The Partial Transformation of Elton Bank

The first day

Edith Sugden sees them first – shadowy figures parading along the central reservation of the dual carriageway.

Like Edith the carriageways are substantial – designed by planners with aspirations bigger than their budgets. The twin strips are so devoid of surrounding houses that they resemble an airport runway, with Edith commanding a clearer view than most air-traffic controllers.

Edith’s binoculars resolve the five strangers into a family, each burdened by carrier bags. Edith is surprised one family can shop in so many different places.

“Do you think they’re coming here?” Edith asks her husband.

George doesn’t reply. He hasn’t for four years. He stopped speaking a year before he died, but that never bothered Edith who talked through his silence and then transferred her conversations to his empty chair.

“They must be heading for flat nine. It’s been empty for ages, even though they let anyone in these days.”

Rose Fairfax’s flat is the mirror image of Edith’s. It sits on the ground floor on the right of the once grand entrance of Elton Bank. She sees the family of five as they make their final approach. She considers opening her dirty window to see more but doesn’t know where she has hidden the window-lock key.

Rose remembers how Edith’s husband would have found it for her, but now there is no one to ask. Her busy sons have been sucked south leaving her to rely on a red button embedded in a necklace that irritates her collarbone. The red button can save her life but can’t unlock windows.

It’s Sandra Tate from flat four who says the first words to them, and her son Adam who gets the first response.

“Lift’s out,” says Sandra.

Adam is being led to football, which he will leave early for karate, which he will also leave early on account of his mother’s hair. Adam notices the woman’s hair is tightly coiled.

“Have you got cornrows?” he says.

The women smiles and lifts her bulging bags.

“Clothes,” she says.

Adam surrenders to parental pressure and is pulled through the reinforced front doors.

The first week

Norman Small lives at the back of the top floor and is constantly aggrieved that his flat faces the wrong way. He spends hours planning how the council can fix the problem. The simplest solution is to pick the building up and turn it around, but Norman knows this is unlikely to happen while the Greens are sharing the council leadership with the Liberal Democrats.

After five days his only encounter with his new neighbours is through the knocks and noises hammering out of the joining wall. He smiles as he imagines how much the noise must annoy the single mother living below, just like she annoys him every morning when she shouts her son Adam to get ready.

The family are eating on the grassy bank that rises to the railway line from the back of Elton Bank. Norman notices the boy climbing back over the fence to rejoin the picnic. Although Norman hasn’t seen the boy’s actions, he knows from personal experience what has happened. Without hesitation he pulls open his window and shouts.

“Oy, you can’t do that here in this country.”

The father stands, speaks to the boy and walks through the back door of Elton Bank.

Suddenly Norman realises the man is coming to confront him. He runs out of his flat, hears the now fixed lift moving and quickly crosses to the stairs. The heavy fire door swings open and reveals the full height of his new neighbour. Norman steps back and is astonished to see his own hand beckoning the man forward.

“I’ve some ice-pops in the freezer. Do you think your young ‘uns would like one?”

The man won’t consider ice-pops until he has most humbly apologised. Norman laughs and says no harm done.

By the time Norman has explained ice-pops and extolled the virtue of urine as a tree fertiliser, he has also accompanied the man out the back door.

Norman is the first resident of Elton Bank to learn all five names, and first to share hospitality on the sunny bank that has irritated him since he first looked out of his window ten years ago.

The first month

Kylie Trenton is dumping empties in the recycling bin after remembering the social worker is due to visit today, if it is Thursday, which Kylie mistakenly thinks it is. Despite the noise of crashing glass she hears snivels and discovers the oldest boy with his trousers torn and a knee that turns redder as she watches.

“We’d better get that sorted”, she says, and leads the boy to her ground floor flat in a display of maternal care and aptitude that her social worker would have found reason to dismiss, if she had witnessed it.

The boy’s mother expresses gratitude through rice and chicken, which Kylie has been craving for weeks as the smells have wafted in from the frequent picnics. Kylie feels obliged to return the favour and the next day is caught by her social worker baking buns. Despite the delicious crumbs falling down her chin, the social worker fails to discover Kylie once won a cookery prize.

Kylie waits until the next picnic before delivering her offering. The boy proudly exhibits his scab, which Norman says he should pick. Kylie explains how the scab keeps the wound clean and helps healing. The boy’s mother claps in delight at hearing her new English friend speaking the same wisdom as herself.

The middle month

The man has salvaged redundant flowers from council workmen clearing a border three miles away. The man asks Norman if they will survive. Norman’s knowledge of plants extends no further than the benefits of urine on trees. He mentions that Rose grows a jungle in her flat and is shocked to see the man tap on Rose’s window.

After a futile attempt to talk through double glazing, the man gestures his intention of planting the wilting flowers on the grassy bank. Norman is sure that Rose’s shaking head indicates lack of communication, rather than a dismissal of the man’s idea. He shouts telling Rose to open her window. She continues to shake her head and undertakes her own mime.

Norman and the man are still trying to decipher the mime when Rose’s head appears at the back door for the first time in twelve years.

“The window’s locked,” she explains. “I’ve lost the key.”

 “You can borrow mine,” says Kylie, “I never lock ‘em. They’re too fiddly.”

Rose is worried about burglars. Kylie explains it is only the small windows she leaves unlocked and everyone recognises this is such a good idea that they dispatch the tall man to Rose’s flat. After Rose has been liberated from the oppression of stuffiness the man asks about his horticultural dilemma.

Rose recognises the flowers and laughs. The flowers are primroses and although Rose hasn’t been called Primrose since she was a teenager, that’s still the name she would have on her passport if she had one.

“I never liked being Prim,” says Rose, unconsciously patting a wayward hair back into her tight bun. It takes twenty minutes and two cups of tea before the man and woman admit defeat and agree that primness is a British concept they will need years to master.

Rose stands to leave. The oldest boy returns Kylie’s borrowed chair and the social worker is so startled when the boy walks in through Kylie’s door without knocking, that she fails to notice how encouraging Kylie is and how respectfully the boy addresses her.

The last month

Norman, like a magician, produces balls despite having no sleeves. Before passing a ball to each child he demonstrates how to throw the ball up the hill and fail to catch it when it rolls down. He also perfectly illustrates why the children should move along the bank away from the food and newly planted flowers.

Henry Dowson is watching while waiting for the 18:46 York train. Four times a year he takes his son Michael to a clinic in York and has been keeping a daily record ever since a delay of sixty-three minutes, five years earlier on Tuesday 17th July.

Henry’s notes have expand to include weather conditions, wildlife and in the last two months the picnics of his neighbours. Henry speculates on the exact number of sausages and finally admits, but only to himself, that his wife could be right that the family are not Muslim.

The 18:46 passes two minutes early leaving Henry with an unexpected moment of freedom to intercept the man who is heading up the stairs. Henry is pleased to find out the spelling of two names even though it means extensive notebook revision going back several weeks. He is surprised to be asked to spell his own name and has to un-Frenchify the spelling of Margaret several times. Henry helps carry the man’s kitchen table so that Rose can eat more comfortably.

Only when he returns to his own door does he realise the man has followed him, and Henry is unable to dismiss all the man’s reasons as to why they should join the picnic.

Michael bobbles his head in excitement and Margaret applies fresh make up that matches the man’s exotic mispronunciation of her name.

Michael is placed with Rose at the kitchen table but soon escapes the confines of his wheelchair when Norman miraculously materialises a further ball from his skimpy, summer attire.

It takes Margaret’s intervention before Norman understands Michael’s ill-formed speech and repeats his magic trick.

Michael waves the new ball to entice the nose squashed against the window on the second floor. The immediate effect is a rapid retreat of the nose.

Less than a minute later the nose emerges from the back door. Norman inexpertly throws the ball and is rewarded by a lucky ricochet that delivers it to the feet of the five-year-old Adam.

Moments later Sandra, Adam’s mum, emerges and her eyes scan the scene playing a familiar game of Where’s Adam?

Adam hurls the ball with overdeveloped strength, up the slope to crash into the top fence. A shout emerging from Sandra’s throat is smothered by Adam’s squeals of delight as the ball bounces and incredibly sticks in his outstretched hands. Sandra glances down but is impeded from turning her wrist to check the time by a glass of red wine Norman places in her hand. With a sigh she succumbs to the embrace of Kylie’s impractical fluffy picnic rug and within minutes unburdens herself of her daily load of constant pressure to succeed.

The last week

Edith Sugden sees them first and describes them to George’s empty chair. Through her binoculars she follows the slow progress of four shadowy figures as they ascend the arid path alongside the dual carriageway.

Rose sees them arrive and shouts a welcome through her open window loud enough to startle the newcomers and alert the whole of Elton Bank.

Norman races down three flights of stairs to beat Sandra and be the first to tell them the lift has broken again. Before he arrives Kylie has found out their names and donated the chocolate cake she had planned to reveal at the picnic.

Sandra and Adam hurriedly arrive with flowers cut from the back bank and join Kylie, Norman and Rose in engulfing the new family with offers of help. The family discover their own hands are empty as they are led to the top floor.

The last day

Edith Sugden is the only one to see the first family depart. Her binoculars discern the subtle difference between uniforms of Home Office and police. Her naked eyes, even in the weak pre-dawn light, recognise social workers as they handle the children. The man is pushed into the van and his wife and three children bundled in after him.

She smiles and turns to George’s empty chair.

“Good riddance.”

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