Our first public consultation. The Malcolm Hodge Memorial Hall. Half an hour to kick-off. Lester is trying to make an ally out of Jean-from-the-Community-Hall. He’s making a pretty decent fist of it. Jean is leaning forward conspiratorially. I can hear her saying ‘Watch out for Elsie Tanner. She can be a bit of a trouble-maker and…’ I can’t make out this last bit. She is whispering in Lester’s ear.
I make a big show of not listening. Busy myself in the kitchenette. Straighten out the mugs; arrange the biscuits on the plate. Jean is watching me suspiciously out of the corner of her eye. She says ‘We don’t have a kettle. You’ll have to use the urn’. Jesus. A bloody tea urn. Public Consultation Tea. Water that never quite reaches boiling point. Milk a fraction past its best.
People start to wander in. Gathering in clusters; eyeing up the information boards. Hands on hips. Poised for battle. We watch from the safety of the kitchenette. Peering through the serving hatch. Jean judges the mood and runs for cover. She doesn’t want to be seen fraternising with the enemy. Fair enough.
‘I’ve met Elsie Tanner.’ I say to Lester. ‘She isn’t coming. She’s going to WeightWatchers. What did Jean say about her anyway?’
‘She’s a bit of a trouble-maker and she’s dead against the scheme.’
‘I heard that bit. I couldn’t make out the bit she whispered in your ear.’
He is looking at me blankly.
‘She said “Watch out for Elsie Tanner. She can be a bit of a trouble-maker and….”’
Lester leans towards me and mimics Jean-from-the-Community-Hall.
‘She can be a bit of a trouble-maker and..’
He speaks in a stage whisper
….her niece is a reporter on the Herald.’
‘Come on.’ He says. ‘We’re going in’.
He strides towards the stage. Silences the crowd. Talks about the project; about community and sharing; orchards and allotments; of a happy coexistence between residents and wildlife. About a way of building and of living that is lighter on the world’s resources; rich in resonance and meaning, high on happiness and health.
Councillor Blake intervenes. ‘What’s all this about a car club?’
Lester is in his element. Facts and figures at his fingertips. The benefits of sharing; the money you can save on road tax. On maintenance and MOTs. He is reassuring. Quick to explain that nobody’s expecting anyone to stop owning their own car. Its just an extra resource. An added bonus. Not just for the new houses but for existing residents too.
A woman’s voice rings loud and shrill above the grumbling of the crowd.
‘So what am I meant to do if Lisa finishes early and needs collecting and Terry’s not home from work?’
‘That’s exactly where the car club would come in. For those occasional eventualities when you need a second car.’
‘And what if somebody else has booked it. What am I meant to do then? Tell Maria to take her chances and that she’s walking on her own.’
‘The car club’s not compulsory.’ Says Lester. ‘It’s a choice.’
‘It’s a bloody joke.’
The muttering grows louder. Outrage at our arrogance; our casual willingness to condemn Maria to her fate.
‘If you feel you absolutely need a second car that’s entirely up to you. We’re not trying to make decisions for you. It’s about providing opportunities for people to make choices about the way they live their lives.’
‘This may be news to you,’ says Councillor Blake, ‘but we’ve been making our own decisions for years. We were all living quite happily before you came along.’
A cheap shot, this one. Playing to his audience. Blake needs these houses and he knows it. He has a housing target. A waiting list as long as his arm. Behind closed doors he couldn’t be more supportive.
Lester tries to close the subject down. Explains that the car club is a bit of a distraction; just one tiny part of a very big ambition. A move towards a way of building and of living that is less about the individual household and more about community; that is lighter on the world’s resources; rich in resonance and meaning.
‘That’s all very well,’ says a voice from the crowd ‘But what you’re building looks like shite.’
Lester turns to me. This is my job. Defending the design.
I give it my best shot. Run through the architect’s credentials; the design awards and accolades. Outline the view that contemporary architecture should be an expression of modern-day materials and technology.
There is jeering from the crowd.
I soldier on regardless. Explain how the palette of materials draws on the colours of the historic buildings; how the massing is designed to protect wildlife corridors, important trees; key views. Express our conviction that well-considered modern housing will stand the test of time.
The noise reaches a crescendo; whispering, muttering, rumbling, rage.
Somehow I’m surrounded. Face-to-face with Elsie Tanner. She’s missed WeightWatchers for this. She wants her pound of flesh. She is wagging an angry finger. Spitting out her words.
‘We just want normal houses. With doors and roofs and windows. Nobody likes the modern stuff. When will you get it into your head that NOBODY LIKES NEW HOUSES.’
She is shouting now. The room goes strangely quiet. She has her audience.
‘Nobody ever has done, and nobody ever will.’
There’s a murmur of approval.
‘Every house was new when it was built.’ I say inanely. ‘Even your house was new once.’
I’ve blown it. Said too much. Gone too far. The insult is too much to bear. We are face-to-face; tense. Her eyes ablaze with rage. She has the crowd behind her. I have a premonition of being pummeled, punched, pulverized. I look for Lester in the crowd. Should I flee or fight? It’s purely academic. I am rooted to the spot. Paralysed; hypnotized. Spellbound by the force of shrill self-righteous fury.
She is hissing in my face; eyes ablaze with rage.
She spits the words out one by one.
‘It. Never. Was.’
Lester delivers his post-mortem as he drops me at the station.
‘I thought that went pretty well considering.’
‘Really? Considering what?’
‘Considering they hate us and everything we stand for.’
Bruno says ‘So how’d it go?’
‘Oh, you know. Pretty well, considering.’
‘Considering they hate us and everything we stand for.’
I say ‘How were the boys?’
‘Great. They’re both asleep.’
I say ‘Any sign of Daniel?’ A formality. Going through the motions.
‘I haven’t seen him.’ I can tell how hard he’s trying to keep a level voice.
I say ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. And thanks again.’
Sonny is in his bed. Sound asleep. Oblivious. Serene. He takes after his father. He has the gift of sleep. Kit has inherited my insomnia. He has crawled into my bed. Worrying. Wriggling. Waiting. We lie in restless silence. Night-time allies. Side-by-side. Suspended between agitated wakefulness and fitful, fretful sleep.
I check for messages from Daniel.
Just a message from Elsie Tanner.
‘I was wondering if you’d be interested in sponsoring the Spring Vale Easter Fair’.