Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Lake in the Ceiling

Before we settled down, got a mortgage and had kids -- the whole nine bourgeois yards -- my partner and I lived the semi-bohemian life typical of that part of our generation that had embraced political activism and alternative lifestyles. It was simply normal to live in collective squalor, usually in the poorer parts of town, mainly in squats or delapidated "houses of multiple occupation", often with a transient household of friends, friends of friends, and sometimes out-and-out lunatics.

In those years I lived in some memorable places, apart from those usual squats and house-shares. For a while I shared a flat with a couple, Daphne and Floriana (no, really) who were into mild but theatrical BDSM. I also briefly had an entire house to myself in the shadow of the motorway flyover in the soon-to-be-notorious St.Paul's district of Bristol. On Sunday mornings, I could listen to the singing and electric guitars from the nearby Jamaican Pentecostal church.

But one of the strangest was a flat at the very top of a semi-derelict four-storey Georgian townhouse within sight of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. It was like the proverbial bad tooth in an elegant terrace-row of very desirable properties mainly converted to upscale flats, a remnant of Clifton's skid-row years. By the time I moved in, inheriting the flat from friends, the landlord was emptying the place in anticipation of redevelopment, and there was only one other occupied flat in the building. This was lived in by a couple of smack-heads with two sweet but permanently bewildered children and a large alsatian dog.

The house being enormous but empty and run down, the once stately stairwell was unlit, and -- the other adult occupants often being semi-conscious -- on many winter's evenings I had nervous encounters in the dark with the alsatian, which ran freely up and down the stairs, the door of the other flat never being shut. The kids would appear in their doorway and assure me he never bit, but his bark was quite bad enough for me. Actually, the mere skittering of his claws on the ancient lino was more than bad enough for me.

1979 was the fourth coldest winter of the last hundred years in the UK. Bristol, in the mild south west, was blanketed in snow for months, and vast aggregated icicles hung down from the gutters and overflow pipes of those elegant Georgian terraces. In an unheated attic flat in an unheated, unoccupied building, the penetrating cold made itself felt. One morning, I found that the water in my lavatory bowl had frozen solid in the night.  And, in the early hours of one stormy night, the downstairs bell-push somehow stuck got permanently in the "on" position, so that I had to rip the bell and its antique wiring out of the wall to stop its incessant shrilling.

But it wasn't until the spring thaw that the hard winter's secret legacy made itself known. As I was sitting in my living room one evening, I noticed a curious rounded lump on the ceiling I had not noticed before. When I returned from making a cup of tea, I realised that the curious rounded bump had grown to a bowl-shaped protuberance about six inches across and an inch deep. Before my eyes, it gradually swelled to eight inches wide, one and a half inches deep: something was inflating the ceiling paper like a balloon. As it continued to swell, a drop of water appeared, grew, and dripped to the floor, swiftly followed by another.

Uh oh.

I ran to get whatever bowls and buckets I could muster, and returned just in time to see the paper rip open and a cascade of water pour from the inverted volcano on the ceiling. I collected gallons of water and poured them down the sink, going back and forth. Where was the Sorcerer's Apprentice when you needed him? Miraculously, this wasn't a burst pipe, but merely a small lake of meltwater where snow and ice had accumulated in the roof space. Eventually the flow subsided to drips, and then even the drips stopped.

But that was it for me with that particular flat. I shortly moved out, and we began to look for our very first flat together.  I sometimes wonder what happened to those two kids.  I try not to think about the dog.


John Krill said...

Is that the 'Boss' in the picture?

Mike C. said...

John Krill,

Don't know about the Boss -- we run an equal opportunities household here, nominally at least -- but that is the Prof in Rosie the Riveter mode.


Martin said...

This reminded me of the 62-63 winter, when the contents of the pot under my bed froze over.

In 1979, Mags and I were living in a ground-floor flat, thirty feet from a busy level crossing. That was fun.

Mike C. said...


I've always had a thing about level crossings -- I associate them with summer holidays, though, and don't think of them as a threat to domestic bliss.

A friend has just moved to a rather fine property in Scotland, where you have to stop the car and ring from a permanent railside phone to let them know you're about to cross the line to go up the drive to the house... Not something you'd want to have to remember after an evening down the pub.


Gavin McL said...

When we moved down south from Scotland in 78 I remember going up to the loft of our new house and being shocked be the fact that you could see daylight under the tiles. All the houses I was familiar with in Scotland had felt or planking under the tiles. Evidently up until the 70's most houses in England didn't have this Sarking felt or planks that prevented snow blowing in and performing the trick you describe. My dad made regular trips into the loft in the 79 winter worried about the snow.
The lack of felt also allowed coal dust in as I found out when taking down a ceiling in Leeds once in a house I owned with my brother. One tug on the decrepit ceiling filled the room with an all enveloping cloud of thick black dust as a centuries worth of coal dust

Gavin McL said...

Sorry. iPhone malfunction resulted in an early posting.

Mike C. said...


Interesting, it's not as if snow never falls south of the border... I was told by the builder who did our loft conversion that air circulation was necessary to keep the roof timbers dry.

The main thing that accumulates in our roof space is birch seeds (those little winged things, like mini flying saucers) -- they get in everywhere.