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Rear View Mirror: Mind The Gap

Cabbie Tony Schumacher reminds us how we are all only a step away from the chasm

Written by . Published on December 7th 2011.

Rear View Mirror: Mind The Gap

“BE careful it’s easy to fall through the gaps,” a bloke I used to work with once said to me.

We were replacing a ceiling and I was pushing it through into an empty room below. It was a dirty, dusty and tiring job in the days when bottled water came in old R. White's lemonade bottles and health and safety meant a hankie over your mouth and everyone laughing when you fell off the roof.

Newspapers and bin bags were piled on the floor; once white paintwork was thick with years of grime; dust-laden cobwebs hung from the ceiling like Tim Burton's Christmas decorations

Labouring was the first thing I fell into when I left school with two O Levels and a degree in indifference. It was 1983, Thatch was in Downing Street and wages, if they came at all, came in cash.

It didn’t take me long to realise I wasn’t cut out for a life shovelling s**t (although I once had another job shovelling pigeon droppings 125ft up in the air). I spent longer telling jokes and stories than I did actually working; I think they only kept me around to maintain morale when we were all sitting in the back of the wagon driving to a job in the rain.

I’ve lost count of the number of places I’ve worked in since then, it's well over 30. I’ve driven forklifts, sold jewellery, been a barman and sailed the seas.

The longest job I’ve done was also the toughest, the most rewarding, the most frustrating and the most depressing (even more so then shovelling bird s**t). I was a policeman in Merseyside for 11 years.

I should explain that I’m no longer a copper, I loved the job but it took its toll.

I was working in St Helens, specifically a place called Parr. A tough, deprived, working class area that had been hit hard by the decline in the traditional industries of mining and glass making, the vast majority of people were of good stock. Genuine and honest, they’d had it hard but bore their burdens with good humour and a fortitude you could only admire.

They tolerated a scouse copper in their midst as a necessary evil and, in return, I tried not to take the piss out of their accents.

Most of Parr was made up of small, Victorian, two-up-two-down terraces, thrown up to shelter the masses that had arrived to serve the Industrial Revolution.

Inside they were cosy and warm, many still had coal fires, and winter-night statements would often be written against a background of spitting, crackling coal and ticking clocks; Jack Russells eyeing me suspiciously as I took their place on the couch and china cups of tea balanced on chair arms with best biscuits on parade.

But it wasn’t all “Lowry land”, St Helens had once been home to Rainhill Hospital, in its day the largest “mental hospital” in Europe. Its inmates had long since been discharged to be “cared” for in the community. Taking Tebbit’s advice, they had got on their bikes but instead of looking for work, they’d gone looking for help. Some of them hadn’t made it very far.

In one of those terraced streets stood a boarded house, like a bad tooth it sat among its neighbours rotten and decaying. When I first started working in the area I’d assumed it was empty and waiting for redevelopment. Until one evening I was called to attend a report of “youths causing annoyance”.

On arrival at the scene all was quiet, as was often the way (the job was over an hour old). As a courtesy I knocked at the informant’s door. An elderly lady answered and invited me into to her spic and span house. Pots simmering and washing drying, the lady told me that she had rung because the local kids “were terrorising Tommy”. I asked who Tommy was and where he lived and she pointed to the boarded-up house opposite. I was amazed.

She explained that Tommy had lived there with his mother and father all of his life until “He went up t'Rainhill as a young lad”. She tapped her head and looked up and left in that old fashioned way of alluding to mental illness.

She told me that Tommy had never worked, and that since his mother had died years before the house had gradually slipped further into disrepair.

“He comes and goes out back down t’entry for his bits o' shoppin'. Poor beggar has kids kickin' football 'gainst boards all times, day and night. 'Tis a bloody shame”. I promised to speak to him and walked across the road and knocked on what passed for a front door.

“Who is it?” eventually came from within.

“Police mate, can I have a quick word?”

“No... go away,” was all I got as way of reply.

My notebook lies open before me now, the words written down moments later, all those years ago. I see now that I posted my card through and a note asking him to ring. He never did.

About a year later, myself and a colleague where working night shift. It was cold, wet and it was windy as hell. We received a report of “suspicious circumstances” and attended at the address.

We were back at Tommy’s. An early morning passing motorist on his way to work had noticed that the front door of the house was hanging off and had phoned it in.

We got out of the car and true enough we found the door had fallen backwards into the hallway. It was difficult to tell whether it had just given up its draught excluding duties or if it had been forced. The wood was rotting and the hinges had given way. I reached into the hall and tried the light switch, it didn’t respond. No electricity.

My colleague, Steve, fetched a powerful lamp from the car and I drew my torch and in we went. It was a mess: newspapers and bin bags were piled on the floor; once white paintwork was thick with years of dirt; dust-laden cobwebs hung from the ceiling like Tim Burton's Christmas decorations.

I had to push the living room door open, such was the weight of detritus behind it. A narrow path led through piles of waste, some of which was stacked head height. A solitary chair stood surrounded by rubbish and before it a small portable TV sat on the floor. We called out Tommy’s name but he never answered.

We moved through the kitchen and, along with the smell, a sense of foreboding grew around us. The kitchen was, unsurprisingly, a tip. Rotten food lay about and empty tins littered the floor and worktop. I noted an old water boiler and cooker that George Stevenson would have recognised. No glass was in the kitchen window and the rain and wind blew in to shift the chip shop papers that littered the floor.

We called again and set off upstairs. It’s a horrible feeling climbing stairs in a house like that; you are praying you will hear a reply to your shouts as you tentatively sniff the air for a whiff of death's aftershave.

Tommy didn’t reply.

Two doors, two Bobbies. Russian roulette and you are praying you won’t lose. I got the bog, except it wasn’t a bog, it was a back bedroom that had assumed the duties. It was horrendous and I shall say no more.

Steve got the bedroom, “Shoey! He’s here,” came the shout. I entered, Tommy lay stiff on the bed.

All I could see was the top of his head. He was buried under coats and blankets and clothes. It looked like he had piled them on top of him.

Rubbish was everywhere, the wind whistled around the room from both the ill fitted boards on the windows and the partially collapsed ceiling above.

It was as damp and as a depressing sight as I had ever seen.

“I’ll blow it in, we need to get the Sarge and the doctor out,” said Steve, the standard procedure for finding a body.

I reached down and as Steve held the lamp I gingerly pulled back the bed sheets to have a better look at the deceased, who turned, opened his eyes and screamed.

“Who the f**king hell are you!” Tommy shouted, as a powerful lamp shone into his eyes.

“We are the police!” I yelled back, more in shock than certainty.

“What? Let me put my hearing aid in.”

Tommy scrambled about in some rubbish.

“What are you doing in my house?”

“Your door was broken. We were worried about you.”

“Get out! Get out of my house now! I don’t want you in here. Leave me alone!”

He got up from the bed and angrily backed us down the stairs. I tried to explain that we were there to help him but he yelled that he didn't want our help and refused all excuses. He wouldn’t even let us help place his broken front door back into its frame. As soon as we crossed the threshold he grappled with it and pushed it back, barring any further communication.

Steve and I stood in the street dumbfounded. We eventually started to laugh, more in shock than anything, and we climbed into the car.

Later, we compiled a report for social services detailing our real concerns for Tommy. We told them what we had found in the house, and our belief that he wasn’t in a suitable position to look after himself.

Weeks on, I received a call from a nice lady who told me that Tommy had refused all offers of assistance, and that social services were powerless to help him if he wouldn’t let them.

He’d fallen through the gap. It's easy to do.

*Follow Tony Schumacher on Twitter @tonyshoey

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AnonymousDecember 7th 2011.

Good, enjoyable read. So refreshing that nobody on here seems to give a flying f*** about Desperate Scousewives.

Mental caseDecember 7th 2011.

Nice piece of writing Shooey

Reader XxxDecember 10th 2011.

A cracking piece, Shoey. Keep them coming.

Chicken runDecember 14th 2011.

Very sad and very true x

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