It’s just gone 8 a.m. A hired meeting room on the Greenwood Park Estate. Lunch is already waiting. On a trolley in the corner. Anaemic-looking sandwiches. Sliced white bread. Curling at the corners; greying at the edges. Mixed fruit platter cased in cling-film. A thermos-flask-cum-coffee-jug; sugar sachets; foil-topped plastic pots saying ‘Tastes exactly like real milk’. It’s going to be a long and hungry day.
Highways is up first. He puts the plans out on the table. There’s an issue with the access road. There’s an obvious place to put it, but it comes out on Risborough Road. Which means a fifteen minute drive until the half-way decent shops; more than twenty to the best-performing local school. We can’t be certain we’d even make the catchment area. That’s ten per cent off house prices before you even start.
So there it is. Alone. Abandoned. Single. Her dependable, docile husband has disappeared; inexplicably transformed into a caricature; the irresponsible errant father. It simplifies things somewhat. For one thing, she can get up and go straight into the shower. No need to dash downstairs. Get the sausages on the grill. Billy’s happy with coco pops. No need to shower at all. Who’s to know? Billy isn’t going to notice if her hair’s a mess. She can avoid the playground. Say she’s in a hurry; drop Billy by the gates; stay in the car; drive home.
To what? A shower in her own good time. A bath, maybe. With the Badedas she bought for Lisa Bletchley. She was going to take it over when they went for Christmas drinks. Badedas for Lisa; i tunes voucher for Chris. Stupid presents, really. Uninspired. But it’s hard to shop for teenagers. In any case, she won’t be going now. Billy can have the voucher; she’ll keep the Badedas herself. She may as well get dressed. Since she’s not getting in the shower. She reaches for her wedding ring. For the first time it occurs to her to hesitate before she puts it on. She’s not sure she’s even married. Legally, for sure. But he has left her. Shit. Single.
She puts it on regardless. As a talisman; a shield; a means of warding off the glances and the guessing and the gossip. And the questions. How long can she stave them off? The inevitable conversations? Pick-up should be more straightforward. She’ll tell Billy to wait by the tree. The one which has the notice. About selling off the hospital for development. Only it doesn’t say development. It says Housing for Local People. Which doesn’t sound as bad.
We need another access road. A viable alternative. Ideally on the north side of the site. The highways engineer has considered all the options. There’s an obvious place to put it. A gap between the Victorian terrace on the High Street and the newer semi-detacheds It’s not a gap as such; more a ginnell or a snicket or a barton or an alley. But there are thick hedges on either side. A metre wide or more. Another couple of metres and there’d be room to drive a car.
If Number 29 will sell a strip of land we’re pretty much home and dry. They wouldn’t lose their garden. Just the narrow strip of land that runs behind the site. No one uses that bit anyway. Surplus to requirements. God knows they’ve a big enough garden out the back.
Even if No. 29 plays ball it’s looking pretty tight. Lester is the first to focus on the detail. ‘And you’re confident it’ll be wide enough for fire engines and refuse lorries and removal vans?’
Highways puts his pen behind his ear. It’s hard to tell exactly what that means.
Lester hates prevarication. He says ‘Have you done the tracking?’
‘Well,’ he says. ‘It’s not ideal. They can get in and out but there’s an issue with the sight lines. The visibility splay. You wouldn’t be able to check for traffic before you started pulling out.’ He doesn’t seem overly concerned. ‘It’s there or thereabouts. If we could take a metre off the corner of no. 29 all our problems would be solved.’
He draws a decisive line across the corner of the house in red. To show how simple this should be.
Lester wants to know who lives at Number 29.
I fill him in. ‘Mr and Mrs Kirkby. Alan and Linda. Their garden backs onto Macey’s Patch.’
‘It’s where they’ve buried Gala.’
‘It was a Wire-Haired Fox Terrier’. I’ve always had a weakness for unnecessary detail.
‘Tell them the dog can have a bloody mausoleum if we can have the corner of their house.’
I’m trying to imagine how that conversation might pan out.
‘You have a rapport with them.’ Says Lester. ‘Can we leave this one with you?’
‘We don’t have a rapport.’ I say. ‘I bumped into Mrs Kirkby’s grandmother. And then she spoke to Bruno.’
Lester looks disappointed. As though I’ve let him down.
I make an effort to be helpful.
‘I’m happy to go and see them, but I’m not sure what I’m saying. Are we making them an offer for their house?’
‘We don’t want the bloody house. We just need a metre off the corner. Just get them talking, find out what their plans are. You never know, they might be thinking about having some sort of work done anyway’.
‘You’re asking me to visit Mr and Mrs Kirkby and ask them if they’ve any plans to cut the corner off their house, and if not perhaps they’d like to think it over’.
‘I appreciate it might not be an easy conversation. But yes please, it would be great if you could try.’
He hits a couple of letters on his keyboard. My initials by the Action Point.
She’s not what I expected. I’m anticipating aggression, agitation, accusation. The woman at the door stands serene, almost regal. Tall, straight-backed. Handsome rather than beautiful. Battle-scarred by grief. Blotchy round the eyes. Smudged mascara, hastily applied. Too overtly dignified to be described as pretty. She wears her sorrow like a cloak.
I make my introductions. Eye contact. Handshake. A touch of the Jehovah’s Witness. Solemn but smiling; professional but sincere. She ushers me towards the living room, a sea of muted green velour. I’m guessing we’re a similar age. And yet we’re worlds apart. She has possessions it’s never occurred to me to buy: occasional tables; antimacassars; trinket shelves. The comforts of a pre-IKEA age.
The velour has silver thread shot through it. It reminds me of my childhood. We had a tiger three piece suite. A four-seater sofa and two big easy chairs. Not ordinary-old-orange tiger. White tiger. Like a cross between a tiger and a polar bear. Synthetic bright white fabric, with dark grey tiger stripes.
She says ‘I’m sorry about the mess’.
There isn’t any. No junk mail, no crumbs, no books, no toys. Nothing to disturb the palette of beige and avocado. Perhaps the mess exists in her imagination. Or maybe it’s the standard greeting in this outpost of respectable suburbia. ‘How do you do. Excuse the mess.’ The mantra of the ultimate house-proud wife. Perhaps it’s territorial. ‘This is my home, my castle. I have standards you could never even dream of. I see mess where you see order. I see dirt that you don’t see’.
She should take a look at my house. There are mushrooms in the corner of the carpet. Between the basin and the bath. They sprout up after heavy bouts of rain. The house is teetering on the brink between man-made and organic; between structure and decay. We used to love its imperfections: the potential; the possibilities; the promise of a project. It seems unimaginable now that we presumed to tame the house.
She’s in the kitchen making coffee. I’m not sure where to sit. It seems a bit presumptuous to nestle in the sofa. There is a single straight-backed chair, I’d much prefer to sit there. More dignified, more formal. Quicker to get out of. Closer to the door. What if it’s her special chair? It looks as though it might be. Tall and straight and dignified. I settle for the sofa. Perched on the edge. It doesn’t really work: knees too high; bum too low.
She brings the tea. Matching mugs and mug mats. A watery illustration of an apple on a branch. Biscuits on a plate. Bourbons, wafers, jammy dodgers. Special Occasion Biscuits. From a presentation tin.
She takes the straight-backed chair. Claims the competitive advantage. A good five inches higher than the low-slung padded sofa. She is proud and tall. My knees are inches from my chin.
I thank her for the tea. Cast around for the usual niceties.
I say ‘You have a lovely house’.
She shrugs. ‘The house is nothing special. We bought it for the view.’
She’s right. It’s nothing special. Immaculate but innocuous. Nothing to write home about. Nothing except the view. A single picture window frames the field, the trees, the hospital. Picturesque from here. Obscured by branches. You clock the crumbling Gothic brickwork, not the ramshackle extensions, the decay. There is only one way to be polite about the house. Admire the view. The view we plan to build on. The view we will obliterate.