On the book tour for Crystal Jeans’ new book called ‘The Homeless Heart-Throb’, read about about the neighbourhood that Crystal lived in and the people that inspired the characters.
I was very surprised, upon moving to Pontypridd, that it’s not the shit hole Cardiff people judge it to be. It’s surrounded by lush green hills and its people are so friendly and chatty that it sometimes unnerves me. When I first visited the house to do meter readings, I met my neighbour from three doors away, Ann, an eighty-year-old Shirley Bassey fan. She asked about my ‘partner’ and I, being a coward, played Dodge the Pronoun. Because Pontypridd, that ultimate turkey, voted for Brexit, I assumed it was full of bigots (it might well be).
A few days later, Ann met my ‘partner’ and barely blinked. Maybe she’d become immune? Pontypridd is rammed with lesbians – they are almost as numerous as small blond boys on bikes doing wheelies.
My new novel, ‘The Homeless Heart-throb’, is about a street and its inhabitants. A neighbourhood. So let’s talk about neighbours.
Growing up in Mynachdy, my next door neighbour was the Purvoe family. A huge gooseberry bush hung over our garden fence, belonging to the Purvoes, and me and my sister would sneak up and pick the gooseberries, only to find we were being watched from the shadows by the creepy father. We told our mum and she said we should call him Purvoe the Pervert. In all fairness to him, we were stealing his fruit.
On the other side of us was a big multiracial family – a blonde white woman who was on disability (everyone thought she was faking it) and her black husband and 5 or 6 good-looking children. I used to spy on the boys through the garden fence (they were boring). A few doors down lived the man who had, according to rumours, sexually abused his daughter and gone to prison for it.
Mostly what I remember about this cul-de-sac is all the miserable old men. They had an intolerance for children (especially, seemingly, young girls) and my mum was always knocking on their doors to give them a bollocking after they’d called me a hussy or a bitch just for standing too close to their parked vans. These days there are less children out playing, and according to my mother, who still lives there, the young adults of yesteryear have turned into miserable old bastards themselves. Garden fences, once chest height, have been replaced by seven-foot pickets and lined with tall trees.
I am not moralising about the diminishing of community here. I value privacy.
Actually, I probably am moralising about the diminishing of community. It sucks.
From the age of 18 I lived in my nan’s house on Banastre Avenue. On one side lives a Greek family, the matriarch who recently died in a gruesome road accident while holidaying in Crete. I remember her washing line getting caught up in our fir tree and helping her untangle her bra from its spiky branches. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed or not. The widower keeps his garden gorgeous and has an aviary full of canaries and lovebirds (my cats once snuck in and killed one). The daughter is sometimes friendly and sometimes cold, and it’s like that in the whole street. The only exceptions are the African family two doors down, who are consistently unfriendly (I long ago stopped smiling at them as we passed in the street, partly because the smile would not be returned, also because I was worried my keenness to display friendliness was some sort of micro-aggression) and the Indian family opposite, who are consistently warm.
Actually, the white man from number one is also friendly, but since he shoots pigeons with an air rifle from his bathroom window, I’d rather he wasn’t.
Next door on the other side there used to live a Portuguese family who similarly ran hot and cold (I am aware that I’m no picnic myself). Once, the woman, an artist, asked us to feed her animals while they went on holiday, and when she got back, we told her the cat had an eye infection and should go to the vet. She looked horrified at the idea. My family assumed that she didn’t care about her cat, and maybe this was a cultural thing. Years later I befriended her and learned she was a lovely hippy – a bongo-drumming, anti-vaccine, kefir-brewing, homeopathic hippy with social anxiety and a distrust of big pharma. Lesson learned.
I based the character of chapter three’s Estela on this woman, lazily changing her nationality to Spanish. I knew nothing about her at this point – she was, fittingly, a blank canvas (fitting because she has artist’s block). I made her a secret opiate user. Then, when reading through early drafts of The Homeless Heart-throb, I realised that most of the characters were drug addicts or alcoholics (write what you know!). To have so many addicts crammed into one tiny street seemed far-fetched. I re-wrote some characters, changing an illicit thrill for Tramadol to a craving for Dr Pepper. But you know what? Who knows? Who fucking knows what our neighbours are getting up to?
My next door neighbour in Pontypridd is an oldish couple who look, according to my partner, like a Roald Dahl version of Santa Claus and Mrs Claus. Ann has become Glam Ann, because of her fabulous sense of style. On the right is a family – mum, dad, teenagers. I know nothing about these people. They have yet to give up their secrets, I to give up mine. Perhaps it’s just as well their garden fence is obscured by hedges.
You can buy ‘The Heartless Heart Throb’ from Amazon.