SPOTLIGHT: The Residents of Hilltop Harrows by James Flynn

Brian didn’t exist. Sure, he existed in the physical sense, but in the hearts and minds of all who used to know him he was little more than a faint memory.

               He’d been a drifter for many years now, sleeping in a different place every night, getting by on the ever-decreasing savings he’d stashed away during his former working days. Cheap hotels and B and B’s were his home, especially the dirty rundown ones, the kind that had peeling wallpaper, no clothes hangers in the wardrobes, no toiletries in the bathroom and tacky paintings on the walls in ugly-looking frames.

               Things hadn’t always been this way; there’d been a time when Brian had been “normal” like everyone else. Normal in the sense that he’d had a decent education, a steady job, a steady income, a good car, a nice-looking girlfriend, a house with a mowed lawn out the front to impress the neighbours, that kind of thing. But his mini empire had come crashing down like a house of cards a few years back after the police pulled him over on his way to work. He’d been hungover from a party the night before, alcohol lingering on his breath in a pungent smell, and his licence got taken away for six months.

               A domino effect ensued.

               After being late for work a handful of times his boss grew impatient and fired him, after missing several rent payments his landlord grew disgruntled and evicted him, and after losing the house his pretty young girlfriend scarpered quicker than a hare with its tail on fire. The unfortunate affair rendered him distraught for a while, yes, but he’d still had some secret savings. Slipping into an unusual kind of nomadic lifestyle, he began roaming the streets and districts of Mapharno City like a leisurely lost soul.

               And in all honesty, he quite liked his stress-free life. He enjoyed a kind of permanent holiday, rising at 10 am in some dank motel for breakfast, wandering through parks and town centres during midday to people watch and read newspapers, and, providing he’d stuck to his strict daily budget, he’d then enjoy a hot meal in some low-end restaurant before finding another flea pit to spend the night in. It suited him just fine, but he now had a problem. His savings were running low, dangerously low, and when he opened his eyes to another mouldy hotel ceiling one Tuesday morning, his wallet almost empty on the bedside table next to him, he knew that he’d have to downgrade to a park bench or a motorway underpass sometime very soon if he wanted to continue eating hot meals.

An underpass seemed cosier than a park bench. It was rough at first, of course, but after a fortnight or so the cardboard boxes felt more like thin blankets, and the cold night air in the early hours lost some of its bite due to the sweaters and shirts he’d accumulated from washing lines. The underpass wasn’t quite as lush as a 2-star hotel room, of course, but like all things in life he got used to it after a while.

               He also made some new friends.

               Brian had neighbours under the motorway flyover, people who slept a few feet away from him on either side in their own boxes and torn clothing. Most were men, young and old, but a couple of eccentric bag ladies were resident there too. In the afternoon they’d all gather around a fire and tell stories, drinking cider from paper cups and smoking rollups with tobacco taken from discarded cigarette butts. And it was on one of these blissful afternoons that Brian first learnt about Hilltop Harrows.

               ‘What’s that?’ he asked, when one of his crusty comrades mentioned it for the first time.

               ‘Hilltop Harrows is an old factory on the hill in District 10,’ spat his grimy friend, puffing a rollup through the yellowed hairs of his beard. ‘It’s home to a large squatting community. They’ve been there for years.’

               Brian didn’t really think much about this factory after hearing about it for the first time, but the more he socialized with members of the underground homeless community the more the name kept popping up. Conversing with various oddballs and outcasts during his daily wanderings, descriptions of this decrepit factory were never too far away. Tales of wild parties, homemade liquor, drugs and curious oddities within the walls of this old building persisted and eventually sparked a strong curiosity within him, and he began to ask people for more details about this seemingly legendary place.

And it was for this reason, when the time came to move on from the underpass in search of a new home, that Brian’s next port of call was Hilltop Harrows.


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