‘Jesus,’ I said as we walked away from the last house, ‘I can’t see us living there.’
And yet, after our attempt to buy Montacute Road imploded, we found ourselves at the other end of that short, dreary street.
‘Oh God,’ my girlfriend said as I parked the car. ‘It’s pebble-dashed again.’
I didn’t say anything. We’d had a minor disagreement about pebble-dashing. While we both agreed it was clearly a stupid thing to have ever become trendy, I didn’t think it actually mattered. How much time, after all, did you spend looking at the outside of your house?
‘I just don’t think I could live somewhere with pebble-dash,’ she said and so, obviously, I clambered back up onto my pious over-righteous high horse, readying myself for another fall.
‘The problem is,’ said a friend of mine over dinner just before Christmas who was in a similar situation in North-West London, ‘so many of the places we end up looking at are pebble-dashed.’
‘My girlfriend says that,’ I replied. ‘She doesn’t want to live somewhere that grey.’
‘She’s right too. It’s damn ugly.’
Clearly I was in the minority, but all of this begs the question: What were we doing back on Rushford Road?
Our immediate reaction to failing to buy Montacute Road was to, essentially, run away. Having got ourselves nervously excited about buying somewhere we could only just afford with far more space than we needed, when it didn’t happen we sort of interpreted it as a blessing in disguise and so we retreated to smaller, cheaper places. Invariably needing lots of work; I mean, they were cheap for a reason. The problem was, being January, there still wasn’t much on the market and so there we were: knocking on the door of the only little house up for sale that week.
It was a perfect mirror image of the previous place we’d looked at, an inversion with only slightly better taste. The wooden panelling was on the hall, stairs and landing rather than the dining room, but it was still there. The living and dining room were already knocked through into one, but surprisingly didn’t make the space feel significantly bigger. It felt narrow and constricted. I began to wonder if three years of living in a studio flat had distorted my memory of the rooms on Salehurst Road. In my head the house was, if not massive, then certainly spacious, but perhaps it was only in comparison to the single room I’d ended up in.
The kitchen was tired. Worn out cupboards and units hung from the walls while free standing appliances lined up underneath the window, like they were on sale in an architectural salvage lock-up. The bathroom was on the ground floor reached through a sliding wicker door that clicked and clacked as we opened it as though it might be about to come apart in our hands. The suite was a pale daffodil yellow streaked black that my girlfriend immediately yucked at.
Other couples mooched around making similarly disparaging noises as though they would, if they had to, but, really, they’d rather they didn’t.
1948: Carlos liked this house even though it wasn’t his home. He’d been forced to leave his real home, just outside Porto, quickly in the end. He’d thought about it ever since peace had come to the continent, but suddenly it he’d given one angry rant too many and it had been time for him to be on his way.
London had never been the plan, but somehow it had drawn him in. Its orbit was strong, even tired and battered as it was it pulled people from all over the world to its streets and after six months of itinerant living it was good to settle.
‘More tea, dear?’ offered Mrs Anderson, his landlady.
‘Thank you,’ he replied even though he couldn’t really stand another cup. He was drowning in politeness, but he felt he couldn’t offend Mrs Anderson. She had offered him a roof and the rate for the back room was reasonable. She was a nice old lady, a little like his mother. They shared the same eyes, the look that had seen too much hurt. Her husband and her son had both been killed in France. Thirty years apart, but in the same circumstances of fire and hell.
He had been surprised how much London still bore the scars of the bombing runs from Germany, of the missiles launched from Holland and Normandy. You didn’t have to walk far to come across a crevasse etched into the street, a hole where a home should have been and you didn’t need to ask. You just knew. From the ripped open, barren centre of Lewisham to the eerie silence that encroached opposite the town hall in New Cross, the sudden gaps in Breakspear’s Road, Wickham Way, Gordonbrook Road. Even out away from the centre and the factories, the war had come home, but the city was, slowly, recovering and a new people, a populace from across the globe had arrived to help it heal.
Upstairs the third bedroom had block blue walls and emulsion paint gave a slick shimmering finish. In the corner the boiler ground away noisily.
‘Should that be in here?’ my girlfriend asked.
‘I don’t think there’s any law against it, but it certainly would be nicer downstairs.’
It obligingly spluttered and burped as it struggled on the chilly morning to flush hot water through the building.
‘Certainly it isn’t going be conducive to sleep or concentration.’
Outside was another concrete slab yard. At the end a short slope of bare and empty soil looked barren. In the centre of the slabs a solitary gnome scowled at us. His eyes seemed to follow our every movement. His little fake hands gripping a pickaxe as though, given half the change, he’d like to bury it into my foot.
Inside we chatted to the agent. Given that we, and presumably anyone else too, would want to gut it, we wondered whether they would come down on the price. Apparently not. Apparently they’d already been shafted by someone trying to drop the price at the last minute, trying squeeze out some blood to go with their bricks and mortar. The vendor wasn’t in the mood to play nice with anyone.
‘Um,’ I said suddenly glancing up, ‘are those CCTV cameras?’
They were. In both the living room and the hall, angled to both the front and the back door, video cameras recorded every movement. The blinking red record light had captured us being rude about the crappy seventies gas fires and moth egg riddled carpet.
‘What the hell?’ I asked no-one in particular, leaning in closer. In my head I imagined the vendor watching the tape back and recoiling at the extreme close up of my nasal passage.
‘As far as I know,’ the agent covered quickly, ‘there’s never been any trouble here.’‘In that case, they’re just kind of creepy, aren’t they?’