When I was in my twenties, I lived in a ground floor maisonette. An elderly couple lived upstairs. We each had our own entrance door from the street, so there were no communal hallways or staircases to squabble over or keep clean, but we did share a back garden, me using the half closest to the back door and them the patch at the far end. It all worked very well. In fact, most of the time, I could almost forget they were there. Oh, I’d sometimes hear the hum of their washing machine through my ceiling, or distant voices coming from their TV when mine was switched off, but that was all. We nodded hello, got to know each other’s names, and I once showed them how to de-fluff their tumble drier, but, apart from that, and despite our proximity, we remained virtual strangers for the whole four years that we were neighbours.
It’s quite odd, when you think about it, living in part of a building and not really knowing what’s going on in the rest of it! There will always be unanswered questions, like: Why are they moving their furniture around at this time of night? What’s with the loud music? Is it a party – and if it is, why wasn’t I invited? I think I saw them loading cases into their car but, if they’re on holiday, could that be a burglar moving around up there? But it’s probably best to say nothing. Do nothing. After all, it’s really none of your business what they get up to, is it?
Piled on top of each other, layer by layer, every storey of a building has its own story to tell. Think of young Jane Eyre, for instance, moving into that big old house with Mr Rochester and having no idea that, living up above her, locked away in the attic, is his poor mad wife. Or the characters from Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey, living worlds apart, as pampered aristocrats or impoverished servants, yet very much under the same roof.
There’s certainly no denying that attics, cellars and basements make for good stories. From fairy tales to ghost stories and all points in between, they’re great places for characters to hide themselves (or others) away, find solitude, get scared, or store the things they don’t want cluttering up their everyday lives – memories, secrets and mad spouses included. But there are always stories waiting to be discovered on just about any floor of a multi-layered building. Warm-hearted stories where neighbours meet on landings and form friendships or find romance; poignant stories where characters suffer or die alone behind their separate doors; comedies built on the mismatch of characters thrown so closely together (think TV’s Rising Damp); and stories where people simply pass on stairways like ships in the night and seem destined to remain as strangers.
It was this odd co-existence that goes on, amongst flat-dwellers in particular, that sparked some of the ideas for my novel, Lily Alone. Little Lily lives with her mum, Ruby, on the first floor of a four-storey building in London. It’s not their home town, Ruby has no family or friends close by and very little money, and the other residents are all very different from her. There’s the lonely old lady living downstairs with only her cat for company; the quiet middle-aged woman, who may or may not have a child with her, up above; and the two young men at the top, who keep odd hours and are very probably gay. These people have nothing in common but a shared address. Nobody really knows anything about the others or makes much effort to. It’s sad, but it’s so often how things are.
And so the scene is set. When toddler Lily finds herself all alone, nobody takes any notice of her crying. The old lady just turns up the volume on her TV to drown out the noise. Nobody spots that Lily’s buggy hasn’t moved from the hall. Nobody seems to realise, or care, that Lily’s dad has moved out and that Ruby has been struggling alone for months. Her one brief attempt to introduce herself has been met with suspicion, and the only resident to make any sort of cross-household connection is the cat.
I live in a detached house these days. There’s just the two of us – my husband and me – if you don’t count the pets. But, even here, it’s not unknown for us to spend a good part of our day apart, each going about our separate business in different parts of the house. He’s in the garage, making and mending, or watching football on his big screen downstairs, while I’m up here, in my first floor study, looking out over the garden and writing. He could be committing a murder down there for all I know, or I could be upstairs dreaming up a story about one. But at least I would notice if he disappeared – or, at least, I think I would!