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The flats below mine are finally being refurbished. For years the ground and basement levels were occupied by a travel agent’s, although you wouldn’t think so to look at the place. They never did it up to look like an office—they just moved in some desks and partitions. It still has its original ceiling roses and cornicing, which is more than mine does, having been gutted in the early eighties by trendy architects. (Trendy and dumb: at the same time, the lead was stripped off the roof and replaced with over ten tons of concrete, which unsurprisingly sank into the asphalt beneath it, and consequently the upstairs flat got drenched every time it rained.)

The travel agents left two years ago, and the place has been empty ever since. (Yes, rampaging hordes of mice, I said empty. I refuse to acknowledge your presence.) Eventually planning permission was granted to do it all up, and the builders arrived the next day. The developers had clearly been champing at the bit.

One of the first things they did was call me downstairs to have a look. They took me through to a back room, which looked like an average building site—stuff strewn about the floor, large hole in the ceiling, bloke hammering away in the corner. However as they patiently explained it to me, it became clear that the only element in the room they were responsible for was the man with the hammer; the rest of it was a result of a large chunk of the ceiling caving in because of a leak from my flat. I have no idea when this happened—it could be any time in the last two years—but the leak is still gently dripping, so the timbers may well be completely rotten by now. Whether I’ll have to pay for any of this remains to be seen. The builders seemed pretty sanguine about it all, as they were going to be working on the ceiling anyway. Still, it’s a bit unnerving. If this had been left unchecked my entire kitchen could eventually have disappeared, with me in it.

This also means there isn’t quite as much of the original ceiling rose and cornicing in the back room as there was.

There are lightwells out the front of the building. (Yes you do—those basement-level moats with the servants’ entrances.) We’d known for some time that the long lightwell, which stretches round the corner into the next road, was being used at night for nefarious purposes. The sheer number of syringes down there was the clue. What no-one realised until the builders started working was that there was a bloke actually living down there. The Monday after they’d met him, there was a document waiting for them. He was trying to claim squatter’s rights.

Whether some shonky, unscrupulous lawyer had agreed to draft this for him, or whether it was a genuine lawyer who just had no idea of this guy’s actual living conditions, no-one knows, but—I can’t stress this enough— the man was living in a lightwell*. Still, when I spoke to them, the developers were officially Not Worried about his claim, and indeed—in an impressive challenge to the established stereotype of housing developers as the embodiment of pure evile—I discovered yesterday that they’d managed to contact his care worker and made sure he had somewhere else to go.


* Isn’t that a song?

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