Mind the Gap.

“Be careful it’s easy to fall through the gap.”

A guy I used to work with once said that to me. We were replacing a ceiling and I was pushing it through into an empty room below, it was a dirty, dusty and tiring job in the days when bottled water came in old lemonade bottles, and health and safety meant a hankie over your mouth and everyone laughing when you fell off the roof.

Labouring was the first thing I fell into when I left school with two O’levels and a degree in indifference. It was 1983, Thatcher was in Downing Street and wages, if they came at all, came in cash. It didn’t take me long to realise I wasn’t cut out for a life shovelling sh*t. I spent longer telling jokes and stories than I did actually working; I was like some sort of POW camp entertainments officer. I think they only kept me around to maintain morale when we were all sitting in the back of the wagon, driving to a job in the rain.

I’ve lost count of the number of places I’ve worked in since then, its well over thirty, I’ve driven forklifts, sold jewellery, been a barman, sailed the seas and even shovelled pigeon poo seven storeys up in the air (the pigeon had left by the time we got there).

The longest job I’ve done was also the toughest, the most rewarding, the most frustrating and the most depressing (until I became a writer).

I was a Policeman in Merseyside for eleven years.

I was working in the town of St Helens, specifically a place called Parr. A tough, deprived working class area that had been hit hard by the decline in the traditional industries of mining and glass making. The vast majority of people were of good stock, genuine and honest, they’d had it hard but bore their burdens with a good humour and fortitude you could only admire. They tolerated a scouse copper in their midst as a necessary evil, and in return, I tried not to take the piss out of their accents too much.

Most of Parr was made up of small Victorian two up two down terraced houses, thrown up to shelter the masses that had arrived to serve the industrial revolution. Inside they were cosy and warm, many still had coal fires, and winter night crime statements would often be written against a background of popping crackling coal and ticking clocks. Jack Russell’s would eye me suspiciously as I took their place on the couch, china cups of tea balanced on chair arms with best biscuits on parade.
But it wasn’t all “Lowry land”, St Helens had once been home to Rainhill Hospital, in its day the largest “Mental Hospital” in Europe. It was long closed, and it’s many patients had long since been discharged to be “cared” for in the community. Taking Tebbit’s advice they had got on their bikes and instead of looking for work, they’d gone looking for help.

Some of them hadn’t made it very far.
In one of those terraced streets was a boarded up house. Like a bad tooth it sat rotten and decaying and when I first started working in the area I’d assumed it was empty and waiting for redevelopment. That was until one evening I was called to attend a report of “youths causing annoyance”.

On arrival at the scene all was quiet, so as a courtesy I knocked at the informant’s door. An old lady answered and invited me in to chat. Pots simmering and washing drying, the lady told me that she had rung because the local kids “were terrorizing Tommy”. I asked who Tommy was and where he lived and she pointed to the boarded up house opposite, I was amazed somebody actually lived there.

She explained that Tommy had lived there with his mother and father all of his life until “He went t’upt Rainhill as a young lad.” As she said this she tapped her head, then looked up and left in that old fashioned way of not mentioning mental illness. She told me that Tommy had never worked, and that since his mother had died years before the house had gradually slipped further into disrepair.

“He comes and goes out back down t’entry for his bits o’ shoppin, poor beggar has kids kickin’ football ‘gainst boards all times, day and night, it’s a bloody shame."

I listened and nodded and then promised to speak to Tommy to offer him some help. I finished my tea, then walked across the road and knocked on what passed for Tommy’s front door.
“Who is it?” eventually came from within
“Police, can I have a quick word?”
“Go away.”

Was all I got as way of reply. All these years later, my notebook lies open before me now, the words written down moments later, to the point, short, but not very sweet. I posted my card through and a note asking him to ring.

He didn't.

About a year later, myself and a colleague where working night shift. It was cold, wet and it was windy as hell. We received a report of “Suspicious Circumstances” and attended at the address, and it was only on arrival that I realised we were back at Tommy’s.
An early morning passing motorist on his way to work had noticed that the front door of the house was hanging off, and had phoned it in.

We got out of the car and true enough we found the door had fallen backwards into the hallway, it was difficult to tell whether it had just given up trying to be a door, or if it had been forced. I reached into the hall way and tried the light switch, it didn’t respond.
No electricity.

My colleague Steve fetched a powerful lamp from the car and I drew my torch and in we went. The short hallway was a mess, newspapers and bin bags were piled on the floor, once white paint work was thick with years of dirt and dust laden cobwebs hung from the ceiling like Tim Burtons Christmas decorations.

I had to push the living room door open such was the weight of detritus behind it. A narrow path led through piles of waste some of which was stacked head height. A solitary chair stood surrounded by rubbish and before it a small portable tv sat on the floor. We called out Tommy’s name but he never answered.
We moved through the kitchen, and along with the smell a sense of foreboding grew around us.

The kitchen was, unsurprisingly a tip. Rotten food lay about and empty tins littered the floor and worktop. I noted an old water boiler and cooker that George Stephenson would have recognised. No glass was in the kitchen window, and the rain and wind blew in to rustle the chip shop papers that littered the floor, like leaves in the autumn.

It’s a horrible feeling climbing stairs in a house like that; you are praying you will hear a reply to your shouts as you tentatively sniff the air for a whiff of deaths aftershave.

Tommy didn’t reply.

Two doors, two Bobbies. Russian roulette and you are praying you won’t lose. I got the toilet, except it wasn’t a toilet, it was a back bedroom that had assumed the duties. It was horrendous, I’ll say no more.

Steve got the bedroom, “Shoey! He’s here” came the shout. I entered, Tommy lay on the bed, all I could see was the top of his head. He was buried under coats, blankets and dirty old clothes. It looked like he had piled them on top of him as he had gone to bed. Rubbish was everywhere, the wind whistled around the room from both the ill fitted boards on the windows, and the partially collapsed ceiling above.

It was as damp and as a depressing sight as I had ever seen.

“I’ll radio it in, we need to get the Sarge and the doctor out,” said Steve, the standard procedure for finding someone in this condition.

I reached down and as Steve held the lamp I gingerly pulled back the bed sheets to have a better look at the deceased, who opened his eyes and screamed.

He wasn’t dead.

Although I nearly was, from shock.

“Who the f**king hell are you!” Tommy shouted as the lamp shone into his eyes.

“We are the police!” I yelled back, more in shock than certainty.

“What? Let me put my hearing aid in.”

Tommy scrambled about in some rubbish and pulled out an old fashioned hearing aid that whistled when he put it in.

“What are you doing in my house?”

“Your door was broken we were worried about you”

“Get out! Get out of my house now! I don’t want your help! Leave me alone!”

He got up from the bed and angrily backed us down the stairs, I tried to explain that we were there to help him but he refused all excuses, he even wouldn’t let us help place his broken front door back into its frame. As soon as we crossed the threshold he grappled with the rotten door and pushed it back, ending any further conversation.

Me and Steve stood in the street dumbfounded. We eventually started to laugh, more in shock than anything and we climbed into the car and left.

Later that night I compiled a report for social services detailing my real concerns for Tommy. I told them what we had found in the house, and my belief that he wasn’t in a suitable position to look after himself, and that he needed help from social services, from society.

Weeks later I received a call from a nice lady who told me that Tommy had refused all offers of assistance, and that social services were powerless to help him if he wouldn’t let them.

He’d fallen through a gap.

It’s easy to do.