A story for Ieva
We move in right before new year.
Glasgow, Scotland, as the Americans say. Top-floor flat. Cold, bare, tall ceilings. I am used to terraced houses in a way I don’t quite understand, and the tenements impress me. They are surprisingly solid, hard – like the first time you punch someone’s face. New Year comes and goes, drunk then hungover, sliver of ice through my brain. My wife already starting to improve the house. Charity shops, old furniture, value for money. Using the library for internet until the guy comes to install it at home. Pink morning skies from an armchair in the bay window, coffee on a crooked table, Graham Greene paperbacks, calmness, productivity.
Waiting to start work, they need to check a few things. I don’t mind, we have money. Rent is cheap. Traces of previous tenants everywhere: furniture painted around, hooks in strange places, overdue payment letters. The front door lock could be kicked out by a child, so we change it. The landlord refuses to pay.
I write every day, badly. A novel about my brother’s depression. My wife doesn’t like it. I think it is good and her criticism hurts, though later I will see that she is right. We explore our new city: sharp blue skies, remarkable stonework, Victorian parks; violence, poverty, litter; everyone is very friendly. I tentatively refer to our neighbourhood as Bangladeshi in front of a taxi driver and he corrects me. Glasgow is Pakistan’s, he says, cheerfully. We get a taste for the samosa salads sold in the bakeries, less so the saccharine sweets piled high in the windows. On Sundays, elderly Catholic couples arrive and park on the pavement outside the church, shuffling inside, once again the minority.
There are Roma here, from Slovakia. My wife is enthralled and watches from the window as they pass by, following their Esmerelda skirts against the mildewed sandstone of the houses. She is Lithuanian, unhaunted by Western class consciousness, willing to look dead at a thing because it is different and interesting to her. The Romani children construct games out of the rubbish left by fly tippers, playing late into the evening. I think of my father’s stories about climbing through rubble after the Second World War, shooting imaginary Germans, pretending he was in the army.
It rains often, but doesn’t seem as bad as people say. From our bedroom window I watch it coming down. Loose wires attached to the roof swing wildly in the wind. People stop in the middle of the road and honk their horns, leave their cars on the double yellow. Every Friday night, groups of grey-bearded men in taqiyahs sit around in the kebab shops, eating curries with their hands and drinking Irn Bru in see-through plastic cups.
We do up the house. Scrape paint off the frosted glass of the doors, pull up the carpets and sand the floors by hand. My wife installs shelves and makes small tapestries that hang above our bed. We buy a large clothes rail and I organise our clothes by colour, which pleases me. My wife arranges my books horizontally, in great piles around the perimeter of the living room, which does not. We buy an old jewellery display case from a charity shop. It is fantastically big and heavy. I suggest filling it with sand, or bouncy balls; my wife collects sticks from the park and threads lights through them. It looks ominously like an empty vivarium.
I begin work. Every morning I walk forty-five minutes to my office in the East End, listening to Learn Lithuanian podcasts, repeating phrases under my breath. Glasgow is missing teeth: everywhere you look are gaps. Holes between houses, factories with broken windows, fenced-off squares of overgrown concrete. Spaces beneath motorway bridges filled with old appliances, industrial waste, drinks fridges. The crowded south has bred in me a misunderstanding – I cannot comprehend unprofitable land.
In the evenings I walk around, playing sociologist. The only white people under thirty are students or artists. They dress in practical clothes, woollen jumpers with paint-stained sleeves, loose trousers with many pockets, walking boots. Mainly English, most are middle class. I watch them bringing Tupperware to each other, organic produce, home-baked goods. They don’t drink much. There are a few older, white Scots, like the lady who lives in the flat on the ground floor with her adult son. She has some kind of disability and struggles to walk. Occasionally she buzzes up to ask if we have seen her cat.
In the supermarket, a Romani family purchasing huge quantities of bread and bottled water hold out cash. The woman on the till tells them they don’t have enough, so they remove items from their trolley one by one until they do. The man behind them offers to pay the difference but the cashier waves him away and the family doesn’t understand what he is saying. When they have left, I hear her say, I wouldn’t worry about them, they always do it like that.
My wife finds a job assisting some artists in a converted warehouse in the north of the city. The receptionist overhears her talking and recognises her accent. She is Lithuanian with an English partner, like us. We invite them for dinner and talk about the usual things. I get a bad feeling about him I cannot rationalise, eventually coming to believe it is because I do not trust any Englishman that doesn’t hate himself. They turn into our closest friends in the city: she is lazy, domestic, broody; he is charismatic but infuriating, lurching from one interior crisis to the next. Their relationship is a great enigma and provides much to dissect. Eventually they break up. She ignores us, he moves to Cornwall to grow magic mushrooms and make furniture, living in the small room of an old friend’s house.
On the other side of the street, in the flat directly across from us, live a Romani family. The father is wiry and strong, the mother tiny, shorter than most of her children. The kids, three girls and two boys, stream behind their mother one by one like ducklings whenever they leave the house. One boy is older, a teenager. When they want to be let into their building, they stand in the street and shout until someone in the flat hears and lets them in. Over time we realise not only that their buzzer is broken, but that no one in the family has a key at all. In the summertime, the teenager stays out until five in the morning and stands on the pavement for forty minutes shouting up to the window. It wakes us up, and I go to observe. As I watch, a man appears at the window below the teenager’s flat, a man I have seen recently with a small baby. He begs him to be quiet. The teenager responds with something I understand despite the language barrier, a racial slur against Pakistanis.
There are allotments near us which host an open day in summer. Vegetable competitions, food, an outside bar with cider and music. The plots look inviting: one has a small shed with tea-stained mugs lined up on the windowsill, a weathered wooden chair outside. The event takes place in the middle of our neighbourhood, is free and widely advertised, but everyone who comes is white and middle class. I email the organisation to get us added to the waiting list and think about Bourdieu. That evening, I pick out a copy of Distinction I never got around to finishing from a pile of books by the window.
Above our kitchen sink, at the rear of the flat, you can see across the close to the back of the houses on the next street. The buildings are smeared with lines of black soot running down from the chimneys, exposed drainage pipes, loose wires; among the double-glazed windows, one flat retains the original sash, beautiful but filthy, missing panes. The neighbours on that side light up our dark, quiet evenings with their goings on. The gay couple who do nothing but drink wine and smoke cigarettes, beneath some gigantic Pop Art print, the young family who fuss around their child as it bobs up and down in its highchair. One flat owns several cats, for whom they have constructed an exterior cat-flat, leading onto a hand-built ramp down ten feet or so to the garden. We watch a tabby climbing up and down, finally entering the flat and appearing some minutes later in the kitchen window, stroked by disembodied hands. A woman practises violin in one of the windows. I follow her movements, the sound trapped behind glass.
This side of the close, sound carries through the walls with incredible volume and clarity. The neighbouring flat sounds as though it is somehow inside our own. The neighbours who live there are from Pakistan. They are students and come in and out at all hours. My wife is a light sleeper, and wakes whenever the door to the building is opened. I feel her sit up. Nosy parker, I say, annoyed at being woken up. Shhh, she says, I’m listening.
Buildings in the area keep catching fire and collapsing. One night we are woken briefly by flashes of light through the curtain, the ceiling blue. I roll over and go back to sleep. In the morning, there’s no water pressure. On the street it smells like bonfire night. Police officers shuffle in the pink morning cold. Behind them four fire engines, hoses gushing, sky streaked grey with dusty smoke. The entire corner gone in the fire. Later, we walk past. My wife points out a built-in cupboard on the second floor, exposed, blackened jars and tins still sitting in it.
Our friends Lina and Luuk – two chefs in a relationship, a Lithuanian and a Dutchman – come to live with us. The plan is to open a restaurant together. They are both excellent, precise chefs and space is the one thing Glasgow has spare. The competition baffles and excites us. We watch as queues fidget down the street for each over-priced bastardisation that opens and rub our hands. We decide to run a supper club, hosting meals in our flat, in order to experiment and develop a menu.
Beneath us, on the first floor of our building, lives Cerys, a Welsh woman in her thirties. Her flat is beautifully chic, filled with dragon trees and salt lamps. Tiny wine glasses sit glistening on antique cabinets, illuminated by the flickering orange mouth of the gas heater. Cerys has a black cat called Bobby who we come to adore. She is not allowed pets and brings him up whenever the landlord is visiting. He cannot bear to be alone, and follows you from room to room, sleeping on the bed at night – touch him and he claws at you and hisses. Like some lovers, I think.
I try to write, but struggle finding solid ground. My stories float about on artifice. I have not lived in Brighton for a decade yet this is where my dreams take place. Each morning I rub pebbledust from the corner of my eyes. My life feels stuck, like a penny in an old arcade, wedged against the glass, still and untouched whilst flashing lights and machinations continue endlessly around it. I daydream constantly about the Second World War. Little Polish girls watching German soldiers coming through the fields on the way to Russia. How well dressed, how handsome, how big and shiny their horses. Later, they come back: hungry, ravaged, draped in bloodstained rags. Digging at the ground with bare hands for potato roots, tiny carrots, anything.
The chefs find work but struggle with the city. They are used to Scandinavian wages and Parisian standards; they find Glasgow excessively provincial. No-one cares about food, the proper way of doing things – they wear awful clothes and drink too much. Each day they bring us a new story they think indicative of the backwater in which we wallow. Lina is worse. Most nights she sits in the kitchen, drinks and complains. She cannot handle her beer or her heart. Things pick up when we begin the supper club. They have a focus for their energy, ingredients to source, a menu to write.
An older man lives with the students across the hall. He points to the small ficus tree on the landing and says it is his baby, nearly eight years old. My wife tells me later that it is being under-watered and has nearly died. There is something odd about this neighbour. We notice he comes and goes late at night, that he sometimes sits in his car for several hours, parked on the street. I surmise that he is buying drugs, my wife disagrees. She says that when she is alone during the day she hears strange noises coming from the flat. Shouting, whipping. S and M, I say. I don’t know, says my wife, it scares me.
I meet one of the Romani children on the street. It is the younger boy, Fernando. I like him: once he came with one of his sisters to our door and asked if Vicky could play. Cerys told us that Vicky used to live in our flat, and that she would let the kids in sometimes. Today, I ask Fernando if his family has a key to their house. His face turns very serious and he says, No. Then he has an idea and says, Can you get us a key, maybe? I shake my head and say, Sorry, I don’t think so.
My wife’s work with the artists finishes. They place sculptures in the canal by the studio, take pictures, drink beer. She gets a job in a sandwich shop. Her shoulder aches from making coffee all day and most evenings she is too tired to start projects or write applications. She brings home sandwiches and I take them to work the next day, slowly chewing through the cheap, stale bread as I read novels on my lunch break.
The lady on the ground floor moves out. Her son continues to use our building because he knows that the front door doesn’t shut properly. My wife finds tin foil and spent lighters in the communal basement. I phone several charities in the city and ask if they can send someone to help next time. All tell me the same thing: call the police if he enters the property again. My wife does. They arrive quickly and take him away. We never see him again.
We clear up the back garden, pulling up dandelions, removing plastic bottles, tin cans and empty containers. A nice man called Ahmed offers to trim the grass for us. His garden is by far the most well kept in the street. Once this is done, we sit in the garden with sweet white wine, surrounded on all sides by the tall walls of the tenements. It feels like a prison yard. I snap the rusty padlock on the outhouse, prise open the door. It is burnt inside, charred silvery black, the roof collapsed, a perfectly symmetrical bird’s nest wedged between the remaining slates.
Each morning, I walk past a garage on the edge of a small park. If I am running late, groups of Roma men will have already gathered on the corner, smoking, moving about to keep warm, chatting. I presume they are waiting to be picked up for casual labour. I heard that a van arrives and the driver points through the window at the men he wants. Three pounds an hour. On the way home from work, in the early evening, the garage is surrounded by women and children, sitting on plastic chairs, shouting from upstairs windows, running in and out of the houses. A few men work laconically on cars, conferring with each other and wiping their hands on grease-streaked shirts. I see Fernando here, and his sisters, playing with other children. I have not seen his brother in a while.
I get my hair cut at the place on the corner. I am the only white person I ever see in there. They pay close attention to my beard and shave a parting line in my scalp that makes my wife laugh. I suspect they think I am richer than I am, because I have to wear a shirt for work, suspect also that the young man who works there, sweeping the hair into little black mountains on the floor, is gay and hiding it from his family. He progresses in my time going there, and by the end is trusted to do full haircuts and beardwork. His hands are tremendously soft.
My wife persists with her theories about the neighbour. He’s talking to himself and whipping someone, she says, And I think I hear another man’s voice sometimes, like a child. I humour her, but then I hear it too, coming up the stairs, the distinct sound of a whip, voices alternating between loud and quiet. We realise there are no others involved, that our neighbour circles his room alone, talking in different voices and whipping himself. We wear earplugs but sleep is hard. The way sound travels through the building, it seems as though he is with us, floating above the bed in a frenzy of screams and growls.
The supper clubs go well. The menus grow extensive and elaborate, the chefs entering our room constantly, brandishing spoons of sauce and small plates to try. The dinners end up being twelve or thirteen courses. There is something magical about the candle-lit front room on those nights, shadows dancing over the curtains and piles of books, the gabble of strangers gasping over each delightful plate. From the kitchen we hear their loud laughter as we swig cocktails, wash up, prepare the next course. Afterwards, when they have left, we drink amongst the debris of the dinner. Lina sits on the windowsill, lighting her cigarette with a blow torch and smoking out into the night. What do Fernando’s family make of these scenes?
The ceiling begins to leak, first in the room that we sleep in and then the kitchen. Black mould develops and cracks become visible. The estate agent tells us that no-one owns the building as a whole, and the roof is considered communal, so they are not responsible for the repairs. A man from the council comes and measures the walls with a dampness device. It is meant to beep with increased frequency depending on the water content of the surface. Wherever he places it produces a flat, ear-splitting drone. He tells us we are within our rights to withhold rent. We tell our estate agents and they say they will evict us if we do. My wife is inflamed by the injustice of it. How can they let us live like this? Because we haven’t any money, I reply.
Across the hall from Cerys lives a large Muslim family. They have a baby that cries incessantly – we hear it from our bedroom but never see it. The father, a cartoonishly fat man, works long hours in the kitchen of a curry house nearby. Lina and Luuk become friendly with him because he comes back late at night while they are outside smoking and stops to chat. He says he will cook for them, invites them to eat with his family, but one morning they are gone. A huge silver padlock on the door, no more crying behind it.
The restaurant idea gets serious. Business plans, bank loans, property viewings. I read everything I can get my hands on about the industry, start to teach myself accounting. My wife designs the logo, the colour scheme; together with the chefs we spend nights trying out recipes, talking about what we like and dislike, discussing The Concept. We eat in as many restaurants as we can afford, analysing the service, the seating, the cost of wine. My cousin, a builder, comes up from Brighton. I take him to look at potential sites and he talks me through the practicalities of load-bearing walls, vent installation, curved glass facades. Afterwards, we drink Tennent’s in the hardest pubs we can find and discuss the family. Things are not good, things are much the same.
The screaming neighbour continues. After several hours listening glassy-eyed in the dark to his self-flagellation, I go and knock on the door. One of the students answers and we talk in whispers on the landing. He tells me he has a problem. I know he has a problem, I say. Can we do anything to help? Is he seeing anyone? Yes, he has a problem, says the student. We try to learn here, every day he doing this. Big problem. When I get back into bed my wife says, I never wished anything bad happen to someone else, but I can’t take it much longer.
One of Fernando’s windows has been smashed. We wonder whether it broke because someone was trying to get the attention of a family member, or something more sinister. The window is not fixed during winter, nor covered, like some of the others on the street, with bin bags and cardboard. The family move around inside the flat, wrapped up in bundles of clothes. We talk about offering to pay for repairs, but the truth is we run out of money ourselves in the days before payday and have the restaurant to consider.
Not for long, it turns out. Things come to a head without ever coming to a head. The reality of the debt, the workload, the hours, our incompatibility, creep over us like storm clouds. It never rains; we silently make up our minds that it is not going to work out, get on with our days. The chefs announce they are leaving, to the Netherlands. They never liked Glasgow. We hold one final supper club and they go. Within two months they split up: he leaves her. Couples that come into close contact with us don’t seem to last.
Construction begins on the ground-floor flat where the old woman used to live. The builders sing along to the radio and call my wife hen as she carries her bike past. They repaint the ground floor and half-way up the first, so that anyone coming to view will think the whole close is in good condition. Scaffolding goes up the back of the tenement and roofers make a start on the repairs. They let us climb up the ladder and look at the loft space, the underside of tiles, fat rolls of old carpet lying on the floor. The ceiling stops dripping.
I am cooking dinner – mussels – when my wife comes in wearing a strange face. She met the screaming neighbour on the stairs. He’s getting married to a woman in Pakistan. Two days later he knocks on the door to offer us the ficus tree my wife has been surreptitiously watering for months. We watch him load two suitcases into a taxi and drive off through the rain. At night, it feels like someone has turned off the extractor fan. My wife reaches for me in the dark. When it is finished, she says – looking at the earplugs on the bedside table – Did that really happen?
My wife leaves her job at the cafe and we live off my small salary. She struggles to find work in even the most basic of positions. We wonder about anglicising her name, switching her degree to a UK university. I am filled with rage by the process, heartbroken by how much it humiliates her. I read through lengthy, mind-numbing applications for minimum-wage jobs and want to punch someone. The job centre is no use. They assume she wants to claim benefits. Sometimes she cries from the frustration, sometimes she is simply quiet.
Fernando’s family move out. The flat lies empty for months. We find it on a property website — the flat is unsafe, condemned, cash purchase only. Eventually, a sold sign appears and we see signs of life inside, Irn Bru cans on a stepladder, a light left on. The window still broken. Work on the place downstairs has finished now. We sit in the front garden with friends, watching men unload a van and carry various things inside: cheap prints, faux-Scandi furniture, a dressmaker’s dummy. We try to understand from these items what kind of neighbours we are getting until someone realises: the objects don’t belong to anyone, they’re being put there for the pictures. My wife cannot believe the hollowness of it.
At the beginning of summer, Pakistani mangoes come into season. They arrive in our area by the lorryload. A shop which lies dormant and shuttered for most of the year erupts into life and sells only mangoes, stacked not on shelves but directly on the floor in towering piles of boxed fruit. There is a giant sign in the shape of a mango on the pavement in front, and a stand with yellow balloons attached to it, from which a man handles the orders. I pass by in the rain. What time are you open ’til, I ask, thinking to get some on my way home. He peers at me from beneath his umbrella. Here seven to eight, every day, he says. Long shift, I say. He looks at me with pinched eyes, like I am a fool. Aye, he says, it’s mango season.
An artist friend comes to live with us, which helps with the rent. She and my wife bake bread, make ice cream, collect berries from the park for kombucha; the kitchen becomes the heart of the house again. She brings with her a social life, mostly artists she knows in the area. Some I like, playfully coarse lesbians who wear a lot of denim, single mothers with obstinate children. She knows a few people who look like women but would like to be known as they. They (both of them) appear beset by emotional problems and cause endless drama with their housemates.
Walking home from work I see Fernando playing with some other children by the garage. He points at me, calls me over. Tell them you live near me, he says, they don’t believe you used to live near me. He glances at the other children, a fat ginger boy and a girl with blue eyes, who look up at me suspiciously. I confirm Fernando’s story and ask about his family. They have moved to Govanhill, he says. Good to hear, I say, I hope you’ve got a nice place now. Unprompted, the ginger boy says, His uncle keeps goats in his flat where he stays. Fernando slaps his friend on the arm. Don’t say things Kieran, he says, scowling.
We see how much the house downstairs is sold for. An unbelievable amount. The van returns to remove the fake interior and real people move in. A white couple, younger than us. I sign for a parcel, search her name on Google. Beneath the glossy corporate photo, her bio tells me that though she loves all HR-related issues, her specialities are #MeToo, diversity and mental health. Attached to the staircase railing, in full sight of the entrance to the close: an expensive-looking bike. I almost knock and warn them about thieves, but a cruel part of me thinks it might teach them a lesson.
The virus comes, we spend a lot of time indoors. Not many people on our street clap for the NHS. George Floyd is murdered and all through the neighbourhood hand-painted Black Lives Matter signs appear in the windows of the white people’s houses. Someone sticks a row of posters to a wall near our house. By the next day, Muslim Lives Matter has been scrawled over them in red pen. Me and my wife escape the boredom of the plague by walking through Maxwell Park, watching the bats swoop at dusk, picking them out against the ashy sky. Once, I see a heron perched in the hollow of a tree, calm and quiet as a view.
The fat man and his family who lived opposite Cerys never return, and soon workmen are traipsing in and out, covering the close in dusty footprints. The same happens with the flat across the hall, where the screaming man used to live. All day comes the horrible buzz of floor sanders, the clink of hammers, the tinny bounce of a radio playing Rihanna. Across the street, Fernando’s old house is finished. The windows fixed, double-glazed, cheap carpet put down, walls repainted ugly neutral grey. The mark up is considerable. A professional-looking couple arrive holding coffee in take-away cups. They walk from room to room taking videos on their phones.
I lie in the bath, sweating from the heat of the water. We are being evicted: the landlord wishes to sell. Attempts to buy a small place with the sum of our savings are going nowhere. My wife knows the value of everything and dislikes the price. Buying property in this city means paying for other people’s bad taste. I feel guilty for making her live in this country, wonder where our home might be. She is in our bedroom, flicking through pictures of tiny flats, interior kitchens, tacky recessed lighting. We will probably have to rent. There is a sadness inside her. We have been trying for two years now. I do not know if it is me or her, because she won’t see a doctor. Out of nowhere, the lilting wail of a violin. My neighbour across the close must have her window open. I listen to her play. She keeps repeating the same passage, sometimes finishing it, sometimes cutting herself off because she made a mistake. I listen until the bath is cold.
Dorothy Cornish was born in Dorset and raised on bank robber movies and Hancock’s Half Hour. She now lives in Glasgow, wondering where the time went.
Links to Other Published Work
‘We Need To Talk About Karen’, published in *The Gravity of the Thing*:
‘Deck Chairs and Ice Cream’, 2nd place in *Fiction Factory’s *2019/20 Short Story Competition, available here:
‘Paradise is a Council Estate’, published in *Gutter (22)*
‘Toothpicks’, winner of *The Phare’s *Spring 21 WriteWords Competition, available here: https://www.thephare.com/toothpicks
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