Halted at a crossing, I was mid huff when I saw it. I’ll admit I’m one for looking into other people’s windows anyway, and had been devouring the titbits the half-drawn curtains allowed, when, jolt, I spied something worrying as we waited at the traffic lights.
My stomach flipped with recognition. I was staring into the solemn glass eye of a Georgian townhouse. Well, you may know the route of the 38 bus – down Essex Road, Balls Pond Road, Dalston Junction – it’s not like Georgian townhouses are rare, but this one offered up a scene I had seen before, in my past. This was familiar, mine.
Not similar, but exactly the same – the row of mismatched tea cups on a long, tatty shelf, the hanging pans, grubby Belfast sink, the French mustard walls, postcards stuck to the fridge with magnets, rise-and-fall lamp pulled down low, bulb nosing the Farmhouse table.
The darkness and the light. Motes beckoning with dazzling winks.
Fancy that, I thought, craning my neck to look longer as the bus pulled off. That house looks exactly the same as Willow Lane. A trumpeting gramophone, a lengthy oak mirror in the French style, and even an Eames lounge chair for Dr Claw’s cat, flat-faced and evil, biding his time. There he pads, flicky tail, over the floorboards and then ripped from sight.
Well, it’s hard to forget something so curious, and each time I blinked that evening, there was that picture burned into my retinas. A house that from the outside was on the end of a terrace, with a neat front garden the size of a paddling pool and a shiny brass doorknob, but from the inside looked exactly the same as Willow Lane. Different city and time; same postcard.
In bed, head on pillow, I imagined exploring the house I’d seen, through the front door and straight up some wooden, rickety stairs. There was my room, straight ahead, with the sage walls my mother and I painted whilst we listened to Radio 4 plays, and my duvet and pillow, veined with smudged blood, sheets of dust on the dresser (the house spewed dust) and the nail in the floorboards I’d impaled my foot on. I was there for a couple of years – a burgeoning misfit passing through, like the others who hung their own oil paintings, made mobiles from origami, had sex this way and that way with this one and that one and left milk to turn to cheese in the fridge door. Mainly, it was a night-time house, appreciated best in candlelight. Sipping whisky from a tumbler after hours, you could fancy you were in 1830, a bona fide libertine or broad. How we pickled ourselves, but despite that, the memories are shard-sharp. I wonder if they are for the others.
And so I walked around, in my mind, trailing finger across surfaces until I’d remembered every inch, nibble in the skirting, notch on the headboard. Even when sleeping, I dreamt of the wood. So much wood.
It became a game, first identifying the copycat house again (where had it been exactly?) and looking in, if the curtains allowed, if I had a window seat on the right side of the bus. Sometimes it was too dark in there to make out any more than shapes and shadows, but on a sunny day, with the back of the house open to the graveyard, I could clearly see the same things as that first time – the tea cups, the gramophone, the mirror.
I juggled with this concern, among others (men, work, whims, worries), tossing it up and down. I bounced it against the wall down by the garages, under one leg, overarm, chasing it under a car when it went wayward.
I could have let it be, but instead I shaped it into a clockwork toy, wound it up and set it on its way. After all, my relationships were floundering, my writing had become a wasteland, and I was as bored as bread. In the dead of night, I imagined my monkey-playing-cymbals rattling over the empty pavements from my flat to the house, stopping at the path, cymballing ‘sh sh sh’ on arrival.
Across from the Willow Lane-type house is: a Methodist church, laundrette, café, bike shop, charity shop, haberdashery, specialist travel agent, but of course, you’re up on this because you chose the house for your family to live in so must have staked out the neighbourhood good and proper. I know, because you’ve told me since, that the primary school is rated ‘Good with outstanding features’ and though you’d not say so yourself, this matters because you can already detect a wayward glint in Celia’s hazel eyes; you’re concerned she’ll open her legs for kicks, like she flicks elastic bands at the cat, not quite wanting to hit it, but seeing how far she can wind the spring anyway. You won’t like that I’ve seen her do that. I’ve seen her pick her nose, dig her nails deep into her brother’s skin and shave her own arm with daddy’s razor. Of course, I advised against these pursuits like a babysitter should.
She’ll be a better person for knowing me. I tell her the truth, you see – treat her like an adult – when you just purr ‘darling’ at her, through a mouth full of chrysanthemums.
I decided to interpret your house, laid out just like Willow Lane, as a message. It took some lying to myself, at first, not believing in the supernatural by nature. It’s a sign, just for me, I blinked, trying to force thoughts of coincidence and chaos from my mind. But, it was mine, you must realise. It was a scene from my past; and you became my future, didn’t you, so nobody can argue it wasn’t all for me; all mine to take. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, daaahling.
I went out with this guy once who luxuriated next to me in the soiled sheets of my Willow Lane bed, port having temporarily discoloured the tips of our teeth, and said: ‘It turns me on to zoom out on this; to see your room as a set, above the houses without roofs on, to see people in rooms, in the road, in the city, and there’s us, insignificant’. I thought about that a lot when I moved to London.
I thought, here’s me in my bed, alone. Here are my limbs, prickling the sheets with two-day stubble. There’s the window, not double-glazed, letting cold fox breath pool around the window seals, coiling through the room and tunnelling into my earholes to make them ache by the morning. Behind the internal walls, a paunchy man in his forties; two eastern Europeans, overeducated for the menial jobs they do to stay in London; the empty room someone stays in on business trips; the guy with a shaved head who looks after his giggle-pot of a toddler on weekends. And outside the windows (sixteen of them in the building I estimate) the street with two hundred similar abodes, stacked like a bullet belt.
And at least six other roads branching off this one, and more off those – ribbons of roads, millipedes of train tracks, over 250 underground stations; 8 million people. Look down on Hackney, look down on the East, look down on the North of the Thames, look down on the area inside the M25. Insignificant me. Remote, ineffectual, impotent.
I’ve known people more isolated than me by far. At least my eyes shine in conversation so people want to give me their phone numbers, and I’ve always said, if you find yourself by yourself, make things happen. Go to night classes, read in bars, smile! The Willow Lane connection, whether small or big (certainly not commonplace) was enough. Do you understand ? It was enough.
Who lives there? I sipped my sweet, milky tea, peering out through the drizzle. If you’re like me – I now know you’re not – it’s not unusual to wonder who chooses this place, that place. I’m the kind of person who after a few drinks disembodies and disperses her soul into the bar, breathing the same breath as others, coursing with fake solidarity. I lick the pearls on a girl’s neck with goodwill; I smile when the moustachioed man tastes his nectar.
I bought a bike from the cycle shop across the road and came back for extras so often they knew me by name.
I took my washing to the laundrette in a backpack and relished watching the clothes tossing in the barrels to the sound of the music plugged into my ears, always with an eye on your house. Who doesn’t love the smell of laundry? Babies, towels and suds, soft against the chin. I suppose it was as much about the mystery and having something to do as linking up in a spiritual way.
Anyone could have lived there, but it was you, Jay, Celia and Finlay, and after a couple of weeks I saw you all for the first time, leaving the house on a Saturday. A jolly troop of red wellies and green cagoules. I downed my tea, hugged my faux fur to my chest and followed.
Your trip that day was to Victoria Park and though I now know you love to walk and feel free, able to hammer miles away at a time under those strappy boots, you all took the bus for the little legs in the group. I sat safely back from the ivory king and queen, the two pawns. I remember the rain on the outside and condensation on the inside of the bus window. This time I couldn’t see out so I drew dogs in the style of Keith Haring and glimpsed brollies opening like water lilies, between the lines of my pictures.
The children were a credit to you both; they sat still and straight. Here, I got a look at you, from back and side. The kind of blond highlights that take forever at the salon, applied to the thinnest strands at a time, creating a bush of foils. Neat, prim – if that still exists in modern times – a bit tight around the mouth. I thought you looked bitter and briny, but radiant with health and money. You had mid-autumn tans telling of recent holidays. I remember that made me feel something between grief and jealousy: a tender mulch of wish and rue.
Of course, I could see the attraction from the first. You’re the kind of woman that validates a man’s position in the business world, like a Mac Book Pro or Savile Row suit. Not pretty, but haughtily good-looking.
Jay, he looked like nothing. Fleshy silly putty pulled into nothing features with brindled hair in a standard crop. It’s not that I fail to find something in everyone, it’s just you and the children trapped my attention and Jay was a hole I only much later filled. I thought nothing of him then. I suppose adults like him can seem rather boring when you’re young like me.
We traversed the park on our own meridian lines. I hadn’t been to Victoria Park before, so thanks for leading me there – a huge, jovial green speech mark floating from Hackney’s concrete jaws. It’s become important to the children and I. We huddle in a stone alcove taken from the old London Bridge and look at picture books; here I told them about the Psammead granting wishes to children just like them.
Do you want to know what peculiar Celia said she’d wish for? I can’t tell you, it’s too close to the bone, but the crazy thing is, she’s getting her wish today. ‘Mummy loves you very much,’ I told her. She shrugged, which I thought was awfully grown up. It told me she knew life wouldn’t always give her what she wanted and that she would accept that, despite the pain. Nothing much like you, really, but so much like me.
So, we didn’t meet like you thought, not wholly. I wasn’t dead set on becoming friends, but London is vast and I didn’t know many people outside of the work sphere. You had become familiar to me; a comfort. Day in, day out, I knew you and your family were swaddled by the Willow Lane-type house.
The way you’ll remember it, we met on yoga mats in the Methodist Church.
‘God, I’d kill for a glass of wine,’ you said to the room, after we’d rolled our mats up.
‘I never say no to a glass of wine,’ I said, hand already outstretched in greeting. ‘I’m Tess.’ Paula and Erica came too, and we all got on very well. You spoke to me the most because you thought I was animated and warm. An antidote to your coolness. By the bottom of the bottle your number was in my phone and I was looking after the children on Monday afternoon. And there, finally, was the moment I had been waiting patiently for. I had my way in.
How did it feel walking into your Willow Lane-type house when I first came over? I’ve heard fanciful things about ghosts being an imprint of a time on a house, their tautest experiences having such muscle they end up scorched into the space forever like movie negatives. I’m agnostic regarding ghosts, but the trick your house conjured up – well, that was something. All the things you have there, replicating my old home, made it feel even more like home than the real thing ever was. I suppose that’s distance and nostalgia, relief to have something that was gone, back again.
Only upstairs was altered, with the Duracell bunnies, the Peppa pigs, wooden train line, doggie duvets, rubber ducks, a rocking horse, building blocks and the sweet scent of almond milk that children excrete. The house massaged me with soothing oils from the second I left my shoes at the door: ylang ylang and rose rubbed into my tight shoulder blades. The spiders in the crevices shifted hello and the children ran into my arms.
‘Hello, little things,’ I said to them all.
‘You’re going to look after us today as mummy is goings shopping,’ said Fin.
‘Yes,’ you said. ‘Mummy is getting a rare chance to escape this place. She never gets to do anything she wants any more…’ You were speaking from the coat cupboard, already tying your felt belt. Your boot zips sounded like the closing of body bags in TV thrillers.
You didn’t say goodbye to the children.
Never try to second-guess a person before you know them, you’ll never fully pin them down. I’ve known all sorts but none like you. You have an air of Bakelite about you: archaic, clean, snappable. Your breath smells of stainless steel and your smile, frightening, strangled. You penetrate my eyes, and though I see a mask of understanding, I know you’re working on different logic to me, have a whole other world inside you I can’t comprehend, like I can’t fathom the end of the universe or how long 180 million years is. The closer we become, the less I know you and I know that alarms you; makes you feel unknowable. You’re unpredictable but never consistently so, though you do stay within the lines of the law. I don’t tell you how different you are, of course, because there’s good different and bad different, and I know you believe you’re bad different, whereas when you say to me, ‘You’re so different to other people,’ I know you mean it as a compliment.
One night, you went to bed early – nearly as early as the children – feigning flu, after I’d cooked you all my signature dish of lamb and rose petal meatballs. We had a box of wine on the go, and Jay, especially, threw it down his throat, replenishing his insides after a drought. The music was so loud the bells, chimes, strings and caramel voices licked our ears in silk scarves of melody. You were preoccupied with the candle wax, which mimicked lava spewing from the wine bottleneck and I wondered how many years of burning coloured candles had amassed such a glorious, gleaming Tudor ruff. You must have talked, conspired, confided, whispered, planned and promised this man so much throughout your decade of togetherness. The bottle itself – a 2001 Chateauxneuf-du-Pape – would have been shared when you were both so much younger and I erased Jay’s lines around his eyes and on his brow, microdermabrasioned his cheeks, smoothed the badger stripes from his hair, revealing an achingly normal but casually becoming young man. His grey irises eyes are heavy – gravid with latent feelings. You left us and we went to the couch.
‘You’re very different, Tess,’ he said to me, touching my hair, tenderly. ‘You’ve warmed this place up. The children love you, and I’ve never seen my wife take to someone as she has to you. She usually keeps people at arm’s length. Me included.’
He was looking at me like I could fix him – pleadingly. I could feel, from the way his hand writhed in mine, that he was ravenous for female affection.
‘I thought the children would fix everything. That they would fill me up in every way. I’m more filled up than I’ve ever been, but the vessel has expanded, and it’s emptier than before. Is that fair?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t have much, myself. I’m an eggcup.’
‘You have possibility,’ he said. ‘Everything is possible for you.’
Funny that he would use the same words that you do. ‘Everything is possible for you,’ you have always said. ‘I want that for me; I want to be free.’
I would never have helped you if it wasn’t for the threats. ‘I’ll kill them,’ you said. ‘I’ll kill them all, if I stay.’
We pack your things whilst the children play in a new Wendy house. Regardless of the new computer consoles, children never grow out of houses in houses or dens in dens. I can hear them giggling, squawking, kittening around. Into the suitcase go your gorgeous dresses that skim over your automaton curves. Are you the next generation of woman – Woman 2.0? In go your expensive products: Touche Eclat, Eve Lom cleanser, muslin cloths to lift the war paint away, and Chanel Gardenia to meld with your metal aroma.
‘You can have these,’ you say, pointing at stacks of jeans and jumpers, but when you see my grimace, you add, ‘Or you can take them to the charity shop.’
When the contents of your wardrobe shrank a couple of weeks ago, you told Jay you were having a clear out and that the charity shop around the corner would be busting at its seams, but this isn’t true – you packed tea chests with your very best items and sent them on first. I know you’ve been siphoning off money from your shared account for years, so you’re okay for funds, but you will need to live more frugally.
‘I might become a spy,’ you say. ‘Or be kept by a sheik. I might become an assassin. Or be assassinated.’
‘The possibilities,’ I say.
And then you go to the hairdressers and I feed the children porridge with melted butter and a glass of milk, just like my mother made me. When you come back, your hair is chestnutty and bobbed, and I can’t help but be awed by how it frames your ferocity.
We’re face to face now, and you thank me with a long hug. You promise to send me emails, but nothing to the children. They are not to be reminded. The Willow Lane-type door closes on you, and I’m alone in the hallway. The brightest, floury winter light streams through the top of the door, and it seems as though the walls relax in a low, guttural moan. We fuse together, house, children, cat, me.
Celia and Finlay run down the stairs, playing chase, their little legs half swallowed by new frog wellies Jay got them last weekend which they’ve been allowed to wear in the house until they meet the puddles of East London. It’s a nice home for children. Plenty of running space and scope for enjoyable clatter.
I tidy the house and put happy sunflowers bought from Columbia Road flower market in the jardinière by the fireplace. We watch cartoons until we hear the key in the lock.
When Jay comes in, I go to him.