It felt as though time was slipping away from us as Christmas approached. There were other things to worry about, places to go and work to be done. The property viewing pace, mercifully, eased off. People were, understandably, less interested in planning a move over the festive season unless they absolutely had to. While I was grateful for the break, my girlfriend found her relentless Rightmove browsing increasingly frustrating as less and less new places came on the market. With little else to fantasise about we began to re-evaluate places already rejected.
‘What about this garden flat?’ she suggested.
It looked, to me, a perfect example of mediocre. There was nothing obviously wrong with it, but nor was there much that made me want to whizz round there straightaway.
‘Where is it?’
‘Just down from Hilly Fields,’ she replied. ‘Off Vicar’s Hill.’
‘Ladywell,’ I may well have growled.
Much like my irrational disdain for parts of Forest Hill, I’ve always been somewhat scornful of Ladywell, or Ladywell Village as it sometimes styles itself. Partly this is because it fits with my oft-made analogy of Brockley being an island of loveliness in a sea of crappier areas; partly it’s because when I used to live more on its borders Ladywell didn’t do much to dispel this opinion. The Ladywell Tavern was uninspiring, as was its short high-street then consisting of chicken shops, other takeaways with grease stains on the windows and he net curtains, a tattoo parlour, a closed down bar, a newsagent where an aggressive Alsatian lived behind the counter and a small supermarket that, the one time I’d been in, smelt of wee.
But things had been changing. I’d found the DIY shop surprisingly well stocked last spring. The Tavern was refurbished about five years ago and the couple of times my girlfriend and I had visited it had, at the very least, had some good ale on tap. I’d heard good things about Oscar’s cafe and El’s Kitchen the deli, even if I’d never been in either of them. Rumour, since verified by it opening, was that the closed down bar was going to be restored as a patisserie. While, like Honor Oak Park, the station is across the border into zone three, it isn’t as cut off from Lewisham or Brockley to be the only option.
Plus it’s nestled between Hilly Fields and Ladywell Fields which in turn link up with Blythe Hill and creates a stretch of parkland that runs from the conservation heartland all the way down to the South Circular. An abundance of green space is one of the area’s best features and moving somewhere which took full advantage of that felt sensible.
‘Okay,’ I said with a little trepidation.
The agent was late as usual and so we shivered in an air which was taking a decidedly chilly turn after the onslaught of rain. We stood outside the house and I said: ‘Isn’t it another basement flat?’
‘No it’s a garden flat,’ my girlfriend replied. ‘On the ground floor.’
‘Really?’ I looked at the building. It was one of those old Victorian middle-class houses converted into flats, the basement filling in the space that once been the kitchen, pantry and scullery. A general area for dumping stuff converted into living space. The pay-off for living partly in the dark was that you tended to either get direct access to or sole use of the garden.
The agent arrived in his shiny black Golf, his shiny black suit glinting in the drizzle.
The flat was in the basement.
1902: Mary quite liked working for the Major, even if the rumour was that he’d never really served. Old Jim claimed that he’d been told the Major had been a tradesman in Calcutta, but on his arrival in London had decided that military rank bought more prestige, but then Old Jim was bitter about everyone. Old Jim was coping well with the new century; he wanted the world to have stayed how it had always been. He didn’t want to live in a city; he’d been born in the countryside and that was where he wanted to die, but the city had come to him.
Mary didn’t really care whether the Major had been a hero or a profiteer, he was a good old soul, a gentle man seemingly content to watch his remaining days go by with small comforts. All Mary had to do was keep the house spick and span, wash his clothes, cook his meals and make sure that there was always the scotch he liked in stock.
The small bell rang and Mary gathered the tray together. Afternoon tea at three-forty-five, every day. The Major liked his tea sweet, like he’d become used to in India and so Mary made sure that the bowl overflowed with sugar cubes, but somewhat, he said, it just wasn’t the same. Something about cardamom. In tea? Mary didn’t think it was right, but still that’s what she could swear he said every day as he blew on his cup, took a sip and then sank back into his chair. It’s not the same without the cardamom.
Increasingly he did seem confused, unsure where he was. Sometimes he’d get her name wrong, others he wouldn’t remember that he’d asked her to move his journal or to move his armchair better to catch the afternoon light. And he mumbled, he always muttered under his breath so that she really had to strain to hear him.
Mary put the tray down on the incidental table at the Major’s elbow. In the time it had taken her to pour the milk and walk upstairs he’d dozed off again. He ruffled gentle snores fluffed the corner of his moustache, making him sound a little like a hedgerow creature furrowing for food.
She touched his shoulder gently. She wished her Father had been given the peace of being old and watching the birds in his garden. It was a quieter end that horse hooves to the head one night in Clapham.
‘Major,’ she said softly.
‘Wha-whu,’ he jerked awake, his flaying arm narrowly missing the tray.
‘Major, would you like some tea?’
‘What, yes. Of course. Time for tea. Why I rang.’
She poured, straining tea onto fresh milk, then stirring in three white cubes of sugar. She placed the cup and saucer in his hand. He raised it, shakily to his mouth, took a noisy sip and then lowered it back down, closing his eyes and sinking into the green leather of his chair.
He mumbled something she couldn’t hear, but it didn’t matter. Not really. She had a good idea what it was. As she went to leave the room, she heard him call out: ‘Thank you, Mary.’
It wasn’t such a bad life.
Since we were there, we decided to look around anyway despite having ruled out basement flats after the visit to Lewisham Way. It was another strange place. A relatively new kitchen betrayed its cheapness when the fake door covering the dishwasher came off in my hand. For some reason there were two bathrooms, next to each other, both too small. Both had a toilet in the corner, one had a shower cubicle I’d would battle to get into; the other had a bath I could have only sat in. Random hall cupboards evoked memories of how the house had once been designed, recesses and inlets for tools to live lives no longer relevant. Snow white carpets seemed a mistake when the only access to the garden was through the French windows off the living room. There was a strange hyper-cool eighties fake fireplace, the sort of thing that wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place in a set for an alien world in the original Star Trek. Ten days before Christmas and despite the flat being lived in there was no evidence of festivities, there was no evidence of personality. It was as though the owner were a blank slate, waiting to be told what to like by their television.
But it was the second bedroom which was really odd. The arctic carpet was ruined by a deep, rust brown mark, shaped like an iron and an inch or so deep. All around the edge of the room was a step up, about three inches high and six deep meaning none of the furniture could go flush against the wall. The only window was a tiny fanlight, little larger than a letter box. It was high in one corner looked out at the dropped wall in front of the house. The smallest sliver of daylight struggled to find its way in. Along one wall was not only a basin, but a long wooden work surface. It was as though whoever had converted these rooms from their original function had become bored halfway through and just stopped.
It was, again, surprisingly expensive given all its faults.
‘The thing is,’ said the agent, trying to be encouraging, ‘I think he’s a little bit greedy.’
‘But don’t you tell the vendors what it’ll sell for?’‘Sure, but, yeah, I just think he’s been a little bit greedy. Asking for that bit too much. That’s why it’s been on the market six months.’ He shook his head as though he was immune from the malaise. ‘Greedy.’