The house next door has been empty for around a month now. The Housing Executive haven’t got round to installing those brown perforated metal shutters over the doors and windows yet, and the place is being used as a party house by a threadbare group of lads. I hear them through the thin walls more than I ever see them. Mercifully the electricity is off in there and they haven’t worked out how to get it back on, so I’m not tortured by loud music at all hours. Instead, all I get is the roaring, laughing, drunken singing, and once, the low thudding of someone falling down the stairs at 6 a.m. They are elusive, coming and going in the small hours. I have only seen them a couple of times.
They have kicked in the bottom panel of the front door so they can get in and out. Jagged shards of thick fluted glass stick out into the crawl space like monstrous teeth, and I can picture the ripped denim and bloody gouges getting dabbed at in the candlelight inside. It doesn’t seem to bother them though; they do nothing to remove the threat. They have nicked a red ‘No Entry’ sign from somewhere; it’s one of the portable ones that the council uses to block off a road when they are doing works. They use it both as a door, and as a pathetic warning to other gangs who might be interested in using the place.
I’d been in the house before. Like mine, it’s a small two-up, two-down, with the bathroom added on to the back and a tiny garden out the front. The garden accumulates all the detritus of the street: cans, bottles, fast food packaging, newspapers, plastic bags, and crisp packets, dropped in there by kids and adults alike. The one time I went in there was after my neighbour, a twenty-something alcoholic with three cats that the USPCA fed for him, had called to my door in a panic, asking if I had a torch. I’d asked him what was up. His boiler had sprung a leak, he said, and the water was flying out of it. I went in to have a look. The boke-inducing smell of cat shit was the first thing I encountered as I stepped inside; he never let the animals out. As I passed the front room on the way upstairs I closed the door, hoping to trap the stench in there. The room was practically empty, containing just a coffee table, TV on a stand, and a tatty old brown sofa. The walls were sprayed with graffiti. The cats were curled up contentedly on the sofa, sleeping.
In the wee back bedroom the door of the hot press was standing open. There was a round hole like an entry wound in the copper cylinder, with an arc of water pissing out of it straight onto the floorboards; no bucket, no saucepan. Apparently he’d been having problems with the heating, and the Housing Exec weren’t going to fix it any day soon, so he’d taken matters into his own hands. They’d have to send a plumber now, he reckoned. I placed a towel over the leak, got him a bucket, and let him use my phone to call the Exec. That was pretty much the last I saw of him. He disappeared shortly after, just vanished one day, cats and all, and within a couple of weeks the parties started. Apparently when the builders finally came to gut the place they were eaten alive by the fleas, which had lain dormant in the front-room carpet for months.
The day it happens I’m sitting on the small sofa in the bay window watching Saturday TV. It’s one of those unremarkable, grey, Belfast summer days: humid but not threatening serious rain, or sunshine of any description. Outside in the street it is quiet, apart from the excited shouts and curses of some kids kicking a ball about, their boisterous play interrupted by the occasional car. There’s no sound from next door; I don’t even realise they’re in there until the front windows explode outwards with a massive crash, and the tall, bulky, form of a skinhead lands in the garden, pauses for an instant, then jumps the low wall, and runs up the street towards the Ormeau Road. He is pursued through the mess of splintered wood and glass by a small lad, his face balled-up with pure aggression. It’s like something from a Jackie Chan movie, except with real glass. I watch as he disappears round the corner at the top. Going out onto the street I follow a trail of already-darkening blood up to the Ormeau Road. There is a crimson smear on the wall where the big skinhead had paused briefly to see if he was being chased. A couple of neighbours reach the corner before me. There’s no sign of the boys, just the red spatters leading towards the bridge. I explain what I’d seen. One of them laughs, and says: Belfast, eh? Fuck’s sake, it’s like the Barbary Coast round here, never know what’s coming next.
As I pass the house, its smashed front window gapes sadly open, inviting disapproving looks from passersby, and stimulating gossip. Mothers scold their curious children for going near it and drag them away, ignoring the squealing protestations. It is one of the last houses in the street to have the old Victorian sash windows.