I’d pushed several places on Manwood Road before, but they were all in the middle section where my girlfriend was able to object to the odd little triangular windows above the front door and their tendency to be peddle-dashed. But by this time we were getting less fussy. It came as one of a pair that an agency had been promising for weeks, seeding the internet with sneak previews, like a summer blockbuster, and yet the first opportunity to see either was another of the dreaded open days. We were, as was now the norm, some of the first through the door.
We’d seen numerous places in this turn of the last century terraced style. I’m running out of words to describe two or three bedroomed narrow houses. This one had the two reception rooms knocked through surprisingly neatly, but they were all starting to feel much of a muchness and the criticisms came easily. There was nothing strictly wrong with it, aside from the inflated price, but the details weren’t right. I wouldn’t have left the door into the living room in place, blocked off with a chair and totally redundant. The wine cooler seemed somewhat pretentious, although I really liked the folding doors from the breakfast area into the kitchen. The main bedroom had smartly refurbished wooden floors, but closer inspection revealed massive chunks broken off the corners and holes for small things, like the cat, to disappear down.
The bathroom turned out to be triangular, cut off the corner of the third bedroom. Or, to be more accurate, the bedroom cut out of a previously massive bathroom (which in turn had been installed in where once there’d been a bedroom, round and round we go). The result was an expensive suite and a bath I’d only be able to sit in. Again.
Most disappointing of all was the back garden. Small and leafy gave it charm, but being overlooked by several properties spoiled the attempts at tranquillity. Amusingly one of the looking on houses was the second place on Rushford Road we’d seen. The house immediately to the rear had an elaborate conversation to the attic which giving panoramic views of the whole sequence of gardens. How, I wondered, had no-one objected to that?
Numerous other equally hang-drawn couples scuttled around. I was beginning to recognise some of them, if only from the dead-eyed beat-up expressions to their faces. Like me they probably just wanted this whole thing to be over with. Increasingly I just couldn’t be bothered and it was just my innate competitiveness keeping me going. I was determined not to lose out to some other sucker. Or maybe all these grouchy thoughts were nothing but the returning red wine producing a hazy mist behind my eyes and a suckering sting to my forehead.
1922. Johnson’s shoulder itched. It always did in the heat. The scar tissue burned and he wanted to scrape at it, as though the shrapnel was still under there. When it was really bad he fancied he could smell his own flesh smouldering again, just like that June afternoon six years previously. Lying in the water logged mud, wondering, ridiculously, why the ground was so wet when the sky was clear and blue. Wondering when the hurt would come not realising that the noise he could barely think over wasn’t another barrage coming in but his own screams.
Johnson sighed, scratched his shoulder and opened the front door. Standing on his step he lit a cigarette and leaned against the frame. The evening was just taking that faded light, the sort you only got at the height of summer. The hour or so where the day seemed to realise it had been around too long, but was still reluctant to make its way on. A sort of tired and emotional light easing itself to sleep.
He wondered where his wife was. She was normally home by now, a hour or so gone. Probably she had just become waylaid nattering to someone; that pretty missus who lived at number twenty-seven, perhaps. And God knows where young Graham was. Causing havoc somewhere no doubt.
Johnson knew he shouldn’t worry, but he couldn’t help it. He’d grown up in Bethnal Green, in the packed in slum on the edge of Whitechapel. All five of them in a single room. He went away to war at sixteen and when he came home, all scarred and blackened, they gave him this house. A home for heroes, they’d said. Appeasing their guilt, he thought, and while he wasn’t fool enough to complain, he still wasn’t used to there being so much space.
That young Lieutenant had been from around here. Johnson had only served with him a few months before the man got transferred up the line as a sapper, but he’d always been harping on about bloody Brockley and how wonderful it was. Green space, close to the city and yet clean air, on and on. Probably thought he was keeping the lads spirit up when no-one wanted to be reminded of what they were missing, stuck in those mud churned fields, the smell of cordite lingering, the constant flash-bangs on the horizon. Johnson had heard he’d copped it at some point. Fell under a bus, the silly bugger. Still, Johnson rubbed his shoulder, there were worse ways to go.
‘What’re you doing out here?’ asked Kate making him jump.
‘Just taking some air.’ He followed her inside. ‘Where have you been?’
‘Gossiping, I’m afraid.’ She pecked him on the cheek. ‘With Jenny.’ Number twenty-seven. Startling eyes. Blonde hair you wanted to wrap yourself in. ‘She was telling me about old Maude Noakes. All alone in that big hall with those animals. Dozens she has. Calls them her friends. When they die, she gets a grave dug for them in gardens. Even the pigs and cows. Crazy old bat.’
But Johnson had tuned her out. For a moment his head was full of not knowing, of not knowing when the next meal would be, the next break would be, the next time he could sleep for more than thirty minutes, the next time it all would just stop. His shoulder itched and fire raged in his head and he did not fucking care about Maude Noakes’ pigs.
And then Kate slipped her arms around his waist and nuzzled his neck. Her skin felt soft and calming. She smelt of soap and vanilla and not of dead men’s skulls being chewed out by maggots. And he exhaled, he let it all go. For the moment.
‘So, what do you think?’ asked the agent while everyone else was upstairs trying not to drop their keys between the floorboards.
‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘It feels a bit overpriced. Like there’s a premium being put on the vendor’s tastes and, to be honest, the kitchen is a bit grey for us.’
‘I think it’s priced right, if you look at other houses in the area.’
‘Yeah, but places don’t go for the asking price, do they? Why wouldn’t you try to get more than you actually want? That’s how it works.’
‘I disagree,’ he said in a way which tried to give gravitas to his professionalism. ‘There was a place on Ewhurst Road the other week which we had. Same price.’
‘We saw that on Rightmove.’ But didn’t look at it because it was pebble-dashed. ‘I thought that one was overpriced too.’
‘It went though. Sold it myself.’
As we walked around the corner to the second of the pair, and our third property of the morning, my girlfriend said: ‘Maybe we’re being unrealistic. Maybe little houses are going for more than we can afford. I mean, that place on Ewhurst wasn’t exactly amazing.’
‘Yeah, but he didn’t say it went for the asking price.’
‘He did. He said it went through.’
‘But he avoiding say how much for. Old sales rep trick; let the customer draw their own conclusions if it means you don’t have to deviate from the truth.’
A week later the house on Ewhurst Road was back on the market. Maybe the buyer had pulled out, or they’d agreed at a lower rate than advertised and the vendor had decided to try and get more with someone else or maybe they’d agreed that stupid asking price and a mortgage company had told them they were fucking nuts. Whatever, it was still pebble-dashed.