Christmas came and went blessing us with a few days when we could, at least, concentrate on stuffing our faces rather worrying about why someone hadn’t rung us back to confirm a viewing and how much could we really afford to put down as a deposit. Returning to London and the fray, my girlfriend attacked the internet with vigour, chasing down every possible option within the boundaries we’d drawn for ourselves. Her hard work meant that by the time the first Saturday back rolled around we were scheduled to see three places in just over two hours.
Such a gruelling schedule worried me. I was uncertain that I’d be able to distinguish one from another in my head if a fleeting glance at once was immediately followed by a quick look at another. Still, the slow and steady approach didn’t seem to be working. If we were going to do this, fuck it: we might as well do it properly.
‘I think,’ my girlfriend has mused on many an occasion, ‘if I could live anywhere, then I would like to live on Tressillian Road. It’s such a pretty name.’
Tressillian Crescent isn’t Tressillian Road, but it forms one of the many links between its namesake and Tyrwhitt Road, where we currently live. The Crescent, like most other properties in the conservation area, is filled with tall Victoriana housing stock, but, unlike the straighter roads, it and Crescent Way have more interestingly shaped buildings and grounds afforded by the curve of the street. For example, the house which sits on the corner of the intersection between Crescent Way, Drake Road and Tressillian Road is almost imperial in the way it towers over the pavement, but it also squats in a undistinguished heap, like it’s had one port too many. It’s higgled and piggled shape is probably stuffed with all sorts of curiously proportioned rooms.
That place, however, wasn’t for sale. Instead, the flat we were off to see early that morning was in the building which, to the best of my knowledge, possess Brockley’s only blue plaque. The marker celebrates the fact that Edgar Wallace once lived there.
No, me neither.
Edgar Wallace might not mean anything to even well read people in 2013, but in the early twentieth century he was prolific if nothing else. He produced one hundred and seventy five novels plus short stories, plays and journalism, the sort of output that makes even someone like Terry Pratchett look slovenly and yet, despite all that work, it is his monkey for which he’s most famous.
‘I’ve always wanted to live somewhere with a blue plaque,’ my girlfriend said as we made our way to the flat. ‘And a writer too. It’ll be perfect.’ She had, I think, fallen a little love with the idea of it before we’d even walked through the door.
While I appreciated the intent behind the notion of me challenging Wallace’s spirit, there are authors and then there are writers. Wallace was a hack. How could he be anything else with such a ridiculous productivity rate? Much of his work came out as part of the American pulp market, cheaply produced paperbacks, predominately thrillers and detective stories with somewhat absurdly hardboiled characters, plots which were so noir even a torch didn’t help, and a side helping of science fiction – the sorts of books where the covers showed scantily glad women with goldfish bowls on their heads being attacked by dripping, phallic tentacles that smother ooze in places they shouldn’t.
I haven’t read any of Wallace’s work; this is just a guess. These are just the sorts of stories I imagine are seeped into the woodwork of that house on Tressillian Crescent.
In fact, Wallace is most famous for words by association. He wrote the story upon which the screenplay for the original King Kong movie was based. He’s famous for a movie about a giant monkey which fights and kills a dinosaur, is taken to New York and dies atop the Empire State Building trying to possess a beautiful woman. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but the thing is everyone knows the story of King Kong even if few of us have actually seen the movie. Some bits of popular culture are just there, they sneak into your brain whether you want them to or not.
1906: Edgar sat in his study, his morning whisky by his side as the spring sunshine settled on the park to the rear of the house, washing it in a relaxed hue. Edgar liked spring best. Unlike winter it was warm, not hot like South Africa had been. Unlike summer, it suggested promise rather than the knowledge all that all the life would end with the long chill.
Edgar sipped his scotch and looked at the blank piece of paper on his desk. He was supposed to be writing. He was supposed to be at work, sub-editing a damn newspaper, but life just seemed to get in the way of pleasure. The morning spirit, diluted with water until at least after lunch, loosened his head, but still he couldn’t concentrate. Out in the park four boys ran and played, the echo of their shouts just reaching his study in the quiet air. What was the one boy’s name? The ringleader? He couldn’t remember, but he knew it was the son of that odious self-important bore who lived on the hill down to the high street. Jumped up fool, raising a child in such a care-free fashion. Edgar wanted to go out there and shake the brat, to shout in his face that life wasn’t fun.
And that was Edgar’s problem. He so desperately wanted life to be fun. He was so bored by dinner functions and copy writing and people you were supposed to know. He wanted fun so much and he wasn’t inclined to let a little issue like money get in the way.
It had been such a simple, clever little idea. A short cut to a fortune. Write a thriller where the reader took part. Guess the murder method and win a prize – but they had to buy a copy to find out whether they’d been right. Two hundred and fifty pounds for the winner, a small fortune for a lower-middle class man with time to read. Not as significant as the bigger fortune Edgar had spent on publicity, mind, but a sum not to be sniffed at. A clever idea indeed, how had it gone so wrong?
Edgar knew the answer to that too. Oh, he had raged and blamed everyone in range, but he knew the truth. He knew he was dreadful at details and that he’d refused advice when proffered so it was no-one’s fault but his own. It was his fault that he’d forgotten to limit the prize to one winner and now hundreds of the buggers were crawling out the woodwork to claim their money. He was ruined. Again.
Suddenly there was a loud hammering on the door and a voice yelled: ‘Wallace! We know you’re in there.’
Edgar recognised the voice even though he’d never met the owner. They’d called wice times that week already.
The door rattled violently.
‘Hmm,’ Edgar said quietly, ‘perhaps time for a walk.’ With that he slipped out the back door, scuttled rapidly across his garden and out the rear gate onto the parkland. He strolled briskly, but not fast enough to draw attention, and the hammering faded the further he got from the house.
At the top of the park’s hill, a small boy hung from a tree, his arm outstretched to the pretty little blonde girl while other boys ran in circles around the tree screeching indecipherable noises.
‘Arthur,’ he heard the little girl say, ‘what are you doing in a tree?’
‘I’m a monkey, aren’t I?’ the boy shouted back. ‘A monkey.’
The flat was on the first floor, up a sharply steep and narrow staircase and it was incredibly beautiful. There were two bedrooms and a living room significantly larger than some whole places I’ve lived. The kitchen was tiny, but, you know, that could be okay. It was, I knew, exactly the sort of place my girlfriend had been dreaming about since she moved to SE4. We were the first people to see it; it wasn’t even officially on the market yet. To all intents and purposes, it would be ours if we wanted it.
There was always going to be a problem, wasn’t there?
It was pretty obvious why the couple who lived there were moving out. Massive though the rooms were, first floor two bed flats can only off so much space flexibility. The second bedroom had a cot and a desk in it. They needed if not more, then certainly different space. The chances were that if we moved in, we’d be moving out again in the not too distant future. And then it struck me.
‘What about the cat?’
My girlfriend looked up from adoring the couple’s taste in furniture. ‘Oh, damn.’
We both looked out of the window at the garden below, which belonged exclusively to the downstairs flat.
‘She could jump?’ my girlfriend suggested.
‘I saw her fall off the garden wall the other day. She’s not the most agile.’
‘We could put a ramp out the window and she could walk up?’
‘If you lived downstairs would you want a blooming great big plank of wooden jutting down into the middle of your lawn?’
Then it got really complicated.
The roof terrace, from which we’d begun to envisage an elaborate basket and pulley system that would only have worked in a cartoon, which you reached by clambering out the window turned out not to be in the leasehold.
‘You mean,’ I helpfully summarised, ‘that they never asked anyone whether they could make a sundeck out there?’ The agent shrugged. ‘So, in theory the freeholder could insist it be removed and, anyway, have they actually reinforced the roof or just stuck some chairs out there?’
Another shrug. While we were on the leasehold it turned out there were less than sixty years left on it. Sixty years, a lifetime – or certainly the lifetime I have left – but property’s weird. Even though the house might not be still standing in sixty years, it’s not very long. Renewing the lease, it turned out, would cost somewhere around sixteen grand. Not the sort of money we’d have to spare anytime soon.
The deal seemed worse and worse by the minute.
‘And by the way,’ I asked, ‘what does offers in excess of mean? After everything we’ve just discussed, do you really think we’ll offer more than it’s listed at?’
You guessed it, another shrug.
Like Kong being overwhelmed by the noises and stink of the city, not understanding why the pretty creature won’t love him and just what are the buzzy gnats whirling around his head, sometimes the whole mess was just too much.