Streatham Hill, London, 1980.
I’d moved out of the small room overlooking the dying tree in the front yard and most of my things were packed. For the past few nights I’d slept on a sofa in the living room, but time was running out. My flatmate came in, frowned at the floor and told me I had to leave that day – now, if possible. I had hoped she’d let me stay till I found somewhere else, but I guess she didn’t owe me anything. As I threw a few extra things in my suitcase and rolled up my duvet, she was already dumping my record collection on the landing. I’d been in London eight months and though I didn’t have much stuff, it still took two trips to get everything down to the front yard, then onto the street.
Streatham was a shabby suburb just a little further south than Brixton and this motley brick terrace was the first flat I’d found after arriving in London. I answered an ad in the paper and met Donna – an awkward girl with froggy eyes that bugged out even more when she was excited or upset. As we talked, I realised we had nothing in common and were unlikely to become friends, which troubled me at first. Then I wondered if it might be less complicated this way. We could nod and smile as we passed in the kitchen and live our own lives the rest of the time. Or so I thought.
I moved in and got to know her, but first impressions stuck. Donna was a Marks & Sparks girl – sensible knits, sturdy cotton underwear and convenience food. She worked 9 to 5 in an office, danced round her handbag at discos and made big soggy trifles on Sundays with instant custard powder and tinned mandarins. I didn’t even know mandarins came in tins. I’m still not convinced they should. She wore Laura Ashley florals, blow-waved her fringe into a Lady Di sweep and scattered dishes of potpourri around the house that smelt like fly-spray and disappointment. Of course, she had a cuckoo clock. It was like living with someone’s mum.
We had cups of tea and strained conversation on the couch and every now and then she’d try and get me to come out with a few of her mates to a disco on Streatham High Road called The Cat’s Whiskers. “You comin’ down The Cats?” she’d ask hopefully. And I would disappoint her every time. I felt mean, but I knew no good could come of it. I’d seen the people queueing outside The Cats and they were not my people. I would tell her I was off to see a band because I usually was.
The band I saw most around that time was The Cure. Everyone at home had Three Imaginary Boys and just after I got to London, they released Seventeen Seconds. I listened to both albums back-to-back on my liminal wanderings and still can’t imagine a better soundtrack to those cool grey mornings, dead leaves skittering by. Hearing the music in its original context, I could appreciate it anew and it made me think about how mutable songs were. How a stormy day might crank up the angst in a track, the way putting on a particular jumper could change the colour of your eyes.
I had no idea what sort of music they played down The Cats, though I was confident it wasn’t The Cure. That summer, Donna met Roberto at the disco [moustache, tight pants]. He didn’t speak much English, but he understood the international language of love. On Sundays he’d come over for soggy trifle and a siesta and I would shove on my headphones and Docs and get myself out of there.
If I had to pinpoint the moment I realised things were going downhill at the flat, it would’ve been when Donna started leaving notes. PLSE HOOVER LOUNGE. PLSE DO NOT LEAVE DISHES ON BENCH. I can’t pretend to be blameless here, though in my defence I was 18 and it was the first time I’d lived away from home. Being seven years older, Donna clearly felt the need to slap me into line. She stopped asking me to come down The Cats and there were no more cups of tea on the couch. At weekends she would aggressively buff the kitchen bench and hoover the lounge and a perma-frost settled on the flat.
I was making toast in the kitchen early one morning, hoping to avoid her, when it occurred to me that I didn’t want to live like this anymore. Ducking out of each other’s way. I made a pot of tea, set out two mugs and as I sat waiting for my flatmate, I found myself reading the back of a Silver Spoon sugar packet and laughing out loud. Under the heading Cake Icing and Decorating Set it said: give your cakes and pies a professional look with this superb decorating set. To the untrained eye, these were the words of a coupon offer. To me they were the lyrics of So What – a sulky little rant from the B side of Three Imaginary Boys. I’d always thought it was one of the weaker tracks on the album – slap dash, a bit of a joke. Years later I read that Robert Smith had rustled it up late one night in the recording studio to flesh out the track listing – hence the sugar packet lyrics.
When Donna walked in and started opening cupboards, I didn’t bother explaining what was so funny, but in a way, that was the heart of the problem. I wanted to live with people I could have a laugh with about Robert Smith’s plagiarism. We drank our tea and talked and agreed that things weren’t working and when I volunteered to move out, Donna didn’t hide her relief. She had a friend who wanted to move in, so I had two weeks to find somewhere else.
The frost began to thaw and I started looking for a new flat – somewhere closer in, with more like-minded people. Though I had no contacts and didn’t earn much, I wasn’t worried at first. There were eight million people out there – surely one of them needed a flatmate pronto.
Two weeks later I was standing on a Streatham Hill street surrounded by my worldly possessions, holding back the tears. I realised how naive it was to think that living with Donna wouldn’t be complicated. I was glad to be out, but if I’d been more tolerant of our differences, I wouldn’t be alone on this street with nowhere to go and no idea what to do. I thought about my father and wondered if this was how it felt to be a refugee. I sat down on my suitcase and tried to come up with a plan.
There were people I worked with who might have helped me out, but I didn’t think I knew them well enough to ask. A battered old tramp wandered past, his possessions in a black rubbish sack over his shoulder. He tipped his hat as he went by and I’m sure he meant well, but it was not reassuring. Eventually I remembered an Irish girl from work who’d mentioned a hostel in the Cromwell Road. There was a phone booth a hundred yards away, so I hauled my things, in two trips, down the street. Thumbing through the white pages, I found the place and when I rang, they had a vacancy. In the cab on the way over, I recalled the other things Eilish had said about the hostel. She’d stayed there briefly after arriving from Belfast and said it wasn’t up to much, but they fed you and it was cheap. At that moment I hardly cared what this gaff was like. I told myself anything was better than dossing on a South London street…
Stereo Story #585