After they had eaten and were getting ready to leave, there was another knock at the door. Mary jumped and her heart began to pound again. She imagined opening the door and finding a whole group of bearded men armed with spades claiming to be from the Archaeologists’ Trust. ‘Who the fuck is it now?’ she said, her voice raised to a shout. Finn looked at her with alarm.
‘Calm down, Mary. What is it with you? It’s probably a neighbour after a pint of milk.’
‘My neighbours don’t ask to borrow pints of milk.’
‘Well, the lawnmower then. I’ll get it,’ he said.
‘No, I’ll get it.’ Mary leapt up and rushed past Finn. ‘I don’t have a bloody lawnmower.’ She opened the door ready to object and deny. There stood Charlotte facing the
other way, a large backpack and five or six carrier bags piled in front of her. ‘Charlotte!’ Mary exclaimed. ‘What happened?’
‘They’ve evicted me again, the bastards,’ she said, turning around.
‘What? But I thought you had that all sorted out.’
‘So did I. Obviously that’s not what they thought.’
‘How did you get here?’
‘I walked. This was all I could carry.’ Charlotte stood awkwardly. She looked uncomfortable, as if suddenly shy.
Once again, I don’t seem to have learned how to write dialogue yet.
Mary paused for a moment and then said assertively, ‘Bring your stuff in. You need a place to stay.’ The two women, arms loaded, walked through to the kitchen where Finn was standing with his hands in his pockets. He smiled at Charlotte who returned the smile, but neither managed to look pleased.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Charlotte, ‘if I’d known you were entertaining…’
‘Entertaining Finn? We all know who does the entertaining around here,’ replied Mary.
‘We were just about to leave for the cinema,’ said Finn.
‘If I’d known ... I don’t want to…I’ll go somewhere else.’
‘If you’d known I was going out with Finn tonight you’d have told the bailiffs to come another day, right?’ said Mary. ‘Stop objecting, Charlotte, I’m glad you’ve come.’
‘Okay,’ said Finn, ‘we’d better leave now if we are going to make it. See you later.’
‘Finn!’ said Mary. ‘I don’t want to leave Charlotte on her own. She’s just been evicted. I couldn’t possibly go to the cinema without her.’
‘Do you want to come to the cinema, Charlotte?’ Finn asked hopefully.
‘Ah, no, I think I’ll give it a miss, but you two go on. I’ll make myself a cup of tea, have a bath and go straight to bed. That’s what I really want to do.’
Are you counting the number of cups of tea so far? I’m not. Too embarrassing. Where does Mary get her money from? Not that she has much. I can’t remember. Perhaps all will be revealed in the forthcoming pages. Heh heh.
Mary put the kettle on and told Finn that he could go to the movie by himself. ‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘It was your choice of film anyway. I’ll have a cup of tea instead.’ They all sat round the kitchen table, Finn in the corner. He was trying to decide whether to sulk in silence or to be miserable out loud. Charlotte was still embarrassed. She sat on the edge of her chair plucking at her short dreadlocks. Mary had never seen her look so nervous.
‘I really don’t want to impose,’ she said.
‘Oh shut up about all this imposition crap, will you?’ said Mary. ‘When will you learn to be gracious?’
‘When they stop evicting me, I suppose. That’s the third time in as many years.’
‘Why don’t they just give you a licence and be done with it?’ Mary asked as she poured the tea.
‘That is exactly what I keep saying. But no, they have to take me to court, throw me out, board up the windows, smash the toilet, and then leave the poor bloody house to rot. Makes me sick. They say they have conversion plans but I don’t believe them.’
‘So what’s next?’
‘I’ll move back in a couple of days. Give myself a chance to recover. I’ve got some time off from the nursery. I’ve done a lot of extra hours recently and I am only supposed to be there part-time.’
‘Well, you can stay here, don’t worry about that.’
‘Thanks. I don’t know anyone else who has room. You’ve been so lucky with this house.’
Okay. That bit is fine, in fact, I like Charlotte’s little speech about what keeps happening to her house, and how, despite continual evictions, she moves right back in. But prepare yourself, for the next bit; as my Japanese student used to say, I am apologising in advance.
‘Yeah, well, it’s the luck of the draw, isn’t it? Who gets evicted, who doesn’t - it’s determined by fate,’ said Mary.
‘No it isn’t,’ said Finn suddenly. ‘It’s determined by people like me in housing departments. Well, maybe not me, but my bosses. It is not at all random. It’s determined by class, like everything else in this country.’
‘And race,’ said Charlotte. ‘And gender.’
‘Okay,’ said Finn, ‘if we’re going to talk in broad catego¬ries I meant to include both race and gender in my analysis of class.’
‘Your analysis of class?’ said Mary. ‘Who do you think you are — Eric Hobsbawm? Besides we’re talking about squatting not some pathetic local authority’s feeble housing allocation policy. Anyway, Charlotte, have a biscuit. What do you want for dinner?’
‘It almost makes me wish I was back in Tulse Hill,’ said Charlotte. ‘At least there I had security of some kind, despite the hassle.’
‘What hassle?’ asked Finn.
‘Oh, just these white boys who used to follow me home at night and call me names.’
‘Didn’t you contact the police?’
‘The police? Pah!’ said Mary derisively.
‘They wouldn’t do anything,’ explained Charlotte. ‘Nei¬ther would the council. I would have had to have been actually attacked before anyone would look my way. So I left. Besides, the stairwell always stank of piss.’
‘Wouldn’t they rehouse you?’ asked Finn.
‘Rehouse her?’ said Mary. ‘You work for a bloody housing department, Finn, you should know better than that.’
‘I’m an optimist, I guess,’ he said. ‘Ever faithful.’
‘No,’ said Charlotte, ‘they wouldn’t rehouse me. They said I was making myself “voluntarily homeless” or something. So I went from being a law-abiding council tenant to squatter in one of those dramatic overnight transitions which people are forced to make. I felt bitter. And resentful. It was where I’d grown up, after we came from St Vincent. Tulse Hill, home of my dreams. And now I’m a “filthy squatter”.’ She sighed.
God. That section shows my primitive 1980s style grasp of politics, there in a nutshell. If you could see me, you’d see that I am blushing. Not that black girls didn’t get hassled by white boys; not that a black squatter wouldn’t have got masses of grief on a Tulse Hill council estate at that time. But it seems hideous to me now to introduce a non-white character and make the entire focus of the introduction centre around her race. However, I like the fact that Finn and Charlotte don’t get on. All is not well in PC-land.
Charlotte was not accustomed to breaking the law although she had become rather used to breaking into this one particular house. She was proud of her hard-won independence and did not like to have to rely on anyone, especially not the Government. Not willing to accept housing benefit, she could not afford privately rented accommoda¬tion. After the debacle on the housing estate she could see no alternative. Meeting other squatters through friends, she had a few brief conversations about how to change locks and what kind of houses were best to choose. She then went ahead and moved into an empty property. Charlotte did not want to get anybody else into trouble, so she did all this on her own.
The first house, in Brixton, was a disaster. She was thrown out after less than six hours. It was not owned by the local authority but by a private developer who had several of his builders turf Charlotte out during the night. After that she was more careful, but the second house did not last much longer. It had already been squatted and the people, who had been away, returned and threw her out, although not quite so abruptly.
But with the next house, a little two-up, two-down, Charlotte felt she was on to a good thing. Before the first eviction she had been there six months, the second nine months, and before the third almost a year. The heartbreak of eviction was intense. But Charlotte had been to court, and had spent endless afternoons in libraries and the council’s planning department searching for information. It made her angry that she and thousands of others should be condemned to homelessness while house after house stood empty and boarded shut. All she wanted was somewhere she could live by herself in her own way, free from worry, free from harassment. Somewhere peaceful where she could do as she pleased.
This was how it was in London in the 1980s. Thousands of empty boarded up properties; thousands of homeless people. Squatting was logical, frankly; and some local authorities seemed to realise this.
They sat up and talked until about half past one, despite Finn’s continual yawning. After helping Charlotte carry her belongings up the stairs he followed Mary into her room.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ she asked as Finn started to undress.
‘Taking my trousers off?’ he replied.
‘And why are you doing that?’
‘So I can get into bed with you.’
‘Who invited you to stay the night?’
Finn blushed a deep red from either anger or humiliation, Mary could not decide which. She did not really understand why she said things like this to Finn. Why hadn’t she indi¬cated he was not welcome to stay earlier in the evening if that was how she felt? It was a long way for him to travel across London to his home, especially at that time of night, and he had been particularly charming all day, even to Char¬lotte. In fact, Mary was rather looking forward to being with him again, it had been several months since they had spent a night together. She had always liked sleeping with Finn.
He pulled his trousers back on and did up his zip¬per violently. ‘Whenever you see Charlotte you become unbearable. It is as though you blame me for her evictions. I get the blame for what other men do. I can’t stand it. I’m going home. I wish this afternoon had never happened. In fact, I wish the last time, when was it, four months ago?, had never happened. To tell you the truth, I wish I’d never met you and that I’d never stayed in this God-forsaken country. I should never have come out of the forest.’
‘Oh, Finn, don’t over-react.’
‘Over-react? Over-react? I’ll bloody well scream and kick if I want to. You’ve already asked me to leave. Can’t get any worse than that.’
‘Ssh, Charlotte will hear.’
‘Who gives a fuck?’ Finn shouted. ‘Why do you want me to go? You English people are all the same. I’ll never understand you. I’m fed up with this country.’
‘I don’t want you to leave,’ Mary said calmly.
‘You don’t?’ said Finn, sitting down abruptly on the edge of the bed. He put his head in his hands.
‘No, I’d like you to stay.’
‘I just wish that you would ask me or something before you leap into my bed.’
‘You want romance. You toughies are all the same.’ He stared at the floor. Mary sat down next to him and put her arms around his neck. She kissed his cheek. Finn sat up and took a deep breath. ‘The price I pay for you, Marylou ...’ he said softly. Mary kissed his neck. ‘Okay, okay,’ he said, shrugging. ‘I forgive you.’
I like this. Feminism at its most confused and confusing. Ah those were the days! That poor sweet Canadian boy.