The Best and Worst of Years: 1976
The first lodger lived upstairs. Fondly imagining that I might find a friend, I advertised in Time Out. Nick was a charming young man who seemed ideal. Or at least he did when he came round in a suit from work. But two days after he moved in he lost his job, and revealed himself as an early New Ager. Every night he went up to Notting Hill Gate and stayed till about four, when he lurched home babbling about beautiful colours. Every night I'd be woken by the sickly smell of spaghetti and tinned tomatoes wafting up the stairs.
He was the only person ever to call me 'man', as in: 'If the fuzz happen to come round, man, and happen to ask what I've got in one of them packages, mum's the word, man, OK? I mean, like, it's not dope, OK?'
He was writing a 'novel', which, after two years of lodging, never progressed further than a notebook called Erinog written in wiggly letters in different-coloured felt pens. Inside were the words 'My Book. Private. Huge reward for return if lost' under a fantasy map featuring goblins' homes.
Downstairs was Paula, also from Time Out. It was only when she had moved in that she revealed why she'd left her last pad. 'I was kicked out by my father,' she confessed. 'I have this habit of burning candles at night, and I burnt the place down. Stupid really.'
Of course, I couldn't get rid of them. Lodgers were undislodgable then. And having been previously kicked out of the home of a close relative who worked for a civil rights group, Nick had a champion with a vested interest in helping to keep him in situ.
In the middle was me, trapped like a drooping lettuce leaf between two unappetising slices of bread. Every day I would drop my screaming child off for a couple of hours at a baby minder with a fag in her mouth and a huge telly in the corner, and during those two hours I'd try to keep body and soul together. Body, by painfully squeezing out a zany serial called 32b Stratford Mansions for a teenage magazine, about 'two gals and a guy' who had a rave time sharing a flat (a far cry from the dismal reality of my life in Shepherd's Bush); soul, by visiting an analyst, a miserable man who, when I stopped crying and lapsed into silence, would remark that I was 'hostile'. I'd simply cry more and invent a few dreams to stop him criticising me.
Other diversions were humiliatingly brief fortnightly visits from a married journalist on darkening afternoons, or a trip to see my mother, either pissed or depressed. Was 1976 the first year she tried to commit suicide? Possibly.
Was there no fun at all? Of course there was. There was the Wednesday Club, a motley assortment of singles who met in a pub and drank themselves silly with Snakebites. It was the sort of miserable group where none of us knew each other's professions or surnames. I see similar groups through pub doors now and shudder.
I think 1976 was the year I got so desperate I joined Dateline. A more civilised but equally grisly escapade involved going weekly to the Royal Festival Hall with an entertainingly suicidal American girlfriend to hear all the late Beethoven string quartets.
Just writing about it brings it all back to me. Checking, I find that, yes, I still have a stash of out-of-date sleeping pills hiding behind a Guide to Self-Deliverance which I must have acquired that year.
1976 was my Waterloo. Thank God that, like the battle, it is now simply history.
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