September 10th. Late Sunday lunchtime
England 157 for three.
Bottenham is in London’s hammy basin – it’s not quite Clapham, not exactly Balham, and certainly not Streatham (and nowhere near Ham itself: that’s the bloody countryside in my book). It has a forest of Edwardian terraced houses that have filled slowly but surely with a cast of the usual smug sarf suspects. They all work in the law and the media and IT; often all three at once, it seems to me. Sneak through any window and you’ll see swathes of Billy storage solutions from Ikea and framed Damian Hirst prints from Tate Modern; well read job-sections from the super-soaraway newly compact Guardian peek out from the top of the midget front garden wheelie-bins where they nestle with walls of weight-watcher frozens and vineyards of empty Shiraz bottles.
Pa has had his place for almost half a century, he and ma bought it when he took up his first practice in Mitchum. 47 Parkinson Villas: four floors of south London quiet. For almost all that time the place was a messy survey of our teenager years, then Ma died and Pa started reading too many copies of Wallpaper magazine thanks to the wife of someone he goes wine tasting with in Italy.
There are many new plans now, and the model railway mags are long gone.
And I was thinking of selling them on e-Bay. It’s not like I’m cash-abundant these days.
Felicity and I grew up here, when things were a little different. Of course we both got away as soon as we could: me north to the tender pastures of Highbury fields; Flicks even further to Cairo and all that…
These days Bottenham high street is full – but not so full – with all-night Tesco metros and franchised coffee houses and designer bathroom stores, though the average person actually walking around (this is the edge of People Carrier Country, after all) is as likely to be talking about family back in Gdansk as they are the rain that prevented more than a session being completed yesterday at Old Trafford.
I’ve made friends with young Magda, from Lodz, who works in the Threshers offie by the job centre. She has a boyfriend in the construction business over in Ealing and likes going dancing in Soho at the weekend. I tell her about my old offices on Wardour street and she smiles, as though the eighties is a long time ago.
£2.87 for ten Marlbie Lights. Holy mother…
As – newly discovered this morning after church (kitchen table readings from AA Gill and Michael Winner in Pa’s Sunday Times, not the old King James favourites about hell and redemption) – the horsey Mary can’t abide smokers I’ve taken the opportunity of the break between the duck in cider with celeriac dumplings and the pomegranate moose with lemon sorbet to cadge a half pack from Magda. If I walk home slowly enough I might get two down before battle re-commences. And if we’re really lucky the sun will come out in Manchester and we can booze away the afternoon in silent contemplation watching Freddie and Inzamam on Sky.
If not, I fear Mary is very keen to talk about Elspeth. One more glass of Argentinean white and she’ll lose – like she has so many – her inhibitions. I shuffled the Pod and got Razorlight singing Somewhere Else.
I really really wish I was, Sum Where Else…
14% of kids between 13 and 18 have had sex with more than one person at the same time, according to a survey in The Sun.
The covers came out at two-twelve Pa said when I got back, checking on his retirement watch. I thought with the absence of play about a tactical retreat to my room – but at 50 years old this looks a little surly and teenage. A few tips of cognac hit my espresso and I waited.
“So Henry, Michael tells me you are writing?” Mary leant away as I turned, her nose doing one of those Bewitched unpleasantnesses.
Must be fag-breath.
“Is it a thriller? Like some of those books in your room?” When she asks a question Mary has all the charm of a special advisor to Tony Blair on Question Time. She’s of that indeterminate age between 40 and 60 that to be honest I have never truly – other obviously than when marketing to them – understood.
Call me superficial. I’ve known worse.
“No, no. It’s a business book, about my career in advertising.”
Mary takes a sip of wine. Always in my experience of these kinds of exchange a worrying sign. “I thought that was all over now?”
It is at time like this that I wish we had a butler who could be summoned by hand-bell and serve the port and discretely but definitively change the topic of conversation.
“It’s like acting,” I said. “Right now I’m just resting. Between parts.”
Wrong thing to say.
“I expect parts of the female population of London will be pleased.” Mary said. “Well, the younger ones, anyway. The personal assistants.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you read, Mary. Particularly in the Daily Mail.”
“I’m sorry?” Mary is now the most perplexed person north of Putney. We’re not going to be friends – this I know.
“How was Kerry? Find any bargains?” Pa said, smoothly enough, just a hint of his famous GPA revealed. (That’s his Doctor’s Abruptness, the kind that kills off – as it were – too many intrusive questions about alternative medicines and legal ramifications).
And so Mary told us the tall tale of Kelvin and the tallboy and the amusing incident of the Italian lamp from Donegal. She has a small antique shop on the Wandsworth High road. And we must visit.
“I say,” she said a year or so later. “That’s a good shot.”
England’s cricket team was somehow back on the pitch and seven down and in the gloom that was not quite bad enough to end play for the day Freddie F was involved in a belligerent rearguard action with a young wicketkeeper from Northants.
“Anyway,” Mary said. “Good luck with your book. I suppose you must be hoping for sales like Elspeth’s?”
If I sell one tenth of what she’s shifting I’ll be happy.
“I knew you’d like Mary,” Pa said sitting back into his rocking chair. And before I have time to confirm or deny he’s found one those high 500 satellite channels where everything is outdoors, and kayaks and over-bright polyester trousers feature heavily.
“It’s about the third attempt on Annapurna 2,” Pa said. “Famous.”
Pa still climbs.
I went back to kitchen and made vague shamanic gestures at the sink. When that failed to achieve the desired effect I poured myself another cognac and stepped out into the garden for my last Marlbie of the day. Down by the hydrangeas a fox was making mincemeat of small bird, genus unknown. I noted its twilight colours: I need all the conversational gambits I can find if I’m going to keep Pa – and Bloody Mary – off my back.
My mobile rang. For a change I answered it.
“This is Katy Harms, from the Daily Mail. We’re just doing a follow up to your ex wife’s serialization. There’s been a marvelous response to it.”
The next morning I read that I was unavailable for comment.
And there was a young woman waiting on our doorstep to help remedy this fact.