In readiness for our next ‘Pop-House’ issue 15,
FRITZ CATLIN reminisces about living in Limehouse in the 80’s.
The last time I saw Bingo I was inefficiently chopping up firewood on the front steps. My hatchet was blunt and took several blows to smash it’s way through the planks I had pilfered from Lucy and Martin’s small waste processing yard. Through the day skips would be tipped out onto an enormous pile of building waste and then a bulldozer loaded the debris into larger trucks to go off to landfill. The constant crashing sounds were tempered by delicate trickling sounds from the glass cullet merchants on the other side of the railway line. In the evenings we would climb over a 20 foot wall and take what we needed to build or burn.
Turner’s Road was untouched by the creeping gentrification of Limehouse’s housing stock, our side by the railway was half derelict, half short life, mirrored by a gutted windowless terrace awaiting demolition. The houses were three storey with a basement and area in front. Once a man in the street offered to pay me to rip out the cast iron railings from in front of one of the empty houses. “What if some kid falls down the drop?” I said.
Jock, who lived five doors up in a house he had modified with cutouts in the floors to accommodate his massive canvases, had warned us to call the police and the council if any of the local dossers were to move into the empty houses either side of us, but we dismissed his fear of fire as some kind of reactionary intolerance. They needed somewhere to sleep and included, as well as the out and out gone drunks, such characters as Lee Akh, an ex-Gurkah who spoke an archaic and melodious pidgin. He had been an uptown manservant and now worked for a pittance in a Chinatown kitchen and lived in the basement opposite with no power or water. Sometimes a dread calling himself Patrick or Michael lived above him and would do martial arts exercises bare chested on icy mornings framed by the empty space for a sash window.
Lee Akh was always welcome for a cup of tea, but he needed the company more than us, and our efforts to decipher the speed and lilt of his speech were frustrating for all. The dread with varying monikers came over once or twice but was too mash up in his head to be welcome back.
The only time Bingo came in was when we first arrived and there was copper to be had. We let him take whatever redundant wiring was in the place to sell for scrap. Later we would see him around the area dragging along a small cart with a fresh collection of wire. He was only four foot tall, dark skinned, who knows how old and somehow, compared to the other dossers, more together, down but not out. He was gnarly and strong, well weathered but still with humour in his eyes.
The last day I saw him alive, he came up to our steps, picked up a plank of my firewood, smiled at me and tapped it on the ground with one hand. It split instantly lengthways into two pieces thin enough to break between his hands: a zen lesson for me and my sweaty labours.
We were happy enough Bingo was next door in number 25 but the drunks in 29 pissed us off with their ranting and eventually torched the place. I came back from training on a fine Saturday afternoon, smelt fire and walked out into the garden just in time to see a window next door beautifully fracturing from the heat inside. The fire brigade were quick, the house was sealed up by the council and the drunks moved into Bingo’s basement.
Maybe the smoke gathered quicker on the floor above, maybe I owe my life to John being a lighter sleeper than me, but a week later at four a.m. he was dashing down the stairs “Fritz, wake up man, we’re on fire” .
I leaped down from the bed scrambled into some clothes, thought briefly if it was worth trying to save any of my things but the air was getting too hot and filthy to breathe, the pressure of the fire next door was pushing acrid fumes into the house, they poured through the blown mortar, smoke streaming from gaps above the skirting boards like a club smoke machine.
Coughing outside we saw the flames in 25 had reached the roof. There was a screaming that could have been wood or could have been Bingo. John started trying to kick in the builders board over the front door. I was scared he would succeed and madly enter the fire and pulled him back “Don’t do it John, it’s like the chimney effect, smash that down and you’ll feed the fire with more oxygen and it’ll go up stronger”. Reluctantly he abandoned his bravery and we watched waiting to see if the fire brigade would reach before it spread to our home and hoping that what we had heard wasn’t human but one of those strange noises you hear from an open fire, like you can also see some strange things in a wood fire on a cold night watching the flames dance for hours.
The rest is a blur, the fire brigade saved our house, milled around with the police for hours and danced jigs on their hydraulic platform as it ferried two stark metal coffins up and down from the first floor window next door. The police photographer’s eyes mirrored bleakly the horrors he saw on the job. We meanwhile were possible but not probable suspects, sneaking back into our home at 9 a.m for a furtive reefer with the police still outside the door.
Everything stank of that burnt home smell: wood, plastics, fabrics and human debris reduced to ashes and an odour that reveals an intimate space destroyed. We didn’t know for sure it was Bingo until later. A sparse local newspaper paragraph mentioned relatives but didn’t explain the need for two coffins.
I stayed away as much as possible to escape the smell, and eventually moved out. John surprised me years later, telling me he had gone to the funeral and that Bingo had family nearby but had ended up in a pauper’s grave. Now the terrace with it’s rhomboid door-frames is gone, judged too dilapidated for refurbishment just like it’s inhabitants.
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