'Old Space Taken' by Rattlecans
The rain has gone off with unusually perfect timing for my walk. I’ve hopped on a bus and then walked along the road to where I was born and grew up. The river is behind me as I face the little flats my family once called home. To my left is a huge concrete square. The paving stones are still higgledy piggledy. We usually ignored those bits of higgledy piggledy. It didn’t stop us playing, tig, kick-the-can-run-away, two-man hunt, football, whizzing around on our bikes, or trying unsuccessfully to play tennis.
Our lines were marked out with the green paint someone had found and marked out a tennis court with. You know that council building green paint, the same paint every building seemed to have on every wall inside? That paint. We used a bit of old orange nylon rope tied between two of the trees that were meant to make it look nice. Nice. I don’t remember those little trees looking nice; they were bare twigs. Those improvised tennis court lines are long gone now.
The square is full of what I call bowls; extremely wide concrete tubs with ugly, cheap bushes growing out of them ‘decorated’ with metal fence around the entire circumference. Just walking from the flats to get to the main road takes a bit of navigation now. The fences mean no one will sit there, talk with their neighbours. No kids cycle around, no mother shouting ‘You’re going too fast on that bike! I can see you! but being routinely ignored, no kids play football or any other game. A ‘NO Ball Games’ sign is still there. It’s not the original one we used to practice aiming our balls at, either with our feet, or a tennis racquet. I don’t suppose the kids are obeying the sign. There’s just no space to play, that’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, it’s always quiet here now.
On one side of the square is a hall. The pensioners around here used to have tea mornings in there. Lots of little white haired ladies would toddle in for chatter. They had pensioners Tea Dances too. Loud music blared out of that hall when they were dancing on a Saturday afternoon. At night, the hall, as far as I know wasn’t used for anything other than the Labour Club meetings. Kids were never allowed in it. It’s still got the large draped curtains over the windows. Maybe if I live long enough to be a pensioner I’ll get in there to see what it looks like. But I don’t live here anymore, so perhaps not.
Walking on past the hall is the nursery school on my left. It used to have a low white wooden fence all the way around when I was a kid. As a toddler, we’d climb over the fence usually when the nursery was closed for the day. The older kids would help lift our little three-wheel bikes over the fence and we’d be off. Races! We’d have all sorts of races round the square nursery. There would be the toddler race. Then there would be I suppose what you could call the Brothers Push Race. Older brothers pushed you along while you steered. There was the Sisters Push Race too. If you didn’t have a brother or a sister, one of the crowd would give you a push around. There were two long and wide stretches of grass inside the green fence. I’ve no idea why the nursery school would sometimes be open when we on holiday from our own nursery or later, our own school. Sometimes, it just was. The nursery kids would run around on the grass if it was nice weather and it was time to play outside. If it wasn’t outside time for them, it was ours to use if we wanted. Usually the people who lived here would bring out blankets and sit there talking. If we weren’t racing our bikes or running around we’d play ‘school’ or ‘shop’ in the decorative brick wall maze down one side, if it was free. Older kids would jump from one wall to the next; mums or teenagers might be sitting around it. We’d sell dust and grit wrapped up in newspapers. The price was usually a twig or an old lollipop stick. As we grew a little older, it wasn’t three-wheeled tricycles, it was our Raleigh or Triumph bikes. We went much further than round the nursery school on those.
The grass is still there. The green wooden fence has gone now though. It has been replaced with a very tall chicken-wire fence and the gate to get in, well that’s padlocked. Not a soul around. Kids don’t play in there anymore. The people who live here don’t sit on the grass anymore. They’re locked out all day, every day.
On my right are some flats. Everyone knew everyone else in those flats, just like everywhere around here. The tenants had all come from the same streets of slums. The parents in those flats had all grown up together in the slums, went to school together, found jobs working together. In those flats they’d raised their kids together. To my left beyond the nursery there are more flats. Just ahead of me is a little car park and then some more flats. Everybody knew everybody in those flats too; knew everybody who lived in all the flats around here. Everybody knew everyone, and in what flat they lived. If a kid lived in one of those flats, chances were you’d been in the flat dozens of times. We knew all the cars in that car park, whose dad owned which car or little van. There weren’t that many cars around in those days and most of our dads didn’t have or even want one.
Turning right and passing past the first block of flats with decorative grass in front of them and then a little playground. Decorative grass!Â It was the landing ground for teenagers to land on as they jumped out of their bedroom windows. It was a sunbathing spot, a gymnastics practice area, a reading space, a dance floor or whatever else anyone decided it was at any particular moment. The playground was the usual sand pit, see-saw and concrete shapes for kids to jump around and a couple of wooden benches for mums to sit on. Mostly they didn’t. The mums sat on the stairs on the far side leading to the little shop when the mums were about. Sitting on the benches put distance between the mums and the neighbours passing by. Sitting on the stairs meant everyone could talk to passers by rather than shout across the playground. I don’t remember my mum ever sitting on those benches for long while we were playing there. She’d sometimes sit for 10 minutes then go do some housework or go along to the main shopping area, or she’d sit on the stairs talking and laughing with whoever was there. Usually mums just let us out to play on our own. If we needed anything we’d just shout.
She didn’t need to ‘watch us’ if we fell and grazed ourselves, there was always the older kids, the people who owned the little shop or one of the neighbours to come tend to us if we cried for her and she didn’t come out to tend to us. It would have been a bit odd if your mum stood over you, watching as you played. Who’d have wanted that? They’d have just constantly interfered with whatever we were doing. ‘Don’t run! ‘That’s filthy. Put it down, No don’t climb up there, you’ll fall! - Worse, they’d grab hold of you. Who’d like that? Mothers were far more tolerable to us if they told us off from the window. Not as if they’d catch you, stop you climbing while they were in the flat shouting at you out the window is it? We all managed just fine playing and running about without mothers getting in the way. We fell now and then. Most of us didn’t even manage to break any bones. We were filthy every day before we’d had dinner. And? No one broker their necks.
The decorative grass is still there. Now it has huge chicken wire fencing around it. I can’t imagine that being used as a teenage escape route now. Escaping from your bedroom to a wire cage isn’t what a teenager would do. Nothing happens on that grass now. No one sits on it, no one plays on it. I’m not even sure how the gardener gets in there with his lawnmower. The stairs where the adults sometimes sat talking and where I sometimes sat as a teenager are gone now. Sealed up. The shop is still there. What was the front of the shop has been sealed up. The shop front is now on the other side of the building. The playground has changed too. The wooden benches have been replaced by a single metal bar bench; a cold and drafty bench where the bars are supposed to run parallel with your thighs. There’s enough distance between each bar for my thighs to slip through. Whoever designed that seat wasn’t familiar with human anatomy. Maybe they were familiar and the intention was to design a seat no human would sit on. Lots of brightly coloured climbing frames far too high for two-year olds are there now. No sand pit and no see-saw either.
The little 3 foot high black fence around the playground has gone too. Yes more chicken wire. It was a playground for toddlers really. Now, it’s like a series of climbing frames within a prison cell with all that fencing. Maybe there aren’t many toddlers around now. Just as well. I can’t imagine mums standing about for an hour while toddlers play and I can’t imagine the ‘fenced off and fenced out neighbours’ feeling able to keep an eye on the kids playing there. Half of them are behind the barrier of chicken wire around their ‘decorative grass’ as it is. It must be like looking out of your window and seeing zoo animals. Only there aren’t animals behind that fencing they see, it is children, caged children. If children ever play there, that is.
At one side of the playground was a brick wall. I used to sit there, looking down into a long rectangular square below. We’d played in that square from the moment we could walk. We’d played every game we could imagine and all the games the older kids passed down to us. We’d played with dolls, prams, bogey carts, old cans, space hoppers, bows and arrows, cardboard boxes, cheap little kites, balloons, balls or with no toys, improvised or otherwise. Weâ€™d grown up together. Lots of us had. We’d learned to walk, talk, climb, shout, play run and make a mess together and a lot of it had been down in that square below the wall. The wall was one of my ‘teenage patches’. I’d meet one of my neighbours on that wall. Our religions were different and that meant we were at different schools. That wall was where we’d help each other with our homework. Mostly the lessons were the same; just different teachers in different buildings.
I’d help him with his chemistry; he’d help me with physics. We had purpose and tactics. The neighbours walking past to and fro below us as we were doing our homework would be impressed, so impressed they’d buy us crisps or chocolate; if we pleaded with them that is. ‘Are you two doing homework again?’ Aye. We get tons of it. Hungry work this physics! Buy us some cheese and onion crisps.’ It usually worked too. Occasionally a window would open. ‘Have you seen my John? I need him to go for milk for me. I’m half way through cooking.’ If John wasn’t around, we’d be sent to the little shop to get the milk. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, fetching the milk or whatever was to be bought earned you some sweets. Wall. Homework. Crisps.
I walk round and into the shop. I want some crisps to take with the memories A different family has owned this shop for about 15 years now. There are five customers and myself. No one talks to anyone. It was so different back then. When we came in here as kids, the adults behind the counter would talk to us. ‘Look at you! Your filthy again! Your mother will throw you in the bath when you go home. She will! and when I was older – Have you got exam marks at school yet? How did ye get on? or ‘Where’s your mother? I haven’t seen her for a few days. Is she OK? Tonight, it’s the same quiet it has been for a few years now. I walk slowly back round past the playground that once had our little sandpit.
When I was a kid the adults were always around. There were little walls lining the paths, along gaps on the pavements where instead of a building there was large rectangular box of brick filled with soil and grass growing on top with the odd rose bush. They were always just the right height for sitting on. There were always adults sitting on a wall talking about us kids, their jobs, friends, relatives, sport, politics, anything, they’d be going to the shop stopping to talk to people they came across on their way, going to the pub, the chip shop, the library, to someone else’s flat round the corner, to a relative’s flat a couple of streets away. There were always little clusters of adults talking, pensioners have a rest, or someone just taking a bit of sun when it shined. I’d do anything I could to avoid going to shops with my parents. It was boring, standing there waiting for them to finish talking, walking a little further on, then more talking. Who wants to stand around bored, being told to stop fidgeting, and to stop interrupting, being ignored for an hour before you even got to the shops? Boring. To me that was a waste of playing time. To our parents it was a huge part of their life, so huge, so normally they barely gave it a thought.
I haven’t mentioned the community halls where we had our ballet lessons off down the main road, the school hall further along the main road where we had our Irish Dancing classes, the church hall where we had the youth club, the chapel hall where the bands practised, where there was another youth club, bingo nights, I haven’t mentioned the community centre where we had jazz dance classes, martial arts, all sorts of art and pottery classes, badminton, football sessions, discos, union meetings, languages and just about any other activity you could think for whoever was interested. I haven’t mentioned the two libraries within walking distance, the two swimming pools within walking distance, the pubs where the darts teams, football teams, pool teams met or where the Friday nights with entertainment were, or the school where the drama club staged their plays. All of those buildings, and many more where we spent time, where everyone met each other were demolished long ago, some of them during my childhood. One by one, they’ve been taken away. I haven’t mentioned the five or six other little playgrounds we played either. Most of them have gone too. Where our roundabouts and swings once were, are now flats. More and more flats built on anything that could be described as land not used for useful purposes. The parks we played in, no kids don’t play in the parks anymore either and the workers in the local factories, they don’t spend their lunch hours there either. There aren’t any factories.
Some of our parents have moved away to smaller flats along the street or have died now. Few of us who grew up there still live there. We had to join the council waiting list. It was years long. Sooner or later we stopped waiting and moved away.
Most of the people who live here don’t know many of the people who live around here now. They might know the person who lives next door, but that’s about all. I wonder if they still go to each other and ask ‘lend me some bread for the breakfast until I get paid tomorrow, I’ve ran out.’ The people in this entire series of flats were neighbours when I was growing up. Feeding each other, keeping an eye on the kids, the old people, telling off us kids when we were too noisy or mischievous , that’s the way it used to be. Do they still feed each other? They aren’t neighbours now from the looks of it. No one talks to anyone. There’s barely a soul around. No kids. No adults coming or going like they used to and certainly no busy mum or dad opening a window, handing or throwing some money over to a kid to run to the shops for some milk.
The wall where I used to cadge crisps while doing homework with my friend has a tall metal fence on it now. All of them do now. They are either gone, or fenced off, not even enough of a ledge to put your bag of shopping on, let alone sit. No one will be doing their homework on that wall where I brushed up on Boyle’s Law anymore and no one will be cadging crisps from neighbours passing by on their way to the shop or wherever they were going. The square we looked down upon from our perches on that wall has gone.
It’s been sealed off, converted into a strange extension to the flats where we lived. Community rooms. There is a room where men sit and watch the screens displaying images from all the flats watching who is coming and going, where they are going when they are going and all beamed in from the CCTV cameras all around. The ones that are working that is. The rest of the space that was once our square is now a series of rooms, community rooms the tenants can use by a booking system. ‘The Community’ means the people who live in that block of flats. Just that one block of flats. Not the neighbours in the neighbouring blocks. People from the neighbouring blocks of flats can’t book a community room in there. They aren’t part of the community, apparently. They have their own Community Rooms.
The manager books rooms to discuss with the tenants things like what colour of paint their front doors should be. The tenants don’t book a room to talk about their kids, or their relatives or sport, or who is ill, in hospital, had a baby or who is getting married, or has a new job, redundancies, the elections or anything else. That isn’t Community. This isn’t a community any more. Most kids don’t even play on their way to our old schools two streets away like we did. They are taken there in cars or frog-marched by a mother rushing to work. This is a place where people live in isolated boxes. They pass by land, what’s left of the facilities, all isolated, fenced off, blocked off, removed from them, on their way to or from little boxes on wheels, not realising the land, those assets were once theirs, used by people just like them every day as a matter of course.
I’ve decades to go before I reach retirement, yet the world that was once here seems so long ago, so different, a far away place.
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