And I do just that. I make the worst mistake of my life
‘We’re booked up, I’m afraid. You know what it’s like after the holidays finish. People start putting their houses on the market almost immediately. My phone literally has not stopped ringing. It’s the Christmas Curse.’
‘Statistically, more marriages fall apart at Christmas than any other time.’
‘Oh.’ I ponder this depressing statistic. ‘Surely Amber could squeeze me in.’
‘Give me a minute.’ She sighs and I imagine her bright pink fingernails tapping the desk as she checks her diary.
I take a pen and scribble Browning Street on a scrap of paper and underline it. This is the one. I feel it in my bones.
‘OK,’ she says. ‘Amber’s there now. If you can make it in ten minutes she can zip you round between viewings. I’ll give her a call.’
I glance up at the ceiling. ‘Can she do any later?’
‘Not today, sorry. Take it or leave it, I’m afraid.’
I hesitate. Bloody Magda.
‘Are you still there?’
‘Yes. That’s fine. I’ll run round now.’
And I do . . . I do just that. I make the worst mistake of my life.
The rain is torrential. I force my umbrella up and as the wind catches it and turns it inside out I look back up at the house, at the gabled window to Josh’s bedroom. He’ll be fine. I’ll hurry. By the time I reach the end of my road I’m already lost in a developer’s fantasy; picturing myself with plans and builders, opening out spaces and letting the light flow in.
This is a great area; sprawling enough not to feel claustrophobic, limited enough to be a cohesive community. It isn’t the best part of South East London, but it’s on the way up, with the usual signs of gentrification; a ‘village’ label shamelessly bandied about by estate agents, a couple of niche cafés, a specialist wine shop and a gastro pub beside the Common, which boasts a playground and a duck pond. A McDonald’s, KFC and kebab shop still do a roaring trade on the London Road and make for a jolly, mixed community. I spent my early years in Streatham, so it was the obvious place for us to begin the search for our first home. We moved outwards from there – hoping for a bargain – and chanced on a cluster of streets named after English poets where big houses that had been converted into flats in the seventies and eighties were gradually being turned back into family houses. It’s also handy for getting out of London to visit my mother on the coast.
When I turn up, Amber is saying goodbye to a couple with a child in a pram and a little girl of about two sitting on her father’s shoulders. Amber shakes their hands and they set off towards me, obviously discussing the house, the woman excited, the man more circumspect. As they cross over the road and pass me I glance down at their baby. He’s older than Josh, fast asleep, slumped in that sack-like way that only babies manage, his chin tucked into his chest, his arms and legs lolling, utterly relaxed.
‘Oh God, I want it, Nick,’ the woman says. She reminds me of me.
I don’t hear Nick’s reply because I’m already hurrying towards Amber, the image of Josh fast asleep in his cot lodged in my head and a worry starting to nibble at the edges of my good mood.
The house is double-fronted and semi-detached. It’s in a state of acute disrepair but the two smarter versions that flank it have had a lot of money spent on them. They boast plantation shutters and black-and-white tessellated paths leading up to front doors painted in heritage shades.
Six years ago Tom and I stood outside Coleridge Street with Emily in her pram, almost speechless with anticipation, gripping each other’s hands while Sarah Wilson from Johnson Lane battled with the lock, muttering about it being an agent’s nightmare, and finally, triumphantly, pushing it open against a pile of mail that slithered out across the floor like the tide coming in. We pushed Emily’s pram into a patch of warm sunlight. Sarah kept her distance, probably aware that she didn’t have to sell it while we naïvely thought we were putting on a good show, Tom making critical remarks that sounded positively hammy, me standing with my hand cradling my modest bump, gazing up at a patch of damp where the corner of the sitting room met the ceiling. We moved through the house like small children discovering a new secret and when we came out into the garden where the birds were singing, climbing roses casting long stems heavy with buds, I flung my arms around him.
‘Can we afford it?’
Tom laughed. ‘No, but we’ll find a way.’
It was a wonderful, crazy time, camping in the rooms that were liveable, working nights and weekends with Emily crawling around in the dirt, and then with Polly as well, tiny and new. I was trying to paint windows between feeds and replace floorboards, put up curtains and restore damaged original features. I spent the long summer days in decorator’s overalls, finding cheap ways of making an impact. Growing up without a father, in a crummy seaside house that my mother filled with lodgers, we developed an impressive range of skills. Between the two of us, Mum and I can fix pretty much anything.
Tom and I put up with a makeshift kitchen for two years and walked on bare boards, but we didn’t care. We were in love with each other, in love with the future, in love with our babies and our house. I had no idea how useless Tom was at DIY, but it wasn’t all bad. If he couldn’t do anything that required a particular skill he was at least willing to sand for hours on end.
My tools are lying unused in the cellar now. I miss them.
‘Oh my God, this rain! Let’s get inside.’ Amber leads me in, checking her watch. ‘I can only give you fifteen minutes, so we’d better crack on.’
I follow her and breathe in the smell; a heady blend of old carpet and damp and that musty scent of decay. I run my fingers along the brown-painted dado rail and gaze up at the cornicing. The paint is flaking off but it is generously wide; the pattern of ridges and grooves, elegant and understated.
‘Nice?’ Amber says, raising an eyebrow.
‘I love it.’
Something flits across Amber’s face, a wisp of despondency darkening her eyes. It’s only a tiny moment but it reminds me to pare back my enthusiasm.
‘Do you think this is transferral?’ she asks.
‘I mean, do think you’re doing this because you’re looking for an outlet for all that pent-up sexual frustration?’
She’s joking of course. ‘No. Well, maybe a little. But you know I like smelly old wrecks.’
‘Are you talking about the house or your mystery man?’
I laugh. ‘The house. Categorically.’
Amber pulls me towards the staircase, where grubby mahogany banisters lead the eye up three floors to a skylight. Even though it’s too dirty and splattered with bird shit to let in more than a milky light I can imagine how wonderful it would be on a sunny day or a moonlit night. She takes me to the kitchen, a yellowing room at the back of the house with a door to the garden and a small window. A sink clings to the wall between ugly beige units encrusted with filth. When Amber flicks the switch a strip light stutters on.
‘Thank God you didn’t bring Josh. That last couple? Their little girl was a nightmare.’
‘Their baby was asleep.’ Hiding my blushes, I bend to tease up a corner of brittle lino. Underneath, the floorboards look sound.
‘Yes. But they left them both downstairs with me. Can you believe it? I’m not a bloody babysitter. And you know what she said?’ Amber snorts. ‘Don’t take him out of his pram. As if he was too cute for me to resist. Honestly.’
My smile is strained. ‘I’ve never seen anyone coming in or out. How long has it been empty?’
‘Not long. The lady who owned it went into care last week. She’s ninety-three and reclusive, apparently. Probate’s going to take a while, but I doubt it’ll hang around. To be honest, Vicky, if you want it, you’re going to have to sharpen your elbows.’
I touch the brown wallpaper and pick at a torn edge. ‘Tom will take some persuading. If it was down to him we’d still be in the flat.’
Amber’s face falls.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
But I do and I can tell she’s offended. Robert is self-employed and they’re paying a huge rent to be in the right catchment area and haven’t been able to scrape the cash together for a deposit. It’s something I try hard to ignore, but when you start out in your career at the same income level as a friend, only to leave them behind financially, it can be awkward and you have to be sensitive. I blame my lack of tact on last night.
‘You’ll get what you want in the end. You’re the most determined person I know.’
She rolls her eyes. ‘I suppose . . . ’
‘Come on. It’s only a matter of time.’
We go into the next room and she waits while I look round. I can feel that she wants to say something, that I’ve struck an ill-judged note.
‘You mustn’t take what you have for granted,’ she says.
‘Do you mean Tom or the house?’ Her words are discomforting but I suppose I deserve it.
‘Both. You don’t know how lucky you are.’
‘Then why risk it?’
‘Because I take risks! That’s why I got pregnant at twenty-one. That’s why we own Coleridge Street. We couldn’t afford it, Amber, but we just did it. You and Robert can do it too.’
‘Amber . . . ’ But she’s left the room ahead of me.
I follow her into the sitting room. This is in better condition, the marble fireplace grander than the one we have in Coleridge Street. A large Persian rug lies spread across wide floorboards, the gaps between them imprinted into the weave. There’s a patch of damp above the curtain rail, but otherwise it’s perfect and I can see myself living here. I do a rapid calculation. We could do it. Mortgage rates are still very low and Tom has inherited a useful amount from his grandfather. It would be a strain, there’s no doubt about that, but worth it in the long run. I’m tempted to put in an offer then and there. For the first time in days I feel excited, drawn into the romance of the place, the lure of the project.
‘Keep moving,’ Amber says, all professional now. ‘I’ll show you round upstairs and then you can poke your head outside.’
At first I don’t hear it above the sound of the rain. We are in the master bedroom, inspecting some water damage to the window frames, Amber saying how wonderful the room will look once the shutters are restored. It’s only faint, but it’s such a familiar sound that it makes me turn and prick up my ears. I walk to the door and listen. It’s coming from upstairs. A baby is crying.
‘Vicky?’ Amber says, touching my arm.
I ignore her and go up. The stairs to the top floor are uncarpeted and dusty, as if the owners stopped bothering with that part of the house a long time ago. An eclectic collection of pictures line the walls: old-fashioned hunting prints, nondescript watercolours, uninspiring oils; the kind of things that turn up in job lots in auction houses or stacked forlornly against the walls of charity shops. The wailing draws me like a magnet. On the landing I stop, confused. The rooms are devoid of furniture but I can hear it clearly now, the hiccupping sob of a child who no one has come to comfort.
‘It’s only next-door’s baby,’ Amber says. ‘I’ve seen them coming in and out. They’ve got a little girl too. That noise really gets to you though, doesn’t it?’
‘I’ve got to go home,’ I say abruptly.
‘But you haven’t seen the garden yet.’ It’s as dark out there as a November afternoon, the rain coming down in sheets. A fat pigeon sits on a branch looking miserable.
‘I’ll come back tomorrow, when I don’t need an Ark.’
I’m in such a hurry I slip on the stairs, scraping my elbow against the wall. Amber reaches under my arm and pulls me up.
‘Slow down. What’s the panic? My next lot aren’t due for a couple more minutes. Tell me what you think of the place.’
‘It’s great. I’ll call you later. I’ve got to get back. I can’t expect Magda to babysit when she’s supposed to be cleaning.’
‘She’s babysitting for us tomorrow evening,’ Amber says, moving away from me and brushing a speck of dust from the bottom of her trench coat. ‘Honestly I don’t know what I’d do without her.’
Shit. What if she tells Amber she didn’t come to me? I shouldn’t have left him. What the hell was I thinking?
‘Oh, and just to warn you, I’ve already booked her to babysit Sophie for the Forsyths’ drinks party.’
She stares at me, waiting for a reaction.
‘Sorry,’ I say, opening the front door. ‘The house is wonderful. I need to have a think and talk to Tom, but I’d love it, obviously.’
As I leave, she shouts after me, ‘Do you want me to come and value your house? Would that help?’
There’s something in her voice, a touch of desperation that hangs in the air as I run into the rain.
Amber, standing in the doorway, watches Vicky as she runs out, wincing as a car sluices through the gutter, splashing her. She’s puzzled but she shakes it off and looks away, peering through the rain at a car slowing down. Her next appointment. The woman in the passenger seat gesticulates at the driver. Amber forgets about Vicky and waves cheerfully at them, puts up her umbrella and hurries over.
‘Mrs Tarrant?’ she says.
Mr and Mrs Tarrant know exactly what they want and don’t need Amber’s sales pitch. Not that the house needs one. Seventeen Browning Street sells itself. Amber runs her fingers over the chipped woodwork on the windowsill of one of the upstairs bedrooms. She feels like she’s in love, as though the smell of the house is male musk, its walls arms waiting to embrace her. She has a fanciful idea that she could touch her lips to the peeling wallpaper, lean into it. Why can’t she and Robert have a place like this? Perhaps she should do as Vicky says and take a risk. She looks around, imagining herself climbing newly carpeted stairs, lying in a claw-foot bathtub, wafting round a sleekly beautiful kitchen. She couldn’t. Could she? Vicky would never forgive her.
She nibbles at her bottom lip. Perhaps that doesn’t even matter. Vicky has broken the first rule of their friendship. She lied. Amber has always aspired to be like Vicky, but now she’s not so sure. She can’t believe her friend was prepared to risk it all for a sordid fling. Poor Tom. Poor children.
‘So what do you know about the local schools?’
She jumps – she hadn’t realized the Tarrants were in the room – turns with her brightest smile.
‘Are you looking for private or independent?’
They talk education and small children, the innocuous conversation a comfort to Amber. Mrs Tarrant moves around the room, looks out of the windows and frowns at the swollen frames. Her phone rings.
‘Your eleven o’clock,’ Sarah says. ‘They’ve cancelled.’
Amber glances at her watch. She’s going to have over half an hour to kill in this freezing house.
My bag knocks against my hip and I’m out of breath before I reach the end of the next street. I slow down, panting, and power-walk the rest of the way. My mind feels overheated.
Amber will guess.
Maybe I can bribe Magda?
But that would mean someone else knowing.
Maybe I should text Magda and advise her not to mention the upset stomach. Then she would have to avoid saying she hadn’t been to my place.
Yes. That would do it.
Josh is crying. I hadn’t expected that and it chills me; the noise loud enough to be heard across the street. As I shove my key into the lock the telephone starts ringing. I’m supposed to be in so I sprint to the sitting room and grab the phone off the sideboard.
‘Mum. I can’t talk now. I’ll call you back.’
‘It’s just a small thing, I . . . ’
‘Mum. Josh is having a paddy. Please. I’ll call you back.’
Something is wrong. The sitting room door was open when I left earlier. It’s rarely closed. I put the phone down slowly. The French windows are ajar, splinters of wood and glass on the floor beside them.
I sprint upstairs and charge into Josh’s bedroom, come to an abrupt standstill and scream with fright. There’s someone there: a large figure in the gloom, shockingly out of context. He’s dressed in dark clothes and he’s holding Josh clamped against his chest, his hand covering my son’s mouth. Josh has frozen. He isn’t fighting or protesting but his eyes are big and confused and shining with tears.
‘Don’t hurt him.’ My arms hang by my sides. ‘Please.’ I have never felt terror like this before. It is physically numbing and mentally degrading.
Downstairs the phone starts to ring again and the sound changes the atmosphere instantly. The man runs forward before I’m ready. He barges past, thrusting Josh at me and I’m propelled violently backwards against the sharp edge of the half-open door, whacking my elbow on my funny bone, fuzzing the nerves that lead into my wrists, so that as I try to catch hold of Josh I clumsily misjudge and he slips to the floor with a sickening thud. The man has to pull the door open behind me and I try to get out of his way and scoop Josh up at the same time, but somehow I clash with his feet and Josh lets out a cry of pain. And then it’s over and he is gone, charging down the stairs, and I’m cradling my son, rocking him against me as he bellows.
Seconds later I feel something, another presence. I slowly straighten up and turn my head. Amber is holding the door wide, staring down at me, her mouth open in horror. My relief at seeing her is tempered by shame. I hold her gaze and plead silently with her.
Please don’t judge me.