During the summer I stayed on and off at my mum’s house, the house I grew up in. I began re-visiting old haunts, shops I used to kick around, estates I would hover on the edges of.
I’ve spent two separate weeks, skulking around the outside of my childhood, in Watford. Playing nurse- maid to my mother, that bizarre switch of roles that happens as mid life beckons for the child and old age and all it’s complications begins to gather for the parent. It’s been an oddly disjointed part time holiday, I first arrived back in the house that I grew up in July, having spent a week previously here alone, enjoying the house as an adult where once I had run as a child.
The first week I stayed here was that one baking weekend in July when days stretched endlessly, light heat sweating through open doors and Leavesden, Watford took on the shimmering ache, of a flat lands town in Southern America. The foxes screamed at each other during the night as if they were baby hunting, human sounds across the still of night. They appear in the day, the foxes, watchful of hook beaked pigeons that bath in my mum’s solo paneled water feature. They chew on feathers, peering over walls, moments of abandonment as they role into other animal’s scents hidden in the grass.
The heat, the long days, the recollection of places walked, hold me in some limbo. Wondering down the ally’s of my childhood; illicit cigarettes-that first taste, how I held it in my mouth never took it down, the shoe box of an off license, made smaller by the enormous and expansive women who ran it. A mother of a old friend who had a certain esoteric quality; long unbrushed hair, knobbly knees, skinny as her mother was large and far away look, long before there was a fashion for girls like this. Her mother must of know who I was, greeted me as she did, still happy to sell cartooned alcohol fizzy drinks to my sweaty palms. 20/20, thunder bird, Hooch with it’s italic evil lemon beckoning kids to try its acid taste. Or a 1.5 ltr bottle vodka to the more discerning connoisseur of getting shit faced.
A friend, the year above me, voluptuous and knowing, enormous breasts stretching through the polyester of her school shirt. Josie something, Chinese origin, forever having to explain that although her parents ran a take away it wasn’t in fact a Chinese, but a chip shop. She’d ask with faux naivety why everyone always thought it would be. She knew boys, knew how to smoke, had a woman’s figure and some sound advice. Could buy alcohol just by taking her school tie off and rolling up her skirt. She warned me as she bought me that vodka, make sure you take a mixer, make sure you mix it. But I didn’t like coke and didn’t know what else to drink it, so in a Lime Green Satin shirt with only two buttons done up and high button black polyester hot pants, I swigged straight from the bottle with my friends standing underneath the flyover in Watford town centre. We gargled it around out mouths in hairspray taste, started to act as we believed drunk people do. Into Haze, the underage nightclub- a lazer quest by day, filled with banana flavored smoke, and boys who were probably too old to be there. Constant hands on bums or trying up tops, stories of Carly giving someone a hand job in a dark corner, kissed promises of seeing them next week, Lynx aftershave, Return of The Mack, smoking silk cut in doors. Until one of us collapsed against a toilet door and the other girl, scared, phoned our parents. My parents had seemed quite suspicious as to why I’d take a school bag (black patent record bag) out with me filled with nothing a plaid shirt.
* * * *
I know the boundaries that surround this neighborhood, see them with new eyes, different even from when I would return in University holidays. Last time I was here someone had written ‘Drug Town’ in chalk with an arrow, under the subway, and all the glamorous fear and myths of that estate in my youth now seem disappointingly real. But I don’t see anyone in these walks down the ally’s of my childhood. No behooded teenager, no flash of knife, no motorbike ridden on pavements. No footfalls on asphalt, no graffiti apart from that crude sign. Silence as if it’s a film set I’ve constructed. I still daren’t walk through the middle of that estate.
In the row of shop where the shoe box off license used to nestle, it having changed now to an inventible NISA or Costcutter or One Stop, is the reassuring orange sign of ‘The Archers’. Purveryor’s of “wool and drapes, china and gifts’, the place where you would go to have Mr Archer fix your puncture. Watering can’s shaped as animals, leather wallets and bus passes, hose pipes, bouncy balls, chains for your bike.
I visited it at the beginning of summer on the off chance I might be able to get something last minute for my nephew before he arrived in curiosity to a new house as a toddler. Mainly because I have a natural affiliation with this kind of shop; they tend to sell stuff that no one else wants to buy and I tend to buy stuff no one else will buy. I get palpitations at thought of leaving a blue elephant shaped watering can behind. Just in case. Just in case it’s useful.
Airtex boarding surrounds the walls of The Archers (know locally as Archers, I’d never noticed the ‘the’ that all familiar theme tune already ear worming it’s way through me), that white chipboard with holes in it that you can put nails in and hang all manner of tools and items. It’s a treasure trove, an Aladdin’s Cave all those clichés and a lot more. Dusty shelves, old fashion toys, the kind of pottery that make no logical sense. Snake belts. Elastic, S shaped clasp, immediately bringing up cub scouts (though I was never even in Brownie’s) grazed knee’s, hand down cut off shorts, wheel spokes. I resist, too much in retrospect, and buy one belt, a cacophony of useless things for my nephew, and try not to pick up an ugly china cat.
The tall man, slightly stooped talks me through my purchases, saying what a bargain the belts are (£1), as I concur and tell him they’d be going for at least in a fiver in London Town (Watford far enough away from London to be jealous of it’s big brother). I’m already eyeing purchases I may come back for when he tells me that they are shutting on 20th July. What? Yep, finished he shakes his head in a cheerful manner. Tells me with a laugh that he has been working oh 2, 3 years and now he’s going to be out of a job again, not like Bill here, nods behind him to a more sober man in a brown jackets warehouse coat, he’s been here since it really started. Bill avoids eye contact, winces at the tall man’s laughter. I am shocked. And upset. Then the tall man tells me that they are having to discount everything by 70% and I start to think of the riches I could purchase. Yep, he continues in his cheerful manner, Mr Archer has had enough, just not making money, not a shop like this.
So sad, I say, so sad. Well come back, his voice follows me out of the shop-we’re going to have a sale. Bill in his brown warehouse jacket fiddles with wiring.
The next time I visit The Archers, there is a hand written sign blue tacked to the glass door amongst all the key cutting and notice signs.
Sorry! Closed for Good.
A paper banner hangs in the main Window ‘Retirement Sale’
The red electronic sign still moves across the top of the door advertising key cutting, repairs and the like. It’s only really the paper sign that has the authority. It doesn’t look shut, it’s still rusting with stock.
I press my nose up against the door.
The next time, a few days later I think it’s open, the door is open-there are people inside. But there are men moving out items into a big opened van. Something auction written in green on the side. All the stuff, all the unsold stuff, boxed up , packed up, going to some dead man’s auction place. Fittings still dusty, plugged into the wall.
The next time I see it, the shop is gutted a few lose items sit in the window bay with a hand written sign ‘Free to a good home’ but all is quite in the shop. Just the airtex walls, nothing hanging in them.
Time after that and even the grubby bits and pieces are gone and there is nothing left. An empty shop.