Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Whenever I'm with you

This wasn’t quite what I had planned.

As I write this, it is late May.  Over three months have passed since our offer on Ermine Road was accepted.  Spring is, belatedly, struggling to come to life.  I have just eaten a sandwich sitting on the patio of our rented flat for the last time.  By next week we will have packed up and moved on.

The only problem is that we don’t have anywhere to go. 

Out the corner of my eye I keep catching a glimpse of the Brockley ghosts - all those people I half-invented.  I felt ever so smug as I merrily span a history of our lives against the backdrop of London, as I wrote us into its mortar.  They’ve come to gloat.  Melrose with his stethoscope around his neck, annoyed at being painted so self-serving.  George, his face withered and drawn, is angry at the indignity of his end.  Didn’t he deserve better for all that he gave me?

‘It’s my fault for writing a semi-autobiographical blog,’ I said to a friend recently, ‘it draws out drama.’

Once our offer was accepted, the usual panic of getting all our ducks in line followed.  We had a week of haring around, finding our money to prove we could afford it, getting a mortgage offer in place, arranging a solicitor, scheduling an exchange date.  My Dad was in London for a meeting and so popped round to complete a survey declaring it in the sound condition I’d expected.  There felt like a thousand things to do, none of which we really understood, and when we’d completed them everyone seemed confident that we’d be happily moving towards the planned completion date of early May.  So we kept our brief wobbles between the two of us, kept secret our second thoughts at the enormity of it all, and held on tight.

And then it all went quiet.

We carried on planning our move.  We spent evenings thinking about colour schemes and restoration work, figuring out what to do with the artex ceiling, whether we could someday afford to replace the PVC front door with a wooden original.  Okay, my girlfriend did all that.  I spent time wondering how many book cases I could build into all the rooms and trying to invent a mathematical formula for the average number of books per inch of wall space.

But, what I mean is that the doubts receded and we felt more and more at home with the idea of, well, there.  It felt right.

We went round a couple more times – which given neither of us could picture the bathroom was probably a good idea.  We’d been in there less than half an hour the first time before deciding to hand over every penny we owned.  They’re a lovely couple.  It seemed a natural transition.  We were going to look after their past.

Eventually, a report from the solicitor turned up confirming that everything was in place and we were ready to exchange.  We signed the forms and paid the ten percent deposit.  That was in early April.  We made arrangements to vacate our rented flat for mid-May and then it all started to go wrong.

After a few weeks it suddenly, and to our great surprise, became obvious that we weren’t going to be moving at the beginning of May.  For various reasons various difficulties sprang up none of which were anyone’s fault.  As we all know, shit just happens.  However, our landlord had found new tenants and slowly it dawned that we were in trouble.

Nice people that they were, the new tenants agreed to delay their move to the end of the month.  They’d been planning a long overlap with their current place, so it wasn’t too much of a problem.  Besides they only lived around the corner.  More Brockleyites shuffling their lives around the area just like me.  I thought that’d be enough time to complete.

I was wrong.

Desmond wafts in close and leans over my shoulder.  He’s interested in the computer screen because that’s how I wrote him to be.  I can almost smell his deodorant, or would be able to if he were real.  He turns to face me and his eyes burn.

Somewhere way up the chain, a survey showed a problem and a deal was off.  A quick decision, the right one for those involved, but several places back, people they don’t even know exist find themselves homeless.

The ghosts find this amusing.  Some of them more than others.  I suspect it depends on what I did to them, what secrets I exposed.  Joseph Myatt has a deep rustling chuckle.  Edgar Wallace’s is surprisingly high-pitched, a giggle almost.  Both imagined facts bolted onto real people without a care for what it might mean.  I pinch a detail here, make up a fact there, stir it all into the brew and splurge it out without a care that I’m stealing others' lives for my own.

We tried everything possible to change the situation, but to no avail.  At one point a succession of slip-ups coincided with the news that the Co-Op’s rating has been downgraded.  We bank with them.  With the remaining purchase money sitting in our joint account we wondered whether there’d be a run on the bank.  That sort of thing didn’t seem outside the realms of possibility.

The Reverend stamps his foot and stalks away as though he’s been waiting for an apology long enough.  He thinks he’s got it bad.  At least he wasn’t totally made up.  Not like poor Mary and Albert Foster.  They didn’t even get a chance at love, at life.  All I gave them were a few hints.

As it currently stands, rather than writing this in our new home – where I expected to be, back at the start – we are packing away our belongings into storage and beginning a series of holidays around London.  The three of us, my girlfriend, the cat and I will be taking up the amazing hospitality of our friends and family in exotic locations such as Brixton and East Finchley and Queen’s Park.  The emotional roller coaster of the past six months has meant that the only way we can face this without going slightly mad is to see them as mini-breaks. 

In Home, I said I was nervous about sacrificing my new solvency, but I also didn’t really want the hassle of fighting for somewhere new.  I am, I confess, not great with change.  I like my life, but, you know, thousands of people buy a flat.  How difficult could it be?

Things haven’t quite gone to plan.  The past few months have been awash with hassle.  As I type this, I feel exhausted.  The adrenalin rushes and crashes have been thick and fast leaving me drained.

But none of that matters.

Because I also wrote that the reason I was willing to go through with this was because my girlfriend wanted to and I wanted to be with her more than anything else.  That hasn’t changed.  Adversity, rather than causing arguments, has made us closer.  It doesn’t, in the end, really matter where we end up.  As I said to someone who was commiserating our woes, this is only life being life.  Home, in the end, is where you feel it.  For me, that is sense of calm and serenity, the completeness I feel whenever we’re together.  And I know that together we’ll stay.

But what about Brockley?  We’re abandoning this corner of London that has been as much a part of my life as any other recurring character in this blog.  I’m leaving behind all those half-formed people, those familiar places from the edges that fill my stories.  They circle around me now.  Each and every one.  Silent spectres with a hint of menace.  I’d expected to join them, but instead I’m running away.  One of them, from his sun swept colouring I think it's Carlos, bares his teeth.  He seems irate at being such a poorly developed cipher and so takes a lunge towards me. 

He misses and retreats back to the swirling mass.

I recognise Dawn at the front of the crowd from her nurse’s uniform.  She got four appearances and was better realised.  Maybe she’ll be more grateful or at least less likely to be vicious.  She steps forward, and holds her hand out.  It’s then that I realise her expression isn’t anger, but kindliness with perhaps a pinch of pity.  I go to take her hand but because she isn’t really there I touch nothing other than an idea.

They’re not angry; it’s something else and I’ll never be certain what because they’re not really here.

And neither will we be.

Don’t worry, I say to myself and everyone reading.  We’ll be back.  I promise.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Ermine Road

I forget which of us arranged to visit Ermine Road.  It wasn’t one of those places which immediately leapt out at us, but by this stage in our hunt we simply expected to fill our Saturday mornings with as many property viewings as possible.

So it was immediately after the second visit to DunoonGardens that we found ourselves parking up outside.  It was raining in a dreary tired grey London fashion.  As we climbed the steep terracotta painted steps to the front door we could see another couple already shuffling around.  I’d ceased to  see other potential buyers as the competition.  Instead, I found a solidarity with them.  In the brief exchange of weary glances, a year’s futility in the eyes, we shared our frustrations.

The family sat in the living room while the agent scuttled after the visitors.  It was a nicely maintained three bedroom nineteen thirties semi-detached house.  The trims weren’t really to our taste, but there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it.  I remember noticing how light it felt despite the drizzle falling steadily outside.  And yet I don’t think we gave it our full attention.  We took only a cursorily glance into the lounge, not wanting to intrude as they sat drinking tea, watching the turned down TV.  Later on neither of us could even picture the bathroom.  We would have gone into it, but we were starting to walk around places on automatic.   Yep, it’s got a toilet.  Next.

We definitely didn’t go into the garden because of the rain and instead stood at the sliding door, looking up the slope to the distant patio.  

I liked its elevated position.  From the front bedrooms you could see all the way down to Lewisham which, while perhaps not the most picturesque with views of the Victorian town houses opposite, the rising old Citigroup building and multi-storey car-park and the new Loampit Vale development looking hyper-modern with twisted steel in the middle distance and the disappearing ascent to Blackheath further back, it was still a view.

We weren’t being serious though.   My girlfriend had already fallen for Dunoon Gardens and I was thinking about what she was thinking about, knowing what would come next and whether I was comfortable with that.

It was on the market for more than we could afford so, again going through the required motions, we discussed price.  The agent mentioned a figure which was a reasonable amount below the asking price, but was still at the top of our budget.  More even than we’d mustered the courage to offer for Montacute Road.

As we left, we both thanked the family for letting us traipse critically around their home and then we went back to our flat to begin the anguished negotiations to buy Dunoon Gardens.

1919:  Richard walked amongst the apple and pear trees clinging to the slope.  An autumn light dappled through the leaves creating patches of shadow and gold through which life flittered.  It was calm in the orchard, one could almost believe that things were as they had always been.

But they weren’t.

The world had changed, was still changing.  Four years of slaughter in Flanders and across the continent, four years of blood and dirt and futility had created a generation of survivors.  The young who had made it wanted the future to arrive quickly.  The boys had come home with their lives irreversibly changed and they wanted the rest of the world to catch up.

Richard recognised this in the same way that he recognised his own anachronistic place in the shifting society.  He was a man who represented something which people were beginning to doubt.  A man of the cloth, who preached peace and goodwill to all men when those self-same men had less than a year earlier been willing to bayonet another, when they’d seen their friends’ insides spill into the mud in the morning half-light, when they’d heard the devilish clank of tanks break the barbed wire they’d had nightmares of being trapped upon, when they’d used rats that fed off the dead as the best early warning of something sinisterly man-made released into the air, gas that burned and blistered their eyes.  How could they believe in a loving God after all of that?

And yet, there in the calm and peace of the orchard, it was feasible to fool oneself that it was twenty years earlier.  That man had yet to take to the skies, had yet to devote such energy to death, had yet to question.  It was a simpler age amongst the ripening fruit.  One could almost believe that the city which infringed on the borders of Richard’s life was far away.  The trees muffled the noises of people going about their business on roads across the other side of the hill, in Brockley, down at the bottom of the slope, in Ladywell.  The top of the hill, the summit was still quiet.

‘Reverend!’ a voice called interrupting the imagined tranquillity.  ‘Reverend!’

‘Here, Wilson,’ he reluctantly replied, sacrificing his peace for duty.

‘Telegram, Reverend,’ panted Wilson, the houseboy, handing over a crumpled piece of paper.  Richard glanced at it.  Another curse of modernity.  Decision reached quickly and communicated swiftly.  No time for reflection, to consider the full implications.  ‘Does it...?’

Richard nodded.  ‘The Earl has accepted Mr Percy’s offer.  He intends to sell the land for development and so I, it appears, must acquiescent too.  The flock have need of housing.  The city has need of growth and we must move aside.’

‘The money,’ Wilson began, but then trailed off.

‘Yes, Wilson.’  The money.  The church needed funds, it was true and its only assets were, aside from its spiritual leadership, land.  People needed somewhere to live.  Richard accepted this.  He knew his motives were selfish, that he wanted to maintain some corner of an England that had long passed where he could find solitude and solace. 

Personal vanity, pride, selfishness.  These were all sins, were they not?  Better to sacrifice one’s pleasure on this mortal coil for everlasting redemption.

Besides, the Bishop would never let him block the sale.

‘Wilson, send a reply, please.  Tell them we concur, but with one proviso.  No building on former church land may be used for the sale or production of intoxicating liquor.  Drink, my boy, is consuming this society.  We may as well try to save their present lives for the next one.’

Wilson headed back to the house leaving Richard alone, under the fading sunshine, thinking about what would come.  Doubtless he could not possibly have envisaged the changes of less than a century.  Of the complete restructuring of society, the changing people and places, from transport to communication, from clothing to attitudes, nothing would resemble lost English corner.  The war to end all wars would prove to have been a lie, but tolerance and understanding would eventually improve the city’s soul.  London’s ever shifting make-up would shuffle through the houses built on the church’s land and it didn’t matter whether they cared a jot for the Richard’s God or not. 

A violinist would be one of the first to live there.  Maybe he was a respected musician or maybe a wild bohemian, all unruly hair and irregular wages.  Rehearsals every afternoon, the strains of Bach and Stravinsky interspersed with original compositions that he never intended for others to hear, the scratching strings of the unaccompanied violin echoing out across a quieter city’s hillside.  It was a city not yet smothered by the motor car, with no television sets, no constant pop music playing in each and every teenage bedroom, no world shut off by the insulating headphones worn while nipping out to buy milk.   Maybe, if the wind blew in the right direction, the strains could be faintly heard drifting through the park.

Sometime after an unmarried man and woman, a mixed race couple, moved in at a time when both things were cause of gossip for the twitching neighbourly net curtains.  But scandal was nothing other than in the heads of the nosey; their delicate sensibilities affronted by the different for no other reason that it was.  Maybe they were happy, maybe they had a family, a new generation who could know no different, who could cast no judgement.  Maybe they lay in bed, late at night, arms around each other, and were blissfully unaware of the whispers.  They were certainly short of money and over the years the house began to fall into disrepair.  Window frames cracked, paint curled, floors became tired, the house needed someone to care for it. 

Shortly after I was born, a young couple bought the house and made it their home.  They would stay for thirty years, repairing the neglect of the previous owners and raising a family of their own.  The house, like all homes, saw life move through it.  It saw heartache and triumph.  It saw despair and anger.  It saw laughter and joy.  The first steps, the first words, slammed doors, hands quietly inter-twined, the late binding nights, the early mysterious mornings, the sunshine that makes the world seem within touch and the winter snow that brings your outlook to the interior.  They carved their history into its fabric and it, in turn, retained their memories.  They, like everyone who had gone before them, would leave something behind.  Brockley, London, society is made by the people who pass through it and the shudders of the air left in their wake help those coming up behind to see the way.

 ‘We could still put an offer in on Ermine Road,’ I suggested as we tried to get over our disappointment of yet another failed purchase attempt.

My girlfriend wasn’t convinced.  Dunoon Gardens had been her ideal place.  Pretty and compact it had filled all the dreams of her years.  Ermine Road, while there was nothing wrong with it and we both, generally, had an affection for the big, light rooms that thirties architecture bought, had lost a lot of its original features to the years. 

For me, though, it was growing favourably.  It was bigger than we needed.  We would be masters of own destiny, able to choose whether to move or not in the future rather than a lack of space dictating our actions.  It was a whole house.  In zone two.  Just.  Yes, we’d want to change the aesthetics, but it appeared to be in very good condition and there was no major work would have to be done immediately.  My DIY skills weren’t going to be allowed to cause disaster any time soon.  Its imposing position atop the hill really appealed.  Being up there felt a little like winning.

It was, however, in Ladywell.

But only just. I’d always said that a bargain was likely to be had by stepping just over the postcode boundary, out of SE4 and into SE13.  Ermine Road is close to our rented flat.  Just a walk to the end of the road across the park.  The proximity to Hilly Fields as well as all the other parts of Brockley I love was appealing – and, anyway, Ladywell’s been getting nicer in recent years, from the Deli to the cafe, from the revamped pub to the freshly landscaped park. 

It was well positioned for public transport – close to Ladywell station, a short walk down to Lewisham for a more frequent service and the cheaper zone two tickets or a stroll across the park to Brockley for the tube.  It was a bit out the way for buses, but not too much.  Being at the top of a hill would make the end of the cycle home somewhat heavy, but I could handle that.

With all these arguments I pressed my girlfriend until she agreed we should put an offer in.

Obviously, I offered less than the figure the estate agent had suggested they’d accept.

It was rejected.

We upped the offer, splitting the difference.

Again we were knocked back.

They’d liked us, the agent said, because we’d taken the time to thank them as we left.  They wanted to help, but they knew how much they needed.

While all this was going on, we’d been looking again at the photos online and thinking about how the space would work.  My girlfriend had been looking at design websites, investigating thirties restoration work – original doors, fireplaces and flooring.  Slowly, its appeal grew on her until finally, early in February, she rang me at work.

‘Let’s just go for it,’ she said.  ‘It’s not what I was thinking of when we started this, but maybe it’s better.  Something feels right.’

‘This is a happy house,’ the woman had said as we’d looked around and we believed her.

I rang the agent for the third time and offered the figure we’d discussed.

A few hours later he rang me back.  It had been accepted.

After nearly four months, almost thirty properties viewed, five failed attempts to buy somewhere and hundreds of hours spent poring over property websites we appeared to be about to buy somewhere.  A whole house no less.

I felt elated and a little terrified at the same time.  It was like the ground was falling away from beneath my feet but with the danger-laced adrenaline of a rocket pack taking me towards the stratosphere. 

What we didn’t realise was that all our troubles were only just beginning.

To be concluded...

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Dunoon Gardens (2)

Almost three months after we first visited Dunoon Gardens we found ourselves back again.

Several properties in that exclusive enclave along Devonshire Road had become available in the interim as though people had heard what others had got and thought they’d quite fancied a bit of it too, but for various reasons none had been right for us.  As an end of terrace this one was a little bit bigger with two reception rooms and two bedrooms all on the ground floor.

I knew almost as soon as we walked through the door that my girlfriend loved it.  She’d liked the other one much more than I had and this place had the same prettily maintained and restored features bathed in light that shone through its cornered windows.  The second reception room was comfortably big enough to serve as a study cum dining room, much like we already had, thus obliterating my previous reservations - even though the kitchen was still pokey.  It was full of neatly painted floorboards and cute iron fireplaces, picture rails and attractively ornate ceiling roses.  The corridor that ran the width of the flat, with French windows to the garden on one side, made it seem deceptively large.  The bedrooms too were both of a reasonable size, although with the possible drawback of being at the front of building and therefore noisy.

‘I’m not sure I can live somewhere with a bidet,’ I closed the bathroom door and thought of yet further betrayals to my battered and bruised principles.

 ‘It’ll be easy to take it out,’ she countered instantly.

I knew she wanted it and it was reasonably priced.  It was the first place we’d seen that actually seemed a fair deal.  I was short on objections and a vague feeling of unease about living on Devonshire Road didn’t cut it.  It wasn’t sufficient an argument.

With reluctance I agreed to put an offer in, if only to keep ourselves in the running while I convinced myself it would all be okay.

After some debate we decided to offer the asking price in.  Given my hesitations this was a high risk strategy, but my girlfriend was convinced.  She wanted to live there and despite her tendency to seek money off at every opportunity it felt like a tactic which might outflank the horde we knew had been scheduled to see it after us.

Unsurprisingly, pretty flats with lots of natural light are desirable.  We don’t have some unusual fetish here and so when we rang the agent it was clear we weren’t the only ones interested, but, crucially for once, we were first.

‘If someone comes in higher, I’ll come back to you out of courtesy,‘ she said, which seemed surprisingly considerate of her if you believe we were the only ones to receive such treatment.

The phone rang some thirty minutes or so later.

It appeared that others had put in higher bids than ours.  What was our absolute best offer, she wanted to know.  We were reluctant to pay significantly more.  While it was fairly priced that didn’t mean we were prepared to make an unfair offer.  It was, after all, only a flat in zone three.  In the end we settled on an extra ten thousand plus change.  We assumed that the alleged better offers would be people who had the same plan as us, but had added a couple of extra grand just to be on the safe side, so we hoped this would be sufficient to draw us ahead of the pack.

The rest of the day we were on edge.  We constantly checked our phones and harassed the agent for the vendor’s decision.  The end of business came and we had no answer.  Saturday night was purgatory in a Notting Hill bar unable to concentrate on what people were saying.  Sunday was agony at home unable to talk about anything else.  Somewhere amongst all the throbbing tension my unsubstantiated dislike of the area was overpowered by my innate will to win at any costs - and for the whole thing to be over.  I wanted to spend my time thinking about other things; I wanted to feel as though I could get on with my life.

1963:  The jilting music drifted downstairs through the ceiling accompanied by the steady thud of Oliver’s boot heel on the wood floors.

Esme sighed and put the kettle on; there seemed to be little else for it.  She already knew that once Oliver started it would be at least an hour before he stopped.  She might as well try to drown the noise out.  “Boogie-woogie” he’d called it.  Rock and roll the paper had said, the craze sweeping the country.  Gangs of young thugs fighting at the seaside like there was nothing better to do, like the whole nation was on the edge of the abyss.

Not that you’d know it in Forest Hill.

 Oliver played the guitar and sang. He had a rich baritone of a voice that crooned through the fabric of the house.  When he sang it was as though a warm pulse escaped from the brick work and danced amongst the lilting melody.  Downstairs Esme couldn’t hear the words, just the tone which she thought was probably for the best.

‘About nothing other than sex,’ she tutted as the water in the kettle crept towards boiling.  ‘I am quite sure.’

Oliver had moved in just over six months before after poor old Bert Foster finally moved on.  He’d never been the same after Mary had died.  Such a cheery couple, he’d retreated into himself, barely able to pass the time of day with Esme, his neighbour of forty years.  Just a grunt and the lighting of a cigarette whenever they met on the front step, as though to keep his lips too busy to talk. 

Esme had been very fond of the Fosters, but those final couple of years hadn’t been the same.  She’d been looking forward to someone else moving into the flat upstairs.  A young family, maybe.  Oh, the sound of little ones on a sunny afternoon would have been so nice.  Oliver and Claudia hadn’t quite what she’d been hoping for.  She wasn’t even sure if they were married.

She’d asked them, once, where they came from.

‘Birmingham,’ Oliver had laughed, but that hadn’t been what she’d meant.

It was a funny relationship, so, well, modern Esme grudgingly conceded as she poured hot water into the pot.  Claudia out all day, working at that accountancy office in Lewisham.  Oliver kept at home and then off in the evenings to play his music. 

‘I need to practice,’ he’d said many times, ‘but you just let me know if it bothers you, y’hear Miss E?’

He was a nice young man, she thought with some hesitation as the dark brown tea slipped into the milk.  They both were.  A nice couple, ever so friendly, ever so helpful.

Esme perched a garibaldi biscuit on her saucer and tottered into the living room.

He’d fixed her leaking tap and the cleared the waste from her dead-heading.  Without be asked he kept doing the things Bert had done, the things she’d never had a man to do for her.  He’d given short shift to the tramp hanging around too.  Told him, in no uncertain terms, to clear off and to stop bothering elderly ladies.  She’d had to tell him that it was only Mister Hutchinson.  Everyone knew Mister Hutchinson.  He didn’t mean any harm.  He just wasn’t right in head anymore. 

‘He shouldn’t be lurking in the dark like that.  It ain’t right.’

Yes, Oliver meant well even if he sometimes raced away with asking.  She couldn’t equate the smiling, charming, joyful man with what people said.  Certainly he wasn’t stealing anyone’s job.  She couldn’t quite believe he was one of them. 

‘One of the young,’ she muttered and crunched her biscuit.

‘The future, Miss E.  You want to watch out for it ‘cos it’s coming.’

She supposed it was.  Eventually, it comes to us all.  

Two years previously Esme would have said she wasn’t sure she liked the idea of the future.  She never had liked change.  It had taken her almost a year to change the curtains after it became apparent the pollen stains were never going to come out and, in the end, she’d bought some exactly the same after all.  Since Oliver had moved in upstairs, the future didn’t seem quite as bad as some said it would be, but she would be grateful if it were just a bit quieter.   

Late on Monday the agent finally came back to us.

We had, once again, failed.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ she sighed.  ‘The market’s just gone crazy.  At any other time that flat would have been yours.’ 

Which, to be honest, wasn’t much comfort, but I guess she was trying.

There had, it turned out, been two other offers.  One was almost fifty grand over the asking price, clearly made by someone as hyped up and stressed out as we were but with a less concrete connection to reality.  The agent, apparently, advised the vendor not to accept that offer despite it being the largest because she felt the buyers might fail to get a mortgage.  Instead, it went to a cash buyer who offered somewhere between ours and insanity.  Someone who was moving in from New York who had a relative living on the same road.  They just wanted it more badly that we did.

We were both deflated.  It took a couple of days for a sense of relief to creep into my head, but in that immediate moment I felt as though someone had dragged me into an alley, kicked me in the head for a few minutes and stolen my hope.  I’d totally lost enthusiasm for the whole endeavour and was only persevering out of a sense of not wanting to have wasted our time.

In a curious postscript that same afternoon we had a call from another agent saying that somewhere had come back onto the market after their finance had fallen through.  It was over towards Nunhead and we’d looked at it on Rightmove before, but had dismissed it for a variety of reasons.  It felt as though we were scrabbling around in other people’s scraps, but also that it was where we deserved to be, desperately lunging for things no-one else wanted. 

In a pathetic scramble we dashed off final bits of work, closed our computers down, slipped unnoticed out the office and rushed to go and see it.  As I powered over Waterloo Bridge cursing the heaviness of my bike I got a call from my girlfriend.  Someone else had, in the space of ninety minutes, beaten us to it and a new offer had been accepted on the property.

‘It seems,’ I lamented later that evening, ‘that the only way to buy a house is to be unemployed, permanently plugged into Rightmpove and sitting on a massive wodge of cash.  Who are these people?’

There were nastier words and tears of frustration and disappointment as sleep refused to come, but there was one more option.  One more place we hadn’t fully considered yet.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Manwood Road (2)

This place was unexpected.  It just popped up on Rightmove with an agent we hadn’t dealt with before and circumstances meant we could see it that very evening.

We arrived almost at the same time, me swinging off my bike, my girlfriend from the station.  Meeting each other on random corners around SE4 was becoming a familiar occurrence.  The agent, despite having offices about three minutes away, was nowhere to be seen.  We hovered outside and the early February chill bit through my sweater as all the heat I’d built up riding dissipated. 

The tenants realised why we were shivering in the street and kindly let us in.  Three beardy lads with fledgling careers in media and music sat on a sofa opposite us sipping ginger tea uncomfortably while we waited for the agent to show up.  I felt bad.  We were clearly turfing them out.  Or rather their landlord was, but it would be people like us finding somewhere to live at their expense.

The agent, when he finally turned up, was loud, arrogant and with a mistaken belief in his own charms and a refusal to listen to what we were saying.  The house was above our budget and, while that hadn’t been a problem on the phone, it was clear that he had no intention of taking a lower offer to the vendor.

‘We sold one just like it down the road a couple of weeks ago.  It went significantly over the asking price, all the way down to sealed bids.’

Great, I thought.  Just fucking great.  More of my life wasted, do you really think I want to be here listening to you pontificate about how hard the market is, about how much money is just rolling through your front door?

1940.  Elspeth lay in her bed and listened to the droning moan cutting through the black sky.  She knew she should have gone out to the Anderson or down to the Ladywell shelter where there would be tea and other chattering middle aged women to bemoan the lack of sugar with, but she just couldn’t.  The Anderson was damp, filling slowly over the past week with rainwater which didn’t inspire confidence in its ability to stop a brick storm and if she had to endure Agnes and Margaret looking so sad but saying nothing again she thought she’d scream.  It was like they thought she was the only one.  Like no-one else’s grief mattered.

She just wanted a night in her own bed and while she didn’t expect the Germans to give her the pleasure of uninterrupted sleep, she had to try.

In the distance she could hear the steady thud of the bombs landing.  If she looked out the window she’d see the horizon glowing burnt copper.  The docks would be getting the worst of it, Deptford, Greenwich, over the water in Silvertown.  Not that Brockley was immune.  They pulled that big fire bomb out of the wrecked house on Wickham Road just last Thursday.

‘A good job it didn’t detonate, Missus,’ a chirpy ARP warden she hadn’t before said.  ‘One that size could’ve set fires for half the bloomin’ street.’ 

He’d reminded her so much of Dennis.  He had the same coloured hair - white blonde slicked back – and the same habit of speaking even while a cigarette hung from his lower lip.  They looked about the same age.  Why had her Dennis gone and this man had been allowed to stay at home chasing unexploded bombs, doing safe work, not risking himself?

She sat up with a jerk as the windows shook.  That was closer.  Deptford, maybe even New Cross.  It was all so senseless.  Bombing soldiers she understood; it was part of war.  Even factories made sense, but poor innocent folks asleep in their beds?  If she strained she could hear the pudf-pudf of the ack-ack emplacement on top of Telegraph Hill vainly trying to bring a plane down.  What good would that do?  Bring a burning Jerry bomber crashing down on some poor souls in Nunhead? Sometimes she wanted someone to come and explain exactly what the point of the whole mess was?  What, aside from dead bodies, did anyone want to achieve?

She got up.  She wasn’t going to fall sleep again.  She wasn’t afraid.  The routine of the bombers had become too commonplace for her to be scared.  Besides, the worst had already happened, hadn’t it?  Dennis never came back from France last year.  That space in the bed next to her would always be empty now.

She went out onto the landing and walked down to the other end of the house.  She stood in the doorway of Len’s bedroom, her fingers gingerly touching the door.  She hoped, as she always did, that if the door opened then he’d be there, asleep in his bed, just like he had been for the past eighteen years.   That he wouldn’t be somewhere in North Africa. 

Missing, the telegram had said, but she knew.  She’d known for almost a month prior to its arrival when she’d woken up with that black mood in her heart that she couldn’t shake.  It had been like a shadow pressing on her chest, seeping into her lungs, drowning her.  A mother always knew.  It was still there, every day and every night.

They’d already taken her husband and her son, the least they could do would be take her too.  Her and the home they’d all made together, wipe their existence from the world in a crashing mess of fire.  Then she wouldn’t have to listen to Agnes and Margaret moaning and whining about the lack of meat in the sausages they’d bought, that there had been no eggs for a fortnight, about the endless gloom of the black-out nights which made walking the streets feel like you’d gone back in time.  On and on they’d go about all the things that didn’t matter because they couldn’t bring themselves to ask her, to talk to her, other than with their sad, condescending eyes.

The house wasn’t even that great.  Again, like Darfield Road it was big.  There was much more space than we needed, but space isn’t everything.  The trims were as you’d expect for a rented property and there were plenty of niggles that needed fixing, like the broken locks on the kitchen windows and shoddy looking fittings in the soft flushed yellow bathroom.   The carpets were tatty.  The banister was not as firmly fixed to the wall as it should be.  I worried about the railway lines immediately at the end of the scruffy garden and I imagined our rather dozy cat frying her brains.  The exterior was mainly normal brick-work, but under the front bow windows it looked like someone had glued some left-over crazy paving to the wall for reasons known only to themselves. 

Upstairs there was a fixed ladder running up into the attic. 

‘What’s up there?’

‘Er, I’m not sure,’ he replied.

My girlfriend scuttled up.

‘Wow,’ she said and I followed her.

‘How many people did you say were renting here?’  I called back down.

‘Four,’ he replied.  The three bedrooms up here and the front room downstairs.’

‘I think you’ve got a few more.’

Aside from the multiple beds in the largest bedroom the attic had been flimsily modified into another bedroom.  A mattress was pressed into a gap between mounds of insulation, electric cables ran in extensions up from the house and shelving had been constructed from the modified rafters like a refuge from the modern world.

‘Well,’ he flustered, ‘at least your attic conversion’s already been done for you.’

Friday, 10 May 2013

Darfield Road

After our unexpected diversion to Salehurst Road there wasn’t time for coffee, much to the complaining snarls of the my head which had developed a throb like a science fiction mole machine burrowing to the centre of the earth.  I couldn’t decide whether it was the wine from the night before or the sheer hopeless frustration of moving forwards only to keep going backwards.

Darfield Road was fine if somewhat dull.  It was enormous, with three double bedrooms and three reception rooms which suggested lots of opportunities into which we could etch our own image.  The garden had some sort of odd wicker maze thing going on, where you found yourself wrapped up in a cheap bamboo substitute fenced in enclosure – all of which seemed a little pointless.  A waste of space copied from a design magazine in the seventies.

The interior was ridiculously, boringly sparse.  The only hint of character – or lack thereof – were those black and white city skyline photographs you can buy pre-framed from Ikea and an electric guitar on a stand, looking distinctly unplayed with their perfectly wound strings, in every bedroom.  The whole effect, from the plastic mantelpieces to the fake wood lino, from the worn out kitchen fittings to the dull magnolia paint job was like they’d bought a property already spruced up to be as bland as possible for the sales market ten years previously and then never done anything to it themselves.  It lacked any sense of character or imagination, but perhaps that blankness could have been a template.

1995:  ‘I just can’t stand it anymore,’ Dawn shouted, but it was too late, Desmond had closed the door behind him.  She went into the living room and watched his tall silhouette disappear up the road, towards the high street.  That’s what he did every time they argued, rather than fighting back once it had turned irrational he just sighed and went out for a drink.  It was as though he thought hiding from their problems would be enough, that failing to face up to things would make it all okay in the end.

Dawn sat down with a flump on the sofa.  She couldn’t even remember what they’d been arguing about.  Not really.  They were doing okay, not well off but not short of cash.  June was back from her adventures in South America and seemed to have settled happily in Bristol with her PhD in something Dawn didn’t even pretend to understand.  Maybe she’d be able to reach Desmond - they’d always got on wonderfully - Lord knows, Dawn couldn’t.

It had been a tough few years.  His Dad dying on the same day Thatcher was out, when they should have been celebrating they were mourning and then, in quick succession, his Mum too and then hers.  They say death always comes in threes, as though it tried to condense the grief.  Maybe Desmond still missed his parents in the same way Dawn ached for her Mum – and she still had her Dad rattling that big house, getting more and more cantankerous by the day.

Pah, she should talk.  What need did the two of them have for a three bedroom house?  Okay, so one of them was nominally June’s but they all knew she’d never come home and the third was packed full of computers and wires and things Dawn didn’t get. 

She glanced up as a shadow flitted past the window, but it wouldn’t be Desmond.   Not yet.  He wouldn’t be drunk, but he would sit and quietly sup a beer until his temper evened.  And hers too.

He’d have gone to that dreadful place, the Alpha Jazz bar.  He could go to the wine bar up the road, but he claimed not to feel comfortable there.  Too light.  Instead he seemed to prefer to gloom of the Alpha.  Dawn knew the rumours about the axe.  She knew the sorts of people who drank there, in the dark.  The sorts of people who weren’t keen on you seeing their face, who slipped out after hours into big cars and didn’t care about breathalysers.  It was the sort of place with blood on the carpet.

The only reason she could think that Desmond would drink there was that he only went out when angry and maybe he wanted somewhere with customers that matched his mood.

She hadn’t meant to argue with him.  Not again.  But she couldn’t help it.  He was just so morose all the time and not talking about it, just ignoring the problem was driving her mad.  She knew he was fed up at work; that the little company in Croydon which had been so good to him in many ways had also stifled him.  He had big ideas of his own but no capital to realise them.

‘Perhaps we should sell up,’ she said under her breath.  She’d lived all her live in London, they both had.  The idea of leaving the city made her nervous, but the idea of losing Desmond to the bleakness of his head was worse.

Maybe that was the answer.  Maybe it was the city, Brockley, the scuzziness, the hard fought days, the endless struggle of life was bringing them both down.  Where was that place Meg, the new nurse, came from?  Somewhere in Devon with a ridiculous name? Combeinteignhead?  Coomingbeenhead?  Meg had grown up there and was always going on about how idyllic it was.

Dawn found an atlas under the sideboard in the dining room.  An old AA road map from when they’d briefly had a car and made their summer holidays in Dorset.  Just the three of them, out on beaches, forest walks, it had been so nice.  She looked it up, taking a guess at how it was spelt.  There.  In the middle of nowhere.  That looked like it. 

She sat and looked at the atlas, the green nothingness with tiny roads wriggling through it and then the small shaded area indicating buildings.  It was closer to Bristol.  A lot closer.  She flipped back to London which covered four pages and then back to the single square in the bottom left corner of a page.  She wasn’t sure how long she’d spent looking at that page, but when she heard the key in the door she jumped.

He was home.  Earlier than usual.   

We hummed and hahed once again.  Or to be slightly more accurate: squabbled.   My girlfriend really didn’t like it; didn’t like the cheap fakeness of it or the way the light fell in the front rooms and ignored the back.  It was another place priced at offers in excess of more than our maximum budget and it would clearly need a lot of work to make it home rather than somewhere that would serve as a set for an ITV sitcom.   I liked it as a space.  I thought it had potential.  It was in a good location – close to many of things that had made us excited by Marnock Road, even if Jam Circus was closed (and still is) following a kitchen fire.  It was big.  It was light.  Everything else we could fix and there was nothing so horrible that we couldn’t live with.

‘I don’t know about that,’ she countered and listed a load of things which she couldn’t live with, but it wasn’t as though any of them were broken or damaged or dirty, they just weren’t very nice.

As we walked home back across Hilly Fields I was felt unwell.  I was fed up with the unrelenting searching and the constant sense of failure.  It was all too much, all too dreary.  I just wanted to be able to buy somewhere to live in, if I absolutely had to, and then I could get back on with my life.  I could go back to spending my nights and Saturday morning with words rather than bricks and mortar belonging to one stranger and passing onto to another.

The following day we went for a walk along the Dawent Valley in Kent and, after much discussion, decided to put in an offer, not out of any real enthusiasm, but more just because we felt we ought to.  Because if we didn’t someone else would and by the time we’d made up our mind we’d have missed the boat once again.

By the time we called on Monday the gangplank was already up and the sail was disappearing over the horizon.  Once again it had, allegedly, gone for more than was being asked.  The idiots.  Increasingly it was feeling as though it was just too late, as though Brockley had become too desirable and too expensive for the likes of us and was instead being swamped by city workers and hipsters, all pin stripes and braces, turned up jeans and tweed hats.  Prices seemed to be rising daily and places comparable to what we’d considered three or four months previously had raced away.  Catford, it seemed, was calling and with it suburban hell, middle age spreads and then, ultimately, death was all just a mortgage offer away.