When I look back at the places that my husband and I have lived in, I find myself shuddering and smiling in equal measure. I suppose it is the same for most new couples. Unless you’re fortunate enough to start out with a lot of money, getting your own place means starting at the bottom and working your way up. And boy! Did we start at the bottom!
Our first place was a bedsit in Bolton, a town in Greater Manchester in the north-west of England. The single room – tucked away in the eaves of the building – was roughly the same size as an average single bedroom, and contained a bed (complete with a well-used mattress, though what exactly it had been used for, I shudder to think), an electric cooker, a sink and an electric bar heater. There was also a door to what passed as a bathroom, one just wide enough to house a shower cubicle and a toilet. The sloping ceiling was painted brown and cast a weird caramel hue onto the magnolia wood-chip wallpaper. It was dark and oppressive, and the strange aroma of damp wood, did nothing to lighten the atmosphere. Still, we were young and in love, marriage was still a dream away, and we were determined to make the best of what we had. As it turned out, we weren’t there for long, on account of the fact that we soon discovered where the smell of damp wood was coming from. It was coming from the bathroom floor, a fact that presented itself with irrefutable proof when my now hubby stepped out of the shower and put his foot right through it!
Our next place was much better. A small apartment, again in Bolton, it nevertheless had a separate kitchen and bathroom, and although the living room and bedroom were all one, the space was easily large enough. It was here that we met Wes.
Wes was an alcoholic and lived in the only ground floor apartment (the other seven apartments were on the first and second floors). He was in his early forties, but life, and alcohol, had given him the face of a man at least ten years older. My first impression of Wes was that he was shambolic. He was skinny, shuffled rather than walked, and his head – encircled with a shock of grey hair – was always held down. His filthy clothes were testament to the fact that doing the laundry was not on his list of priorities…but he was kind. In fact, he was the kindest person who lived in our building.
One day, he helped me carry some heavy shopping bags up to our apartment, and we got to talking, as neighbours generally do. He told me he had family, but that they rarely came to visit because they knew he had problems. His brother sometimes came, and invariably offer to buy him a drink at the local pub. I rolled my eyes inwardly, thinking “he knows you have alcohol issues and so he takes you to the pub”. Other than that, he spent his days alone, only venturing out to buy cider.
As kind as he was, he could also be infuriating, and many is the time that I had to bang on his door to ask him to turn down Jimi Hendrix and his Star Spangled Banner! To Wes – as to a great many people around the world – Hendrix was a god. He adored and idolised him more than anything else in his life. His dream, he said, was to play Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner while hoisting up an American flag. His rheumy eyes told me just how much that dream meant to him.
New Year’s Eve rolled around not long after we’d moved into our apartment. Given that it was our first New Year’s Eve in our new home, we decided to spend it quietly, just the two of us. We got some beers, and a bottle of champagne to open at midnight, and gathered our favourite music cassettes (you can tell how long ago this is now, right?) into our ideal playlist. At around 10 p.m. there was a knock on the door. It was Wes. He had a bunch of candles in his hand. Rather embarrassed, he said that his electricity meter had run out and he didn’t have enough coins to put in. All his lights had gone out and he wondered if we had a lighter he could borrow to light some candles.
“Of course” I said, turning from the door to go and get the lighter. The door had almost swung shut when I doubled back and opened it again. “Wes, who are you celebrating New Year with?” I asked.
“Er…no…no one,” he answered, “just me”
“We’ve room for one more if you want to join us?” I said.
“No, it’s OK. I’ll be OK”
“Like hell you will. I’m not letting you sit downstairs in the dark. Not on New Year’s Eve. Get yourself in here” I demanded, holding the door open.
He smiled. He positively beamed. “I’ve got some cider. I’ll go and get it. You’ve got to bring a bottle when you’re invited somewhere, haven’t you?”
“Absolutely!” I replied “Go and get it then. I’ll leave the door on the latch and you can let yourself in”
A few moments later and he was back, two bottles of cider in hand, plus an electric guitar. He knew from previous conversations that my hubby played guitar, and so he thought they could maybe have a jamming session. My hubby didn’t need asking twice! I prepared the drinks, while Wes and my hubby tuned the guitars and plugged in my hubby’s small amp. We couldn’t help but notice that Wes was holding his guitar upside down. Thinking he hadn’t realised, we told him.
“I know” he said, “I’m left handed. I can’t afford a left handed guitar though, so I play it like this”
And oh boy! Could he play! I kid you not, my dear readers, he could play like Eric Clapton! For near on half an hour, hubby and I sat, mouths agape, listening to him play. This shambolic man, who always walked with his head down, hardly daring to make eye contact; the man who others in our building referred to as “the drunk”; the man who was prepared to sit in semi-darkness because he couldn’t afford to put money in his electricity meter; he could play guitar easily as well as Eric Clapton! What on earth was wrong with the world? He should be on the stage, not wasting away in some bedsit!
That night was one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had. We drank, Wes and hubby played, even I joined in on percussion (pots and pans and a couple of chopsticks are worthy of any drumkit!) We talked too. We encouraged Wes to get out and follow his dreams, even though he laughed when we told him he should be performing, either as a solo guitarist or in a band.
My hubby and I had to move not long after. Opportunities came up elsewhere that we couldn’t turn down. On the day we left, Wes shook my hubby warmly by the hand and gave me a hug. He said he’d been thinking about what we said on New Year’s Eve, and he was going to try and get out, give it a go. I told him I believed in him, and then we left. I never saw him again.
I think of Wes often. I wonder whether the drink finally dragged him under, whether his family finally gave a shit about him, or whether he found the strength to kick and to make it out. I hope he did. I hope he got out. I hope he realised his dream and that he’s out there somewhere, hoisting his US flag while Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner blares out in the background. More than anything, I hope he made it.