Picture by Ewan-M: Custom House, Canning Town, E16
Custom House is eighteen storeys high. Its central courtyard houses the usual mix of trees and slightly confusing public art; there are frequent squirrels, occasional dogs. The flats are privately owned and, for the most part, affordable and inoffensively decorated. Their small balconies are filled with pot-plants, bicycles, chairs, toys, raggedy cardboard boxes, laundry. Neighbours smile at each other awkwardly in corridors.
Custom House has this one characteristic that distinguishes it from any other block of flats: those practices which become habitual within its walls can never be abandoned. You may do anything you like there, once, without risk; you may do it twice and still alter your behaviour; but do something three times and you have established it as invariable.
It’s Monday night and Anna is making pancakes. Her laptop is perched on top of the fridge, music playing loud, and she’s pulled her longest skirt over her pyjamas. As the pancakes reach completion she adds them to the stack in the oven. They’ll be ready just in time for the late news.
It’s Monday night and Adam and Melanie are fighting. Adam is yelling, Mel is staring at the table. This time the argument hinges on venetian blinds, and whether their slats are necessarily horizontal (Adam says no, Mel says yes).
It’s Monday night, and Karim has just got home from work. His housemates are out or asleep. He washes a rackful of dishes, then leans out of the window to smoke, and drops the stub onto the balcony below.
Elliot is arguing online; at the moment it’s men are portrayed unrealistically as well, but in ten minutes he’s due to switch to people would pay more attention to you if you didn’t attack them. Next door, Janet is listening to the radio while she works on her cross-stitch. On the other side, Dwight is jiggling a laser-pointer across the carpet to amuse his (illicit) cat. On the next storey up Chantelle and Jessica, drunk on experimental cocktails, are singing jingles from late-90s television advertisements as they lie on the floor of their living room. It is the third time they have done this, but not the last.
Tammy and Jack are sitting on their sofa while Jack flicks through the channels. When they go to bed, they will have perfectly pleasant sex. Jack will think a bit wistfully that it would be nice if Tammy would shave her legs and wear more colourful underwear. Tammy will wonder if Jack’s ever going to lose weight. It will be the two hundred and seventy-eighth time this has happened.
Nitta is crying. Each Monday, her parents take it in turns to read her stories; then to lead her back to bed whenever she gets up, and to tuck her in; then to sit next to her and make soothing noises; and finally to stand with their backs to the bedroom door, alternately ordering and begging her to lie down and close her eyes.
Dan and Tassie are watching a movie. In a little while, just before Spice President closes, they’ll order a curry. Spice President’s motorcyclists won’t deliver to Custom House, for fear they won’t be able to stop, but they’ll bring the food to the footpath outside and wait for Tassie to collect it. (Tassie is pretty sure that the footpath counts as part of the building, but she hasn’t said anything.)
You can move out of Custom House, as long as you’re decisive; as long as you follow through the first time you consider it, or the second. But Dwight and Janet and Tammy and Jack and Nitta’s parents and Melanie and Karim have all thought about it three times: searched rightmove, looked at the tube map, said things like “Islington’s nice, of course” or “I could move back in with mum for a couple of months”. It is no longer possible for them to leave.