I’m not too sure how we ever ended up here.
I used to walk along Beadnell Road regularly when I lived on Whatman Road. I’d be heading for the Dartmouth Arms or sometimes I’d catch the fast train to Forest Hill and walk back, using it as a cut through alongside the light industry estate. I remember thinking, back then, what a dreary depressing road. A short run of Victorian terraces, sealed off by the road barrier, closeted by the massive Travis Perkins opposite, the old storage centre halfway along and then down the other end and the little modern houses from which hardcore music about rape and killing used to blast. It was a no man’s land just off the South Circular, not close to anything other than the van hire place, PlumbBase and Maplin’s. It was a little bit of nothing.
And yet, there we were, starting to get a little desperate. So few places had come up that week it was this, a wreck and somewhere so totally off the radar that it made another blasted open day for a property we didn’t really want feel like a possibility; we were beginning to fool ourselves that places like Beadnell Road with all their obvious drawbacks not reflected in the price could, somehow, be okay.
It was, in fairness, very neat. They’d decorated carefully, but also in a sanitary way that made the end of terrace bland. Some of the random places we’d seen pictures of, the complete shitholes which needed industrial power to clear the scum off the walls, had helped us to appreciate boring. We were in danger of becoming like the bathroom, a depressingly dull brown.
1969. Michael wished they could afford some furniture. He stood up and rubbed his tail where it had gone to sleep, trying to bring the muscle back to life. In the kitchen he took a can of beer from the bucket of water and felt the satisfying kish under his finger nail and the grind of aluminium as the tab pulled clear. He had to rely on touch as the candles didn’t cast enough light.
This had, he reasoned, not been his cleverest idea. When the old man had given him the choice of staying or leaving, of boredom or life, it had seemed the easiest decision in the world, but it was only after he’d crashed on Simon’s place in Camden for a couple of nights that he realised he didn’t really have a plan. Simon was happy to help, but his wife thought two nights was enough of a favour. Michael didn’t really know any other parts of London. He’d been all over the city, but much of it was like visiting a foreign country. He didn’t understand the rules anywhere else. The only place he was comfortable was the South-East and so less than a week after his dramatic departure he found himself in a doss with no power less than half a mile from his parent’s house.
He knew if he walked past the lock-ups, across the road, past the St Germans, up the hill and over the park they’d be at home. His Father would be reading the paper, his Mother doing, whatever it was she did. She sometimes seemed totally lost inside her head. Dawn would have been sent to bed already. Michael wondered whether she had sneaked out the window that evening like she did so often.
Upstairs he could hear Andy and Lisa yelling at each other. He couldn’t tell what they were arguing about; he never could. It was just noise and rage and then they’d fuck each other equally noisily. Rob, Marty and Vic had laughed at his surprise when the screeches had morphed into moans. That was just what people did, they seemed to say, but they weren’t people Michael had ever known. The others had all gone out somewhere – unless Vic was still asleep under those blankets in the corner – but Michael had lost the urge.
Going out all the time seemed less appealing when it was the only thing you had to do, so he’d planned to stay inside and read that paperback he’d stolen from the library. Except, of course, it was too dark. And cold; the draft blew through the holes in the front window. He was almost tempted to try and sleep except that early and that sober he knew that the regular trains in and out of town would keep him awake.
He knew he’d made a mistake and all it would take to go home was an apology. He knew he wasn’t cut out for living like that, on the edge. He was just too normal. But he also knew he was too proud to ever say he was sorry. The old man had drilled that into him; never back down, never blink.
I think we were the only ones to bother going outside, as though the garden was only something to overlook. At first glance it appeared that they’d done a lot to it, installing different levels of terrace like giant’s steps heading up the slope. Certainly they’d done more than next door which looked like a mutant nature reserve running wild, sanctuary for water voles, deer and traffic cones unravelling over the fence. Then it began to dawn on me: there were no plants, just a landscape. Nothing grew there, nothing lived.
‘This would make quite a nice sun trap,’ said my girlfriend optimistically, standing on the highest level, looking back at the house.
Neee-nah, thundered the express along the tracks just the other side of the fence. The air shuddered as the vacuum formed and then expunged with a whoosh.
‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘Lovely.’
Back inside we struggled to squeeze past the other potential buyers arriving at three minute intervals. The house wasn’t designed for thirty adults to traipse around simultaneously. Upstairs the rear bedroom clearly belonged to their youngest as a two foot long bed and miniature dressing table filled it and marginally larger scale furniture packed out the middle room. It’s a shame, I imagined the parents thinking, that they don’t stay so small forever. .
The parents’ bedroom was at the front of the house where it became apparent why they were leaving. On the wall were casts of her pregnant stomach and splayed hands cast from clay and supporting the tiny life inside. There were two above each other next to the bed keeping an eye on them while they slept. On the floor, waiting to be hung, was a third.
I slipped arm around my girlfriend’s waist as she looked out of the window. Opposite the low rise industrial sheds slipped away and beyond the slopes of Forest Hill rose up. At the top, the old church commanded over the horizon, close to the grey skies through cracks in which sunshine fell on to it. The old and new limped along together in that London way and all that could be heard was the whistling of a bird and the beeping of the forklift carrying wooden pallets in the builders’ merchants as it reversed.