The street was like a building site as usual, with people constantly competing to distort their homes with as many horrendous extensions as possible, apparently aiming to swallow up their entire gardens and meet in the middle. In another ten years the place would be like some Fritz Lang megalopolis, with every ‘detached’ house linked by a series of arches and tunnels, and every window within a metre of somebody else’s; the owners glaring at each other like fighting cocks, and their children wondering what ‘green’ used to look like. Everybody in the estate seemed to be basing their lives on a series of glossy magazine articles which helpfully told them what to want, and then led them down the main shopping street with Saturday metronome regularity. On average, each household now had one and a half children, three cars and a permanent skip.
Most of the houses had their downstairs lights on with curtains well drawn back so that casual observers on the street could admire the latest chain store colour schemes and prominent recent acquisitions. It was probably only a matter of time before the retired Major at number 7 would jump to his feet when he heard footsteps outside, and use his Malacca cane to point out treasured objects to interested parties in the garden:
“Pay attention you chaps next to the elm tree. On a recent reconnaissance operation to British Home Stores we secured these highly prized objects (wafting the Malacca cane about the lounge). We have now put the enemy next door at a serious strategic disadvantage….”
To one half of the population, society had become a collection of audiences, and to the other half, a collection of charities.
I strode on towards our house, and the drizzle seemed marginally warmer. A firework went off somewhere to my left, reminding me of Bonfire Night two weeks ago, and my thoughts wheeled on to Christmas. ‘Money’ automatically sprang to mind, and I looked across at a nearby £350,000 villa which was just five years old and had already received three new bathrooms and two new kitchens from three different owners. The house was currently owned by two very busy professional people who spent 85% of their time working, sleeping or on holiday, and only 15% of their time actually awake in the house. Spending so little free time in their home, they had to pay a gardener £25 a week to do the lawns, hedges and weeding, a ‘morning’ lady £30 a week to do the washing and ironing, a nanny £150 a week to look after the children, and an odd job man £20 a week to do the small household repairs and walk the dog. Once, in a rash moment, I’d told the owner that for £50 a week I would occupy his house during the evenings and save him the trouble of living there at all.
He thought for a while and smilingly offered me £40.
Yet, it wasn’t a happy marriage (if that’s what you’d call a big business deal on the skids) and tonight I couldn’t help noticing a pterodactyl fastened to someone’s neck in the kitchen. Or that’s what it sounded like.
It was really getting too dangerous to walk home at night, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the blue glow faded, and I entered respectable suburbia. The first telephone box was smashed to pieces as usual, and every garden wall had spray paint running along the top like a child’s railway line. Broken conifer branches lay about, while traffic cones had been removed from the nearby road works and redistributed on peoples’ front lawns. It was clear that the hooliganism was growing relentlessly beyond its original borders, and that I needed to calculate how long it would take to reach our cul-de-sac a mile further on. Given that some of our new neighbours managed to communicate by stringing four-letter words into sentences, and their kids made cannibals look like urbane lounge lizards, I estimated about one year to removal time.
At last the rows of brown dog kennels and silver German cars which comprised our estate appeared, and I could smell sanctuary. Like Quasimodo dodging the whips, I broke into a loping gait and made for the furthest reaches of the sprawling mass before me. It wasn’t Enid Blyton or John Constable, but it would do, and as I looked over the roofs towards the outline of an escarpment, and the moors beyond it, I breathed a sigh of relief. Some of my favourite walks lay in that direction, and for a few moments a montage of pleasant memories filled my mind; bike rides with the kids, tea rooms in historic places, quiet strolls in sylvan settings, and collecting shells on breezy beaches. Life wasn’t all bad, and the prospect of a few days off began to thaw my frozen sensibilities and lift my affect. A little freedom was in sight, and I would savour every atom of it.
The cadaverous form of my neighbour approached again, and this time I blocked his progress with some clever American footballer tactics, until he was forced to reward my extravagant salutations with an incoherent grunt. Twizzle-headed people with laser eyes dissected me as I passed, and bumptious heroes with blimp egos and bold postures filled the bars. Audiences and stars assembled on every street corner, and the news boards spread joy:
“Thugs kill hamster by tying it to a Catherine Wheel firework”
“Pity the hamster couldn’t return the favour” I commented to a mute passer by.
“Huge rise in youth crime” crackled a distant radio.
I gladly left the area, but after a short time I brushed the edge of a nearby council estate, and saw the blue glow of police lights reflecting off the night sky, like the aurora borealis of a penal planet. This area had degenerated into a post-apocalyptic bomb site, with decent people held prisoner in their own homes by roaming bands of giro-paid thugs, intent on vandalising cars, stoning windows, dismantling ‘bus shelters and burning wheelie bins. With ultimate pathos, a few brave souls continued to cultivate their gardens amidst the wilderness, but these little refuges were routinely devastated every weekend by gladiators returning from the well-patronised pubs. Just now and again somebody would come out to remonstrate with the chanting heroes, and they would be rewarded for their courage with a relentless campaign of unremitting violence, or arson. The police were well aware of the situation and a new community constable now met the Residents’ Association and Play Group once a month, while the estate burned around them.