We’d been piling empty crisp boxes in the store cupboard. We’d saved all the free newspapers that spilt through the door for scrunching round candlesticks, vases and crockery. We even had some shoeboxes for ornaments. Tracey filled the kettle one last time, sighing at the clunk and rattle of the pipes.
‘You’ll miss all that,’ I said.
‘Want a bet?’
Friends told us houses were like marriages. After a time the things that irritated you became familiar. Before long you couldn’t sleep without the click and surge of the central heating or the faint rumble of freight on the railway. I guess that was the same as toilet lids that were never replaced or toothpaste tubes squeezed from the middle.
Flat 2A, Chamberlain Drive, had been built some twenty years ago, but it wasn’t wearing well. Paint was chipped on the sills and doors. The carpet was worn and scuffed, the backing showing through like fish bones. The shower head dribbled, the canary yellow phone in the hall rang constantly and, on autumn mornings, condensation ran from the windows. The heaters smelt of burnt dust and next door parked their SUV in front of our lounge window. Despite this, it had been home for two years. We’d had some happy times and somehow we’d saved a deposit in London.
‘It’s not a lot to show for a life is it?’ I said, nodding at the bare space.
Steam rose in an S from my mug. It was a chill October morning and Tracey had opened the windows wide to air the place. Our tiny room seemed little larger without the bed, books, lamp and chair. Six boxes were stacked by the door. Propped against the boxes was Tracey’s rucksack, my holdall and a cricket bat that didn’t fit anywhere. This was our life. It took only four or five trips to fill the rented Peugeot. Tracey rinsed the mugs, wrapped them in a tea-towel and crammed them into her bag.
‘Goodbye flat,’ Tracey said.
‘Goodbye flat,’ I said.
We poked our heads round the door one last time. There was a faint stain by the wardrobe where we’d spilt merlot. We’d taken down Landscape at Cassis and replaced the landlord’s anonymous French café print. I pulled the door to, letting the lock click into place. We stuffed the last bag into the boot and drove away.
‘It was soulless,’ Tracey said.
I turned and stared at her.
‘I mean it was practical, but it never felt like home.’
I preferred to leave my memories unspoken.
Castle Street was a Victorian terrace, built for a railwayman, with a neat backyard packed with glazed purple bricks and hemmed in by whitewashed walls. There was no off-street parking, so we angled in between a painter and decorator’s van and a battered Mini.
‘It’s all ours,’ I said.
‘Well maybe the guttering. The bank owns the rest.’
I held up a brown envelope. The key slid about inside. ‘Shall we go in then?’
Number 19 had been rendered, but judging by the sooty, crumbling Victorian brickwork elsewhere in Castle Street that wasn’t a bad thing. The door had a porthole of glass smeared with window cleaner. I turned the key in the lock. It squealed and I had to turn my wrist sharply until it gave, opening into a blue velvet curtain.
‘We’ll need a draught excluder,’ I said.
Tracey hated them. My Nan had a knitted snake called Sid, complete with forked tongue and tartan waistcoat.
‘We’re not having one of those things.’
The Victorian parlour had been knocked through into a long, single room. A shaft of sunlight pierced the grubby back window. The walls were painted ochre and were uneven with countless repairs to the plaster. The cast iron fireplace was dull and in need of a scrub. Someone had lit a splint and folds of torn newspaper had been stamped out across the carpet and hearth.
‘Nice of them to make an effort,’ Tracey said.
‘Are you surprised?’
The Rogers’s idea of negotiation was to agree a price and then ask for two thousand more because they’d just fitted new carpets.
‘I don’t care,’ Tracey said. ‘This is our home.’
She took two glasses from her bag. I opened the wine and poured and we chinked our glasses. Tracey sat against the wall, while I sat on the bottom step, sipping, taking it all in.
‘We’re now in property,’ I said.
When we’d drained our glasses we upended them on the draining board and explored upstairs. The floorboards were bare, but polished by the slap of feet. I tugged at the sash window. Dollops of grainy putty had been jammed between glass and rotting wood. The putty still bore the fingerprints of whoever had packed it.
‘Fingerprints,’ I said. ‘I could prosecute them for crap DIY.’
‘Shut it. It’s freezing,’ Tracey said.
I wiggled the frame so it dropped back against the sill. The back bedroom was Spartan. The Rogers had left a bayonet light bulb on the windowsill and a wire hanger in the built-in wardrobe.
‘You’d better send these on,’ I said. ‘Or I expect we’ll get billed for them.’
Tracey wiped a circle in the window grime with her elbow. We stared out at a bleached white sky and skeletal trees clinging onto their last dangling copper leaves.
‘Our own little garden,’ I said.
Our own little garden was a patch of wiry turf three metres square heaped with a drift of fallen leaves. In London we had a window box planted with pansies. But the blokes working on the new bus route had used it to drain their tea and stub their fags. The Irish moss peat we’d bought from B&Q soon had a crust of fag butts, foamy lattes and cup-a-soup dregs, like those forgotten sand buckets they used to have for putting out fires in hospitals and train stations.
Tracey fetched the kettle and lit the gas. ‘What are you doing?’
The loft hatch was built into the stairwell, which made for a scary, gaping drop beneath my flailing feet. I had one boot on the banister rail, the other scrambling for a door jamb. I wedged my foot against the stairwell, pushed back the loft hatch and hauled myself up. My arms trembled with the effort.
The air was dusty and mouldy like old books or drying dog. I felt for a beam in the darkness, blackening my hand with dust from the fibreglass. I found a cracked switch and flicked it. A bare 60W bulb cast shadows over the attic. Dusty boxes were stacked against the chimney breast. A wonky old clothes horse was sunk in the fibreglass. A rusting tin of Vim was wedged between the beams.
I edged along the roof beam, knowing a slip would leave my legs poking through the plaster like some episode from a 1970s sitcom.
‘Tea up,’ Tracey called.
‘Good,’ I said, ‘I’m spitting feathers up here it’s so dusty.’
Tracey muttered something about sounding like my Dad.
‘Yeah, I’ll be down in a minute.’
The papers in the box were brittle, yellowing. There were copies of the Daily Mirror and comics like the ones I’d read as a kid: Victor, Whizzer and Chips and Topper.
Beneath the comics was a japanned steel box. It was dented and scratched as if it’d been kicked or thrown around. Inside there were dozens of black and white and sepia-tinted photographs. The edges were fuzzed from being thumbed. There were family portraits, shots of the High Street and the castle and the old railway station.
I held a card up to the light bulb. It showed a man with a waxy moustache, a slick centre-parting and a fixed stare. He held a helmet at his side and wore a tunic buttoned to the throat. He stared straight through me. I jumped down to the landing.
‘Take a look at these,’ I said.
He looks just like you,’ Tracey said.
‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a waxed moustache and a centre-parting and-’
Tracey taped the photo. ‘You know what I mean. Look at the chin, the nose. You’ve got his eyes too.’
The photo had the name of the studios in embossed silver – Bertram Mayhew Photographic Parlour – but there was no name for the sitter. Tangled initials were scratched on the back; RJK perhaps.
‘You’re a throwback,’ Tracey said.
‘Cheers. You make me sound like a fish.’
We sipped tea, while Tracey studied the photo.
‘You’ve got family round here. He could be a relation. Look at his eyes.’
I shrugged. ‘I doubt it. My lot are from thirty-odd miles away. And most of them are playing the harp now anyway.’
‘It’s not far though, is it?’
A day passed. We hadn’t hung curtains or filled the cupboards with tins before Tracey had the photo copied, blown up and framed on the mantelpiece. Bert we called him, after the photographer.
‘I’m nothing like him. Which regiment would have me?’
‘Well he looks like you.’
Tracey believed in spirits. She said she’d ‘dabbled’ before we met, but wouldn’t be drawn when I’d laughed. That night she was reading by candlelight when the flame flickered. Her eyes widened as the candle guttered next to Bert.
‘It was meant to be,’ she said. ‘You belong here.’
I rolled my eyes.
‘Seriously, you belong here.’ There was a glint in her eyes, a wrinkle of mischief.
I wriggled to get comfortable on the sofa. ‘In that case,’ I said, ‘you’d better put the kettle on.’