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.’