I have previously mentioned my impoverished neighbour, Bojan the Serbian handyman. He and I have always got on very well, he with his excellent Greek, his two or three words of Italian (mangiare, buona sera, va fan culo) (not necessarily to be carried out in that order, I’m fairly certain) and my stumbling conversational ellinika, where these days to be brutally honest I recklessly improvise i.e. make everything up as I go along, meaning the verb tenses and the verb endings and plurals, and even the dear old definite article. You are supposed to say The Bojan and The John, and partly out of laziness, I am ashamed to say, I rarely do. At any rate about a year ago, he and I were at cross purposes, as I thought he was making a joke about whatever I was doing of an evening on a regular basis, up above his head in my flat. In all candour, and this was in the days before I had any cats, anything I did up there was totally blameless, nothing more radical than playing my CDs at discreet volume, cooking, putting my shopping away, and that was about it. It was partly because Bojan kept using the word fasaria which I inanely misunderstood as meaning something like a bit of string. In fact the word for that is spango, and fasaria means ‘racket’ or ‘commotion’ or ‘din’. It took an inordinately long time for me to understand that what he was complaining about was the noise my dining chairs made as they scraped over the floor, and Bojan went to great pains, as if talking to an especially stupid English child, to indicate that I should lift them to move them from A to B, and not drag them horrendously over the flooring. At first I went into autopilot denial that I did any scraping at all, and then an hour or so later, when we had gone our separate ways, I recalled that I regularly dragged just one of them across to block the back balcony door, which was forever being blown open by the sodding Cycladean aera winds. It was in keeping with my all round immaturity as a non Bojan-style handyman, that I hadn’t even learnt how to lock the door, and thought that because it was so phenomenally stiff, it was therefore impossible. That Christmas my daughter Ione was staying, and she showed me how to turn it very easily, in 5 seconds flat.
The point was that my innocent chair-scraping sounded like 40 nightmarish cows bellowing and roaring to Bojan down below, and no doubt there was some quirky amplification at work in the rickety old 1960s housing that we shared. I had genuinely no idea until Bojan told me, that even an individual as sensitive as I am about noise, was capable of disturbing someone else with mine. I have learnt over the decades to be hypersensitive for very good reason, and I have often wished that the rest of the world, or at any rate those who have these things called nearby neighbours, were made the same way. In the early 1980s, when Annie was doing her social work qualification, at what is now Oxford Brookes University, we lived in a single room for a year in relatively slummish East Oxford, an area at times home to the deviant, the criminal, the drug addicted, the mentally confused, and worse. We would have much preferred posh and peaceable North Oxford, of course, but unfortunately we were thwarted by our lovely dog Bill. This was 7 years before we had our daughter Ione, and Bill aged 6 in 1982, a black and tan mongrel that even dog-haters admitted they loved, was very obviously our surrogate child. We took him everywhere, including, once in 1979, a very smart though very empty Indian restaurant in Bradford, where we concealed him inadequately under the table, and the kindly waiter ignored the frenetic black tail that was thumping against his leg. We both ate meat in those days, and in doting sequence fed him tasty gobbets of lamb and chicken throughout the clandestine operation.
No one in North Oxford in the early 80s would take a tenant with a dog, or at least none of the dozens we tried. Our East Oxford landlord by contrast, a Mr Simms, who looked exactly like an owl, would take anyone and anything, as long as the rent was forthcoming, which meant unemployed claimants, the majority of them male and single, and early 30s, were his declared speciality. But they also included over the time we were there, a reckless heroin dealer, public school educated, who genially used our baking tray for roasting cannabis when we were away somewhere, and a very sad young man called Dennis who heard voices in his head and sometimes masturbated at his open door. But the point about young unemployed males, who spend all their time at home, is they tend to get comprehensively bored. We happened to be sited adjacent to one, who I will call Billy Baxter, who was a local Oxford man, and had an ex-wife and a child of 3 who he rarely saw, and who partied late and rose late, just to stay endearingly symmetrical. Although he had been on meagre welfare benefits for years, he managed to drink a lot of beer and smoke a lot of dope, and sadly for us in his waking hours, he fancied himself as a rock musician. Somehow or other, he had acquired an electric guitar, which he would bash away at sporadically between the hours of 1pm and 2am. Unfortunately, he only knew one tune, and even more distressingly, he only knew the first 2 chords of that tune. It was the current mega hit, Sultans of Swing by, in our claustrophobic residential situation, the aptly named Dire Straits.
Annie had to write regular essays for her CQSW, and luckily she wrote most of them in the college library. When at home, she did not exactly find Billy Baxter congenial background music, if she was writing about Child Protection laws, but somehow she was able to block him out. In my case, attempting to write a novel and some lengthy and ambitious short stories, I found it well nigh impossible. I need to explain that Baxter did not live in the same house, but in the one immediately adjacent, also owned by Mr Simms (he possessed about 10 huge East Oxford houses in all, and his overdraft would have given anyone else chronic nightmares) and with a shared gable end. It is an indication of the volume of his electric guitar, that we could hear those 2 glorious chords perfectly where we sat and toiled, and, to give Baxter his due, those 2 chords were well nigh perfectly executed, albeit they constituted a repetitive meditational mantra, rather than music, and the mantra was not a pleasant one. And talking of execution, and I have fictionalised the scene in a wholly different context in my 2001 novel John Dory, Billy had the other delightful habit of sunning himself in hot weather on the 2nd floor window ledge, that was immediately adjacent to ours. When he rose at 1 or 2pm, he would, in roasting June or July, roll up his creaking window with its eroded squeaking frames, and with some effort, rig his 2 hi-fi speakers at either end of the ledge. He would then charmingly site himself like a sprawling Pekinese between the speakers, on a thin blanket, and enjoy the music at very generous volume, and the balmy Oxford heat in simultaneous rapture.
You can imagine how this helped me to concentrate on the short stories I was writing, as I tried to think of appropriate and precisely nuanced adjectives, and Billy Baxter had his nostalgic 70s legends going at full throttle from his window ledge: Van Morrison, Joan Armatrading, JJ Cale, Jefferson Airplane… if you are over 60, I am sure you can complete the roll call with ease. And just in case you are thinking chronic lack of self-assertion is what is to blame here, you should know that several times I sternly told Baxter that both my wife and I were working and writing next door, and if he could turn down both his guitar and his hi-fi , it would make life easier for both of us. I stressed that it was my wife’s career as a social worker was at stake, and bluffed that my writing was an income-making enterprise too. Billy Baxter grinned most genially, and said, of course, of course, old lad, old mate, old boy, old guv, but that evening after the 10th joint or the 15th lager, he forgot his resolution just as he forgot everything else, when it came to common sense and small issues like parenthood and income and career, and the future and the past. And, by way of anecdotal fullness, just as we were leaving that place, and Annie had got her CSQW qualification, I learnt from his immediate bedsit neighbour that one night Baxter had got so rotten on the combination of rocket fuel Artois lager and strong dope, that he actually emptied his bowels through night while fast asleep, and apparently with a horrified 18 year-old girlfriend to witness the event.
He also came close to involuntary defecation one day in June 1982, though he never knew as much. Sprawled out there on his window ledge in blazing sunshine, and stripped down to his shorts, he was not only playing JJ Cale at full blast, he was from time to time greeting passing girls down below. He picked them carefully of course, he did not call down to obvious swotty, specky university types, but to local Oxford lassies in their late teens and early 20s, meaning a decade younger than himself. His banter was of the broad and general and genial kind, to the extent that nothing he said had any edge or wit or surprise, it was you might say bog standard recycled flirtatious cliché. But brainboxes and those who believe in subtlety, or even just those harmless single guys who are quite reasonably very much bursting for a nice little girlfriend, could have learnt something from Billy Baxter’s guileless patter. Its very ground level simplicity, meant that nearly all the lassies hailed, would stop and would banter back, with just the right reciprocal naivety. Many people respond well to artlessness and simplicity, as they know that they, and indeed anyone can achieve it also, and I only understood that myself by the time I was 40 years old, and luckily had been married to Annie for over a decade.
This was all very well for Baxter’s love life, of course, and I believe one of those thus apostrophised from his window ledge, ended up a girlfriend of sorts. But it was stopping me from writing a very long story, that to my amazement eventually was taken by the London Review of Books, when against the odds, and Baxter having gone hitchhiking up in Wales one long weekend, I managed to complete it. The point is I had reached a crucial point in the story, and there was Baxter loudly babbling away to some idling young lass down below, and from his speakers, JJ Cale was deafeningly singing about drugs in his remarkably throaty and inconceivably resonant voice. Of course I hated Billy Baxter at that moment, with total passion and with total hatred. I hated him and indeed I decided that I hated everyone else like him, who spent their life industriously fucking about to absolutely nil productive purpose. I don’t mean that I wanted him to have a menial office or a factory job, as work for work’s sake is not my credo, and never will be. But if for example, he had taken his musical interest seriously, and committed himself to learning the guitar properly, I would as they say have given him the time of day, as perhaps once he could play the whole of Sultans of Swing plus 3 more tunes entire, maybe I would have ceased to notice it as obligatory background music.
Outside on the seedy staircase, there was of all things a long clothes pole. It had been put there by Mandy the tenant next door, as this area was so wonderfully dog rough, someone had actually stolen her last one, and bizarrely, and even insultingly, had left all her very fashionable clothes untouched. It had to go out when she had washing to dry, of course, but when not in use, she put it outside, half way between her place and ours. Today inside our room alone, and with Annie toiling away in the college library, I thought hard about that pole, in fact I more or less meditated on it, you might say. Most folk who meditate, don’t do so by focusing on clothes poles, needless to add, but it occurred to me that as a tool or implement it was long enough, if I opened our window to reach out, to send Billy Baxter flying the 15 feet down below, just as he was half way through his latest splendid flirting gambit. The image was so tantalising, so seductive, so magnetic, and the worst that would happen was he might break an arm or two, or maybe a leg or two, depending on where the stupid nay imbecilic bugger fell.
Of course I never even got near opening the window, and thereby making the din, the infernal racket, even worse. I could never injure anyone, not even a ridiculous clown, not even an antisocial waster like Billy Baxter, who got in the way of my gentle wife and myself, as we tried to work away at the things we really cared about. But hatred, even temporary and situational hatred, is a terrible thing, and sometimes people who are full of hate, and who are also drunk, or otherwise out of control, commit something that is irretrievable and even tragic. Which is exactly why people like idiotic Baxter should learn not to provoke otherwise innocent mortals in the first place.