Monday, 1 July 2013

Ermine Road, rats and skanking

Mr James was a student landlord who seemingly had houses all over Chester. Over the years I was to live in several of his houses, the first of which was Ermine road. He was quite a character and his houses were invariably deathtraps - he and his houses deserve a whole blog post to themselves however Ermine road holds a special place in my memory as it was where I had my first taste of independence. Even though we only lived there about two months, to me in my memory that summer stretched on for longer. It was a summer of firsts –my first real job other than a few hours here and there doing cleaning the summer before, the first time I had supported myself as during term time my parents paid my rent and my Nanna sent me money for food, the first time I'd lived with a boyfriend although in this case it was purely practical and just for the cheap rent. It was also the summer I was to turn 20 and so marked the end of my teenage years.

19 year old me at Ermine Road. Stripey jumper model's own.

It was during my second year of university that some of us decided we didn't want to go back to the shackles of family life over the holidays. Instead we decided we wanted to get jobs for the summer and stay in Chester, living the independent lifestyle to which we'd become accustomed. We were already familiar with the house at Ermine Road as four lads who knew my then boyfriend, Mat, lived there. I can remember one incident when they decided to have a boy's night playing poker and watching pornos but me and a friend called Kirsty took exception to this. We decided it was a bit sexist that girls weren't allowed so on the night in question we dressed up in men's clothes, drew beards and moustaches on our faces with eyeliner and turned up on the doorstep to join the fun. Being nice chaps they took it all in good humour and invited us both in. We remained in character for the whole evening, referring to ourselves as Charles and Kris. I think the boys tried to teach me how to play poker (and failed) then after the game Kirsty and I duly watched the porno with them. It was the first and only time I've watched one (I've lived a sheltered life) but I remember it was so truly terrible that we all found it hilarious.

By the end of the summer term I'd managed to sort myself a summer job on a playscheme in a rough part of town as well as working three nights a week at the local biker pub with my friend Giles. I was all set and as soon as the lads moved out, me and my friends were ready to move in. Mr James had told us he wasn't bothered how many people were living there over the summer as long as he got the same amount of rent each week so in order to make life a bit easier, we decided to cram as many people into the tiny four-bed terrace as possible. There was Kirsty and sometimes Cath in the front bedroom, me and Mat in another, Giles in the small back bedroom and downstairs were Lindsey and her boyfriend Marc. With so many of us in such a small space you'd think we might struggle to get along but actually from what I remember, there were no real problems. That is until the lighter skanking got out of hand.

It was an unwritten rule in our circle of friends that if you lent someone your lighter and didn't remember to ask for it back, they were well within their rights to steal or 'skank' it. This practice had been going on at a low level for months but by the time we reached Ermine Road it escalated to epic proportions. No one was safe. New lighters got bought and if they weren't watched over they disappeared almost immediately. We finally worked out the main culprit was Lindsey although strangely I can't remember if she even smoked at the time. Things came to a head when we got so fed up with this, we cornered Marc while she was at work. We managed to persuade him to show us where her secret lighter stash was and then, promising we wouldn't let on that he told us, we skanked the lot! I can't remember her reaction but I expect it was pretty spectacular.

Mat possibly hiding from the rats, in our bedroom.
At some point the rats arrived - not the wild, uninvited kind I grant you, although looking at the state of the place, it wouldn't have surprised me. For some unknown reason Mat and Kirsty took it upon themselves to come home one day with a pet rat each. They were duly named Rabies and Plague, one going to live in Kirsty's room, the other with me and Mat. I know they definitely both started off in cages but at some point this was deemed unnecessary. Over time, the rats escaped to be granted free reign of their respective rooms. Kirsty's celebrated by chewing through her speaker wires, Mat's by decimating my pink plastic pirate sword. Occasionally they would be allowed a trip downstairs to the living room although this stopped after they got inside the sofa. I can't remember how long they were in there - it might have been hours or even days. What I do remember is the bizarre sensation of sitting on a sofa and feeling the vibrations of rats scurrying about below. Eventually I think they were coaxed out with sunflower seeds.

It just so happened that Giles and I shared a birthday. As the day approached we lamented more and more about the demise of our teenage years. We were going to be twenty - proper numbers. I began quoting from Julian Cope's autobiography where, about to reach twenty himself, he writes a song with the lyrics 'I'm two decades old, two decades old, too decayed to know what's going on.' The night before the big day, we were both working at the pub. As last orders approached, we put 'Teenage Kicks' by the Undertones on the Jukebox to celebrate our final night of teenagerdom. There were to be no more teenage kicks for us from now on. Back at the house, the guys waited until the stroke of midnight then brought out our surprise. Whilst we had been at work, Kirsty had been busy baking us a cake each. She had cut shapes out of sponge and assembled them to make rudimentary versions of Giles and me, icing them to look just like us even down to Giles' trademark camouflage combats. It was amazing and still the best cake I've ever been given for sheer thought and effort alone. The next day, I spent my twentieth birthday surrounded by children at the playscheme. It's the only time I've ever worked on my birthday and although it was nice having them all sing to me, I suspect it was enough to make me vow to take future birthdays off as holiday.

Birthday buddy Giles with his girlfriend.

I don't remember huge amounts about the summer, just little snippets here and there. Like the time Mat dropped a full can of coke in the hall and despite clearing it up, the next morning there were ants covering the floor tiles and trooping fervently into Marc and Lindsey's room. They fashioned an ant trap out of sugar and boiling water in a saucer, creating a sort of ant swimming pool of doom. I remember it was a particularly hot summer. Instead of going outside, we spent warm, sticky hours in the living room playing target practise with a pump action water pistol. It was so hot and uncomfortable one night that Mat, Lindsey and I couldn't sleep. We sat in the dark eating frozen veg straight from the freezer then Lindsey offered to take us for a drive. It was about 3am and we were hurtling to Helsby and back with the windows open just to get some cold air. Another night, we thought we were being burgled but it was just a drunk friend breaking in on his way back from the pub so he could kip on the sofa. These are the random memories that have stayed with me over the years.

It may be a case of rose-tinted spectacles but most of all, I remember having a blast. The feeling of freedom, independence and endless possibilities. That this was the start of being a grown-up and that this scary new world I had so far tried my best to avoid was actually achievable. It seemed simple to me - that all you had to do was get a job and earn enough money to pay the bills then spend the rest of your time having fun. Life was out there for the living and if it was going to be like life at Ermine Road then I was ready to grasp it with both hands. I'm almost twice as old as I was that summer and somewhere along the way I forgot the important bit about having fun. The job became more important than anything and life slowly turned less sparkly, less exciting. Now I find myself in a position where ill health has forced me to quit that all important job and actually, I don't miss it or think about it one bit. I miss my colleagues of course, and the wages but I couldn't care less about the job itself. What I do miss and think about is being well and having fun so when I finally get better from this ridiculous illness, I promise myself that my new goal in life will be to make sure I do have fun. And lots of it. Preferably without the rats though.

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