I was used to things that went bump in the night. I lived in Boddington Heights. A crumbling, stinking slice of hell in the heart of the beast that is the Old Kent Road. Violent arguments between so-called lovers, parents and children, dealers and dealt-to were daily occurrences. Police busts were regular.
My strategy for blocking out other people’s dramas was well-established. In order to prevent myself hearing something I would find impossible to ignore, I would turn the TV or stereo to full volume if I was still up. Bury my head deeper into the pillow if I wasn’t.
But the commotion I heard in the early hours of that particular damp May night evaded my usual tactics.
For starters, I’d just switched off the TV, so the clanking of the ascending lift’s gears sounded louder in the sudden silence. As did the assorted bumps, thumps and curses that followed the opening of the lift doors on my floor. I brushed my teeth to the accompaniment of footsteps clattering on the iron staircase on the other side of my bathroom wall. I gazed at the dolphin transfers on the wall tiles, studiously ignoring what could only be the sound of someone forcing the padlock on the trapdoor to the roof. The metallic crashing of something bouncing down the stairs made me jump, but I didn’t allow it to interrupt my flossing routine.
I hummed loudly and covered my ears with my hands as I wandered round the flat switching off lights and checking that the front door was secured by both bolt and chain.
But I still couldn’t drown out the thuds, groans and grunts of exertion as something heavy was dragged up the stairs to the roof.
Merciful silence resumed as I went over to my bedroom window and closed out the darkness and the drizzle behind plum coloured velvet curtains. I snuggled under the duvet. Something was happening on the roof. But it was none of my business. And now it no longer intruded on my senses, it was easy to ignore.
The lull didn’t last long. Just long enough to allow me to drift towards sleep. A shriek pierced the darkness, followed by a fearsome clanking that sounded like a ship weighing anchor. I shot upright as something thudded against my window. The shoddy double glazing (one of the council’s much vaunted ‘improvements’) shuddered in protest, but by a miracle it withstood the force. A panic-stricken voice gibbered in terror three paces from where I sat, naked and trembling in my bed.
Given what I’ve said about Boddington Heights, you might be forgiven for thinking such an occurrence would not be unique. Except that I lived on the top floor. Of a twenty storey block.
I leapt from my bed and crossed to the window. Steeling myself, I pulled the curtains about a foot apart. And almost immediately yanked them shut again. I staggered back into the room, shaking my head in disbelief and wheezing for breath. This wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be happening. It had to be some weird kind of delayed hallucination. A throwback to my smackhead days. The wilderness years.
I was shivering uncontrollably. I pulled on a baggy sweatshirt from the chair at the end of the bed and forced my unwilling feet back to the window.
This time I only opened the curtains a chink. Enough to confirm that it wasn’t me who was insane. Just the situation. So that was OK then. I suppose most people would be more terrified knowing that what they were seeing was really happening. But not me. My big fear is insanity. Everything else comes a long way behind.
A man, wearing something black and shiny, glistened in the rain outside the window. He was suspended by one ankle, hanging upside down and face out. The view over the sleeping city, even on cloudy nights, is spectacular. But I doubted if my companion out there appreciated it.
A pair of white buttocks, protruding from a cut-away section in his skintight suit, was pressed against the glass, like a child’s face squashed against a toy-shop window. Red stripes criss -crossed their compressed surface. I gazed at them, fascinated.
His voice, muffled by the double glazing, was clear in intent if not content. This was one seriously scared bare-botty man.
So what should I have done? Call the cops? No way. I don’t have the kind of relationship with the police where you actively initiate contact. Anyway, for all I knew, Mr Dangly Stripe Bum might be a serial killer. Or a paedophile. Perhaps what I was witnessing was a version of rough justice. But not necessarily less just than that meted out by the legal institutions in this country.
I cocked my head on one side and contemplated the buttocks pressed against my window one last time, before flicking the curtains shut with a decisive swish and returning to bed.
Sleep was impossible knowing that if it wasn’t for the glass in my windows I could have reached over, parted the curtains and dabbed Savlon on the sore arse of a man suspended upside down 250 feet above ground level. I sat up and smoked a fag, using the inhalations to keep my breathing deep and even. I recited song lyrics in my head to phase out the gibbering outside. This wasn’t my crisis. I didn’t have to allow it to affect me.
Interminable minutes later I heard the screeching of metal on metal, accompanied by a squelching noise as the buttocks slid up my window. Not long after, I heard footsteps on the iron stairs coming back down from the roof.
I tiptoed to my front door and pressed my eye to the spy hole. Two people swam into my fish eye view. One of them stabbed the lift button. The doors shuddered open and they stepped in and turned round to face me. Their distorted faces shone sickly green in the fluorescent light: a woman, slightly built with spiky hair, wearing a mini skirt and corset under a tight leather jacket, and a good-looking Asian guy. The woman seemed to be bruised down one side of her face. I ground my eye into the spy hole. The lift doors were shutting, but I could see something on the man’s forehead. At first I assumed it was a scar or a birthmark. But then my wobbly vision made it out just as the doors slammed shut. It was an A inside a circle. An Anarchist symbol.
My curiosity was piqued. They weren’t what I was expecting. Whatever that was. And what had happened to Mr Dangly Man? I gave myself a mental slap and repeated my mantra. Not my business … Not my business …
I carried on repeating it as I pulled on jeans, trainers and cagoule. What is it about me? Why can’t I learn not to interfere? No one in the other three flats on my floor felt the urge. The couple who lived opposite would probably have been indulging in their only obvious pastime – extreme S&M sex. Unless of course one or the other of them had been recently sectioned, as was frequently the case. The newly arrived Somali couple would be too scared. They only ever opened their door to pass in or out and infrequently at that. A bunch of lads lived in the fourth flat. I’d never been able to work out their scene, but they were out until the early hours most nights.
I unbolted, unchained and unlocked my front door. All the time refusing to ask the obvious question: What was the point of all this security if I walked straight through it and into the exact unknown danger it was supposed to protect me from? I clicked open the latch, and pulled the door towards me by the letter box so that it would appear to be shut unless it was pushed. By me. In a hurry.
My heart thudded louder than my footsteps as I climbed the iron staircase. The trapdoor leading to the roof was open. Drizzle slanted down from the square of black sky onto my upturned face. I emerged onto the roof – a square of flat concrete framing the lift motor housing in the centre. Massive arc lights at each corner warned low-flying aircraft and illuminated the desolate gloom.
A dark rain-sodden bundle lay by the roof edge, huddled in a foetal heap. At first I thought he was dead. Fighting the urge to run back down the stairs, I crept over to him. A distant siren floated upwards. I heard shouts and running feet. Car doors slamming. Drunken singing. Other people’s lives. Mine was frozen on this roof. With this man.