This was our first non-Brockley viewing, the first place outside of SE4. St John’s is, however, actually our closest railway station, living as we currently do on the Lewisham borders of Brockley. That part of SE8 is another Victorian conservation zone, less grand than the tall houses along Brockley’s wide avenues yet more ostentatious that the two up-two down terraces of Crofton Park. St John’s was some sort of late nineteenth century island now isolated by the encircling seas of the Lewisham Way, Brookbank Road, the light industry estate and the Deptford Highway. Pretty is as pretty does though and while the area boasts some lovely looking houses it lacks any amenities aside from one, not particularly tempting pub. The station might be convenient, but the infrequent service means that it’s only useful when you’re heading for a specific train.
All generally slightly anonymous then, but, for reasons which can’t really be explained, I had a gut feeling, a nagging from the inside that it felt right. It was almost as though I wanted it to be right before I’d even gone through the door. I wanted it to be easy.
It was our first experience of an open day. So poplar did the agents rate the property that they expected it to sell in one hour on one morning. Like I said, we were still getting to grips with how all this worked and hadn’t yet clocked that this was just another trick to increase the impression of demand.
It was yet another rental being sold up. A two bedroom house sitting atop a basement flat, with a narrow thin strip of a garden where you could stand, throw a stone and it’d, maybe, land on the station. It was also our first disagreement. I liked it. My girlfriend thought it was disgusting. I thought it had potential – although I hated myself for using that phrase. She couldn’t see past the scuzz, the battered kitchen, the deeply aggressive turquoise of the bathroom, the blackened sheets which looked as though they hadn’t been washed in months on sagging beds, grease patches on the walls above crumpled and limo pillows. We knew we weren’t buying any of this stuff, but the grime made her skin crawl as though it was contagious.
Just as we were leaving the garden I noticed a crack in the wall. A trench that ran up the exterior, nestled in the crutch of the L between the main building and the entrance porch sticking out the side. I took a picture of it with my phone and emailed it to my Dad. He’s a surveyor so I wanted his opinion on whether it was a problem or not. The bigger, more immediate problem, though, was our disagreement. The conversation spiralled out of control until we said things we regret and, inevitably like all arguments go, suggested that the whole enterprise was a mistake.
I mopped for a while, upset at upsetting her, irritated by the whole thing, the needlessness of the falling out. Even after we’d apologised and made up, it was still there, dragging on for a few days, a point of contention neither of us was willing to entirely cede. Eventually the following Friday we sat upstairs in the Talbot and agreed to wander down past the house. In the still of the early winter evening there was a tranquillity to the quiet streets that belayed their relative centralness; an oasis of calm under the shadows the bare branches forming a canopy over the road opposite the house. The silence gave us a resoluteness, a willingness to find a way through - provided the structure was sound.
1957. Hutchinson shivered despite the roaring fire. He sat in the stiff backed armchair he’d dragged closer to the licking flames in the hearth and shivered. His tea sat on the incidental table to his right, the spoon still flecked with tiny grains of sugar that hadn’t dissolved. It was too was stone cold.
That feeling of gnawing dread had been with him for over a week. He’d been unable to shake it, like it would be with him until his deathbed. He should have just ignored it, stayed inside with Meg and the dinner, but how is one supposed to react when it sounds like the world is collapsing.
During the war he’d been in intelligence, a backroom boy. He’d not been bloodied by field work and so nothing had prepared him for what he saw that evening. With the sound of steel bending, a creaking groan that wrapped itself around his brain, in the air Hutchinson had walked out of the house and up the hill to the railway bridge. It was foggy, a deep densely damp fog that made your lungs wet. His breath came in soggy splurges. In the distance there was shouting and the flickering of lamp lights down on the tracks.
The fog shifted, just for a moment, as though it had yawned, and through the gap he saw the crumpled train mess; the split tender, the burning carriage. Shapes seemed to have been thrown clear, split out of the carriage and scattered across the sleepers. Quickening his pace he caught up with another man heading down to the railway. It was that chap Chadwick he’d met in the pub a couple of times saying something about going to help.
As he got closer the carnage became less clear not more. The shapes on the ground looked as though they should have been people, but they were incomplete; twisted at impossible angles. The train was not just one train, but two. A steam engine spun from the track, an electric unit in front compacted too small. The steam locomotive lay amongst the wreckage of the pillars that supported bridge for the other line into Lewisham. The aching steel creased moan continued in a soaring crescendo, rising and dipping again, soaring and then stretching out into silence coupled with the regular chugging of the train coming towards it. Finally, the bridge collapsed, tearing itself down on top of the stumbling survivors and the groaning was replaced by the screaming of brakes as the train above careered towards the open maw and all Hutchinson could do was stare.
Hutchinson’s shiver bought him back to his parlour and the fire. He looked into the flames and wished he’d never gone outside. He wanted life to wash away the memory of the unmoving bodies and worse those that had writhed in agony. He wanted to forget the dark red stains on his hands. He wanted the wind to blow away the musty smell of death that still hung around his house. He wanted to not see the train heading straight for the drop every time he closed his eyes. He’d never felt so helpless, he’d never felt so cold.
My Dad said that the crack might be something, it might be nothing, but given that work was being undertaken on the railway bridge not a hundred metres away it needed looking at. He suggested I return and take more pictures.
The agents weren’t so keen even when I told them why. ‘It’s nothing, just the plaster.’
‘It’s on the exterior of the building.’
‘The vendor hasn’t informed us of any structural problems. It wouldn’t be in his interest to cover it up,’ he said offering far too many reasons at once to be believable. ‘My boss lives around the corner and he hasn’t suffered any subsidence.’
‘This isn’t a negotiating position. If there’s a problem, I can’t afford to fix it so I’ll be out. If it’s nothing, I’m interested in making an offer. I just want to take some more photos and get an indicative opinion.’
‘You want to see it again? No-one sees anywhere more than once these days.’
Eventually, almost a fortnight later, they let me back in. My girlfriend didn’t come. I went in and took my pictures, including of the interior where I noted that the crack was reflected on the inside. The agent went to move his car from where he’d illegally parked, leaving me alone in the empty house. I took the opportunity for a bit more of nose around. The tenants had clearly tidied up before our previous visit and their normal living state was even grimmer. Several days’ worth of dirty dishes were across the kitchen surfaces. The bedrooms were filled with scattered underwear. In every corner, in every room was a set mouse trap. On the way out, I noticed the state of the flat below. Bars on the windows. The letter box hanging off the door. Stacked torn rubbish bags just outside the entrance, their contents spilling out onto the steps up to street level.
‘Don’t bother,’ my Dad said. ‘Maybe it’s nothing and you’d need a structural engineer’s report to be sure, but it looks like the entrance hall is coming away from the main building. It might need underpinning.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with it,’ protested the agent when I passed this on. Shortly afterwards we noticed the asking price being lowered. The morning of the day when I write this, I saw a to let sign outside. The photos on the agent’s website were the same ones used to tempt us. No-one had bought the bluff. The railway works have almost finished, but the house still sits at an awkward angle.