Am I really going to do this?
Angie gives me an almost imperceptible nod. I pull open the drawer. At first glance, it’s crammed full of what look like official documents. Contracts and letters.
‘It’s just more paperwork,’ I say. ‘Probably stuff about the business that’s confidential.’
‘Anything else?’ she asks, disappointed.
I scrabble to the bottom of the pile. There’s something underneath. A metal box, like one of those ones people use to put petty cash in. Red. About thirty centimetres wide. ‘Where’s that other key?’ I say, and even to my own ears my voice sounds wobbly. ‘You really won’t tell anyone about this, will you, Ange? Anyone?’
‘Of course I won’t,’ she says, going for the top-right-hand drawer again. ‘It’d make me look as bad as you.’
It takes her a moment to locate the tiny key. I know just from looking at the lock that it’s going to fit, and it does. I open the box before I can change my mind.
There’s not much in there. Disappointingly little, in fact. I glance out at the main office again, and then I tip the contents out on to the floor. There are a couple of envelopes, a receipt from Cartier, a small box containing a tacky gold sovereign ring, large enough to fit a man’s finger. I open the first envelope. A card. A print of a garish painting of Paris. Inside, in curly, cursive handwriting, a note.
Thank you for the best 2 days ever. Love u. F xx
There are crudely drawn hearts covering the bottom half of the card.
‘Whoever she is, she’s young,’ I say.
‘Does the pope shit in the woods?’ Angie says, reaching for the second envelope. ‘F. Have you come across any Fs? Any Fionas or Fays hanging round your way?’
I shake my head. I snap a quick photo of the message on my phone. Angie has pulled another card from the second envelope. A photo of a kitten sitting in a large coffee cup.
She goes to open it.
There’s a shout. A man’s voice. ‘Ange! Angie!’
The pair of us freeze.
February: one month earlier
The house is magnificent.
Even in the pouring rain it’s impossible not to appreciate the sheer scale of it. The horseshoe drive with a gate marked in and a whole other gate marked out, the perfectly manicured box balls not a leaf out of place, the symmetry either side of the large columned porch. A small stone water fountain standing proudly in the middle of a complicated arrangement of low hedges. Three storeys high and the width of five terraced houses, it’s vast. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up living somewhere like this. I drag the last of my boxes from the boot of my car and look around me in awe as I carry it in. The other seven houses in the close are all similar but different enough to give them the illusion of individuality. McMansions, really, if I were being critical. No history, but each one equally majestic. Set in a leafy private cul de sac at the far north edge of the heath. It seems slightly surreal that this is going to be my home. I pause for a second, my wet hair falling into my eyes, and listen. Beyond the rain there’s nothing. Silence. It’s hard to believe I’m still in London. Then I half run up the drive, circumvent the black shiny front door and duck to the side of the house, where there is a metal staircase up to my new rented flat above the garage. One bedroom, a living room/kitchen and a tiny bathroom. The granny flat. The annexe. That’s how Gail had referred to it, when she and her husband, Ben, had interviewed me as a prospective tenant.
At one point he’d said something about staff quarters and she’d grimaced at me.
‘We don’t have staff,’ she said apologetically, shooting him a look.
‘No. I just meant, that’s what some of them do.’ Ben waved his hand vaguely to indicate the rest of the close. ‘I didn’t mean . . . sorry, Laura, that sounded patronizing.’ He looked genuinely apologetic and I laughed.
‘God, I don’t care,’ I’d said. And I didn’t. I needed somewhere to live. Somewhere I could afford. It really didn’t matter to me if I would be staying somewhere all the other residents of The Close stuck their nanny. ‘As long as you don’t mind Betsy staying over a few nights a week . . .’
I had explained on the phone that I had a daughter. Seven years old. Currently living with her father in his smart new flat because the little house I was buying had fallen through at the last minute, leaving me with nowhere to go once our family home was sold. His midlife-crisis flat is how I think of it. His flat where he wanted to live not with a shiny young girlfriend – he had told me there was no one else and I believed him. Honesty had always been a big deal in our marriage, and I had no reason to think that had changed – but alone. Without me. Because apparently that was preferable to living with me. A mistress would almost have been easier to deal with.
‘No, of course not,’ Gail had said, smiling. ‘You have to think of it as yours. Don’t feel you have to ask permission for everything . . .’
And just like that the flat was mine. A six-month lease while I tried to find myself – and my daughter – a new permanent home.