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.
‘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.