The flats are at the bottom of my road. They were built in the 1930s during the first wave of municipal socialism that morphed into the welfare state after the Second World War. A blue plaque marks a rent strike from the 1960s – an idea that would be laughable in today's greedy and meretricious world. They are brick built, relatively low rise and cluster round a cobbled courtyard. If you can get past the security gates, you find yourself somewhere strangely quaint and tranquil – an echo of a bygone age - rather than the shouty, yob infested estates of the poverty porn that plays almost nightly on TV. Washing waves in the wind like the coloured flags of a hundred different nations, neighbours hang out on the balconies chatting and children can play safely without the risk of being mown down by a drunk driver. If it is someone's birthday, people club together for a bouncy castle or a barbeque in the courtyard. There is something beautiful about the flats; they are beautiful because they are full of life. The people who live there are the flowers that grow in the cracks between the paving stones and bring bursts of colour to this crazy city of ours.
But painting the picture of some socialist utopia would be dishonest and disingenuous. Dubious characters live in the flats, like Terry the sullen mechanic, who first got nicked for fighting in 1979 and has a record sheet longer than the M1. Terry votes UKIP and batters his drunken girlfriend, who grew up in Gloucestershire but moved to London because she likes a bit of rough. Poor silly Sally. She really is quite stunning, in a tainted, broken way. I like her a lot; though I don't like it when she turns up at my place at 3 o'clock in the afternoon wanting to booze and smoke weed on my terrace when my boys are in the house. Sally's lack of control makes her vulnerable and that worries me.
Terry and Sally fight a lot, so much that Sally's daughter has been taken away. They drive their neighbours insane with their constant brawling and Sally makes a lot of women very angry by flirting with their boyfriends (and even their sons). The Kentish Town matriarchs – big women with big arms who wear tracksuits – think Sally - all long legs, long hair and vodka breath- is a disgrace. She is an exotic alien creature, who never seems to do anything much, unlike most of the mums who are grafters, looking after kids or old people or working in supermarkets. They like a drink ... don't we all ... but they are not permanently plastered from morning til night. And she never eats! How come this woman never eats? Not like my friend Lizzie – Lizzie eats all the time; a huge mountain of a woman who acts as the unofficial information service for not just the flats but Kentish Town in general. A big blonde brassy woman. A cartoon character – until you get to know her. But isn't that true of all of us?
I probably come across as a bit of a cliché myself. The stereotypical middle class liberal with my worthy job in a Pupil Referral Unit and my slightly scruffy flat filled with books, cats and my slightly scruffy children. I am middle aged and in the eyes of the world totally past it, cruising my way towards menopause and eventual death. I am a woman of a certain age; I have been around the block and back again. I am part of the story but it is definitely not all about me; I am aware that I am of limited interest. My name is Rachel Evans – in case you were wondering – and my job is to guide you into the story and introduce you to my world.
I know I have a tendency to lecture – amongst many other things I am a teacher and used to holding forth – but I also have a desire to entertain. I want to make you laugh and cry and smile and shout with joy as you descend into the world I am bringing you.
But enough about me – you'll get to know me soon enough. Rather too well, I assure you. Let's get on with the story and get back to the flats.
I am keeping my distance from Sally at the moment as I can't cope with the drinking and have told her that she's no longer allowed to booze in my house. The other day, I saw her drinking vodka for breakfast. She had been up all night on coke and was completely off her face. I felt very sad. Sally is a beautiful woman but she looked so wrecked. I am not a religious person but I felt like the angel of death was in that room; I could see bad times ahead for her.
So instead I'll introduce you to blonde, brassy Lizzie, who I love dearly and also find fascinating. We are weirdly connected in that a very long time ago she used to share a flat with an old school friend. If you put them together now you could not imagine a more unlikely friendship but they were different people fifteen years ago. Strikingly different. She had just left a career as a music PR and he was just starting out as a recruitment consultant. They had met in a club and become friends – things were like that in the 90s. I think they slept together a handful of times, but they were never a couple. Lizzie was from Essex and dreamt of marrying a rock star – Meg met Noel for goodness sakes! It could be you! Obviously, bagging a rock star was about as likely as winning the lottery – the other ultimate 90s fantasy. Lizzie still religiously bought lottery tickets, so obviously the dream still lived on in one shape or form.
Lizzie's dreams were big but the reality of her life was very small. She never strayed far from the flats. Her job, in a community centre for the elderly, was five minutes' walk away and once a week her boyfriend (who lived next door) drove her to Morrison's on Holloway Road. She didn't really have enough money to do much more than watch TV, go on Facebook and gossip with other people in the flats. And eat. Lizzie ate a lot of very, very bad food. Food that was high in calories, laden with trans-fats and oozing refined sugars and additives. Food that was on special offer in Iceland or Morrisons or Lidl. Pink, blue and beige food that turned you diabetic just from looking at it. I am a snob about food and Lizzie's food frightened me. It reminded me of the mushroom in Alice in Wonderland that made you double in size; it had certainly had that effect on Lizzie. She was enormous – multiple chins, a huge belly, thunderous thighs and vast meaty upper arms. She was not remotely ashamed of her girth and flaunted it in skin tight lycra leggings, mini -skirts and crop tops, revealing flesh like the uncooked pastry of a frozen sausage roll. I knew a lot of larger women who shrouded themselves in tent dresses – marquees of material designed to distract. But Lizzie wanted you to look. During the 90s she had starved herself – we all wanted to be Kate Moss – and no one bothered with food at the record company. Cool people lived on cocaine, black coffee and cigarettes – eating was for squares. Maybe if Lizzie had ended up married to the drummer from Suede or the keyboard player from Gene she would still be skinny? But she fell pregnant after a fling with the man who came to change the water cooler and her dreams of celebrity by proxy came to a sticky end. Food became her friend and she got bigger and bigger. It was like she wanted to swallow the slightly shallow person she had been in the past and reinvent herself as someone else. The sad fact was that only person she was hurting was herself. She was such a kind and clever person as well; I always loved going to see Lizzie.
Not surprisingly, Lizzie was the first person to hear about plans to 'regenerate' the flats. She had seen the pretentious architect's drawings down at the community centre and didn't like the look of them at all.
"This ain't right Raych," she told me over tea and biscuits. "The council is selling this to us as the best thing since sliced bread, but I don't trust them. It's Sweets Way and Aylesbury Estate all over again. Why can't they bleedin leave us alone? We ain't doing no one no harm. This is our community."
Lizzie looked upset. The flats were her world, her sanctuary, where she could lock herself away from the people who made her feel bad – her family, her ex-husband and the many people she owed money to. In the flats she felt safe; people loved her because she looked after their kids and fed their cats for them. If the plans went ahead and the flats were redeveloped she would be out on her ear.
"We don't have to take this lying down Lizzie. For a start, none of this is a done deal. These are just plans. They may never happen."
Even as I spoke these words I knew I was talking crap. The flats were prime location, a developer's wet dream - no doubt this little estate had already been bought and sold several times over at a cocktail party for Chinese or Russian investors. The flats were architecturally attractive and designed in way that it would be very easy for a developer to cram more units into the existing space. There was also a block of garages that could be knocked down to make room for more hutches for the upwardly mobile – or more likely transformed into a brick bank for slightly dubious foreign money.
"And even if the plans are real, we can fight them. Weasel will know what to do – he's a professional activist and campaigner. And Howard can help us– he may be crazy and a pervert but he's a good lawyer. And then there are all those people I know on the council – they need our votes. Come on Lizzie, we're not going to take this lying down."
Lizzie looked sadder still.
"It's all right for you babes. It's not your home they're threatening." She bit aggressively into a neon pink doughnut. Tears filled her eyes. "Sorry babes, this is making me feel emotional."
.... There is more of this story ...