Friday, 4 December 2009

What’s nice, exactly, about Spitalfields? (Or all the pools I ever swam in.)

My friend and near neighbour, whose unfailingly fresh, open and upbeat personality feels sometimes a rebuke in contrast to my more lugubrious own, reckoned recently in conversation how he gets a thrill living and working here in Spitalfields. You know the sort of thing: cool, edgy, stuffed with celebrities. We were sat in his elegant house (long dining table; brightly-lit gallery space; contemporary art draped on white, fully-panelled walls; marble slip fireplace; sparky, garrulous wife hovering over) at one of those every-day dinner parties where you're meant to pretend that having someone internationally-famous, in telly or films or whatever, sitting opposite, is just the most normal thing in the world.

I am not so sure. About Spitalfields I mean. We are recently returned from the French countryside, where we keep a holiday home. We spent the whole of August there, in the wilds of the Aveyron: "congee annuelle," as they have it in the boarded-up store windows, then reprised the experience for one week only in autumn half-term. My girls were dizzy with thoughts of more-or-less non-stop horse riding. My son, now in a sort of mid-teen torpor, was intent on relaxation. My wife and I were hoping for some awesome restaurant meals. What struck me most was the tranquillity of the place, at night, where only the call of a distant great grey owl might tug at the velvety silence. Out in the dark, a slender crescent moon hung over our little, lit-up gingerbread house, with constellations of stars and galaxies in naked profusion. Our children would be settling upstairs in bed with books and story tapes as I take in the evening air, lamplight glowing through odd, non-matching, old-fashioned dormer casements. My habit is always to count out five "shooters" before retiring to bed: meteors or space debris, up there with the winking planes and slow-moving satellites, sometimes in showers (the Perseids in summer), colliding with our atmosphere and tracing brightly-coloured arcs across the sky. A faint drone trails after the impossibly high, vanishing planes, heading always either South, or West to America, every one. Later, curled in the plank-walled, oaken, pitch-dark downstairs room, with its wormy, sculpted cherrywood armoire craning over, my wife and I slept right through to the mornings, in perfect gratitude and astonishment at this unexpected, unbidden, heaven-sent peace. Back here in London we strive to shut out ubiquitous, polluting electric light. Stars are but a memory. Sirens wail, girls shriek and cackle, boozy Brick Lane revellers sing till their lungs are fit to burst. Crashing and clashing restaurant deliverymen work through the night. No-one imagines there are actually people living in these buildings among the shops and businesses. So at best we sleep fitfully, if at all.

Getting home late on Sunday night, we pulled up to find a young woman trawling through our rubbish, right outside our door. This was indeed curious. We asked politely if she was okay. Her arms were buried deep in bags of filthy, greasy coffee house waste. She seemed respectable, well-dressed, together. She grunted, sullen-eyed, then shuffled off. There was no explaining this apparition.

This was but a curtain-raiser. There was a lot going on back here in England. For starters, our cat had gone missing, and not for the first time. We have three cats in our upstairs flat and this summer, flicking across the rooftops, making a staircase of the building being erected at the opposite end of our terrace, they took turns at getting themselves lost, and driving my wife crazy with worry. It is a brand new building replacing a nearly new one, and Igor, its builder, though unquestionably nice, would never take steps to prevent it from harbouring our pets. This time it is Ginny, named by my kids for Ginny Weasley, a street-smart undersized female, freakishly ginger, mother to Rufus, who upon questioning of friends and neighbours infuriatingly had left us no clue as to her whereabouts.

Also, fairly dramatically it must be said, during our absence, a hoax letter was circulated in the neighbourhood, kind of funny and witty, certainly hurtful, about a local celebrity with a penchant for swimming pools. It seems that she is putting one in her own place, down in the cellar, which would be all fine and good, except that she had to demolish a little, late Victorian range of buildings to do it, then neglected to tell the authorities or anyone else about it. Do I mind? Not especially. I grew up in a suburb of Sydney where it was considered somewhat eccentric not to have a pool. Only I did absolutely mind about the loss of an old building I admired and wanted conserved. I even wrote to object at the time (I was one of very few), which is the sort of thing you can do in a democracy, or so they say. Many were called upon to write letters of support after the first application fell, and sadly complied. Did these people look at the plans? I rather doubt it. Or it may be that if it's not Georgian, no-one much cares. Not for the first time, I find myself running against the grain of popular opinion. This makes me sad. Afterwards it seemed to go through without a challenge. But all that is history now and nothing anyone says or does can bring the building back.

Then, late in the evening on about my second day back, the buzzer is pressed for the outside door. It is Marion and Daniela, my Slovakian builder friend and his partner. Daniela is distraught. Marion has a kind of weary, defeated look. They returned home that night to their newly rented flat to find all their possessions – clothes, furniture, passports, everything – out in the street. The locks were changed. This was a disaster I knew at once I had indirectly contributed to. I had found the flat for Marion, a cheap council flat in Whitechapel, a filthy tip of a place sub-let from the drug-addled brother-in-law of Bashar, my contact in the Bangladeshi East End, and afterwards decorated and made liveable by Marion's own skilful hands. I had brokered the deal. But Marion had made it too liveable, indeed too beautiful it would seem, for now the wastrel brother-in-law wanted it back, and was not disposed to wait the agreed six months.

My wife and I wander the streets calling out for our lost cat. There is just no sign of her. As I pace the streets I begin to wonder whether some of my friends are avoiding me. Are we dropping off drinks party guest lists? Is it possible, or am I being paranoid? One or two ask me whether I wrote the letter, even hinting they believed I did. I tell Bashar about how my friends were slung out of their flat. He first claimed to know nothing of it, then at last with screwed up, bitter face said that it was a good thing. We trade insults. I call him a thief (there is the £600 of rent needing to be repaid). For the first time ever I notice our different skin colours: his dark, sub-continental chocolaty brown in contrast to my mildly-tanned Anglo white. This is not a good situation. One afternoon my wife and I ask a familiar rough-sleeper by the cash-point about our missing Ginny. He says he saw a small ginger cat by Brick Lane not half an hour before. We walk along the pavement briskly, me several car lengths ahead of my wife. At the end of Princelet Street, where the Halal grocers have their pallet lifts and open-shuttered storerooms, I pull up abruptly, and turn to caution my wife. Stretched out in the gutter is a small ginger cat, struck by a car, dead, one eye facing skywards bulging out of its socket. It is a young cat, not much more than a kitten, probably loved by someone, and soon to be much missed, but not our Ginny.

One Saturday morning two uniformed police come to my door and question me about the hoax letter. It is a warm day, we are just setting up for business, and sunlight reflected off the great steel-and-glass behemoth opposite floods into our coffee house. One asks questions, the other takes handwritten notes. They want to know whether I knew of the letter and, if so, how. I explained I was in France at the time, but someone had collected it with my other mail. They ask to see this person but I answer no, they are not here. This is all slightly surreal. They ask what I think of the letter, whether I still have it. I say yes, I do still have it, and think it is quite funny. "Don't you?" I ask the policeman and policewoman. Then I say: "But surely this is not a police matter. And anyway, none of this is untrue." They mutter something about fighting racism and I find myself suddenly very perplexed. I begin to sense some reticence, even embarrassment, in their manner. I tell them I did not write the letter and couldn't think who did. To my knowledge, I am the only person questioned by police on this matter.

I ask Bashar what has become of the missing rent money. His response is wordless, but highly articulate: he pinches thumb and forefinger together and holds them to his lips. This drug habit is not cheap. Apparently his brother-in-law is hard, some kind of gang leader. I decide to pay him a visit, though not without a certain trepidation. I suppose I fondly imagined he may be disposed to want to redeem himself, if I gave him the chance. Doesn't everyone? His place, Marion's place that was, a ground floor pad in a sprawling sixties Council estate, was easy to find. A flush white door had a security spy glass in the centre, its sole feature. A scraggly shrub stood in the narrow kitchen window. For some time there was no reply to my knocking. At last I heard "Who is it?" from inside. I say: "I'm from Bashar." This seems to work. A lithe, tall, muscular man, naked from the waist, opened the door to me. I told him who I am. I recounted the story of my friends' betrayal. "They squatted my flat," he spits in reply. I say I want the money repaid, otherwise I get him evicted for sub-letting. He says he knows my gaff, my place, my car. I say in that case I will get the police. "Do you think I'm afraid of the police? I've been in gaol plenty of times before this." I try a different tack. I say he can pay back the money slowly, £50 a week. I tell him I'm asking politely. He stands and looks at me narrowly. "Go f*** yourself," he finally says, before slamming the door.

It wasn't long before I realised I would need to repay the lost rent money myself. It's a penance for interfering, for getting involved, for not minding my own business. But it's not so bad. I am once more talking and laughing with Bashar, just like in the old days. I have not yet been taken in by the police, my car has not been trashed and the brother-in-law is not skulking about my place. One day, sipping lemon tea at one of the outside tables before the customary walk to school with my daughter, I recognise the girl with the bike, the one that time with her arms deep in our rubbish. With some annoyance I stop her and challenge her to explain. I hint at identity theft and other dark motives for her behaviour. But it is unworthy of me to harbour such thoughts. She turns out to be an utter ingenue, wholly innocent, and was only hoping that evening to find one of our cakes sunk in all that dire waste.

Oh yes, and Ginny is back. We asked one of the beggars, the one who says he wants eight hundred pounds to get to Barbados, and apparently he saw Ginny in that supermarket lock-up. He asked a couple of girls in the street to bring her back to us. She must have climbed back up through that half-finished building and got in the window. Early next morning I came downstairs to find her curled up asleep on the tapestry-coated armchair in the corner of the sitting room, bathed in insistent, slanting light, indifferent, heedless, just like nothing ever happened. I couldn't believe my eyes. That damned cat! I have to admit I like her style.