Cheapness combined with desperation rarely produces a positive, life-affirming experience, and the accommodation that I and a handful of mates found during our second year at Durham was no exception. We’d left it late finding a house, there were eight of us (an excessive number for the small, terraced housing stock of the city) and each of us was far from blessed with financial abundance. This meant a limited number of places that could accommodate us and by limited I mean one.
At first sight the three-story town house we’d been left with didn’t seem that bad a prospect. Near the centre of town, handy for a few pubs, a chippy down the road. We actually thought we’d found a hidden gem. But unless shit could be classified as a ‘gem’ our initial impression proved to be mistaken.
When we first walked in the house we suffered an olfactory assault. ‘Wet-Alsatian with a hint of old women’ was probably the closest description, although even that doesn’t fully capture the nauseating stench that filled the air. We subsequently learned that the landlord had been living there for a few years with his elderly mother and three massive Alsatians, so our initial guess had proved quite accurate, a fact that was of little consolation. Over the following months no amount of air freshener could shift the smell, so imbedded was it within the fabric of the house. Nor did time inure us to its potency. Every time one of us entered the house, the smell retained its power to repel.
The three massive Alsatians became frequent visitors to our new home, specifically when we needed our landlord to fix something. Few things are more effective at dissipating a tenant’s resolve than the sight of three angry dogs staring greedily at their ‘special area’, making the tenant suddenly able to see why they and not the landlord should pay for something to get fixed. The dogs were equally as effective at enabling us to suddenly find the money for our rent when times were hard, causing us to forgo such fripperies as food and heating.
From one perspective you could describe our landlord as something of a character, an eccentric Geordie who lived in this large house with his elderly mother and vicious hell-hounds. But from another more realistic one you would simply describe him as a bastard. Aside from his unusually aggressive approach to tenant relations he also liked to ‘pop-in’ unannounced and begin to chat to you in his own brand of incomprehensible Geordie. It added a jeopardy-like quality to everyday life, as you never really knew when our diminutive landlord (who looked like a cross between Albert Steptoe and Fred Dibnah) and his hairy entourage would burst into the room.
The dogs were equally as effective at enabling us to suddenly find the money for our rent when times were hard, causing us to forgo such fripperies as food and heating.
All of the above might have been bearable had the house itself been bearable. But it wasn’t. For a start, calling it a ‘house’ is being generous. The place had been divvied up into four one-bedroom flats, each with an extra bed crammed into the already tiny living room, which themselves also housed a tiny kitchenette. Along with ancient, threadbare, heavily patterned carpet, (filled with indefinable dark stains) the flats also came fully furnished. Sadly for us most of the furniture seemed to have come from Mrs Haversham’s house clearance. Knackered, dark and usually massive, they managed to create an oppressive atmosphere throughout. The sole nod to modernity evident in any of the flats came in the kitchenettes. But even here it was modernity seen through the eyes of a very old man. The fridges and the cookers were decades old and unbelievably dirty; the cookers smeared with the grease of a thousand meals and the fridges dripping with water and speckled with mould.
As a group we were depressed with our lot, the house seeming more like a place where someone might come to die rather than where people making their first steps into the adult world should live. As an added bonus, during our first week in the flat my mate and I had a fly infestation. At first we thought that they must be coming from the garden, which the landlord continued to use as a toilet for his pets. But we slowly began to realise that even if the entire garden was covered in shit, it still wouldn’t account for this many flies. Plus they continued to increase in number even when the windows were closed. After a hunt around the flat we eventually discovered the source of the flies; a rotting roast chicken carcass that had fallen down the back of one of the cupboards. The sight of the maggots and the stench of death stayed with me for some time, the only positive being that it briefly managed to expunge the smell of wet dog and old woman.
I’d like to say that things improved but they didn’t. The house remained stubbornly resistant to any attempts we made to improve it and handing back the keys at the end of the year stands out as one of the happiest experiences of my student life.
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