I recounted in my previous post how I found myself in Birmingham living and working. I had settled in the Moseley area, very leafy and green and popular with students, which meant that a lot of my colleagues in the small internet-generation publisher I was working also lived there. I lived just one street along from where JRR Tolkien lived when he wrote Lord of the Rings, and about 5 minutes away from Moseley Bog which apparently inspired some of the locations.
I rented a super-cheap bedsit on the top-floor of an ancient converted Victorian house. I had one big room, with a slanted ceiling where the roof was, a tiny walk-in cupboard for a kitchen, and a bathroom and separate toilet was shared between me and the two other flats on our floor.
My neighbours were interesting folk. One was a nudist and one was a nutcase.
John, thankfully not the nudist, was a violent mentally unhinged black alcoholic, who could be a nice enough guy if he stayed off the sauce for five minutes. Living within 20 feet of him was something of a baptism by fire for me as I adjusted to living away from home and on my own. He was such a nutter it was only many years after I left Birmingham that I told my mother what he was like and the kind of fear I’d lived in in that flat.
Every night he would come home shit-faced, engaged in a loud and extremely aggressive argument with either himself or imaginary other people. I would hear him slam the front door downstairs (one time so hard he smashed the glass) with his shouts of “fucking bastard” and “why are you looking at me like that, you cunt, I’ll rip your fucking face off” gradually getting louder and louder all the way up the stairs.
There would be some crashing as he broke the cistern for the umpteenth time, the distinctive sound of him pissing a whole evening worth’s of beer into the toilet, and the equally distinctive change in sound which signalled he was now flooding the toilet floor. Then he would spend several minutes at his front door, across the hall from me, trying to get the key in, while cursing, swearing and shouting threats to the phantoms who followed him around every night.
Then the music would start. You’re So Vain by Carly Simon. The only song he ever listened to. Now normally if someone was playing very loud music I would eventually get used to it, and fall asleep. But his music was the worst – there was something wrong with his stereo, so the sound kept cutting out and changing volume, and then becoming really distorted randomly. It was like he had a radio station on that had a really bad signal. Except there is no radio station to my knowledge that plays Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain back-to-back 24 hours a day.
If you ever bumped into him during the day, he seemed a nice enough guy, but he clearly had genuine mental health problems. He would corner you and start a conversation about the most banal things, and repeat himself incessantly, to the point where you felt you were caught in some kind of time loop, stuck within the conversational equivalent of a Carly Simon song on repeat. And he always said this one thing “what’s the mentality of that? I just don’t get it, the mentality. What’s the mentality behind that?” no matter what he was talking about; it was a strangely appropriate saying for someone clearly a bit of a mentalist.
He also had a tendency to always check the bathroom if he saw the light on – just in case someone had left it on. There was no lock on the bathroom door. He would walk straight in, drunk, “Oh sorry just saw the light on and checking there was someone in here.” And then start a fucking conversation with me! I’m laying in the bathtub, half a bottle of Radox having mostly bubbled away and he’s like “Have you seen that letter from the landlord. I mean what’s the mentality behind that. You know what I don’t get, the mentality of that letter from the landlord. Do you get the mentality of that?” He would not fuck off. I assumed he would eventually leave. I’m no prude but I was quite surprised by his complete lack of awkwardness here, maybe he was curious about what an extremely white man looked like naked. But after five minutes, “their mentality is what I just don’t understand.” By this point I was fairly sure as I finished washing my hair (yes, he even continued talking about the mentality behind things as I washed my hair underwater), that he would now fuck off. No. I stood up and started drying myself, no interruption whatsoever. I told him it was quite normal for the landlord to do some fire safety checks. “But can you just explain the mentality to me, I just don’t understand the mentality of these people”. I was stood up in the bath, mostly dry, when I realised this conversation would end when I closed my front door. I didn’t even bother wrapping a towel round myself when I shooed him aside to step out of the bath, there was no point anymore, he’d been gibbering for about ten minutes about mentalities. I unlocked my room door and told him I had to go in and get changed and he said “yeah yeah of course, I’ll leave you alone to get dressed.” Oh well thank you, you didn’t mind standing over me while I had a bath, at least you have the courtesy to let me put clothes on in private.
Next door to him, and also across the hall from me, was Kate. A lovely young slip of a thing with fair hair, exceptional facial bone structure, and a tendency to walk from her flat to the bathroom next to my flat completely naked without a care in the world.
Something of a hippy, Kate was studying to be a teacher before she got inadvertently pregnant during one of her and her boyfriend Ed’s regular camping sessions in the garden. This would be during the summer when they’d pitch a tent in the overgrown, ill-tended garden out back, invite some friends and me round for some BBQ food and then retire for the evening to their tent for some outdoor lovemaking. It was a thing she liked.
Kate was extremely pretty. Great body too, very slim and petite if you like that kind of thing. Fairly flat-chested but with nipples capable of knocking on my door if she ever needed anything. I don’t think I ever saw her in a bra. On the downside, in-keeping with her natural ways, she wasn’t much of a shaver. Whilst under the arms was less of a jungle than between her legs, I found the former a bit more of a turn-off. But she was out of bounds anyway as she had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend – this was before I found out my long-term girlfriend was an internet-cheating little slagbucket.
All in all Kate’s presence, happy-go-lucky nature and frequent nudity managed to distract from John’s drunken whackjob ways, although in the future Kate was to move out after waking up and finding John sitting on the end of her bed…
So, still in the happy days of the three of us. I’d recently bought a rather expensive new laptop, which I recall resentfully for two reasons. Firstly, it exploded just over a year after I bought it and I lost a whole load of stuff. Secondly, for the manner in which it was delivered.
I’d taken the day off work and awaited the delivery of my new £1500 toy. After a few hours of waiting, I decided to deploy one of many variatons of The Sod’s Delivery Prompt to make my package appear.
We all know that when you are told that something will come between 8am and 5pm, you will be waiting all fucking day and it will either arrive at 5pm or not at all, especially if you booked the day off work, and even more so if you are looking forward to its arrival.
We also know that if you take a shower, pop out to the shops or become embroiled in an uninterruptable defecation process, the delivery man will arrive while you are unavailable to answer the door.
The Sod’s Delivery Prompt trick can be used to fool the cruel sodding world we live in into thinking you are currently unable to answer the door, triggering the arrival of the delivery man.
I ran a bath, it didn’t seem to work. So I took it one step further and stripped naked, cunningly leaving a t-shirt and jogging trousers by the door, both capable of being put on hurriedly as I dashed down the stairs. I tended to the bath, secretly hoping Kate would come out of her flat at some point and we could joke about how we were both naked and that if she ever split up with her boyfriend and if I ever found out about my girlfriend’s internet-cheating slagbucket ways, we could totally get it on together.
Sure enough, the buzzer rang. I grabbed my clothes and bounded down the stairs, acceptably dressed by the time I answered the door. The man was on his way back to his van – it was three flights of stairs after all, what I really needed was a front-facing window, but I hailed him back.
I signed for the laptop and he said to me, and it was only later I realised the cunting cheek of this, “So, how can you afford something like this then, are you just paying it later?”
I told him I’d paid for it with my debit card. Why the fuck was I even answering him? There hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t wished I could go back in time and say what I should have said, which was the whole story. “I paid for it with the royalties from my first book. Now why don’t you go fuck yourself you condescending piece of shit.”
I’m actually getting angry just writing about this. Mother fucker.
Anyway… moving on. Nutcase, nubile nudist, new laptop…
I was beavering away on my laptop one night (must be all this talk of Kate made me think of the word beaver). It was getting late, approaching 1am, and I had my headphones on and was listening to … let me think, it was 2002, probably Atomic Kitten.
Suddenly I felt a rumbling bass not usually associated with the kind of music I listen to. Someone else must be playing really loud music. One of the neighbours. Obviously not John, his sound system isn’t capable, and obviously not Kate as loud music is bad for trees and bunny rabbits. Must be one of the monied students living in the larger proper flats downstairs. Probably the one who flashed his cock at my friend Nicola when she came down to visit me (seriously I do not know what it was about that place and nudity).
I took off my headphones, the rumbling started to get worse and worse, it clearly wasn’t music. I heard some things fall off the kitchen counter, and my signed photo of Ashley Judd fell off my wall.
I assumed what any sensible person living in an old Victorian house in Birmingham would think.
The fucking building was falling down. And I was on the top floor.
I spent a few foolish moments standing in my room thinking “waaaay this feels weird” before rushing out my door. As I got into the hall the door that connected the house to next door opened and a guy and a girl appeared, the girl clearly roused from bed and sporting a nice skimpy t-shirt and pants. Whatever was happening here I was liking it so far. Kate’s door opened and we all got a flash of her completely naked frontage as she closed over a dressing gown. I’m sure this was purely because she didn’t want to lose precious seconds of escape time by fastening it before she opened the door.
None of us knew what was going on, but we started to make our way to the stairs, just as the shaking began to subside. The girl in her pants was the first to suggest maybe we didn’t need to go outside anymore. Kate didn’t seem to agree.
I went back inside and got my phone and called my best friend Thomas, who lived just up the road. We both said in unison “did you feel that too?” but we differed on what we thought it was. I thought it had to have been an earthquake, Thomas thought Birmingham had been hit by missiles.
What the fuck? Missiles? That’s the first thing that came to your mind? I thought earthquake was far fetched given that we were in Birmingham, but missiles?
We had just survived the Great Dudley Earthquake of 2002 (the Wikipedia page is missing the “Great” bit, someone should edit that – let me just finish this story first…) Almost a million people nearly died. A city was almost destroyed. Hundreds of Chinese cash and carries were almost put out of business. And parts of the city centre were almost drastically improved.
Of course after that when friends and family came to visit me I would take them to the city centre and show them the Bullring site and pretend the whole area was destroyed in the ‘quake… Good fun that.
It was a 4.7 on the Richter Scale, quite a large one for the UK, happens maybe once every ten years. It was felt for a radius of 260,000 square kilometres, meaning the likelihood was, wherever he was, Larry’s dirty weekend was getting interrupted.
There was an aftershock of magnitude 2.7 a few hours later, but I was fast asleep by then.
Interestingly, a few years after I left Birmingham for London, a cyclone tore through the whole area where I used to live, wrecking shops and pulling roofs off houses. Never would have imagined Birmingham was such a dangerous place to live, nor that there could be natural disaster there worse than Kate’s underarm hair…