Sunday, 25 February 2007

Reopening the Carpet Skipper

I forget where exactly we spent the next few nights, truth be told. I know that the first was under a railway arch just around the corner from the Railway Skipper - a wide open area which offered no protection or privacy whatsoever, and hence very little sleep for any of us. A couple more were spent on a friend's floor, Eyes having pulled strings and used local contacts, just as she had when we moved into the hut. I have a scar on my nose to this day from launching myself headlong out of the shopping trolley in an abortive attempt to chase a duck, on the way to the flat.

The same thing happened again with the arches next to the river,DHSS office and Playhouse, a skipper Eyes had used for many weeks in the past - to the point that she still had an old mattress hidden in the bushes there. It was well hidden and well covered, and the wind blew through it at just the right angle to make an open firepit inside a realistic proposition - many a night was spent burning scavenged pallet wood and watching the flames light up the low tunnel walls as we dozed off in the warm woodsmoke. Sadly, this too came to an end after unseasonably rainy weather made the river rise enough to flood us out, so on we moved again.

As I think I've said before, Mick was always someone around whom there was an atmosphere. Eyes alternated between relaxation and fear, whilst Man veered from open hostility to over-compensating friendliness, both of which Mick himself saw straight through. He seemed to consider Eyes' reaction totally normal, it was Man who he engaged in an ongoing game of one-upmanship, and invariably Mick won. Whatever the history was, it was this loud, toothless, middle-aged Scotsman that even Man was forced to thank when he announced with fortuitous timing that he had re-opened a favourite old skipper of years gone by and invited us to join him in it. If you head out of Salisbury town centre along Fisherton Street you will come to a gap in the facades, on the corner of which is a yellow-painted shop selling carpets, next to a Chinese Restaurant - or at least there was then. Head along the side of that building and you came to a small two storey warehouse with no obvious means of entry. Along the far side was a board, and was this that Mick had loosened in order to reclaim the squat known since time immemorial as the Carpet Skipper.

Obviously approaching the place past the shop and owners' flat above was a no-no, so we got there from behind, scrambling over rough ground, squeezing past the end of another building and under or over a barbed wire fence before slithering down the final bank to approach the building. The contentiousness of this particular spot meant that stealth was paramount - we only ever entered or left under cover of semi-darkness, and if you were in during that day that was it, you stayed in until twilight. On the plus side, once you were actually in, no-one could tell you were there, which meant that lazy Sundays at home became a reality for the first time since I left my mother.

Inside, the initial view was not encouraging. An inky black space was filled entirely with indeterminate junk, with no available clear floor to camp on. But over in the corner was a pool of light, and careful picking through the debris revealed it to be a staircase. Climbing up was a precarious feat, as so many steps were unstable or had rotted away completely, but it was worth it, because the first floor room was as close to paradise as we were ever likely to find. The room was warm and weatherproof, and on split-levels, which protected the main area from stairwell drafts. The pitched roof was open to the beams, with a ledge running around the top of the walls where a ceiling had once been. To the left was a decent sized window, complete with intact glass. It faced onto the back of the Chinese, so no-one could see a light up there, and the constant hum of the catering fans gave the illusion of cozy heat (the weather had in fact improved by then) and provided a comforting audio backdrop with which to block out the world and relax. It was obvious why this place had been the scene of so many fights and arguements, and had persistently been reopened despite the owner's best efforts to board it up and abandon it to the ravages of time.

Mick and Dog had the right hand side of the room, and we had the left, with all dog bowls on the lower level area by the top of the stairs. There was room for our stoves and other personal tat in the middle, and candles were placed on the various ledges and the windowsill. No skipper is perfect and I suppose it was inevitable that we would not be the only living creatures to seek refuge here. At night you could here scratching and scattering around the top of the room, and dark shapes darting about, even running across the main beam which traversed the space above our heads. JD went mad trying to work out where the noise was coming from, and after a couple of days our new neighbours became bolder and took to the floor. Our staple diet was Gilpa Value (Value Mix), and any which was not eaten the night before would be gone by morning. We soon learnt to eat it or lose it.

Things came to a head when I woke up early one morning five or six days after we arrived, to hear a Eyes emit a kind of strangled squeak. Tunnelling up to the top of the bedding, I saw the startled look on her face and turned to the wall as she had, only to see an enormous black rat which had emerged from a hole in the brickwork there. It was up on it's hindquarters less than three inches from her face, chattering it's yellowed teeth and rubbing it's forepaws together as if in glee. At this point I finally found my voice, and my first ever bark (although it was more of a yap) was heard in our joint defence. The rat vanished back into the wall, the hole was boarded up to prevent a repeat performance, and I was the tiny hero of the day at all of ten weeks old.

Once animals and humans alike had agreed on which bits of the skipper belonged to who, we settled into a pretty harmonious peace - even Mick and Man called a truce for the duration of our stay. The benefits of good sleep and warm nights soon showed themselves in all our faces as we marched brightly into town to the Library Steps together each morning, and life's gentle routine ticked on, unencumbered by bags and trolleys once more.