Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Tressillian Road

It was going to be another hard day in our first world tragedy of trying to give a complete stranger every penny we’ve ever earned.  We’d somehow managed to schedule in four places on the morning after hosting a dinner party where, inevitably, I’d drunk too much wine. 

Pah, it’s such a hard life.  I knew that whinging about such privilege was nauseating, but that didn’t really console me when I could smell the incoming hangover.

It is, indeed, a pretty road full of attractive houses, mainly converted in flats.  I knew that it was the ideal she held in her head and hardly any properties had even come up for sale in the six months we’d been looking, despite there being almost 150 houses and, lord knows, how many flats.

So, despite all the warning signs, we really had to go and see this place.

‘It’s tiny,’ I said.  ‘Look, that double bed barely fits in the main room.  What have they done to those back windows?’

‘It’s probably just bad photography,’ my girlfriend insisted and so off we trundled, a little red wine residue following in my wake.

We’d already met the agent several times and knew how he liked to work so were surprised when he said, ‘I’ll meet you out here.  The vendor will show you around.’

‘Haall—ooo,’ said the vendor.

Oh Christ, I thought.

The entrance was a in a poor state.  The hall floorboards were visible through the carpets and the walls were crammed with random sketches and poor water colours.  We could barely make our way into the living room which was filled with an enormous fish tank and stacks of yellowing paper.  Old magazines and notebooks, novels and newspapers stuffed from floor to attractively high ceiling and encroached from the edges into the middle of the room.

‘This is the living room, lovely and light.’ 

We couldn’t really argue because we couldn’t see.  It was impossible for all three of us to get through the door at the same time and she was already heading back out, swooping us along on the grand tour.

I was right about the bedroom.  It didn’t really accommodate both a double bed and the wardrobes she’d built.  The door, when open, just touched the foot of the bed frame.  As we were being turned around again I looked up.  There was a large crack running just below the ceiling on the interior wall.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ she said following my gaze, ‘it’s just plaster.’

‘I can see the coving in the hall through it,’ I replied but she either didn’t hear me or ignored me.

1992.  Kathy shut the door behind her with a sigh.  The lamps plugged into security timers cast the flat in a warm glow; it was nice to come back to somewhere lit up, to not have to face more dark.  She was so angry her fingers trembled as she fumbled with the kettle in the kitchen.  That had definitely been worse than usual.

She’d been living in the flat for just over nine months having moved to the area in order to buy somewhere.  On a junior school teacher’s salary it was one of the few places she could afford by herself in London.  Certainly she would have had no chance out west where she’d been renting.  Her friends had thought she was crazy.

‘Brockley?’ they said with surprise, consulting the tube map on the back on their A-Z.  ‘Where is that?  Beyond the end of the tube? Is it in Kent?’

Part of her wanted to argue its virtues, to point out that it was the second stop from London Bridge, that the East London line terminated in zone two anyway, but part of her wanted to keep it to herself.  She’d fallen in love with its leafy streets, the avenues of converted town houses, a little rickety, a little run down, but still bristling with charm.  She’d been to see the flat on a May morning when the sunshine had fallen in gentle bows through the high windows and given the walls a soft golden hue.  She’d made an offer straight away.  There was something about it which had grabbed at her.

And all through the summer it had been wonderful.  The move had been painless and she’d loved ambling around her new home, getting to know its nooks and funny ways, learning the timetable out of London Bridge and Charing Cross, picnicking atop the hill with views of the far distant Kent horizon in one direction and the slowly turning cranes above the old docks in the other.  In the light and warmth it had all been lovely, but as the year turned and the darkness closed in there had been a shift.  There was a threat in the air.

Kathy poured boiling water onto the instant coffee granules and stirred.  She rummaged around in the cupboard for the bottle of cooking brandy and then added a slug of that too.  She took her drink into the living room and sat in the chair by the big window overlooking the street.  She opened the curtain slightly and looked up the street at the swirling, thick black at the top the hill.

Suddenly, on her way came home from work, Kathy had begun to notice a change in the demographic on the train.  Earlier and earlier it became more like the last shift of the night.  More and more frequently she’d be asked by a man with scabbing ulcers at the edges of his cracked lips for change for a hostel she knew didn’t exist.  They’d all disembark at Brockley Station and as the trains pulled in the patrons of the Breakspear’s Pub would come out to meet their customers.

Kathy had gone in the pub one Saturday afternoon with her sister, but they hadn’t stayed.  There’d been an edge to it, the sort of boozer one saw in a horror film where the men at the bar all turned to look at the newcomers with unpleasant expressions on their faces. 

Now those same faces leered at her out of the dark, offering smack, crack, gear, a hundred different slangs for the same stuff.  It was a competitive sales market and the sellers didn’t take kindly to being turned down.  You were either buying or in the way of someone who was.  Presumably this had all been going on in the summer, but she’d simply failed to notice it, too caught up in the joys of life.  The dark bought it closer.  It had got to the point where she’d taken to lurking on the platform, waiting for them to return to the warmth of the pub, their sales concluded until the next train came in.  Tonight, her tactic had backfired. 

Leaving her half drunk coffee on the table, Kathy went to the bathroom and ran the taps.  She wasn’t sure what she wanted.  Comfort, warmth, food, booze.  She was prepared to try them all and so ran herself a scalding bath.

She’d slipped out of the station after a few minutes as usual.  The coast appeared clear.  It had been a relatively quiet night.  It wasn’t like the time the drinkers from the pub on the other side of the tracks had come running across the bridge wielding machetes and baseball bats and started a fight.  She’d run for hell that night, never did find out what happened. 

She got to the corner when a man slipped out from behind a car.  He asked her for change.  He looked like one of the customers.  Usually they disappeared, drifted off who knew where to inspect their purchases, but perhaps he’d been a little short. 

She refused and kept walking.

He followed.  Repeating his request, demanding it. 

She reached the main road, but it was quiet.  As was so often since it had turned cold there was no-one about.

He continued to follow her.  His words turned to sexual propositions of the sort she’d rarely heard.  Vile ideas.  And when she’d continued to ignore him his abuse had become a random barrage of obscenities until a man opened his car door and got out.  The man was only going into his house, his key visible in his hand, but her follower turned and scuttled away.

Kathy sank into the deep bath tub and let her toes rub against the ornate gold leaf taps.  As the minutes continued to slip away she felt better.  Every moment took him further away, but she knew she might see him again.  Tomorrow, the day after, next week, next month.  She loved that flat.  She’d loved the summer and the early autumn when all the trees and filled the streets with a shower of red leaves.  She wanted to see the May blossom come on the tree outside her flat.  She wanted to leave, she wanted to stay.  She couldn’t bear to give up, but who knew how long it would be until the sun shone again.

The back bedroom had been recently converted. 

‘I installed the double glazing myself,’ she smiled, avoiding the fact that she’d clearly fucked it up.  The windows were smogged with condensation between the panes.  The room was clearly so damp that she’d decided to protect the yet more stacks of various printed materials with massive transparent plastic tarps.

The kitchen was disgusting.  Cat food had been spilled out of the bowl and ground into what was left of the hall carpet by the door leaving a browny stain.  The surfaces of the kitchen were smeared with grease and burnt food detritus.  The false glass ceiling below the lights was missing whole panels and many of those that remained were cracked.  The cooker didn’t look as though it had been cleaned for a year; slopped tomato-esque sauce was burnt on.

‘Top of the range, vee-rrry expensive,’ she trilled.

‘Yeah, in nineteen eighty-two,’ I added unable to contain myself, irate at my mildly drowsy time being wasted.

‘Come, come.  Outside.’

At least the garden had grass but as she tried to engage my girlfriend with detailed descriptions of withered roots which might one day flower again I was more interested in the badly smeared stucco on the rear of the building, the smudged covering up of the brickwork with purple plaster.

‘Did you do this?’ I asked.

‘Yes, yes.  Same time as the double-glazing.’

‘And the council gave permission?’

‘I didn’t ask.’

‘It’s a conservation zone,’ I said thinking of the woman who’d lived downstairs from me in Manor Avenue and had been made to remove the French windows she’d expensively installed.   ‘Yu need permission to change the exterior of the building.’

‘It’s in the back.  Who will tell?  Who can see?’

I looked round at the thirty or forty windows which, thanks to the curve of the surrounding roads, overlooked the garden.

‘So what do you think?’ asked the agent with the air of disillusionment of one who knows he’s going to have this same conversation a thousand times.

‘For that price, you’re having a laugh,’ I said.

‘I’ll admit it’s a little over-priced.’

‘Try sixty-grand.’

‘I’d have said thirty, thirty-five.  The thing is, we had to put it on at that price.  The other agents had already massively over-valued it so we had to match it.’

‘That poor woman,’ my girlfriend said later.  ‘She’s already found somewhere, presumably on the expectation that she’ll get that ridiculous quote.  No-one’s going to pay that much.’

Over the next couple of weeks we watched the two agents race the price to the bottom.  We felt sorry for the vendor.  People don’t necessarily start off greedy, but all it takes is for someone to dangle some ridiculously tempting figure under your nose and then you’re away.  The dreams of what you can do with the money take over.  Sometimes you have to hold on and sometimes you just have to wake up.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Holdenby Road

I didn’t actually see this place, but my girlfriend did.  Still it was me that found it on Rightmove and while, theoretically, we should have instantly discarded it for being a farce of itself, the failure with Prince’s Garth made me wonder whether trying to buy anywhere anyone else might conceivably be interested in was doomed to failure.  Maybe it was better to go for somewhere utterly repulsive.

Holdenby Road is back where we started looking, running the opposite way off Brockley’s main road from Marnock Road.  It was a good location although my girlfriend had aspirations more towards north Brockley and the conservation zone, especially if we were going for a flat.  This was a maisonette, a converted top floor of a late Victorian end terrace.   At three bedrooms with two reception rooms it looked surprisingly spacious.  

And it was cheap.

The low price was fairly self-explanatory.  It appeared to have been occupied by self-consciously counter-culture hipsters.  You’ll have seen them about, wearing a trilby, smoking roll-ups, riding single speed vintage bicycles in wincingly tight jeans for ultra skinny legs and not getting up until eleven on a Tuesday because Mummy paid the rent.  Or, actually, maybe it was a seventies acid and speed casualty, still bearded, obviously, but much more shaggily, the holes in their jeans due to ill repair rather than design.  The sort of people who felt it was a good idea to paint a large bedroom deep red and then sketch in black lines a picture of a fat naked woman. 

Which they had done.


Two of the other bedrooms looked as though they’d been used as artist studio space.  One had work benches jutting out into the middle of the room with electric sockets at the height useful for power tools.  The other appeared to have some sort of roughly constructed mezzanine level, the underneath of which was partitioned off by wooden walls so that the open entrance was like an open black maw. 

The reception rooms looked nice enough, with painted floor boards and nice large windows complete with refined window benches that seemed out of place with the rest of the decor.  The kitchen, again a bloody red shade, looked exhausted, as though it had been made to work too hard on things it had never been intended for.  From the kitchen a metal staircase dropped sharply down on a concrete slab courtyard, from which there appeared to be gate through to downstairs garden and then another to the side-street. 

2003.  Skizz lay on the wooden floor wearing just a pair of ragged green combats.  It was unbearably hot.  He’d opened all the windows, but it hadn’t made any difference.  The air was too still and the heat crept across his skin like spider spinning webs. 

Everyone else had gone out.  They’d caught the bus over to Brixton to spend the day in the park, hanging out by the lido.  London by sea where they the water would take the edge off the sweat.  Skizz had opted to stay.  He’d wanted to this finish his sculpture.  When the others had been making their plans, he’d had a clear idea in his head of what needed to be done, but now he was alone the image was more blurred.  He couldn’t quite make his hands go where his head knew it ended.

The sculpture sat in the middle of Skizz’s room.  It was around five feet tall and was made from welded together old bicycle parts in a pattern that gave just a hint of a human shape.  Maybe the saddles were eyes, maybe the spokes were eyelashes, maybe it was all just your mind telling you to see humanity in metal because we seek for the familiar where there isn’t necessarily any.  Skizz had tentatively titled it London Moves Me.

There were times when Skizz had confidence in his art, when he thought he was capable of making work which genuinely said something original about the human condition and how it played out within society.  There were also times, like that afternoon, where he thought everything he touched was shit.

Skizz wondered whether he needed to move away from South East London.  He’d arrived, nine years previously, as an undergraduate at Goldsmith’s.  He had dreams of being Damien Hirst, but instead he ended up with a third class degree, several thousand pounds worth of debt and having sampled a large number of illegal substances.  Somehow the four of them had never quite worked up the energy to move.  They still lived in the flat they’d found in their second year, still making art works that threatened to take their career somewhere and then always whimpered into nothing. 

Of course, Skizz mused, if he spent less time on the borders of sleep and unconsciousness he might make more progress.

Still, South East London had given him a view on a sort of life that he’d never really dreamed of growing up on the Swansea outskirts, but maybe there were other things out there too. 

Skizz looked at London Moves Me.  He looked at the front fork in his hand and wondered where it should go.  He held it up between the two wheels which fanned the sculpture’s shoulders like wings.  No, not there.  It couldn’t protrude from the front either because that would look like, well, not something he’d want his Grandmother to see.  But did that matter?  She wasn’t exactly his target audience and it he only had a few parts left.  They had to gone somewhere, didn’t they?

He sighed and the metal clanged to the floor.

Back in the lounge a slight breeze whispered across his bare chest as he stood looking at the window.  Down below an elderly lady struggled with a shopping bag, dragging her groceries behind her in short increments of half a dozen steps.  A tall guy walked briskly along, his hands stuffed into the pockets of an unseasonable puffa jacked.  A guy in a suit, his tie askew, remonstrated loudly with a girl in a short skirt and cheeks streaked with mascara.  He kept saying he thought it was what she wanted as she kept walking, silently, away.  In the distance two boys cycled along on BMXs, twirling in amongst each other like vultures circling a carcass, their laughs reverberating along the street, chuckling in shrieks like hyenas.

There was nothing else for it, Skizz decided.  No-one could work in this heat.  He pulled a t-shirt on and rummaged for his keys.  He was going to find the others in Brixton.

We ummed and aahed.  Again my fear of DIY inadequacy loomed and we worried that the rooms appeared to have been constructed in such a way that the windows had ended up in corners.  Generally it all seemed somewhat dark. 

In the end, we booked an appointment for the Saturday morning.  It was at least interesting.  There had been a sudden flush of similar properties coming available, most of them recently renovated to the blandest levels conceivable:  all sterile whites and shiny surfaces, the sort of sheen designed to fade as soon as you closed the door.  At least this place wore its history on its sleeve.

As it turned out we didn’t have to wait until the weekend.  My girlfriend was passing, sort of accidentally on purpose, as another agent was adding his for sale sign to the exterior. 

‘It’s okay,’ she said over the phone later.  ‘There’s loads of storage.  A large landing and a massive attic.  It’s much bigger than it looks, but it’s also just as crazy.  The thing is, it’s like everyone says: there’s only two things you can’t change.  Location and light.  The light’s terrible, especially in the fat naked woman room.’

‘Do we want a room which we refer to as the fat naked woman room?’ I asked.  ‘That sort of thing isn’t going away.  We can use it as a guest room.  Here’s some towels.  We’ve put you in the fat naked woman room.  No, wait.  Come back.’

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Prince's Garth

By the time we’d escaped the lecture about how our lives had been ruined by not having been in a position to buy somewhere ten years ago we were running late.  The snow and the early evening traffic made getting from New Cross to Forest Hill even more laborious than usual, but fortunately the agent’s offices were moments away and so she wasn’t a frozen husk waiting for us on the doorstep.

Of course, the reason it was so close to their offices was that the property we'd gone to see was on Forest Hill’s High Street.  I was quite hesitant about going to look at the place; it was outside the criteria for what we wanted.   It was a flat when we were increasingly leaning towards a house.  It was on a main road, and not just any old main road, but the South Circular – that traffic clogged, smogged up hell hole of intersecting major roads that tries to link Richmond with Woolwich even though neither wants much to do with the other.

So it was something of a surprise when we both absolutely loved it.

Being the ground floor of a mansion block it was both reasonably set back from the road, but, more crucially sensibly sized.  Scratch that, it was massive.  Flats only seem to be pokey when they’ve been carved out of something designed to be a house or were built from 1980 onwards.  Old school mansion block flats were from when living spaces were generous.  The living room and main bedroom seemed to go on forever.  There were stripped wooden floorboards throughout, with original coving and traditional fireplaces in every room.  Off the smaller second bedroom was a little extra space, probably intended to originally be a servant’s room now pitched as a nursery, but with the windows on two walls looking out on the garden it was the perfect study.  Light and not too big, it was a space to gaze out from, but not become totally submerged by the view.

‘The thing is,’ the agent helpfully explained in that slightly condescending way they have, ‘these flats are really rare and this is one of the few with a garden.  It’s already had loads of interest and, to be honest, Forest Hill is just heating up all the time.  It's a property hotspot.  And these mansion blocks are the pick of the lot.  Right in the centre and packed full of history.  Someone said there's a connection to the Sex Pistols, y’know?  That band?’  She said this final point in a way that suggested she had no idea who the Sex Pistols were, but my ears picked up and I , for a moment, imagined channelling Rotten’s youth through my own life.

Sadly no evidence has been found to support this half-conceived comment.

1905.  ‘Foster,’ yelled the young master, with a slight slur showing already. 

‘Yes, sir?’ Albert appeared at the doorway of the bedroom, an iron in one hand and a freshly laundered shirt in the other.

‘Where the hell is my- oh,’ he took the shirt from his man servant and slipped the crisply folded cotton over his too flabby belly.  Only twenty-three and already his paunch was beyond his control.  He should, he surmised, do something about it.  Take some exercise.  Drink a little less.  But neither of those options was particularly appealing.

‘And where is it tonight, sir?’ asked Albert politely. 

‘Tennyson’s birthday, I think.  Somewhere Chelsea way.  Dashed long way. Why Father couldn’t have found me a flat in the centre of town I’ll never know.’

Albert didn’t point out the blindingly obvious that despite the young master’s pretentions, his Father was cash poor.  Chelsea or Marylebone or Kensington were all far beyond his reach.  ‘I for one am glad you came here sir, else I’d never have had the pleasure of working for you.’  A bit of flattery and the idiot would no doubt forget that he was running late because Albert had forgotten to boil the water for his bath.  Property was not the only thing beyond the old master’s wealth; good staff were too.

‘Oh I know you were born near here, Foster.  New Cross, wasn’t it?’

‘Peckham, sir.’

‘And it is nice being closer to the country.  The air is significantly cleaner, but it is still a damnable way from everyone else.  How I am supposed to socially advance myself when half my life is spent on the train or looking for a Hansom prepared to come this far, I don’t know.’

The young master departed at a rapid waddle and Foster retired to the kitchen.  He made himself a cup of tea and set a couple of eggs and a solitary bottle of Forest Hill ale to one side for his dinner.  The young master would be back late, if at all, and worse for wear.  Foster had never known a man to get so wilfully drunk, but then he had never known a man with such an attitude to money.  Despite his lack of actual funds the young master seemed to find credit easy to come by and had no concern that anyone would actually call in any of his debts.

He supped his tea and read his Daily Herald.  He hated working for the jumped up tyke.  He was a carpenter, trained to be good with his hands, not to follow around pillocks who were too lazy to dress themselves, but ever since Selby’s Yard closed down this had been the only work he’d be able to come across.  In service; a man servant.  Was there anything so demeaning?  The way he was spoken to, the way he was expected to be on call all day, every day, the way he was expected to sacrifice his life for those economically superior, all of it.  He hated it all. 

Lately, Albert had been attending meetings about equality and workers rights.  Passionate men advocated the right for all men to be equal, for fair pay, for the right be sick without fear of losing jobs.  It sounded good to Albert and, in a moment of optimism, he’d tried to establish a degree of equality in the house.  He was happy to be a worker, or reasonably happy anyway, and for the man seven years his junior to be the boss, but some mutual respect would be nice.

‘Sir,’ he began tentatively.  ‘Might I ask that you call me Albert rather than Foster?’ and I call you Sebastian he had hoped to be able to follow it up with.  After all the young master was, in many ways, an enlightened chap.  Ambivalent about the church and the notion of Empire; at least being solely interested in money and pleasure was more honest than the hypocrisy of all the retired colonials in the rest of the building harking on about glory and God.

The young master’s eyes burned and Albert had thought he might be struck.  If that happened he was off.  After giving the pompous tit a good kicking, of course.  No-one, but no-one, would raise a hand to him again.  That’s what he’d promised himself after burying his Dad, the no-good drunken prick.

But instead the young master simply growled:  ‘Have you gone mad, Foster?’ and for a moment Albert wondered whether perhaps he had.

He finished his tea and sat back in the little wooden chair at the small table, more designed for a child than an adult.  He thought about opening his beer, but decided to save it for later.  To savour it like he savoured his Sunday afternoons off.  There were two more days to go.  Only two more days to wait until he saw Mary again.  He was getting sweet on her and they both knew it. 

Maybe they’d go for a walk in the park again, maybe down to Sydenham Woods and he would pick her bluebells from where they grew by the train track.  Free flowers were still flowers.  Her loveliness and interest in him overwhelmed Albert at times.  It was as though he simply couldn’t accept such good fortune as to have such a delightful girl on his arm.  He’d like to propose to her, to take them both away to a little cottage in a Kent village where they could do more honest work than pander to rich men’s needs, hers old and dying, his young and preposterous.  But he didn’t know how to.  He didn’t know how to free himself.

Afterwards we walked along the high street.  The Sainsbury’s directly opposite would be greatly helpful; we’d never have to do a big weekend car based stock up again.   The Dartmouth Arms always used to be a nice pub, but it had been years since I’d been in.  Almost immediately next door to the block was the old cinema now converted into a Wetherspoon’s, a nail parlour and an international money exchange.  Forest Hill is a funny collection of shops; a high street that doesn’t always belay its middle class housing stock.  Up the other way, towards the swimming pool, which we already used frequently, there’s a prevalence of scruffy newsagents, cheap off licences and fried chicken shops.  Once upon a time there had been a deli, but I think that’s been gone for a while now.

But, on the other hand, it had received a government Mary Portas regeneration grant.  A butcher was to the first to open and there was a genuine excitement about the future.  The problem is that the high street hangs on the connection of two major A roads and while there’s a good service to the station if the trains aren’t running the nearest alternatives are something of a hike.

Plus, as its name suggests, it’s a top of the blooming great big hill.  Great for views, less good for cyclists.

We put an offer in anyway.  An offer fairly close to the asking price.  It was beautiful.  We were quite excited about the idea of living there, even if I was a little wary of the commute.

Someone offered more and, well, that was that.

A few weeks later we in were having dinner with a large group of friends at a house in Stanmore regaling them, boringly, with our tales of property woe.

‘It’s so hard,’ one sympathised, ‘a friend of mine has just bought somewhere in Forest Hill.  She’s moving down from Islington and it was such a battle.  You’ll find something.  Her place is lovely.  Nice wooden floors and fireplaces, handy for the station and so big.’

‘It wasn’t in a mansion block,’ I said hesitantly.

‘Yeah, Prince’s something or other.’

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Leyton Road

And then it snowed.

It doesn’t snow so often in the city, but when it does, amongst all the disruption and chaos and over melodramatic battles to get to work, it looks beautiful.  A white shroud of hush descends and for a while London looks clean.

Over the weekend it fell heavily and so we went for a couple of long local walks that took in all the parks.  We watched the kids rushing headlong down the slopes on sledges, just two more jealous adults.  There’s something about the snow which first brings people out in excitement and then, eventually, drives them away.  It’s fun, but it loses its glee as the innocent gets turned to brown slush gathering in the gutter.  While we walked we, inevitably, talked about our failure to find a house.  We darted up and down different roads, checking out streets we didn’t really know and wondering what happens next.

‘Not the sort of weather which inspires people to move on,’ I said as the wind licked around our faces.

‘Perhaps we need to look further afield,’ my girlfriend suggested.

We roamed from Hilly Fields to Ladywell Fields, up over Blythe Hill and then onto Forest Hill, back via Nunhead and over Telegraph Hill, criss-crossing the area like we were cutting a message, a plea, into it.  On the Monday we were both at home for various reasons so when a couple of wide lying places cropped up we were well placed, mentally and physically, to be the first to see them.

One was in New Cross.

New Cross is an area that gets a lot of stick, both for the main road that rips through its heart and the sporadic violence on one of the roughest estates south of the river, but it also boasts the marvellous Telegraph Hill and the less well known Hatcham conservation zone.  Telegraph Hill is all tall Georgian houses, high storeys sitting on the slopes, looking down on the rest of the city.  Hatcham is more modest.  Pretty streets of Victorian terraces filling in the corner where the Old Kent Road bumps into the route down to Peckham and Camberwell, boxed in by the big Sainsbury’s, Millwall football ground, an industrial estate and the traffic.  A friend of mine lives down there in a lovely house.  I had hopes.

They were to be quickly dashed.

1977.  Esme sat in the folding chair on the small concrete terrace in front of her window and watched the world go past.  She smoked a cigarette in the morning sunshine.  It was going to be another hot July day, but the pressure was heavy.  A dull throb filled her head and caused sweat to twitch in the small of her back.  There would be rain before the day was out, or some sort of storm anyway.

Esme liked to sit outside her house.  She only smoked four or five cigarettes a day, but when she did have them she liked to take the time to experience the world as it stretched and shifted, moved all life around hers.  That morning was different to usual.  It was mainly men out and about, rather than the wives and mothers heading off to get groceries and the laundrette and to do a thousand other chores.  That morning it was all men and boys, all heading towards Clifton Rise.

Esme had been in New Cross ever since her parents first arrived in London almost thirty years before.  Maybe she never had quite loved it.  Maybe she had never quite become used to the traffic and the drifting scuzz, the tang to the air from the aluminium factory and the way old Dorothy Norris at number thirty-seven still talked about how it was only thanks to God’s grace that she’d realised her purse was still in the kitchen and turned back from Woolworths the morning the rocket dropped.  No, maybe she’d never completely loved it, but it was all she’d know since she was nine years old and it was home.

She’d met Jerry when she was still at school and he was a mechanic at the place on the Old Kent Road that always had the old Rollers outside.  He’d turn up, taking a late lunch break, when she was walking home.  He’d follow her for weeks, can of Guinness in hand, until eventually she asked him what he wanted.  They’d married two years later and it had been a good life.  Two children, two sons, Nathan and Daniel.  Two strapping young boys.  Life had been gentle.  The boys going to school, Jerry down to the garage, Esme getting up before any of them to clean at Goldsmiths then coming home and running the house all day.  There was goodliness in hard work.

Three men walked past, the furthest one carried a placard above his head, but she couldn’t see what it said.  The closest nodded, solemnly, towards her.  There was no cheer in their day out.  She hoped the boys would be careful.  Jerry would never have let them go.  It wasn’t their fight, he’d have said, even though it was for them.  Keep your head down, he would have said, and let life get on around you.  There were two stories to every situation.  Who knows, maybe those kids had been up to no good.  Maybe they hadn’t, but it didn’t mean you had to tear down the world just to make a point.

Poor Jerry.  He always was optimistic, but then he’d had it easy.  They liked him at the garage, respected his skill and if there ever was any trouble, then he probably didn’t even notice, half fuddled as he was by six or seven Guinness a day.  She couldn’t do that.  She couldn’t ignore the way some people looked at her.  If anything that was worse than the things some said.  Words she could argue against, but thoughts were another matter.

Esme missed Jerry still.  She missed him so much it hurt.  It hurt as much as when Frank had come round to tell her what had happened.  How the jack had failed when Jerry had been underneath the car.  How quick it had been.

Ever since then the boys had been angry.  At nothing and with everything, just filled with rage.  Especially Daniel.  She understood why they’d gone, but she wished they hadn’t. 

She took her packet of cigarette out of her pinny’s pouch.  Normally she would never smoke two in quick succession, but it didn’t feel like a normal day.  She flinched as the roar floated from the main road.  There were sirens in the air already.

‘I don’t quite understand the floor-plan,’ I said over the phone.

‘Just come,’ the agent replied.  ‘It’s best to come and see, yes?’

The house felt oddly small as we looked around it, but it was only when we got into the garden that it became apparent why.  The door out into the garden was on the side of the house and there were no windows out the rear.  Next to the door, heading deeper into the garden was more wall and then a door and then yet more wall and another door.

‘What the-?’

‘Oh yes,’ the agent explained, ‘that’s next door.’

At some point, someone had sold part of the house to its neighbours.  Next door was converted into a maisonette and now both stories cuddled the end of this house and extended into the garden. Their interior floor plans were elaborate L shapes wrapping around the end of the house.  Three narrow gardens cut the width of the building.  The one attached to the house up for sale was, of course, the furthest and in the worst condition.

Almost out of habit, my girlfriend engaged in the question around price and how much the vendor would be prepared to come down by.

‘I think it’s fairly priced,’ the agent said. ‘I bought a house on the other side of the road, to let out, a week or so ago for just a little less.  Give me a number and we can see.’  All part of the normal spiel, of course, but he wasn’t finished:  ‘You won’t find your perfect house.  Stop looking for it.  Just buy somewhere.  Anywhere.  It doesn’t matter what.  Buy it, sell it in a couple of years.  It’s the only way to get on, the only way to make some money.  The market never goes down.’

‘That’s not quite true,’ I began to protest remembering the crashes of the early nineties and, well frankly, the rest of the country.

‘When I was a waiter, a young man, I bought my first place.  Now,’ he shrugged.  ‘London, it never goes down.  I feel sorry for young waiters, they will never be able to do what I did.  They will never succeed.  Trust me, though, buy something.  Anything.’

We trudged back through the snow, our mood blackening as the white was churned up by the endless rush hour tyres.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Mount Pleasant Road

‘We’re even thinking we might have to consider Hither Green,’ I said to a friend who lives atop Telegraph Hill.

‘Blimey,’ she replied.  ‘You must be getting desperate.’

It wasn’t our fault though.  The edges of Hither Green were being picked up by the parameters of our Rightmove searches.  We’d set it for SE4 plus one mile in the optimistic hope of picking up a bargain in the opposite direction towards Peckham and East Dulwich, but it was really keen for us to consider further east.  I’ve written about how well I know this area, but truth be told I don’t know much east of the Catford Road except for Blackheath because, well, I mean there’s nothing there.

A friend of ours, however, was quite evangelical about Hither Green.  Not that they lived there, mind, but their brother did and he loved it. 

‘It could have the next property explosion,’ my girlfriend said, unconvinced.

My main experience of it was the driving test centre where my girlfriend periodically goes to have another crack and we, in the run up, practice parallel parking along its narrow streets.  It wasn’t somewhere I’d ever even bothered to consider.  I hadn’t even worked up myself to being rude about it.  It simply wasn’t on my radar and yet Rightmove kept throwing up eminently affordable, big, attractive Victorian terrace houses.

‘Okay,’ I said to the internet one afternoon after it presented a particularly fine looking place.  ‘I give in.  We’ll go and have a look.’

Immediately beforehand we had a bit of a sneak preview as we made our way through Hither Green’s streets to Manor Park merrily protesting against Lewisham Hospital’s A&E downgrading.  Thousands of people from all ages and walks of life strode, chanted and sang their way through the quiet suburban streets.  We stole off almost as soon as the march itself ended, leaving our friends to the speeches, tub-thumping Joan Ruddock and a man dressed as a lion in Millwall’s football strip to try and get a better flavour for the place.

And some lunch.

Lunch, unfortunately, proved to be a bit of a failure.  Hither Green’s two cafes were both packed, although that was presumably due to the hundreds of people like us who wouldn’t normally be there and had tired of the cause for want of a sandwich.  We got something to take away and shivered a little as we ate on the street, outside the station, looking in the window of the cutesy baby accessory shop.

We wandered around a bit more, but quickly became short of things to do.  Arriving at the house too early to simply hover we walked off for a bit more, reaching back to the main road and the tyre workshop on the corner.  Ambling back up the road we found ourselves back at the house and knocked anyway.

1999:  Jimmy had done all right for himself, in the end.  It was like a light had been switched on in his head.  He remembered clearly that hot afternoon when Ali gave him a talking to.  Told him to use his brains for once, to not get dragged down by the world.  To not make the same mistakes he had done.

Jimmy had suddenly knuckled down, working hard for the final year at school.  He ignored the taunts of his mates, of Mark and Nige and Toby, and somehow he scraped into the Sixth Form College on the Lewisham Way.  There, he was surprised to find that when he actually got to choose the learning he undertook he quite liked it.  Knowledge wasn’t dull after all.

It was late or early, Jimmy wasn’t sure which anymore.  Somewhere around six in the morning.  Everyone else had gone home a while ago.  The baby was in bed just after midnight, just after the end of the century.  In the streets around, Jimmy could hear the rumble of celebrations rolling onwards, like the new millennium would change everyone’s lives.  The table in front of him was still covered with the remains of the dinner party.  Sauce smeared plates through which paper party poppers had strewn, not quite finished glasses of wine, some spillage of the good table cloth.  Jimmy sat with his glass of whisky, his eyes closed and listened to the sounds of London abound.

University had followed.  The first one in his family, helped by a full grant, of course.  His Dad had almost burst with pride when he’d driven him up to Leeds. 

‘Politics,’ he kept saying over and over, ‘he’ll be bloody pm before I’m dead.’

He wasn’t of course.  He hadn’t even finished his second year before the bus ripped his Dad’s car in half, the old man still inside.  If only he hadn’t had one more pint, if only he hadn’t thought he could cut the junction.  If only, life was full of if onlys.  They’d even dedicated a race to him at the dog track.  Sentimental buggers drinkers can be.

Jimmy had wanted to cut and run then, but he made himself finish the course.  He felt he owned it.

The whisky burned in his chest.  The past always hurt one way or another, either with regret or with nostalgia.

After he graduated he’d disappeared for a while.  A long trip around the world.  Europe, India, Thailand, Australia, back up through South America.  Never did make it to Africa, shame.  He had a hitherto undiscovered knack for languages and managed to pick up some bar work and other bits and pieces on the way round, but most of the money had come from Dad.  No-one had known the old man’d had such a massive life insurance policy.  They’d have considered doing in him years before.  Jimmy snorted at the grimness of his humour.  His Mum had insisted though.  It was more than she or Gemma needed. 

‘Go on, see something of the world.’

Jimmy met Francesca in Mexico on a beach packed with drunken American teenagers trying to surf.  She laughed at his disparagingly snide remark and they’d gone for a drink somewhere quieter.  He wished he could remember what he said, what that killer line had been.  Not that it really mattered seeing as she’d come home with him, halfway across the world home.

London, after five years it hadn’t seemed any different.  Still a bit dangerous, still a bit full of itself, still overpriced, but it was where the work was.  He went through the civil service faststream and ended up working for the Department of Health.  They’d lived in Highbury at first, but Francesca had longed for more space, for a place of their own and so he’d come home south and the city had shifted slightly.  He’d that felt a love for it that had been missing north of the river.  It was as though he’d just needed his internal compass resetting. 

Before long he’d been a junior civil servant for six years, slowly working his way up the ladder, slowly being accepted as part of the system.  Every day he cycled to work and sat at the same desk with the same empty view of the loading bay, churning numbers, running risk assessments, paper work, endless, endless paper work.  There were days that he ached to wake and not know what the world would bring, where he would go, what the hell he was going to do next. 

But they had this house.  They had Victoria.  So tiny and pretty.  Named, not after Francesca’s great aunt, but after that woman who used to hang around outside the Chandos.  A bit of a state, but still, underneath all the smears, a stunner.  Jimmy had fallen for her when he was thirteen when she bought him and his mates cans of lager from the shop.  He’d fallen and, sometimes, it felt like he still fell, but maybe that was just life.  Up you went and downwards always took longer.

Whatever happened to Nige and Toby and Mark and, Christ, everyone he’d met in Leeds and on beaches and in cafes strewn across the world?  Jimmy was twenty-nine and his life behind him felt like a scattering of friends.  Real friends who would save your life, not like those muppets from work who’d come for dinner tonight.  Dinner, on millennium eve.  Five years ago Francesca and he would have looked for the world to change on a night like that, now they just hoped the meringue would rise properly.

Sometimes he worried that he woke up in the morning and knew how every day for the rest of his life would pan out.  But, then again, there was only one person in the world who could fix that.

‘Just need an idea,’ he said to himself and drained his whisky.  ‘Better go to bed.  Always for the best when you’re getting melancholy.’

He stumbled slightly, bumping into the chair Morris had left in the middle of the room.  Feeling slightly embarrassed by his drunkenness he switched the lights off.

‘Good night,’ he said to London and in the distance an exploding firework wished him the same.    

The agent let us in as they showed another couple out and it was indeed very nice.  Big rooms, three reception rooms, three massive bedrooms, a slightly odd rose and heart and motif running throughout that would need to be expunged in the name of good taste.  A good sized kitchen.  A nice bathroom.  The garden was a bit on the small side, but at least it had grass.

‘We’ve mainly been looking in Brockley,’ my girlfriend explained to the agent who, politely at least, appeared to be paying attention.  ‘But there’s so little on the market.  There’s not much we can afford, and what there is descends into an undignified scrap for it.’  

‘Yeah,’ he nodded, ‘we get loads of people coming here when they can’t get into Brockley.’

Hither Green, I thought, a refugee camp for failed Brockleyites.

As we walked back home, down the busy Catford Road, up through Ladywell and onto Hilly Fields, we talked about our options.  In many ways, the house made perfect sense.  It was a great size, in good condition, on an attractive street and we could comfortably afford it (within the context of everything being ridiculously overpriced).  And yet...

‘There aren’t any pubs,’ I complained, even though it wasn’t strictly true.  ‘We’d have to go to Lewisham centre or Lee for a drink.’

‘How often do we go for a drink locally?’ she countered.

‘Often enough,’ I sulked, avoiding mentioning my occasional solitary pint when she was away.  ‘More often than never.’

The thing was, it’d be a great place to have a family.  It made sense if you had kids and maybe one day we would, but what on earth were we going to do in the meantime?

‘Hither Green?’  A friend of mine who lives in Sevenoaks was aghast.  ‘I’ve been there.  Once.’  He took another swig of his beer.  ‘By mistake.  It was when the snow was down.  I’d had a couple of ales and, I don’t know, misread the departure board somehow.  I only looked up when we flew through New Cross.  First stop Hither Green.  None of the trains I need go that way.  I got off thinking I could make my way back into town.  It was a bit after eleven, I guess, and the next train to London Bridge wasn’t for half an hour.  I only had a suit jacket on.  It was bloody freezing.  I went outside, contemplating a very expensive taxi journey, but there was nothing there.  Not a soul around.  Just a light dusting of snow over some parked cars and the fuzzy light from the fried chicken shop.  I went back up onto the platform and sat there while the icy wind ripped through me, waiting for the sodding train and desperate to get the hell out of there.’