For a large part of my childhood, I lived in a block of flats on an estate in Hackney. It wasn’t the roughest estate in London, but it wasn’t the nicest either. For the most part, it was clean & the neighbours were friendly or at least that’s how I remember it. My parents might tell you a different story.
My best friend during my toddler & pre-school years was a girl named Lisa. We were friends right from the start. There’s even a picture of us reaching over & holding hands in our buggies.
We were chalk & cheese, as they say. She had dark hair & tanned skin which contrasted with my redhair & ghostly palour. She was a rebel, always testing the boundaries. I was scared of every little thing. Enforcing my own boundaries when adults didn’t make the rules clear.
Our favourite game to play was mummies. Even our fake parenting styles were different. I would be a stay at home mum with lots of babies to tend to. Lisa would be a working mum with one kid. She’d drop her baby off with me as she headed to work with a cigarette stub she’d found on the ground poking out of her mouth.
Lisa was always getting me into trouble. She said lots of bad words. I think she knew them all. Her mother never held back with swearing, so neither did Lisa.
Lisa was a lot cooler than me, so I did anything she said. I remember I got a new Barbie & Lisa convinced me to give the dolly a makeover with emulsion paint. I got into a lot of trouble that day.
Once we were playing on the balcony as usual & Lisa had an idea. We would go to the top floor of the flats to look down. I didn’t want to go because I wasn’t supposed to go far from my front door. My granny looked after me & she had strict rules. Only play on the balcony. No going up or down the stairs unless it was to fetch my football. Lisa knew this.
Lisa had no rules. She was a feral child. She could go up or down the stairs, across to the green or even call on different kids in other blocks of flats. She didn’t really care for my boundaries. So she lifted my ball & kicked it up the stairs.
‘Go get it then,’ Lisa pointed.
I got up & started to climb the stairs. Lisa bounded past me & blasted the ball up another flight of stairs. She did that for the next two floors until we were at the top. I grabbed the ball & tucked it under my arm.
‘While we’re here, we might as well look over the balcony.’ Lisa beamed.
We climbed up on a small ledge & peered over. My head swirled & I stepped back. Lisa hacked up some phelgm & hurled her spit down.
‘Come on! Spit with me, it’s fun!’
I shook my head & edged back to the stairs. Lisa wandered over & took my hand.
‘Do you want to know a secret?’
‘Come with me. You can’t tell anyone.’ Lisa guided me down the stairs to flat 14.
I was always curious about the inside of flats in my block. I’d been inside a few & I was always excited to see if they looked like our house or if something was in a different place. I loved the little differences in each one.
I was never curious about this flat though.
The man inside lived on his own. He was in a wheelchair but lived on the fourth floor. I don’t know why he was in a wheelchair or whether he was in it before he moved to a fourth floor flat with no lift, or if the wheelchair came after. I didn’t know a lot about him except that he had almighty rows with his neighbours.
He lived next door to a family of mostly grown boys. The flats would go weeks without any rows but when they did fight the whole estate heard it. Police would be called. Ambulances sometimes too. Words were shouted that I didn’t quite understand like ‘nonce’ & ‘paedo’.
I avoided flat 14 because an imaginary battle line had been drawn between it & flat 15 & everyone seemed to be on the side of flat 15.
Here I was outside it. I looked over to flat 15, in the hope someone would come out of the door & stop us. Lisa still gripped my hand. She pushed open the door & wandered into the living room.
‘Oh hello Lisa, you’ve brought your friend!’ He was a frail looking man, at the time he looked about a hundred to me but I don’t suppose he was even half that age. He was gaunt with dusty blond hair. He wheeled himself into the kitchen & Lisa went over to a drawer, opened it & took out felt tip pens & a colouring book.
She put them on a low table & opened the book to a half finished drawing. She offered me a pen, I shook my head.
The man appeared again with squash & a plate of biscuits – jammie dodgers & party rings. I never liked party rings, those biscuits aimed at kids with their bright colours & hard icing.
‘Don’t you want to draw with Lisa?’ He said. ‘Do you want a dolly to play with?’
I looked around. Something didn’t seem right to my five year old eyes. It was a flat typical of the 80s. Brownish furniture, beige walls & yellow-brown bits & bobs here & there. Something was different though. There were no photos, that’s what I remember most. A lack of photo frames, no pictures of family or friends.
I could see the front door from the living room. He’d closed it when he got the biscuits.
I stared at those biscuits. Jammie dodgers & party rings. By that age, I’d visited lots of grown-up relatives who didn’t have kids. I knew when you visited these grown-ups, you’d get a sweaty slice of battenburg or a plate of shortbread that’s been sitting in the cupboard since Christmas. Grown-ups never had fun biscuits.
It unsettled me.
‘I need to go, Lisa.’ I wouldn’t look at the man.
‘OK,’ she carried on drawing.
‘Do you have to leave?’ He asked.
‘Lisa, come on!’ I pleaded.
‘You go, I’m drawing.’
‘Just stay for some squash.’ He said.
‘My mum’s coming home & she’ll be looking for me.’ I lied.
He went over to the front door & undid the lock.
‘Now don’t tell anyone you were here, this is our secret.’ He smiled.
I ran out & straight down the stairs. I waited for Lisa on the steps with my football under my arm. She never came.
Lisa never invited me to flat 14 again & I never asked if she still went there sometimes. I didn’t tell anyone because I wasn’t sure what I would tell. I wasn’t sure what even really happened. A man offered me biscuits & squash & I ran away.