I had an apartment on the outskirts of London with a balcony that overlooked an office block and its ground level car park. More accurately, I could see the offices when proximal Whitebeam trees had shed their leaves. The office block and car park was empty for a few years until reopening under the flags of third level education. This was part of a British education initiative that delayed school leavers from entering the ranks of the unemployed while earning serious money from foreign students taking their studies in English.
The carpark was the other side of a named stream and a road. I could often hear the calls of coots and moorhens over the rippling sounds of the flowing water as it made its way to a weir clogged with plastic bags and the odd supermarket shopping trolley.
The water meant that the trees remained healthy. The garden bird life, the bats in the summer and the squirrels provided me with endless distractions.
I could see across that stream to the road where informed locals parked their cars for free while they visited the High Street and its two shopping malls. The glints from shards of tempered glass that often littered the road didn’t deter parkers. And the neighbourhood watch signage never prevented the opportunistic thefts.
Between the river and the road was a low wall that rose vertically to restrain if not always retain the river. The wall was a popular place to sit and enjoy cider and a joint. I saw that wall as a weld of sorts, a seam joining the fabrics of very different worlds. Sometimes I imagined it as a line of suture that closed a tear in the underbelly of society, a scar over a place we pretend doesn’t exist. Even with the incentives of easy money from parking fines, the double yellow line painters hadn’t dared paint the whole way down the road. So there was still scope for sitting and planning petty larcenies with a joint. i was grateful that I was rarely inconvenienced by the shattering of glass or car alarms during the night.
I had been looking out from my balcony for perhaps six years onto the road that leads from the High Street to a housing estate. By morning, people would walk or drive out on the way to work. Commuters, school kids, all normal urban activities. In the evenings, as you would expect, people returned to their homes. And because I’d be out at work myself, I wouldn’t experience the susurrus of daytime shoppers except at weekends.
This wall is also a place to where local office blocks disgorge staff to muster during fire alarm drills. Most of the action I’d witness happened by night, especially in hour after the many local pubs close.
I watched once as a woman beat a car with a branch, like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Except that she wasn’t angry with the car, it was the male inside that was the focus of her irrational rage. She was off her head on something but her anger, wow, her anger was real. And horribly loud and sad at 1 am on a Friday night.
One of the most interesting things I’ve seen on the road has been dogfighting. I kid you not. That episode was around midnight and I was woken by baying and snarling, the like of which I’d never heard before. Three men, two dogs and I could hear the men willing the dogs to tear each other apart. There was a loser, judging by whining and simpering but the Whitebeams were in leaf so I couldn’t really see how it ended.
The many drunken squabbles were both fascinating and terrifying. Sometimes after soccer matches, famous victories or trivial wins were celebrated with loud singing and shouting. Some nights, screaming couples would fight their way from the pub to home. One night, it was so bad that I overheard a neighbour call the police. And since the nearest police station was less than 100 metres away, a car arrived very quickly and I could hear them talk the couple down.
Many another night, I heard disaffected youths talking while sitting out on the wall with their back to the river as they drank, smoked and ate from the once Golden Arches just up the road. Leftovers brought foxes that sometimes barked when there was nothing to eat. The kirds often partied on that wall beyond midnight on schoolnights which was always a bit disconcerting. One night, a couple of them were having loud sex on the wall until I heard a neighbour shouting encouragement from a balcony above. They told him to fuck off and went on their way.
Another night, the night of a big storm, a tree cracked and fell across the road. It was about 1030 when I jumped in fright, startled by the sudden noise. I heard a car pull up at the tree, the exit from the housing estate being blocked. Another, then another and soon there were four or five cars, stationary to either side of the tree. The driver of the car that got there first lost patience after about five minutes and blew the horn of the car. The horn blew once and a few minutes later, blew again. Then again and again until finally, the horn was continuous. I could hear other car occupants shouting to the driver to stop. People in my apartment building were out on their balconies shouting that they had kids trying to sleep.
However the local authorities were informed, they came quickly. That is to say they were there within an hour. By then there were quite a few cars and I watched as they watched the tree cut with chainsaws. It took another hour before the cars could escape and by then, the petrol driven chainsaws must have woken everyone within a kilometre. The wind had stopped and it was very, very loud.
By far the most annoying local noise was the security message that a door of the office building was ajar. It was proceeded by a repeated claxon blast and if triggered, the message would repeat over and over through the night. Oddly, the message never changed from when it was office block to when it was unoccupied and it was even the same after it became a seat of third level education. And whatever door it was, the message made little difference. The door was rarely closed in less than an hour or more, no matter what time of night.