Front of house

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Across the road from the converted Victorian house in which I live is a tremendously ugly estate. No doubt it was some bright young architect’s utopian dream, and perhaps it’s not quite as oppressive as a tower block, but with its exposed stairwells and rows of little doors looking onto narrow, dark communal walkways, it reminds me of the kind of construction in which one might keep hamsters. A thin lawn and tall railings separate it from the road, and as you watch people taking their Staffordshire terriers out for a poo on the grass behind the bars, you can’t help thinking that, psychologically at least, it can’t be all that nice a place to live in.

As with any established community, there are familiar characters, one of whom is a local gambler and handyman known on the west side of the road as ‘the geezer’. Almost any hour of the day that you walk down the street, the geezer will be out, and he knows everyone. Usually he is drinking lager and playing with his dog outside the bookies, or walking his beat along the front of the estate, but sometimes he will be painting the shop fronts or fixing someone’s awning, and he seemed to be doing a bit of carpentry work back when the off-licence became the Indian head massage parlour.

As a Westsider, I am invisible to the geezer, but no East side dweller gets past him without at the very least some kind of acknowledgement, and usually a warm greeting. Many respond in kind, while it is gratifying to watch the badass youth with their hoods pulled low squirm as he slaps them on the shoulder and asks how their mum is doing.

My neighbour, J, who works from home on the top floor of our building, often smokes from his window overlooking the estate. As a regular spectator he is aware of all the main players on the little stage down below him: the rocker with the Harley and the kid; the schizophrenic lady in the dressing gown; the entrepreneurs and the reformed alcoholic shopkeeper who survived cancer last year. J refers to the geezer as ‘front of house’ for the estate, and was slightly concerned when he went missing abruptly about a year ago. A few months later, he turned up outside the bookies again, sipping his beer and heckling the passers-by as if he had never left.

‘I think he must have been doing a stretch,’ said J.

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