Heat and cold were always a major factor in any student flats or houses. In consequence any way that our meagre incomes could be stretched to keep us warm in what seemed to be far colder times was gratefully received. Sometimes that stretching went a tiny bit beyond what was strictly legal. The concept of private ownership also became a much more flexible idea and so keeping warm developed our ideas about community property in an extremely socialist fashion.
Naturally now that we have moved somewhat further up the social ladder, or basically have property of our own; our ideas have become far more capitalistic once again! But as students we had a much more elastic approach to property and its ownership, especially if it could be burned to keep us warm in the colder reaches of winter.
That was how three of us managed to get thrown out of our first shared flat. Although to be fair, there were only meant to be two of us in there in the first place. Once again the issues of rents and incomes meant that although we had found a flat for two of us, the only way we could make it work financially was if three of us shared the cost.
This was where the idea of a ‘visitor’ was conceived. The third bed in the flat was a camping bed, which was carefully folded away (when we remembered) and was referred to as a ‘spare bed’ in case one of our friends or relatives came to visit us occasionally. At least that was the story we conveyed to the landlady when she came round to collect the rent.
This particular flat was in a house owned by a Polish lady, who had leapt onto the idea of students as a way of making a small fortune and had divided the large old house into four or five flats. She clearly had little faith in anything other than a cash economy and came round religiously on a Friday night to collect the rent for the next week in cash. Cheques were frowned on and were accepted with the utmost reluctance only if the cash was clearly not available.
All electricity was charged for through a meter system and we had to keep a stash of change handy to feed the meter. Naturally though, by the end of a weekend we would be struggling pretty hard to come up with the necessary money to keep lights or heating going.
That was when it became essential to know girls! Not for any great excitement – although that was a welcome bonus – but because they invariably had opted for slightly more expensive accommodation which included heating and lighting in with the rent. So for some reason they would be extremely popular with all the rather more indigent males in the student population.
But back to the most pressing problem, that of keeping warm! In the flat we had a cosy little fireplace that would produce the most acceptable glow and was ideal for toasting bread and also keeping ourselves warm when the nights grew darker and distinctly colder.
We soon learned the art of making a fire and could have one started within minutes if we had all the necessary bits and pieces – such as coal! And that was where our gradual easing of property ownership became more and more apparent.
At first we bought all the necessary items from the local shop or off licence. These small corner shops stocked everything you might need, but at higher prices than a supermarket or specialist shop. As students we didn’t care – all that worried us was how to keep warm and fed with as little effort on our part as possible.
As the weeks went by however and our funds ran lower it became clear that we needed to supplement the odd bag of coal with other things that would burn. This was when one of us – I forget who, discovered that the cellar below the flat was full of old hamster or rabbit hutches and a huge stack of old internal wooden doors.
‘Don’t worry lads,’ announced John. ‘I’m sure that we have a small axe at home and I’m back there this weekend, I’ll bring one back with me!’
Sure enough on the Sunday evening he re-appeared, complete with one of his mother’s famous cakes, and a small, extremely blunt axe. We were saved! We would be able to last for months with the supply of FREE firewood resting quietly beneath our feet in the cellar. Life was once again looking pretty rosy and cosy.
So, for the next weeks we would disappear down to the cellar at regular intervals when the coast was clear and would happily beat the hutches to pieces and then drag the broken bits up stairs to keep us cosy. We soon discovered that although they were much harder to break down into manageable chunks, the doors were far longer lasting and soon they became the preferred source of heat for the three of us and any visiting friends.
Now at this point I think a brief description of our landlady is in order. She was, as I mentioned earlier, of Polish extraction and she had quite a number of stolid Polish looks. Sadly she had not been blessed with either good looks or indeed an attractive height to weight ratio. In fact Pete had very aptly likened her to a slug in terms of looks and manner of moving. The fact that she always seemed to blight our weekends too made the similarity to a slug more appropriate than ever.
Sadly though we were starting to arouse the slug like suspicions of our landlady. Apart from the fact that it was always a different two people she might see when she came to collect the rent, she was also somewhat confused by how little electricity we appeared to be using. That was not our fault entirely, as her husband came round quite regularly to empty the meters for extra pocket money on the way to the pub. But she soon started snooping on a more regular basis and discovered a trail of sticks and bits of wood from the front door round to the cellar door.
That was when she discovered our time spent ‘liberating’ the doors from their previous situation and she came storming round to confront us. I say storming, but, given her slug like aspects, it was more of a malevolent slithering. She cornered Pete and myself and fixed us with her rather beady eyes
‘Who’s choppered uppa da doors?’ she demanded, eyeing us suspiciously.
We stared back, trying to appear as innocent as we could
‘I don’t know what you are talking about? Have you thought it might be the people upstairs?’
She turned instantly and headed for the stairs. Naturally she had vengeance in her eyes and we breathed a sigh of relief. Once more we had managed to turn her wrath onto someone else, our skills as liars were improving all the time. Then halfway up she stopped. She turned round and fixed us with a stare that would have done any witch good service. It was clear that her sluglike mind had come across another fact and we were once more in the firing line. We braced ourselves and waited.
‘They no chopper up de doors,’ she hissed. ‘I know this. They all electric!’
There was no way out for us and quite clearly our landlady had decided that we were more trouble than our rent. But at least we had survived another freezing winter thanks to the hutches and doors that had been so kindly, if unknowingly provided from the cellars.
We gave our notice that weekend and set about trying to find our next place of rest. With any luck it would be warmer and at least we had the summer to look forward to in any case! So, if you ever decide to rent out accommodation to poor students and also happen to have a cellar full of wooden items, do make sure that all entrances are well and truly locked and bolted. Or else you may well find that you have had some help with house clearance whether or not you wanted it.