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. I don’t have the energy to unpack.
I don’t even have the energy to make a cup of tea. I change out of my wet clothes, wrap a towel around my head and slump on the sofa. My share of the marital furniture is in storage for now, but there’s a comfortable, smart two-seater in here, with a small coffee table. I am Gail and Ben’s first ever tenant, so everything is pristine, which is a bonus. God knows they don’t need the money from the rent. What I’m paying must be small change to them. But Gail told me she felt nervous sometimes, alone in the huge house when Ben is away on business. They’re both lawyers. Both wildly successful. He’s a partner in a big international practice, and she has a high-powered job in the City, although they must be heading for retirement soon. She just wanted to feel there was someone else around. I’ve lucked out, there’s no doubt about it. She could have just settled for getting a dog.
There’s a sweet-smelling bunch of flowers on the coffee table. It’s a nice touch. Kind. It makes me smile. I allow myself to breathe out. It’s going to be OK.
After ten minutes I force myself up. I need to unpack my work stuff, set up an office in a corner of the room. There’s no desk, and no room for one, but luckily I only have a few files and a laptop that houses the rest of my empire. I run a small cleaning company – just me and eleven part-timers, single mums mostly, and contracts for three office buildings. It’s never going to make me a fortune, but I get by. Then I ring round the six who are due to be working tonight and check there are no problems, make a note of the swapped shifts. Half my job seems to be keeping track of everyone’s hours, who’s covering for who because their daughter has a parents’ evening or their son is sick. They’ve all known each other for so long now that they self-police. There are always the minimum number available; those who aren’t working babysit for those who are. We’ve become a community. Last September we were joined by students Paul and Tomas, who steer clear of the childcare but are so desperate for cash that they’ll cover any shift at any amount of notice, often doubling up and working late into the night. I’m lucky. There have only been a handful of occasions in the past five years when I didn’t have enough staff to do the job and I’ve had to stand in myself. That’s not going to be so easy from now on, if it’s a night I have Betsy and no David to leave her with. I push the thought from my mind. He’s still her dad. He’ll still have to help out. Today, thankfully, there are no problems, no potential no-shows, although anything could happen between now and when they all start at six.
I find some sheets in one of my suitcases and make up the bed, shoving the empty case underneath it. And then I locate the box with ‘Important Stuff’ written on the side in Sharpie and unpack the kettle, tea and coffee, milk, my toothbrush and a few basic toiletries. That’ll do for now. The sound of a car breaks through the silence and I peer out of the front window, above the sink. Something smart and sporty – a Mercedes? – pulls into the drive opposite. One of my new neighbours. I wonder briefly what they’ll make of my battered old bright yellow Corsa, parked out on the street. If I’m lowering the tone. I watch as a woman about my age climbs elegantly out of the driver’s seat. She’s dressed as if for a night out and it’s only two in the afternoon. Short, figure-hugging, structured dress under a close-fitting, tailored leather jacket. Spiky heels, long hair sleek, long legs shiny. She looks like a fantasy. One set in a slightly tacky nightclub full of overweight late-middle-aged men, maybe. But a fantasy nonetheless. I look down at my leggings, ill-fitting hoody and purple trainers. I’m in the middle of moving house, I tell myself, ignoring the fact that I dress like this pretty much every day. One of the joys of working for myself.
The woman lets herself in through the front door, slams it behind her, and The Close is silent again.
Gail has invited me over for a glass of wine when she gets home from work. I could do without it, to be honest. Grateful as I am to be living in such a salubrious street for such an affordable rent, I don’t want to feel that puts me at my landlady’s beck and call. But it was hard to say no without feeling I then have to go out somewhere, or hide in my flat with the lights off all evening. I tell myself I’ll just say yes this once. It’s nice of her to ask, after all. Ben is in Brussels for a couple of days; she told me when I collected the keys first thing this morning. She’ll be glad of the company.
I tear myself away from the pull of the sofa when I hear her car turn into the drive. All I want to do is to lie in a heap with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. To contemplate the circumstances that have brought me here, while my daughter has her tea at her friend Zara’s house as she waits for her father to pick her up. David’s new place is near her school – as was the house I was hoping to buy. As is her Monday-night ballet class (I say ballet – it’s similar to watching a small herd of elephants on a drunken rampage) and her Thursday-night painting club. Her whole short life is contained within those few streets. It makes sense that she stays with him most of the time. I know it does. But that doesn’t mean it feels right. I tried to rent somewhere closer, but everything was too expensive or resembled a crime scene, and then time ran out, our maisonette was sold and I had to look further afield. I found my studio on a noticeboard in the kitchen at one of the companies we clean for – AJT Music – nestled between flyers for hot yoga and comedy at a local pub. It’s temporary, I remind myself. Six months at the most, and those contain the Easter holidays, half-term and the summer break, when Betsy can stay with me most of the time. And, let’s face it, there are far worse places to live than this.
Ten minutes later I’m at the front door, smoothing down my hair and wishing I’d bothered to run a comb through the frizz. Rain and my natural curls do not play nicely together. Gail answers, still in her dark work suit, lipstick in place.
‘I didn’t get the dress-code memo,’ I say, and luckily she laughs, showing gleaming, even teeth.
‘Five more minutes and I’d be wearing exactly the same. In fact, if you don’t mind, I’ll go and change. It’s usually the first thing I do when I walk through the door, but Ben just called and it put me off my stride.’
‘Sure,’ I say. ‘I can come back . . .’
‘No. Come on in. You can start on the wine.’
I follow her through the cavernous hallway into the kitchen. There are two wine glasses on the island beside an open bottle of red. I’d much prefer white, but it seems rude to say so. She pours us both a generous measure, takes a swig of hers and leaves me to it, unbuttoning her jacket as she goes. I sit at the vast pale wooden table and try to resist the urge to rummage through the small pile of post that sits at the centre. Not that I’m nosy, but I’ve always had difficulty not looking at things I’m not supposed to look at. It’s like when someone tells you not to touch something because it’s hot. Who doesn’t at least tap the tip of a finger on it?
I occupy myself by taking in the details of the room, saving them up to share with Betsy on the phone later. She’s very amused by the idea of me living in a mansion. This kitchen probably cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds. It’s almost certainly the most expensive one I’ve ever been in. It’s all white floor-to-ceiling cupboards and shiny black surfaces. The central island – tastefully contrasting in walnut – is about the size of the living room/kitchen in my rented studio. I start trying to work out whether my whole flat could fit into this room (it definitely could), and that keeps me occupied till Gail reappears, dressed almost identically to me, except her hoody is coral-coloured and snugly fitted, and the telltale Lululemon logo lets me know that her ensemble probably cost three times as much as my H&M get-up. I can’t help taking in what a stunning figure she has. She must be twenty-five years older than me but she’s in better shape than I’ve ever managed. Her long blonde hair is loose now, heavy fringe almost touching her lashes. She looks like one of those rock star’s wives from the seventies who gave up the drugs and found hot yoga. And Botox.
‘So,’ she says, taking another large gulp from her glass then topping us both up. ‘Are you settled in?’
‘Getting there.’ I wrack my brain for conversation, but everything I can think of seems so drab and insignificant compared to her fabulous life.
‘Well, if you need any help . . .’ she says, which is nice of her, even though I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean it literally. I think about saying, Yes, please. Could you help me build an IKEA flat-pack TV stand, but of course I don’t. We sit there in silence for a moment. I’ve already decided that I need to stay for an hour so as not to appear rude. I resist the temptation to look at the wall clock I noticed earlier. Keep my eyes firmly on my glass.
Gail gives a little laugh and I look up. ‘This is how I imagine a Tinder date might be.’
‘What? The type where you invent an emergency at home just to get away?’ I hope she takes it as the joke I mean it to be, and I’m gratified to see her smile broaden.
‘Obviously, I’ve never done Tinder,’ she says. ‘Ben and I met through work. I mean, how old-fashioned does that sound now?’
‘I’m an expert,’ I say. ‘Since my separation, you know . . .’
Her eyes light up. ‘Oh my goodness, let me live vicariously through you. Tell me everything.’