Mark stood on the artificial promontory he’d constructed as an offshoot to his chimney stack. Looking out over his estate he saw acre upon acre stretching into the distance. He bent down and placed his golf ball on the tee. He studied the ball on the floor, wiggled his backside and set his stance, his smoking jacket billowing behind him in the afternoon breeze. His arms arced backwards in the swing and he unleashed the driver with a ‘swish’ that was instantly followed by a ‘swock’ as the club head made contact with the ball and sent it soaring out over the houses in front.
The ball pinged and ricocheted off slate roof tops and tarmacced side streets and landed somewhere near the group of streets the locals called Poets Corner. Mark guessed it was Wordsworth Avenue and made a mental note, pulling the index finger on his left hand slightly out of its socket so he would remember it.
Mark was the self-titled Earl of the Mycross estate, which was a warren of terraces, ginnels and alleyways. Some 700 houses spread across countless roads. Street upon street of boarded up homes, their owners bought up and moved on by a council keen on the three ‘Rs’: rampant regeneration and renewal. Everyone had left, but Mark and his mum.
Mark’s mum had been steadfast in her refusal to leave. She fought her campaign against the council and the property developers in the only way she knew how: through ignorance and belligerence. She refused offer and counter-offer, coercion and promise. She’d even had a personal visit from the mayor with his official Daimler parked on two wheels on the kerb outside. He’d given her chapter and verse on the need for progress and knowing when to move on. She’d given him short shrift, a flea in his ear and chased him out the door with a Ewbank.
But the council jumped through all the legal hoops and limboed under all their necessary obligations, finally winning out with a compulsory purchase order. Having to move from her home of 50 odd years had broken his mother’s heart. With all hope gone she retreated into herself and the six weeks from court hearing to moving day were terrible for Mark. He could do nothing but watch as his mother grew sullen and introverted as her will to live ebbed away.
Then the day before the move, when they were the last two on the estate and sat in a house full of boxes with no real home to go to, the crunch came and word got to them that the developers had gone belly-up in an ocean of bad debt.
Mark had hoped that his mother would rally on hearing the news but all she could muster was a weary smile and a pat of his hand. She knew it was a hollow victory, they might still have their house but life had been chased away from the estate and it now lay barren. Streets that had once been full of playing children and knock-a-door-running scallies were now filled with silence. No cars or buses passed through and ice cream vans no longer sang out their siren call. Even the scum of the earth, the door-to-door utilities hawkers, had taken their clipboards and official badges and fucked off for better leads in pastures new. Mark’s mum knew the people would never return, not in her lifetime, and had died just four days later.
The crunch bit deeper and property was no longer the cool cash cow it had been. The council’s regeneration funds had long been pilfered to prop up the national debt and people were being told to make more from what they had.
So Mark did just that and proclaimed himself the Earl of the Estate, the Lord of all he surveyed and launched himself into the role with gusto and a wardrobe of charity shop tweed.
He set out about tackling the solitude and making the streets his. No job was shirked, for while the Earl was a fine and noble man, he wasn’t afraid of a hard day’s graft. He started from the bottom with litter picking, first on his street then working outwards to ensure every road and avenue was free from crap. Once everywhere was clean, he rolled up his sleeves and started planting.
He kept it simple at first with daffodils and salad leaves all sprouting from pots. The next year he’d become a bit more adventurous and was rewarded with leeks and potatoes. Now, with a horticultural flair that would’ve made Charlie Dimmock jiggle with delight, he’d expanded out from his back yard and at the far end of his street there stood a mature orchard of apple and pear trees. He’d planted them in disused wheelie bins and they had flourished in their urban surroundings.
Mark liked to bring the insides of his house outside. He had an alfresco kitchen set-up so he could cook in the open air and rigged up a shower in the yard for the summer months. He bought extra speakers and hung them along the now-dormant street lights, blasting Led Zeppelin and Dire Straits out over the airwaves.
During the endless evenings of early summer he’d make extravagant French food, full of cream and garlic and sit at a table in the middle of the pavement, pretending he was at a smart Parisian bistro, sipping claret with Edith Piaf.
During the football season, he’d project El Clasico onto the end of a terrace he’d whitewashed. He’d eat tapas, sip fino and copy the gesticulations and mannerisms of the Spanish players, shouting ‘el puta madre’ at the screen when the referee made a wrong decision.
Every Burns night, he’d stuff his face with haggis and deep fried Mars bars, and get smashed on single malt. Climbing to his golf tee, Mark would attempt to play a set of bagpipes he’d picked up from a jumble sale. He’d only once managed a clear note, a low e flat that had echoed out its foghorn call across the streets, but he’d been rewarded with a howling and screeching response from hidden owls and prowling foxes, the night alive with the animals who had moved in now the humans had left.
But today Mark was sober and back down at street level. He wandered onto his manor towards Wordsworth Avenue in search of his golf ball, lonely as a cloud and past a host of golden daffodils that were fluttering and dancing in the breeze. His heart filled with pleasure.
The above piece was written for and ‘performed’ at the Bad Language Manchester Open Mic event at the The Castle Hotel, Manchester on 23 March, 2011.
Thanks to Ray Green for the use of his photo to illustrate the piece. Ray told me that the street is no longer standing but across the North there still are streets of boarded up terraces waiting for something. Check out some more of Ray’s photo at his Flickr photostream.