Since last October I have been badgering the factor about the cessation of stair cleaning. In the Good Old Days that weren’t so good, the women of the stair took turns to sweep and scrub, putting a card through the door of the next (female) person. Now, part of my monthly factoring fee goes towards a weekly clean by men I would hesitate to call professional. About six months ago, they apparently decided not to bother. The stairs went from being reasonable to noticeably slum-like. When you see the same sweet wrapper on the first-floor landing several weeks in a row, along with a black tarry substance that looks like something cooked up in a spoon (my knowledge of drug abuse is derived from TV), you know you’re not imagining it: the stairs are going downhill.
People who live in houses are spared the strange, not-quite-public interzone of communal stairs and corridors. What is a garden but a kind of moat, to keep your neighbours and the general public at bay? In a block of flats—and most people in the city of Glasgow live in nineteenth-century tenements—there is no such separation. You will hear and see your neighbours, for better or worse, although the walls are very thick.
In a good stair, there is a sense of community and tolerance. A few inconsiderate, ‘chaotic’ (the social worker euphemism) or simply oblivious neighbours make everyone’s life hell.
There is a reason why ‘own front door’ is a feature in Scottish real estate listings. Often, better-class ground-floor tenements will have a separate door, with the next door along leading to the other flats. Sharing a street door with people who can’t be bothered to close it properly or who leave it on the latch because they always lose their keys means that your corridor becomes an extension of the street, its moat-like function drained. Without a front door, a close merges with the street. Random people come in and out, in particular, people looking for a quiet place to shoot up.
Let me describe the middle-class horror, the sense of violation, of finding abandoned drug kit in your stair. Alerted by another resident, my immediate neighbour and I went down to view the proof. There was only one needle, along with its bits and pieces. Being a tidy person, I thought, if you were sufficiently compos mentis to use a sterilising wipe from a little packet, couldn’t you have taken all your damn rubbish with you?
My neighbour was about to clean it up, but I told him to leave it for the council needle uplift team. I always imagine them arriving, like Ghostbusters, in hazmat gear with sirens blaring.
The two resident jakeys have an ongoing problem with key retention. The ability to retain keys is a vital independent living skill and should be tested before people of chaotic inclination are moved into what is called ‘scattered housing’, a social policy that ignores the right of the non-chaotic to a quiet life. I saw one jakey neighbour overturn a street bin and go through all the rubbish because he’d thrown out his key. A police van just happened along and he was made to refill the bin while the two polis sat in their van and watched. The reason this particular jakey leaves his rubbish in the street bin—he claims—is because the housing association has not given him a key to the back door, so he can’t access the communal bins. If this is really the case, he should be thankful: if he’d thrown out his key in one of the large skips, he’d have had far less chance of finding it. Also, he might have got stuck inside and ended up in the back of a rubbish truck.
A week or two later, the same neighbour followed me in the front door, right at my back, an alarming intimacy. He said his keys had been stolen from his door, a jumbled narrative that made no sense.
I suggested, in a polite neighbourly way, that he ask the housing association for new keys, but I had the sense of speaking a foreign language.
The first time this neighbour had lost his keys, he’d called up a friend with tools to break him in. The door was wrecked. Walking two blocks to the housing association office or ringing their emergency number was evidently beyond him.
I emailed the housing association directly and suggested they supply him with a new key, with a reminder that they’d only just replaced his door. A new key was promptly dispatched.
Another solution to key retention failure is to simply buzz all your neighbours, at all hours of the night and day. Providing ‘jakey concierge service’ is part of tenement life. Since being woken up once at 3am, I routinely turn my buzzer off at around 9pm. I did consider, very briefly, just quietly hanging up and leaving him out there, but the glass panel in the street door had already been kicked in twice at this point.
For soft southerners and people more used to modern apartments with sleek lobbies and carpeted hallways, the grim concrete stair of a Scottish tenement can be a shock. I was prepared for this by having spent time in Russia, where many people still live in the cheap concrete-slab flats thrown up in great numbers in the 1960s, the khrushchevka. The stairwells are often crumbling and slum-like, but beyond the double doors, padded against the cold, lie private interiors of startling comfort and amenity. I once stayed in a flat with décor resembling that of a 1980s drug lord: the mirrored ceiling above the brown velour bedroom suite was especially memorable.
Scotland or Russia: can you tell the difference?
My next-door neighbour, a designer, has been transforming his little flat into a ‘living space’ worthy of an interior decorating magazine. He even has a marble slab on his counter-top for making pastry. Our joint influence extends beyond the portcullis of our private doors to the landing, where we have established an indoor garden beneath the window. We have created our own sub-interzone, an extension of domesticity, holding the tide of sweet wrappers and needles at bay.