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...