Immediately after our second visit to Upper Brockley Road we walked some five hundred metres round the corner to a flat on Lewisham Way, which we probably should never have even seen. It didn’t meet many of our criteria and instead managed to tick two of the definite no points by being in a basement and on a main road. And yet, for some reason, I was rather smitten by the hall.
A hall, I grant you, is a strange part of a house to be taken by, but I had been living in rented flats without such for years – the house I had for while boasted a hall so narrow it was single file only, hunch your shoulders in – and I missed having somewhere to, well, to put stuff. The studio flat went straight from the communal stairs to my bedroom; the current flat has a corridor between the rooms but it is narrow and dark. You’d never pause there let alone put your coat down. We resort to half blocking off the entrance to cellar just to put the coat stand somewhere. I wanted to be able to walk in through my own front door, pause for a moment and not feel as though I had to tramp through other rooms in order to take my shoes off. All very dull, all very practical, but it was a particularly handsome hall with beautifully maintained wooden floors and – as though in compensation for every other feeble excuse for a hall in London’s converted housing stock – it was massive. As well as deep wardrobes for coats and shoes and tents and so on, there would have been space for a desk and probably some sort of cabinet. It was like a free room.
The flat overall was bigger than expected. The rooms were generous and while the vendors were using it as a three bed place, it was really a two bed flat with two reception rooms which would have suited us just perfectly.
Again, the agent failed to show up so we knocked on the door. A nice guy who lived there with his mate showed us round, telling us that the house had been owned by a doctor and his family for a long time before it was converted into flats. He seemed reluctant to be leaving, but his mate was getting married and off to set up a new life with his bride. All of which meant that this bloke was out on his ear too. The upheaval sounded a bit like getting dumped.
1915: Dr Melrose realised he had no words to offer, that there was no cure for the malady from which Leonard suffered. Outside the clanking rattle of a tram bundling down the hill to Lewisham echoed and inside Dr Melrose struggled to concentrate.
Leonard was clearly very distressed. It had been a dreadful year for the man, losing his wife to consumption at the end of the last winter and now news had arrived from France that his only son had been killed. Melrose sympathised, but really what was he expected to do? The man wasn’t ill, he was just upset.
‘It just all seems such a waste,’ choked Leonard. ‘A glorious death, a hero’s fate at the hands of the enemy... Well, of course I’d be distraught, but at least it would make some sort of sense. At least it there might have been a point to it.’
‘Mmmm,’ nodded Melrose wondering what would be served for lunch. He saw so many men like this; too old to fight themselves, forced to send sons to the slaughter in their place.
People like Leonard, Dr Melrose thought, had been raised to think that the world was Britain and that the Empire was infallible. Years of relative peace, especially close at hand, had made people forget that sometimes war was long and hard, that sometimes it would feel like ‘Arthur’s life has meant nothing.’
Outside there was the strained clacking of a tram struggling back up the hill towards New Cross, the labouring engine struggled in the sunshine and Melrose imagined the driver begging his passengers to jump out and walk. He’d pick them up at the top.
‘Have you thought about going out to the country?’ Dr Melrose asked. ‘Or talking to Reverend Thompson?’ Anything other than cluttering up his surgery every week when there was no cure, putting off the other paying customers.
‘A stupid accident.’ Leonard appeared to be talking to himself more than Dr Melrose, looking at his hands folded in his lap. ‘Slipping in the mud and then being hit by that ambulance. That’s what Captain MacArthur said in his letter, different to the telegram from the war office. In the line of duty. What duty was it to be wandering down that slope in the morning calm, helmet in hand, the shells paused?’ Suddenly Leonard looked up, his cheeks were flushed and there was a watery look to his eyes. Melrose worried he might start to cry. ‘Talk to Reverend Thompson? This blasted century is enough to make a man stop believing in God.’
‘Mmm, quite,’ Dr Melrose mumbled and thought that he rather fancied a pork pie with some of that excellent pickle cook had found the week before.
It was a Saturday morning and immediately opposite the building the local market was taking place in the college car park. We’re big fans of the market and like that it’s currently a three minute walk from our flat, but I thought that thirty seconds might be a bit too close. It made the world feel a little busy as the traffic crawled along the main highway and the incessant beep-beep-beep of the pedestrian crossing rang out in the lounge.
The hall, alas, turned out to be the best thing about it. The guy made a pitch for the glamour of the master bedroom’s en suite bathroom. I’ve never really seen the point of en suites. Who, in my family, do I not want to use the shower after? For what do I require privacy when I scrub my teeth? Maybe I’m missing the point, but they just seem a waste of floor-space especially when they’re as precociously decorated as this was. Enormous shell like constructs formed the basin with ridiculously straggly taps leering over the top; an elaborate wet room experience but no damn bath. It was like something from a three star hotel with delusions of grandeur in the eighties.
The actual bathroom, which did have a bath and a faded turquoise suite from the seventies, was crammed in underneath the steps which, outside, led to the old front door. It also, somewhat ironically, suffered badly from damp as on the other side of one wall was fifteen foot of dirt.
Beep-beep-beep went the pedestrian crossing.
On the bathroom’s mirror opposite side, the smallest room, which I’d been plotting to use as a second bedroom with the other large bedroom as a study, was spoiled by the view out of the window. The back of the house opened directly on to a garden, most of which had been given over to a car park since there was no stopping on the main road, but the vista from the small room was of the underside the metal steps descending from upstairs onto the shared grass. The thick black metal looked like bars just behind the glass.
‘That’s a dehumidifier,’ I said. ‘Is there damp in here too?’
‘No, no,’ he fibbed. ‘We just use it for drying clothes.’
Beep-beep-beep went the pedestrian crossing.
The kitchen was nice, but it too had a problem. The back door out to the garden was protected by more prison bars. Good for security – and probably necessary, hidden from view as a potential burglar would be around the back of a house in a five foot deep trench – but not much help for slightly rotund cats.
‘She could always lose weight,’ I suggested knowing that it was all a waste of time.
Beep-beep-beep went the pedestrian crossing as we left.
‘I don’t want to live underground,’ my girlfriend said. ‘It’ll be dark and cold and damp. No more basement flats, okay?’ All fair and good points, but far more pertinent was the fact that I’d already started planning how to leave samples of the bubonic plague on the crossing’s request button.