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.
‘I think if I could live anywhere,’ my girlfriend had saidmonths previously, ‘I would live on Tressillian Road. It’s such a pretty name.’
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.’
‘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.