There’s always been something weird about Brightling Road that I’ve never quite put my finger on. It feels out of place, like it shouldn’t be in Brockley at all.
For a London street, the houses on the southern side of the road have implausibly long front gardens. I mean, they’re ridiculous. They’re larger than the entire area many SE4 properties sit on. At the road end of these green expanses, garages clutter the street view, blocking the houses off like they have some sort of pretence to being up at the big house. Yet many of the garages are in poor condition, more like lock-ups than homes for luxury cars, giving both an affluent and a desperate appearance simultaneously.
For some reason long gardens and drives snaking up a hill to distant suburban houses have always made me think of something that should be near the seaside. Like the whole street is a refugee from a Devon village that no longer wants it.
The house we’d come to look at was more sensibly positioned adjacent to the pavement. It was, however, our first experience of a semi-detached house. Rare in centralish London, where terraces still rule supreme, the fact that it was only attached to a single other building made it feel terribly grown up. It was a nineteen thirties house, but in need of some modernisation. The windows still had the original aluminium frames.
‘Feel that draft,’ I said holding my girlfriend’s hand towards the big window in the bathroom where the chill bit through the glass. ‘Think our flat’s cold?’
1980: Occasionally Desmond felt mildly embarrassed at still living with his parents, but times were tough. He had a job, out on Croydon, which was more than a lot of people, but it was short term contracts only. That was no security from which to make a life. Besides, he’d tried living away from home when he got that council flat down in Sydenham, but he’d missed his Ma’s cooking too much.
Some of his mates thought he was a bit soft, when they were off down the pub and he had to go home. But Desmond didn’t have to spend Tuesday evening down the laundrette watching his jeans swirl around and around in the big drum. He didn’t have to mess about down the market every Saturday morning just to get some fresh fruit and veg in his diet. He could have chicken and rice and peas every night if he’d asked for it. Sure, his Ma indulged him, but he gave more than his share back.
Desmond followed the streams of commuters away from the station and into the spring evening. The light was just beginning to change; just starting to lazily stretch out into the evening. Desmond felt sorry for most of them, fighting their way in and out of town. At least he got to go against the flow.
They’d lived on in Brockley for almost fifteen years, ever since Desmond was a teenager. They’d moved away from Elephant, come out where it was quieter but at the time Desmond would have refused to go if he could have found a way. With the hindsight of adulthood, the move was good for him, but at the time he’d just been furious to be moving away from his mates. The friends you made at school weren’t necessarily the ones you were best suited to. Being thrown together by chance in the classroom or the estate didn’t mean anything, in the long run. It was just circumstance.
Maybe it had been too late for Colin. Maybe he’d just been born unlucky. It’d had been ten years since the knock on the door when they followed him home in an unmarked car. He’d been out for years, but Dad had made it clear. Selling stuff like that, it wasn’t going to happen again in his house. Desmond was more careful. He only smoked out the back window. Not that Dad was in such a position to be a disciplinarian anymore.
Maxine was ten years younger than Desmond. The less said about that the better. She barely remembered Colin, but look at her now. Good grades in school. An NVQ and a job in the city, for a law firm no less even if that did mean she was always home much later than Desmond. She wasn’t a lawyer, only a typist, but that girl was going places nothing would hold her back. Desmond would make sure of that.
The crowds had thinned as they got further from the station; that was the odd thing about a lot of the people who worked in town. They seemed afraid of being more than a couple of minutes walk from the trains. Desmond didn’t understand that; he liked the quiet sigh in the evening of the more adrift streets. After five minutes, where there had been dozens there were now only a couple of people still walking, still heading home.
Maxine didn’t deserve to get stuck at home. Desmond would do her share. He’d pay the penance for asking Colin to pick up some extra for him and his mates that week. He’d stay and look after his Dad, carry him up the stairs at the end of the night and tuck his flaccid, wrinkled body underneath the sheets. He’d tolerate being asked the same damn question every night as his Ma squeezed his hand: ‘D’you think he can hear us? D’you think he knows what’s going on?’
‘Course, Ma. Of course he does.’ The same lie, the same protecting fib every night. Where was the harm? If it bought her some comfort to think he was more than a husk, then why not say whatever was needed? If it was all okay, then, why did it make Desmond feel so bad?
He realised that he’d been following that same girl again. What was it? Three, four times that month? The pretty nurse who lived a couple of streets up. They’d somehow synchronised their commutes. Desmond paused outside his parent’s house and enjoyed watching her walk down the street. She had a nice walk; there was a sashay to it which was confident yet not over-stated. He snorted quietly and turned away. It was silly to think such things. He had a family to look after.
He glanced up, intending a final glimpse before heading in. She’d paused at the end of the road, turned and looked at him. She raised her hand in acknowledgement.
The house lacked character unfortunately, no doubt partly due to being rented out to four youngsters who, at the time, I presumed to be students, but with retrospect their lack of possessions meant that they could have been more itinerant than that. A collection of souls from across the continent, working and living. People thrown together by circumstance. That’s how the world works; we put our trust in coincidence to make it all okay.
The house also, to add to its suburban nature, had a conservatory. Normally, both my girlfriend and I would irrationally yet violently react against conservatories, but for some reason I found myself charmed by it. It was old school, more like a summer house extension than a cheap PVC and double glazing frame. It ran the width of the house, but was shallow. Inside there was little more than room for a thin table and chairs. It was somewhere to watch the garden go by, which makes me sound as though looking for a house has aged me by about forty years. That morning, though, the snow was still on the ground and strong sunrays streaming down, bathing the long, long garden in a clear shimmer, I could see the appeal of sitting there with a cup of coffee watching the world at nature.
I can’t remember why we didn’t put an offer in. Discarding my romantic notions of sudden middle-aged wistful contemplation of the universe it clearly wasn’t right for us, but by this time we were randomly putting in offers for properties we didn’t really want.
Maybe it was because we didn’t want anything else to do with the agent. Unlike many she seemed nice enough, but spent most of the time as we looked around countering our own tales of property woe with her own. She and her partner were also finding it an impossible challenge. On and on she went, even throwing in the added complication that the Saturdays when most properties came on the market she was, of course, working. If it was an attempt to endear us to her, it didn’t work.
See, other people’s property problems: totally uninteresting.