Juliet Hill: Property is Theft

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It was the quietest night so far. Kate had first noticed the growing silence a few months earlier when the majority had already gone. Of course she could still hear the noise of the city, she was in the middle of London after all, but it seemed more remote somehow, as if she was hearing a film soundtrack on next door’s TV. Which is what she’d thought at first until she’d remembered with a jolt that next door had gone, and the family above, and the other side. They’d been some of the first families to leave, throwing in the towel at the first opportunity, unwilling to face what they must have known would be a long, drawn out process, taking the money and running. Last thing she’d heard they’d ended up in Enfield.

What would happen if she went outside now? She hadn’t risked it for a while at night, even with Ben, her son. It was bad enough during the day: the vandalised children’s playground, the graffiti and the overgrown flowerbeds where there would normally be a burst of carefully organised spring colour. And the boarded up windows. Only they weren’t boarded up nowadays, they were plated with grey metal, itself covered in incomprehensible graffiti tags and signs. There were gangs who hung out in the empty buildings, either breaking into flats or just loitering in the walkways and stairwells. A couple of weeks earlier she’d found a group of them slouched around an abandoned sofa in the courtyard, looking at her up and down as she approached and deliberately blocking her way into the stairwell. She’d managed to talk her way past their double-edged compliments and coded threats, keeping it light and friendly, but the whole thing had left her shaken and furious. Why should she pretend she was delighted that the estate where she’d lived almost all of her adult life had become an abandoned, filthy shell with swaggering teenage boys lording it over her?

Then the outside lights stopped working. The broken glass and discarded needles that she’d been able to negotiate during the day became sudden hazards, lurking and menacing in the dark. That was when she stopped going out at night.

They were trying to get rid of her. Not the gangs- they didn’t give a toss- but Urbanlife Developments, property conglomerate and the main player in a meaningless public consultation.  And prodding Urbanlife from time to time were the other interested parties: politicians of various persuasions who’d green-lighted the project, probably signing with one hand while grabbing the backhanders with the other; local firms who’d begged for scraps of work in the project, desperately trying to stay in business, to offer their workers something before the inevitable redundancy.

But Kate hadn’t expected Olivia Hart MP to be part of this circus. She’d known her for a long time and Liv wasn’t somebody you could fool with glossy leaflets and spreadsheets. Surely she would zoom in on the worst aspects of the development: the selling off of prime council land; the broken promises of the developers regarding shared facilities; the discovery of different entrances for property owners and the small number of social tenants that would remain. As an MP, Olivia had the power to argue against the plans, to put all her influence into suggesting a better option where the tenants and residents weren’t completely shafted, but she’d chosen not to.

Kate stood up and looked out of the window. She had the lights off in the flat but they knew where she was. Everybody knew. If the gangs bothered to read the local paper they’d know where a woman and her son were holding out against the developers, which flat they were in, why they were refusing to move. It was common knowledge.

There was a sudden movement over by Baldwin House, making her jump. A dog ran into one of the stairwells and disappeared. She’d noticed that gang members often left their dogs to wander around the estate while they went off elsewhere, as if to underline who was in charge.

Maybe she’d brought it on herself; after all, she’d unwittingly helped Olivia get elected. Parachuted in to the constituency without any local connections at all, Olivia had grabbed the lifeline of an old friend and played it up for all it was worth in spite of the fact she hadn’t seen Kate for over twenty years. It would have been risky: Kate represented a shared past Olivia was trying if not to deny then at least minimise:  the far-left politics, the Greenham common activism, the CND support, but what option did she have? She’d spent the last ten years abroad in a Hong Kong investment bank.

It wasn’t hard for Kate to remember how close they’d been. All those marches, demonstrations, all very intense and game-changing. She smiled when she thought about how naïve they were then: at the centre of things, changing the world step by step, no doubts, total confidence, an unshakeable belief not only in the rightness of their cause or causes but in the inevitability of success. And Liv had believed it too, Kate knew she had. She’d believed it with all the intensity of a privileged convert. If she’d been flirting with them from the start, if she’d been doing the rebellious posh girl routine, the one finger-up-at-her-parents act, then maybe the subsequent betrayal wouldn’t have been so hurtful. But Kate couldn’t believe that her core beliefs, what made her Liv, could have changed so radically.

It had started with a man. Not that they were fighting over him. Kate wasn’t remotely interested in Ned, this fake mockney poet who lapsed into pure Home Counties when he wasn’t concentrating. But Liv fell for his over-earnest rapping and Kate watched the two of them unconsciously encourage each other to revert to type, slowly finding shared connections in school, family and upbringing. Ned’s unsuccessful dreadlocks were gradually tidied up and after a while he became Edward; Liv started spending time with his parents or his old university friends and the camps and demonstrations were neglected; there was less talk about the miner’s strike or cruise missiles and more aimless chat about people Kate didn’t know. Liv even got a proper haircut.

Then she started calling herself Olivia. Kate didn’t know why she hated it so much but every time she heard Liv introduce herself as Olivia she wanted to strangle her. It represented an abrupt break with the past, with their shared past, and Kate knew she was losing her.

But if anyone had asked Kate what was the most hurtful, she would have answered without hesitation: her politics. It wasn’t that Olivia abandoned her political beliefs completely, more that she seemed to have successfully re-packaged them as a personal choice, a hobby and later a profession. A basically harmless commitment to a more just society, rather than the outright rejection and challenge that they’d represented before. The new Olivia would probably argue it was pragmatic opportunism, a chance to smuggle them into the political mainstream, but for Kate it was a betrayal of everything she believed in.

She could still remember a conversation they’d had in the mid 80s – in a tent somewhere, smoking dope and swigging out of a sticky brandy bottle they’d kept for emergencies. Outside the tent they could hear a guitarist tuning up and a group of enthusiastic voices started to murder American Pie. There were lot of nights like that.

‘Who was it said property was theft?’

‘God knows Liv, you probably made it up.’

‘No, somebody said it. And if you think about it, it’s true. There’s limited space on this planet and a growing number of people. The more space people reserve for themselves, the more they decide that they own, the less there is for everybody else. In a sense it is theft. What should be a shared resource is gradually privatised by a few, leaving the majority worse off.’

Kate took a swig out of the brandy bottle. Nearly finished and they were miles from an off licence.

‘So what’s your solution?’

Liv had a sudden giggling fit.

‘I don’t think I’m in a position to come up with something intelligent right now.’

She lay back on her sleeping bag in silence for a few minutes and Kate thought she was zoning out but she suddenly spoke.

‘If all property was publicly owned, if nobody could inherit it or pass it on, we could at least share it out more equally.’

‘Does that include you?’

‘Course it bloody does. Why should people like my parents have it all when we’ve got streets full of homeless?’

‘You mean something like that scene in Dr Zhivago? All the poor people who suddenly moved into his big house with his family? All those down-and-outs sitting on the stairs under that huge chandelier?’

Liv giggled again.

‘I loved that scene. It shows what a state we’re in that something like that can seem so shocking and surreal. No, I was just thinking about the ownership. People can carry on living where they live, they don’t need to invite people in, but the property reverts to the state after they die. It’s the sort of thing people were suggesting back in the 1960s, you know, hippies, weren’t they? Why aren’t we still marching for stuff like that?’

Kate smiled at the memory. She’d loved Liv’s ability to spin out ideas to mad or unworkable conclusions but now she struggled to see that person in Olivia Hart MP. Ben would say she was naïve. His generation had fewer expectations, fewer ideals, more cynicism; they were seemingly reconciled to a life of insecurity and debt, and no longer trusted politics to provide the solutions.

More sirens in the distant streets. It felt very cold now in the flat. Urbanlife had disconnected all the mains gas claiming that it was a health and safety risk but she knew that it was another stage in the campaign to get her out. They didn’t want to wait for her to leave in her own time, even though they had the resources to do so. What did she have? A small electric heater. She moved closer and warmed her hands listening to the sound of some computer game from Ben’s room. Even that was comparatively quiet: Ben knew better than to draw attention to their presence.

Property is Theft - Charlotte Wosiek

Suddenly there was a loud crash against the front door, followed by another and another. She held her breath and within a couple of seconds Ben was beside her, holding her to him, whispering that they’d be OK, that the door was strong, while he dialled 999 on his mobile. She could hear loud voices outside, shouting curses, the sound of splintering wood and breaking glass but it wasn’t clear if they were trying to break in or fighting each other. She could see Ben talking to the police, shouting at them, alternately begging and ordering them to come, and she felt oddly detached from the whole scene, as if she’d somehow been expecting it. And then she heard a loud shot from the courtyard and everything suddenly stopped. There was a thick silence and then Kate could hear the sound of footsteps and voices receding.

Ben looked at her.

‘Are you OK?’

She nodded and went quietly over to the window, looking out from behind the curtain. Nothing.

‘There might be somebody hurt. We’d better go out and have a look.’

‘We can’t risk it Mum.’

‘I don’t think they were after us.’

‘Christ Mum, it doesn’t matter. We’re not going anywhere; it’s too dangerous. The police need to come and secure the place. God knows how long that door’s going to last. We need them to take a look, to show their faces here for once.’

He got up and listened at the door for a while before quietly opening it. Kate followed him and they stared out silently into the dark, stinking stairwell, with its piles of rubbish, needles and worse.

After the police had gone Kate poured them both a large whisky and she and Ben sat in silence watching the sun rise over the redbrick chimneys of the estate. Their turret-like formation caught the light and Kate thought that she had never seen anything so beautiful. What was that Joni Mitchell song? Something about parking lots. This estate had been her home for so long that she’d taken it for granted and never appreciated its perfect combination of utility and beauty. Then she thought of her own parents, still in the house she’d grown up in, still proud of never having missed a mortgage payment, never dreaming of seeing their property as anything but a place to live. What would they have made of this battle?

Ben broke the silence.

‘Are you going to see your MP friend then?’

He said it half-jokingly but she was glad he couldn’t see the expression on her face in the shadows. He continued as if she’d answered.

‘You know she lives in Grafton Road? You should see her house. Worth a million at least, maybe two. One of those posh semi-detached ones, you know, with the big bay windows and high ceilings. God knows where she got the money from. Do you think you’ll get anywhere with her?’

‘I doubt it. It’ll be the same old story.’

It was when the campaign started that they inevitably met again. Kate had sat at the back in public presentations and consultations, watching Olivia speak fluently and without notes on the benefits of regeneration while a 3D model of the proposed development swirled around on a screen. Glib promises were made and reassurances given while men in expensive suits handed out bulky press releases and publicity material.

Then she and Olivia found themselves in the same room a few weeks later at a more informal meeting and Kate knew she couldn’t avoid the moment any longer. Olivia gave her a friendly wave as if the last twenty years had never happened and called her over to have a coffee.

‘Older and wiser but here we are talking politics again. God knows, we never talked about anything else, did we? Sorry to hear about your redundancy. It must have been a real shock after so long. And how’s your son, Ben is it? He must be a teenager now. God, that makes me feel old.’

She’s nervous, Kate thought. She doesn’t know what to say any more than I do but she’s done her research.

‘Ben’s nineteen.’

‘When we were his age we were going to change the world. Maybe we did a little bit. What do you think?’

Maybe they did.

As the campaign progressed and people started to give up and accept rehousing away from the estate, Kate’s sense of insecurity increased. Not exactly a sinking ship, it was more like a party in which she was the last, slightly drunk guest that other people didn’t want to throw out but who they found slightly pathetic. The deal was done; there was nothing she could do to prevent the development now, so acting like a martyr wouldn’t make any difference. People sympathised to her face but she knew that the sense of solidarity that had been there at the beginning of the campaign had been lost. Somebody had to stand up to Urbanlife and faceless business interests like them, but it seemed that other people no longer had the energy or willpower and she couldn’t really blame them.

Then Olivia called and asked to see her. Presumably somebody at Urbanlife had decided that the situation had gone on too long. Kate needed to be flushed out of the Calder Estate and who better to do that than Olivia Hart, her old friend?

Kate’s first instinct was not to go. After all, it was obvious what was going to happen:  a better offer of housing outside the estate; a rehashing of old arguments not only about the benefits of the plan but its inevitability. Not a political question but a practical one. We’d love to be able to keep the estate in public hands. The figures just don’t add up. The least-worst option.

Kate had realised years before that Olivia’s once iron-clad principles were no longer strong enough to resist the appeal of a least-worst option.

One night she’d overheard her talking to Edward in the kitchen of the south London squat the three of them had ended up sharing. The two of them were spending less and less time there and Kate woken with a shock to hear the front door being opened. She quietly opened her bedroom door, recognised their voices with relief and was just about to go back to bed when she heard her name being mentioned. It was Ed’s voice.

‘What are we going to do about Kate?’

‘What, you mean with the wedding?’

Wedding? The endless nights spent discussing the patriarchal roots of marriage, the impossibility of creating an equal partnership within such a loaded institution, the assumptions about gender roles and family ownership that were part of the mix. After a few beers Liv would always swear blind that she’d never surrender her identity to an outdated form of commitment, she’d never be passed on like livestock from one male protector to another.

Ed’s voice was reassuring.

‘I’d like to invite her but you know what she’s like. I can’t see her getting on very easily with the others and she’d bang on about politics all the time. And you know people think she’s a lesbian. I can’t see that going down well with my mother.’

And Liv’s voice, incredulous.

‘I can’t just not ask her. What would we say?’

‘God, I don’t know. Close family only? Or we could take up Angus’s offer of the family pile in Perth. I can’t see her dragging all the way up there.’

‘Come off it Ed, we can’t expect everybody else to drag up there either. Look, I’m sure she’ll be fine.  She knows how to behave and anyway I’m not having my wedding without my best friend.’

‘I want her there as much as you do but how do we know she won’t try to wreck it? If she believes it’s some kind of patriarchal plot she might cause a disruption or something. Or just not turn up. Look, I don’t particularly want a big do so why don’t we compromise on a small, family-only ceremony? The lesser of two evils.’

‘If she doesn’t come, she doesn’t come but I’m still going to invite her.’

But her voice sounded less convinced.

Of course there was never an invitation. Olivia and Ed moved to a flat in Putney and Kate saw less and less of her. She heard a few years later that they’d got married in a registry office, ‘family and close friends only’, but by then she’d lost interest. Until Olivia Hart, prospective Labour MP for her constituency, had mentioned her close friend in the Calder Estate and Kate had realised with a jolt that she meant her. Liv had found out where she lived and was using her to gain a bit of local credibility. She didn’t really know what to feel but she parked her feelings and waited for Liv to get in touch. But she didn’t hold her breath.

And now she’d finally been invited to Olivia’s home. Did Olivia appreciate the irony? Probably not. Standing at the front door by a perfectly groomed olive tree, Kate found her hands were shaking and thrust them into the pockets of her jacket.

Olivia invited her in with a smile and showed her into the sitting room, a bright open space, knocked through so that you could see both front and the back gardens. The walls were covered in the usual bookshelves and a few modern artworks but the big surprise was a collection of beautifully coloured oriental silks, some with flowers or dragons and others with geometrical patterns, covering an entire wall.

‘Would you like a coffee Kate?’

Did she just call her Kate as if they’d only just met?

‘Thanks. Milk, no sugar.’

She was glad Edward wasn’t there. She’d seen him at a couple of meetings and he’d bounced over to say hello, love-bombing her with friendliness, obviously hoping to bolster Olivia’s charm offensive with reminiscences and self-deprecating jokes. She didn’t think she’d be able to cope with that level of public school insincerity, not today.

She looked at some of the books on the shelves. Some coffee-table architecture books on the lower ones; novels and political memoirs further up. Nothing unexpected or surprising. Then she spotted a Pasternak collection and called through to the kitchen.

‘Do you remember that conversation we had years ago in a tent somewhere, about Dr Zhivago?’

Olivia came back in carrying a tray of coffee things.

‘No. What was it about?’

‘We were talking about the scene where he has to open his house to homeless or poor people or something, and you said that people should return property to the state after they died.’

Olivia laughed.

‘Not a bad idea. God knows something needs doing. It’s become a game for the wealthy and well-connected. And before you say anything, yes I suppose I’m one of them.’

‘Well you must have had family money to buy this place.’

‘Not from my parents, they’re alive and well, thank God. But Ed’s father left him some money so that helped, and we made a killing in Hong Kong, moved there at just the right time.’

Kate said nothing.

‘God Kate don’t go all loony left on me now. Of course it was partly luck but we worked hard and we put a lot back into the community when we were in Hong Kong. Ed and I set up a charity to help to mentor local children. When you’ve got the cash you can do that.´

She poured some coffee for both of them and sat down on the sofa opposite Kate.

‘Look, I know housing is a sensitive subject for you but in this case you’re taking it out on the wrong person. I agree with you: more building, more council housing and housing associations, mansion taxes, maybe limits on buy-to-let.

Maybe limits on buy-to-let?

‘But these aren’t sexy subjects and there isn’t the political will to grapple with them, let alone the money to fund them. That’s why we have to push for some of these public-private partnerships. It’s not ideological, just practical.’

‘How many properties do you have Liv?’

Kate watched Olivia adding the usual excessive amount of sugar to her coffee

‘I don’t have a country cottage to go to at the weekend if that’s what you’re asking.’

‘How many?’

There was silence. Olivia looked at her with an expression that Kate hadn’t seen on her face before. It wasn’t shame or embarrassment; it was closer to that furtive blankness that politicians display when caught with their pants down and are weighing up their options.  But it vanished almost immediately and was replaced by a wide smile as Olivia held her hands up as if in defeat.

‘OK, OK, I admit it. I’m one of those evil buy-to-let landlords. Happy now? I provide a good service, I don’t overcharge and I’m helping people who can’t afford to buy.’

‘Of course they can’t afford to buy. They’re too busy paying off your mortgage.’

It wasn’t a sophisticated argument but Kate didn’t care. God knows, she’d fought this particular battle since they’d started to sell off council housing, in the days when she and Olivia were on the same side. No doubt she could out-statistic Olivia on this one but she really couldn’t be bothered.

Then Olivia laughed.

‘Oh don’t be so bloody naïve Kate. There’s nothing morally wrong in owning property. Anyway, let’s get back to the reason you’re here shall we? I really don’t want to have an argument with you.’

She took a deep breath and Kate could see a speech coming.

‘I just want you to know that I admire what you’ve done and the way you’ve led the campaign. It’s good to have somebody with principles holding others to account and it doesn’t do the company any harm either when they’re seen to be engaging with the local community. Everybody has benefited from this situation.’

She’ll be giving me a prize next. But Kate couldn’t even mock her anymore. She was too tired and too fed up with the whole situation to do anything. Besides, there was a part of her that sympathised with Olivia’s tortured compromises. God knows, they’d all had to make them over the years and perhaps in Olivia’s shoes she’d have done something similar, sold out and spent the rest of her life trying to justify it. Maybe she’d have picked an ex-friend out of the phone book and used her to get a foothold in politics. She wasn’t even sure of her own politics any more. Let Olivia suggest what she was going to suggest and then Kate could go home to her stinking block with its gangs and rubbish and wait for the inevitable. She’d accept the deal, whatever it was, she’d move out and it would all be over.

A little later, having outlined the options, Olivia produced a carefully-worded contract and Kate signed. With a sigh of relief Olivia went to fetch a bottle of wine, and for a while they sat and tiptoed carefully around past events and the way their lives had worked out. But Olivia’s brand of diplomacy had always been alcohol-sensitive.

‘The thing is Kate, it’s like I said before. When you’ve got money you can do things. If Ed and I hadn’t worked for Hamburg Financial, we’d never have been able to set up Positive Outcomes. That’s the way you can help. It’s not about trying to equalise things because we know that’s impossible. But money talks and those of us with money can make a difference.’

She took another swig of wine.

‘I mean, no offence, but the sort of local government work you did, that sort of thing’s only papering over the cracks. It’s a waste of time really. If you want a big gesture it has to come from private money.’

Kate thought about her own career, the years of trying to make a difference, or so she’d thought. It was about simple basic things, the things that were so difficult to provide: homes, jobs, communities. It was boring day-to-day support for local people, her friends and neighbours, and she didn’t remember anyone asking for big gestures.

Olivia was still talking.

‘Ed and I are starting a mentoring scheme here too. It’s different from Hong Kong of course but it’s important that kids here can see what can be done with the right attitude and a bit of hard work. I mean, just after Ed and I got married we were both made redundant and we literally had nothing. We even had to borrow a flat from Dad just to have somewhere to live. So we know what it’s like to start from scratch.’

Kate couldn’t read her expression and for a moment she thought: she’s joking, she must be joking; this is the old Liv taking the piss. But it wasn’t: it was an oblivious Olivia Hart. The old Liv would have no doubt have wiped the floor with this unrecognisable, witless version of herself but Kate couldn’t. Instead she found herself standing up and moving towards the window, taking a lighter out of her pocket. Olivia sat up straight, as if in protest.

‘We don’t smoke here.’

Kate held the lighter up to the gorgeous silk cloth that was hanging on the wall and lit it. The cloth caught immediately and a sudden flame ran up the wall, following the tail of a dragon and up into the body and head before moving on to a huge lotus flower. She heard Olivia gasp but ignored her, keeping the lighter where it was and watching as the flames spread over the entire cloth and started to lick the beautifully painted wall.

‘Christ Kate. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’

Kate turned and watched as Olivia looked around the room in desperation. Pulling the flowers out of a vase, she swept the photos and ceramic dishes off a low table and pushed Kate aside to climb up and throw the water over the flames. It wasn’t quite enough to kill them first time and she jumped down, grabbed a cushion and leapt back up to beat at the remaining embers until they were extinguished.

The water was dripping from the charred cloth to the unit and then to the wooden floor. It was a peaceful sound, its slow regularity interrupted only by their shallow breathing. Then Olivia stepped down carefully and turned to face her. They looked at each other without speaking for a moment before Kate turned and started to walk towards the door, picking her way through the chips of ceramic and broken glass. As she passed through the hall to the front door the sound of dripping stopped and there was silence. Not a threatening silence like the one on the Calder estate but something sadder and more final. She opened the front door and left.

nerd glasses with tape

Juliet Hill

Juliet Hill worked as a theatre musician in the UK for twenty years before moving to Madrid where she started to write. She has written a number of short stories including Laughing Boy, a prize-winner in the Writer’s Forum magazine competition. She is currently working on the second in a series of crime novels.

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