The walk from Mary’s house over to Charlotte’s was short. Wandering across Vauxhall Spring Gardens slowly, Charlotte attempted to plan how she could regain the ground she had lost. She felt as though she was entering into battle, armed with a crowbar, hammer, nails, replacement lock, and a flask of coffee. Half-way down South Lambeth Road, she turned on to a small side street. There, just a few hundred feet along, was her dilapidated, uninhabited house. This time the bailiffs had boarded up the ground-floor windows with big thick pieces of plywood and large industrial nails. The front door was boarded shut as well. Charlotte walked straight past wondering if any of the neighbours had noticed her. The people who lived in the house on the left had been friendly to her in the past.
One day when Charlotte first moved in a young man had shouted through the open front door. ‘Hey, neighbour, how goes it? This house is a mess. Glad to see somebody has-taken it on.’
‘Well, I hope to make it livable soon,’ said Charlotte, emerging from where she was working in the kitchen.
‘Hey, look at that, a girl,’ he said with surprise. ‘A girl with a screwdriver. Can you fix my toilet? It leaks.’
‘Maybe, once I’m done here,’ Charlotte said, laughing.
‘Did you buy the house yourself from the council?’
‘No, I’m trying to get them to give it to me.’
‘Hah,’ the man laughed, ‘you’re a squatter. I knew it. As I said to my wife, better neighbours than none.’
‘Thanks,’ answered Charlotte as the man walked back down the footpath.
The neighbours on the right were a little more worrying; Charlotte had never spoken to any of them and had only seen their faces briefly as they peered at her from behind net curtains. She had a feeling they were the people who kept ringing the council and the police.
Non-squatting neighbours weren’t really an issue for me, though they were for a lot of my friends. I lived in a gorgeous Georgian house in Bloomsbury for a while – our neighbours there were squatters who had managed to go legit. But we didn’t last long there and were evicted after only a few weeks. Around that time we lived in another Bloomsbury house that had up until recently been a Hari Krishna house. It was huge and creepy and all the rooms had multiple electrical powerpoints in them. We only lasted a few days there before the bailiffs came. Moving to Vauxhall, where there was a large community of squatters and squatted properties, came as a relief.
At the end of the short street, Charlotte turned another corner and walked along the side of the last of the row of houses. She climbed over the corrugated iron fence that cut the end of the street off from the big block of flats behind. Making her way along the edge of what some planner had meant to be an open area but had become a flat and unappealing dumping ground for old refrigerators and cars, Charlotte tried to be swift and silent, hoping that no one had seen her. She was relying on the fact that it was morning and broad daylight to prevent anyone from thinking she looked suspicious.
When she reached the rear of her house she heaved herself over the fence. The back looked just the same, although that door had been boarded up as well. Nothing could stop Charlotte as she climbed the fence at the side of the house, lifting herself on to the first-floor window frame and then out over the edge of the roof and, after dangling in mid-air for several seconds, up on to the roof itself. She lifted the small door hatch and climbed down into the darkness of the attic. Charlotte knew the way so well that she could have done it in the middle of the night, drunk and dressed in a ball-gown.
Inside, the first floor looked exactly as it had when she left. All three of the rooms were swept clean. The bailiffs had left her few bits of furniture intact. Sun poured into the larger front room facing the street; the window boxes were untouched as well. Feeling happy to be home again, Charlotte paused to plan what she would do. A bedroom, a workroom, a spare room, rugs, comfortable furniture and good lights; no authority could stop her from making the house homely.
While homelessness in London is a chronic problem, to Charlotte it was a state of mind that occupied the part of her soul that felt neither West Indian nor English but something empty, boarded-up, inbetween. She sighed. Imagining how to decorate the good rooms was the easy bit. She took a deep breath and descended the stairs.
Charlotte is becoming more of a character and less of an emblem here, I think. I like this idea of her homing-instinct, her ability to get back into the house no matter how hard the authorities try to keep her out. I like the line about how homelessness occupies part of her soul. Between-ness – this has been a big theme for me in all my writing life. In fact, I wanted to call my novel ‘The Last Time I Saw Jane’ ‘Between’, but my publishers wouldn’t have it. It still seems like a good title to me, with its echoes of Henry Green and its vague succinctness. Charlotte, Mary Rose, and Fin all inhabit ‘between’.
The bailiffs had been thorough. They had turned off the water at the mains tap and smashed all the pipes leading in and out of the kitchen. Then they had taken a sledgehammer to the sink. The cooker was torn away from the wall and its connecting gas pipes severed. The door of the refrigerator had been torn off. The windows on the boarded-shut back door were jagged and broken, bits of glass strewn across the floor. The smells of stale gas, damp and mould hung in the air like slabs of meat in a butcher’s shop.
Charlotte stumbled out of the kitchen and along the cor¬ridor, tearing down the pictures of naked women the bailiffs had stuck on the walls. The bathroom had also faced dev¬astation. The evictors were modern-day marauders, paid to loot, pillage and smash; embryonic Arnold Schwarzeneggers, licensed to destroy. Charlotte felt ill. The bathtub was still in place, but the toilet had been totally crushed; only a small bit of the base was left, porcelain shards and fragments lay all around. The washbasin hung off the wall at an alarming angle and the mirror above was shattered. Charlotte saw her face reflected as if in a painting by Picasso. Her small smile cracked in ten pieces.
Written before Arnie became Governor, of course. Is his name spelled wrong?!
Brushing some dirt off her hair, she wandered into the living room. All the windows had been broken. She reached through one and touched the wood that cut her off from the street outside. It was oddly reassuring to feel the solid board beneath her hand; she decided to leave the plywood on in an attempt to disguise the fact that she had moved back. Turning round and rolling up her sleeves, she began to work, changing the lock on the front door first of all.
The great virtue of squatters is their resourcefulness, their ability to mend and make-do. What could be greener, more environmentally-friendly, than re-occupying, re-vivifying, an empty house?