Monday, 14 October 2019

Looking for Our House


by Rosemary Johnson

builders' tea



“There it is.”  Nicky jabbed her finger at the windscreen.  “Ooh look, Richard, look.  Just like the photo in the brochure.”

Grabbing the estate agents’ particulars, Nicky leapt out the car and strode across the road. Three terraced cottages nestled together like old friends, gnarled stems of ancient ivy clinging to their walls, with the evening sun lighting up their slate roof tiles.  In the garden of the middle property stood a ‘for sale’ board.

The latch on the wrought-iron gate opened with a satisfying click.  Bees hummed around lavender bushes along the path leading to the front door.  “Ah.”  Nicky stopped to draw the heavy scent into her nostrils.  Then again.  “Ah.”  She grabbed Richard's arm.  “Come on.  I have a good feeling about this one.  This is going to be our house.”

“Hang on.  We haven’t seen inside yet.”  He rang the doorbell.  “Funny name, isn’t it?  ‘Croit Chatreeney’.” 

“I read in the brochure this afternoon,” said Nicky, “that it’s Manx and means ‘Kate’s Cottage’.”

“Manx?  This isn’t the Isle of Man.”

Nicky fell in love with the cottage all over again while they were viewing the interior.  “It’s beautiful,” she said to Josh, the estate agent.  She wanted to add, “We’re going straight back to the office.  Now.   To make an offer.” 

“Er… yes… thank you,” said Richard. 

“Well?” asked Nicky the instant they were through the gate.

He didn't reply. 

“Well?” she said again, as they climbed back into the car.

It was lovely.”  He put his key into the steering column.

“Not was.  Is.” 

“More than we can afford, love.”  He smiled that slow smile of his, with dimples on either side, filling his square jaw.

“Only just above our price range.  We could make an offer.”  But the energy in her words seemed to bounce off that smile.

“Not one they’d accept.” 

“But-”

“No, Nicky, no.”  As he eased into the road, he tilted his chin upwards and slightly to the right, a gesture she knew all too well. 

****************************************

When Josh rang Nicky at work next morning to ask how they liked the house, she said they were still thinking.  He warned her not to wait too long, as he had other clients scheduled to view that evening.  “No, no,” she wanted to cry down the phone, “don't let them.” 

Aargh, Richard.  She would talk to him again.  As soon as possible.  She knew she was right about this.  The trouble with Richard was he dug his heels in, always had done.  Even at primary school, there had been things Richard wouldn’t do: country dancing, for instance.  She would never forget that incident.

“Come along, Richard," Miss Wilson had said.  "You can be Nicky’s partner.”

Nicky’d tapped her Start-Rite shoe on the tiled floor of the school hall.  She and the other children were lined up, ready to start the 'Gay Gordons', and they had been waiting for several minutes.  "Richard's a big wally," she'd said to the girl standing next to her.

He, however, had remained rooted to the spot, tilting his chin slightly to the right.  At ten years old, he had been a miniature version of his adult self, thick-set with a square jaw and rectangular face.

“Do come along, Richard,” their teacher had said.  “We haven’t got all day.  Don’t you want to be in the dancing display at the fete?”

By now the class had fallen silent, making not a murmur, not a movement, for fear of missing something.

“Not really,” he'd answered in a calm, quiet tone. 

*************************************

The instant she replaced the receiver after speaking to Josh, the phone rang again.  “Can we meet up for lunch?”  Richard’s voice was just about audible.  “It’s important.” 

She knew that already.  Richard didn’t waste his almost silent tone on trivial matters.

She joined him at the pub down the road from the factory where he worked.  She was just opening her mouth to tell him about her conversation with Josh, and how they needed to make an offer on Croit Chatreeney right away, when he said, “Nicky, Woolton’s are making people redundant.”

"Oh."  She laid her hands over his clenched knuckles.  "You?”

“I won't know for definite until next month, but...” He looked at her from under his hooded eyes.  “I heard this morning about a company advertising for skilled electricians.  In Saudi Arabia.”  His words hung in the air. 

“Saudi?”  The bar, the barman and the rainbow colours of the drink bottles danced a gig in front of her eyes.  Richard had come back into her life about a year ago, when he had walked into the doctors’ surgery where she worked as a receptionist.  Watching him at the counter, filling in forms to register as a patient, she’d known his face but hadn’t been able to place him.  He’d recognised her straightaway.  When he’d told her he’d been in the army, she’d pictured soldiers on parade being called to ‘atten-shun’ and one asking, in a mild voice, “Why?”  No longer children, they had hit it off immediately. 

“Two year contract, Nicky,” he said.  “That’s all.”

She forced herself to smile.  “Is it what you want to do?”

“Looks like I don't have much choice.”  He shrugged.  “I'd be all right.  I can do heat.  And desert.  I've been to Afghan, haven’t I?” 

She struggled to keep smiling.  “When would you have to go?”

“Not sure.  Quite soon.”

He stared at beer mat in front of him, tracing its tight scalloped edge with his thick, stubby finger  In the background, the jukebox played 'Waterloo' by Abba, a song Nicky used to like.  “Would you… would you… come to Saudi?” 

“Of course I will.”  Her words spluttered from her like an explosion, the sweetness of her orange juice catching the back of her throat.

“We wouldn't be able to have the sort of wedding we've been thinking of.  We'd have to get married quickly.  Within the next couple of months."  He leant forward.  "We'd be living on a compound, with the other Western workers.  From what I've heard, we’d have a one-bedroomed flat.  Nothing like Croit Chatreeney, I'm afraid.”

“We’d be together.  That’s the important thing.”


The two years in the Middle East passed quickly.  When they returned, Woolton’s were doing much better and Richard was offered a job as a foreman.  With baby Jessica, they went to stay temporarily with Nicky’s mother, but conditions were cramped, especially as one family member was taking up all the space in their room with her huge boxes of nappies, changing mat, Moses basket, car-seat and other paraphernalia.  The heavy rain, which started on the Saturday morning of their first weekend in England, was a novelty – to start with.

Richard spent a large part of Sunday afternoon watching from the window, with Jessica asleep on his shoulder.  He was not a man for sitting around.  “We do need a place of our own,” he kept saying.

“Let's start looking now,” Nicky replied, picking up her laptop and typing into Google the name of the first estate agent she remembered.  For several moments she watched the hour glass until, at last, a list of properties with photos appeared on screen, just one dull, boxy house after another.  Suddenly, she found herself looking at a slate-tiled roof glowing in the sunlight and a wrought-iron gate, with yellow hollyhocks framing the front door.

“Oh,” Nicky gasped.  “Oh.” 

“What?”  He peered at the screen from over the baby's head.

“The hollyhocks weren’t there when we went before,” said Nicky.

“N-no,” he said at last. 

She frowned.  No what?  No hollyhocks?  Or no, he wasn't interested.  She clambered to her feet.  “Fancy a cup of tea?”  She had to think this through. 

She took her time in the kitchen, taking a mug to Mum and stopping to chat with her.  When she re-joined Richard, he was still looking at the tiny photo of Croit Chatreeney on the screen.  “You really loved that place, didn’t you?” he said, lifting his head to meet her eyes.

“But you didn't.”

“No.  No.  I never said that,” he said, furrows forming on his brow.  “Too expensive back then.  We’ve got more money now, after Saudi.  Do you want to see it again?”

“Of course.”

Next day, when she rang the estate agent’s office, she was delighted to discover that Josh was still working there.  He told her that the person who had bought Croit Chatreeney two years ago had been forced to move after only a year because of his job.  How disappointing to have to give up something so beautiful, thought Nicky.  All day long, as she fed and changed her baby daughter, she couldn’t help smiling.  “The little house is absolutely lovely, Mum” she said.  “So much character.”

Throughout the afternoon grey lines of rain smashed against the window pane and by five o'clock dusk had fallen.  “What do you expect in November?” said Richard when they set off to view after his return from work.  The musty smell of their soggy coats inside the car reminded Nicky of primary school cloakrooms on a wet morning.  But they were going back to Croit Chatreeney.

Finding the property in the rain and the dark was well-nigh impossible.  They drove past the row of brick-built terraced houses several times, until he spotted the hollyhocks, now broken-stemmed and blackened by frost.  Nicky’s foot squelched on the sodden grass verge as she stepped outside, and the fierce wind flung icy droplets of rain into her face.  It’s quite exposed, she thought. 

The instant Josh opened the door, they tumbled inside to escape the elements.  Suddenly… now…they were in Croit Chatreeney again.
Nicky feasted her eyes on every half-remembered detail. Of course, the hallway wasn't the best bit, and was actually quite poky, with three painted off-white doors glaring back at her.  Hungry to see the real thing, she opened every door in turn.  The living room, with its big bay window, ceramic fireplace and inglenooks either side, was exquisite, although smaller than Nicky remembered, but she’d forgotten about the pea-green melamine units in the kitchen.  Could they paint them, or replace the cupboard doors?  With growing impatience, she flitted from room to room, hungry for the magic of two years ago.

“Thank you,” said Nicky to Josh as their heavy winter shoes clattered down the rustic wooden stairs.  “Sorry to drag you out on a night like this.”

“No problem.”  He forced a smile.  “What did you think?”

Richard raised his eyebrows at Nicky.

She took several paces towards the front door, opened it, and set one foot on the doormat outside, before pausing to turn and take one final look.  “Thank you,” she said again, before heading back down the path.  The lavender had gone and she couldn't hear the click of the catch above the roaring wind.

She shivered as they climbed back into the car.  “Come on. Let's get home.”

“Well?”

“No.” 

“What?”

“No.”  She fastened her seat belt with a clunk.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”  She’d lost something that evening, a golden memory broken apart in the November wind. 

“I'm so glad," he said, smiling his square smile.  "It was nice, very nice, and…  Okay, if you’d insisted, I would’ve gone along with it, but the thing is, Nicky, Croit Chatreeney is… well… Kate’s Cottage.  Someone else’s house.” 

She nodded slowly.

"What I'd like is somewhere that needs doing up, which we can make our own.  Nicky and Richard’s cottage.”

"You mean... Our house?"

"Our house.  That's exactly what I mean." 

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