitherto, on the dating front I’d operated on the minimal three S’s; it’s Friday night, shit, shower, shave, and out the door to hunt down whatever you could lay your hands on. Typical bloke. I’d never realised dating was war. I became their project and the coven of bitches from hell gradually civilised the primordial brute dropped into their midst. They were good to me. I relaxed, grew my hair long and learned to dress grungily but better. I even tried using aftershave – but only for a little while, mind you.
When you’re that young, a few years difference seems to be a big thing and I was the youngest one in the flat by a year or so. In some ways though, I felt ancient and tired and old compared to them. They seemed so happy to me, so careless and confident of the basics of life. They still had certainties about the future. Beautiful fragile nymphs. I was the desperate one who had the need to tunnel into an ordinary life and although they sensed that, they never pushed for a why. I liked them for that.
On a slow Saturday night when we’d all been dumped one way or another, we’d drape ourselves on couches around the living room like ancient Romans, listening to Maria Muldaur and Midnight at the Oasis, Bugsy Malone, Van da Man doing Astral Weeks or Lisa Minnelli singing her heart out as Sally Bowles in Cabaret as we sipped our way through a couple of bottles of cheap and ferocious Bulgarian bull’s blood. It’s probably a sad reflection on our dating prowess, but we all learned the lyrics by heart and I can still remember most of them to this day.
As always happens when you’re having a girl’s night in, the conversation turns to those scumbag men, their misdeeds and I’d naturally join in, giving the fuckers hell. Once in a while, when one of them said something outrageous, I’d be momentarily shocked out of the mood to point out I was one of the scumbags. That’s alright, you don’t count would be the reply, and we’d all get back to ripping into the miserable bastards. Go figure.
Anything we managed to drag home was subject to a rigorous post-match analysis by the Sunday evening pundits on the couch, which although a bit pointed, was usually kindly. A fishing expedition for their honest opinion was a dangerous business you undertook at your own peril. Where a saving grace simply couldn’t be found, the judgement was usually expressed quite tactfully. One of my more wham-bam-thank-you-mam encounters was doomed by a long silence followed by the memorable comment – well, she’s actually got really nice teeth, hasn’t she? There was suddenly a lot of relieved nodding at such an inspirational piece of diplomacy. Bitches, but that was the end of Miss Nice Fangs.
We were all in the early years of building our respective careers, so money was always tight. In our Roman interludes, we lounged around discussing various hare-brained schemes to raise money. I hit on a blinder. If they’d just let me put them out to work, we could all make a lot of cash without bothering the taxman.
I of course would be muscle and “management” for a small consideration, and they’d have lots of fun and probably some interesting erotic experiences they could write up in their memoirs or at least have a cackle about in their old age. Though not rejected outright, it did lead to some quite detailed marketing discussions, but mainly on the clothing front – what I suppose would be called product branding nowadays.
Their consensus thought was that I should aim to dress like a 1970s Harlem pimp in a garish Zoot suit, topped with an electric blue panama hat, complete with a yellow hatband and long red feather sticking out of it. Way too flamboyant for me and anyway, it would have projected the wrong image of our business. Personally, I would have gone for something a tad more understated. More ZZ Top and their sharp-dressed man.
Actually, it was all quite an eye opener. I was quite shocked really. Hitherto I’d always thought of myself as man of the world but listening to those girls designing their looks, I realised how vanilla my tastes in sex actually were. We’re talking big learning curve here and a bit of catch up. Little Miss Bo Peep would be suitably and temptingly rape bait, Hanna the Harlot looked like anybody’s – even all of the arresting officers’, Miss Whiplash scared even me and the innocent Girl next Door would be showing more cleavage than the wake of a Russian icebreaker.
I decided I needed some one-on-one, off-the-couch, hush-hush conversations off-flat with certain people, just to clear up a few of the finer points I was vaguely confused about, which as it turned out was actually quite a lot of it. They were very patient and explained a number of things to me. We’re talking flowcharts, diagrams drawn on the back of beer mats, paper napkins and lots of okay, it’s actually quite simple Pointy, seriously, just concentrate darling, let’s try a different approach on that one. Jesus, and I used to think tensor calculus was difficult.
Being the only resident male hormone around the place, I’d end up sandwiched on the couch between two of them while another one would do a grand entrance and twirl in her outfit for an important date. There was a big smiley from them, a ta dah! and a silence as they waited frozen for some words to pop out of the idjit hormone’s mouth.
After a while, I felt like meat, male meat, just market research. It was quite frankly degrading. Every time I tried to escape, two female hands on either side of me pushed me back down into a couch that was so broken spring down and saggy, I already had my knees rubbing against my ears. There’s no way a proper street fighting man can escape out of a sump like that, even against the restraining influence of a couple of no-nonsense wimmen.
I made spontaneous noises but they all exchanged knowing looks no matter what I said, even when I showed no reaction and said nothing. It was like being strapped into one of those lie detector machines by the FBI; no way out. They were using this unspoken girl’s code they all had but I started to read the fringes of it. Even when I said nice things like “oh yesss, grrr” with a roll of the tongue, looks were exchanged and too slutty was the judgement. She’d flounce out and back to the drawing board, and I knew I’d have to be careful around her for the next day or two.
People moved out and new people moved in all the time. When my darling and my doxy, who would become my wife, started a new job in a distant part of London, I moved out to follow her. This was in the days before email was invented, never mind mobile phones. Losing contact was the rule, rather than the exception.
Living in flat land was like being a piece in a jigsaw puzzle that constantly got thrown up into the air every six or ten months. The pieces would hit the floor and the process of interlocking themselves into a different picture would begin afresh, a whole new web of relationships would form. Some were good, some just weren’t.
We were all young, impossibly unbelievably young. Totally confident while resting on the assurance of knowing absolutely nothing, full of zest and life, learning lots of new things most of which were useless but fun. We were very lucky. On reflection and even looking back on it with hard eyes through the glass of fond reflection, so many of those useless things proved to be the most enduring in the end.
We all tried on different looks, different lifestyles like suits of clothes; just children diving into a notional dressing up box and emerging as Long John Silver waving a cutlass, or Salomé, the secret sinuous but beguiling power behind the Sheik of Araby. It was all of course youthful foolishness but it was just us establishing ourselves as our own people. It was a slightly risky sandpit we could play in, make those huge relationship mistakes, bounce back from them and yet again into that big vibrant game of life.
We had some really great times together and one or two sad ones, but we all nursed each other through the disasters like the unlikely families we occasionally became. A cuddle and kiss better, some human comfort, swallowing your anger at some people’s unthinking cruelty and park all the bloody silly words. It’ll all be good.
Good times, bad times, in the round I wouldn’t have missed a bit of it.