I’ve hardly seen my neighbours since I moved to Solo HQ in October last year, apart from the dog walkers in the communal drying green. The dogwalkers all pick up the poo—the panopticon effect of being surrounded on four sides by walls of windows?—but I have to wonder about the litres of dog pee that have soaked into the lush communal grass.
Bear’s Bruntsfield residence has a shared garden, with properly tended borders, a bench and even a statue. During that extraordinary sunny May in the first lockdown, I used to lie on the grass with a book. A bird feeder hangs from one of the metal clothes-line poles, but there are no clothes lines (too proletarian?).
The communal drying green in Solo HQ is actually used for drying as well as a dog toilet. In the centre are two vintage bin sheds and a row of overflowing rubbish skips. I don’t see myself lying on the grass, however warm it gets.
The green serves a whole block, over a hundred people. Four streets of traditional Glasgow tenements back onto it, with space for a potholed access lane on the eastern side. This is used by rubbish trucks on a schedule that I have been unable to decipher. The empty land by the access lane is used as a dumping ground for mouldy mattresses, chipped chipboard furniture and flatpack boxes too big for the bins. I’m not the only resident to buy Made.com furniture, although I always manage to crush and fold the boxes.
Perhaps it’s spring, perhaps it’s the vaccination programme: people are beginning to appear from behind their doors. An elderly man has been setting up a camp chair on one square of grass and sits there all day with a tin of beer and a newspaper, occasionally chatting to other folk who come by with bags of rubbish or walking dogs. If it gets any warmer, I’ll be treated to taps aff.
One night, just before I was about to turn in, a smoke alarm went off. The stink of burning toast filled the close and crept under my door, despite the draught sausage I bought to keep out the occasional gusts of stale cigarette smoke.
I waited for the alarm to cut out before going to bed, just in case. It’s good to know that your neighbours have working smoke alarms.
Two nights later, at about one pm, I was woken by a steady thump that made the whole building shake. Someone was bashing on a door (not mine). A smoke alarm wailed on and on. Heart thudding, I put on my dressing gown and stuck my head out the door. The close reeked of carbonised bread. Hearing voices on the next landing, I ventured downstairs and saw a woman, also in a dressing gown, and a tall, older man, standing in the doorway of the middle flat.
‘I chapped on his door, but he wouldn’t answer,’ the woman was saying.
They both turned to look at me.
‘It’s Hamish downstairs,’ said the woman.
The tall man rolled his eyes. ‘We’ve had a quiet phase, but he’s off again.’
‘He’s woken up the whole close,’ said the woman, although if other neighbours were awake, they were choosing not to investigate.
The wailing stopped. A fully suited fireman appeared on the lower stairs and gave the thumbs up.
‘Welcome to the close,’ said the woman and headed back into her flat.
From my front window I saw two fire engines, lights still flashing, pull away. It took me an hour or so to get back to sleep. What quantity of alcohol (or drugs) deafen someone against a smoke alarm that wakes up the whole stair? If Hamish’s smoke alarm hadn’t been working, how long would it have taken for someone else’s alarm to go off? I imagined the whole building reduced to a smoking stub.
Bear was unsympathetic. ‘Well, you did move to Maryhill.’
I reminded him that the flat above him in middle-class Bruntsfield is owned by a notorious slum landlord, currently the subject of a police investigation and a Facebook campaign by former tenants.
A few days later, heading up the stairs, I met, for the first time, the young man living in the middle flat next to me. I’d been aware of his presence—the bathroom fan, occasional knocks, voices through the wall—but I had no visual notion of him. He was small and bespectacled and wore a black beanie. His cotton tote bag bore the logo of the Glasgow School of Art.
I introduced myself and asked if he’d heard the commotion the other night.
He was genuinely surprised and shocked. ‘No, I didn’t hear a thing. I wear earplugs.’
I wondered if the other six residents of the close were also wearing earplugs that night.
When I moved in, I had linked smoke and heat alarms installed, as per the new Scottish regulations. A fire from the first floor would take time to reach me at the top, but eventually my alarms would go off, if the fire brigade didn’t bash on my door first.