07 July 2023
How writing a novel about a block of flats helped Jenna Clake to become friends with her neighbours
In January 2021, I lived in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, in a small flat. Mine was one in a large block characterised by fire alarms in the middle of the night, a car park infested with rats, and parcels which mysteriously disappeared from the building’s foyer. Although I’d rented my flat for nearly two years at that point, I hadn’t had much contact with my neighbours – most of them hadn’t stayed for long. When I’d first moved in, there was a family of four next door, who crept quietly in and out. When they left, the flat remained empty for months. A dead pigeon lay on their balcony for weeks. Down the corridor, the other flats were unoccupied too, everyone fleeing to the countryside as soon as there was an inkling that we would enter into the first lockdown.
By the second lockdown, the flats were occupied again. I got to know my neighbours through the sounds of their front doors opening and closing, their televisions murmuring through my walls, and the shoes they left on their front door mats. I grew tired of spending my weekends watching hours of reality TV and walking the same route up and down the icy Quayside. I tentatively began writing a novel about an isolated woman who listened to her neighbours moving around her building, wanting but failing to make friends. The woman had escaped an abusive relationship, and spent her evenings and weekends hiding in her flat, traumatised, afraid to go outside.
The flat above mine was a party rental, and that January a group of teenagers rented it for an illegal rave. I started every time something was knocked over and crashed above me, turning my TV up to cover the noise of heels against laminate and the pulsing EDM. Eventually, I managed to get to sleep by twisting foamy orange plugs into my ears.
I woke an hour later to someone banging on my front door. From my balcony – the door to which was next to my bed – came the sound of men shouting. Shadowy figures moved behind the blinds. By the time I made it to the front door, two police officers had dragged someone from my neighbours’ flat. I stayed inside.
In the morning, my next-door neighbours introduced themselves for the first time, explaining that they had called the police, and when officers had arrived, the party goers had climbed down the drainpipe and onto my balcony to escape. For days I was alarmed by any creak, bang, or movement in the building. I felt like I was living in a haunted house, only worse – in my tiny flat, there was nowhere to escape. As I continued to write my novel, distracting myself, I realised that the narrator’s trauma – and the reader’s understanding of it – could be shaped by how the woman perceived her home. Rather than being a sanctuary, as the narrator wanted it to be, it could be haunted by the memories and paranormal presence of her ex-boyfriend, interfering with her attempts to heal herself.
At the same time, my narrator’s newfound friendships with her neighbours showed me what I could be striving for: connection and community. So, I put myself out there. I exchanged phone numbers with my next-door neighbours, and the ones down the corridor; we composed a joint complaint about the upstairs flat; we rescued each other’s parcels; as the weather warmed, we waved to each other on our balconies, and stopped to talk. After months of being mostly alone, it felt like I was coming back to myself – a journey I realised I’d been writing in my novel. Of course, it couldn’t happen that easily for the narrator of Disturbance. She looks for meaning in the wrong places, becoming unlikely friends with her teenage next-door neighbour to dabble in the occult, with disastrous consequences.
When I moved out of the flat earlier this year, I mourned the friendships I’d lose with my neighbours – although some of us have actually stayed in touch. Like the narrator of Disturbance, I carry my experience of the flat around with me, ultimately changed for the better.
Disturbance by Jenna Clake is published by Trapeze (£14.99)
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