The Flat Above the Halifax

When I was 11 my parents decided to buy a house so we moved from our council house to live with my mum’s parents in their flat.

There was seven of us there and as the flat covered the entire fifth floor of a large Victorian building we didn’t live on top of each other.

On the ground floor was the Halifax Building Society, the next floor was the Factory Inspectors (now known as the Health and Safety Executive) and on the third floor was a group of architects. The fourth floor was empty at the time we lived there.

There was an old cage lift shaft and the lift itself was permanently stuck on the first floor. Where the cage would normally rest on the ground floor was a gravelled area with plants in giant coloured pots in the space.

The stairs up to the fifth floor were Victorian and there was many of them. The wooden hand rails had been replaced with the plastic type that gave you a small electric shock when you touched them.

Going up them was hard work but coming down them, at least for me, was easy. If the offices were empty I could make loud splatting noises with my feet as I jumped down too many steps at a time so I could reach the ground floor first.

The staircase to our front door stopped abruptly at the door and since there was no landing it was wise to stand down a step or two or risk bumping into a bodily part of the person who opened it. 

To the right of the door was a small room that my grandparents used as their bedroom. No-one was allowed in there except for them and you did not disobey my gran. When I think it about it now the flat was a slightly odd shape as that room jutted to one side of an other wise long corridor with six rooms leading off it.

Turning left at the front door placed you immediately in a short hallway. There was a Bakelite phone on a tall stand, a table with drawers in it and a long row of coats hooks permanently full of coats.

Before we moved in my sister and I took it turns to stay with my gran and granddad on a Friday night. When it was my turn I always rang Karen Livingstone who was in my class at school. We didn’t like each other, we had nothing to say to each other but that was the mid-1960s and we were the only girls in our school who had access to phones. There was always excited questions on Monday mornings about what we’d said  to each other. We were the stars of the school for a few minutes a month.

There was a door frame at the end of this little hall and to the left was the start of a long corridor. There was three doors on either side with a large pantry at the bottom.

We used to shut all the doors and let our guinea pigs run free. They ran down to the pantry and then back squeaking loudly as only joyous cavies can.

The first door to the left was actually a French window that opened inwards. It had elaborate scrolled ironwork on the outside that prevented people who were walking up the stairs from looking into the flat. When someone knocked on the door we could see who it was. If it was work related my granddad put his brown coat on and kept whoever it was on the step. If it was domestic my gran would take her pinny off and answer the door.

Above the French window was a sky light and every gull breeding season a male bird would stand on the roof outside the window and peck it trying to get at what it thought was another gull trying to take over its territory.

The next door was the kitchen which my gran referred to as the scullery. There was a large white butlers sink in there and we sat on dad’s knee leaning backwards over it as mum washed our hair once a week.

There was a big old town gas cooker on which I learned to cook. My gran and me didn’t like each other but cooking united us in a strange way.

Her washing machine, which was very similar to the one in the photo below, stood in the corner and it was dragged out each Monday to do the weekly wash. She filled it with a bucket and several loads of washing was done in the same water. She started off with the whites and did the darker colours until she got to my dad’s working clothes which smelled of oil, trains and buses.

My 4′ 10″ gran did the washing on her own which was no mean feat. Victorian born working class women were tough.

There was storage space in the kitchen for cooking items, crockery and cutlery but not for food. There wasn’t a fridge in the kitchen so the perishable food was kept in the dark, cool pantry. Butter was kept in a butter dish and milk in glass bottles were kept in cold water while the cheese was kept on a plate covered by an inverted net umbrella. Grandad drank “sterry” which was sterilised milk. Meat was bought, cooked and eaten on the same day.

The last room on the left hand side of the corridor was the bathroom. There was washing lines strung up across the width of the bathroom and we kept our climbing frame in there. There was a little loft space where we used to take friends to play. I used to tell them and my siblings that there was a ghost in there and it meant that I got the space to myself.

Opposite the bathroom door was the bedroom I shared with my brother and sister. We had a double bed which I shared with my sister, my brother had a single bed. There was also a big storage cupboard fitted into one wall. I liked spending time in the room but my siblings didn’t and that was because of what was behind the door in the corner of the room.

The door had a drop down latch on it and the smell from the inside hit you even before it was completely open. There was constant sound from the town pigeons that lived in there. The smell came from the thick layer of shit on the floor of the loft. Bacteria thrived in the layer of filth and it deformed the feet of the pigeons and eventually they lost their toes one by one. The crudely made nests held clutches of eggs or ugly little birds waiting to grow into their beaks and claws.

The next room on the right hand side of the corridor was where my parents slept. It contained our sofa and chairs along with bedroom furniture and a dining table and chairs. She used to keep the bed linen and towels in a sideboard that we’d brought from the old house but it never made it to the new one.

The living room was the last room on the right and directly opposite the hallway. There was a fire on the right hand wall and there was a sofa either side facing each other. My gran sat on one chain smoking and my granddad sat on the other rattling his dentures around in his mouth. 

On a huge old sideboard was the biggest television that you could get in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My grandparents had a bigger surplus income than most working class couples of pensionable age as they had no expenses other than food.

To the right of the television was a budgie cage. The succession of budgies were always blue and always called Billy.

Behind the sofa that faced the door was a raised area that held a dining table that seated eight people and we ate every meal together at that table. One of the budgies used to fly around at meal times and land on the table making its way to my granddad’s plate. He used to put a little of his meal on the side of the place so that the budgie could eat along with him. One day he forgot to do that and the budgie was so indignant about he that he hopped on to granddad’s head, gripped on to his forelock swung down and bit his lower lip. Granddad never forgot to put food out for Billy again.

Over the road from the building from our flat was a pub. On weekend nights us kids would kneel on the chairs under the window and look down onto the street giggling at the sight of men and women walking into the pub and staggering out at closing time. Witnessing a fight was the highlight of our night.

It was exciting living in the flat. No-one else I knew lived somewhere so big or different but it wasn’t a happy home. My gran was bitter because of things that had happened to her when she was younger. The fact that they were of her own making seemed to be beside the point and she grow more sour as she aged.

The bitterness infected some members of my family and they have never tried to rid themselves of it.