Rex dropped me off at Gallipoli Street. It must have looked odd, even in this anonymous neighbourhood, a chauffeured silver limo, and a woman like me getting out.
Rex knows me. He knows me better than Charlie – not that that’s saying much. Rex and I have occasionally, swiftly, made love: once in a wood up against a tree, once in the toilets of a motorway café. We do not talk about these occasions. Rex presumably enjoyed them, though it was difficult to tell. He remained the chauffeur throughout. And afterwards, sweating slightly in his tight grey uniform, he opened the rear passenger door for me with a slight bow, and drove me on towards my destination. I probably wouldn’t have objected if he’d called me Anne-Marie instead of Mrs Sanchez after that, when nobody was about, but he never did.
Rex may or may not be in love with me. Charlie, my husband, is not. It is irrelevant in both cases. Charlie is coming up for seventy-five and no longer bothers me for sex. Not that he ever did bother me much, after I turned fourteen. He likes them young. I was eight when he first had me. I’m older now, but not too old to turn heads. My hair is long, expensively thick; expensively sunbleached blonde. I wear real gold bangles on my suntanned arms. I’m a different kind of asset to Charlie now: business partner, status symbol. Nurse.
Rex is worried about me. I haven’t told him the reason for my visit but he seems to know anyway. He hands me a slip of paper with his address and home telephone number on it. He lives in Camden, London. I never imagined him actually living somewhere.
“I won’t be far away, Mrs Sanchez. Give me a ring, I can be here in a couple of hours.” I find that I am nervous, don’t want to let him go. On impulse I lean into the driver’s side of the car to kiss him. He isn’t expecting it. My lips land clumsily on his rough cheek. For a second his eyes flash up white and frightened. We are equals.
Gallipoli Street. So narrow. Cars parked on either side; a single car’s width down the middle. Two-way traffic sashaying from gap to gap. When I was here before, the pavements seemed like mountains, each bump and hollow known. I sat here, on the pavement, just to the right of this yellow bungalow, and watched the twigs careering down the gutter to the drain after a storm in the night. Here was where I lay on my stomach one afternoon and watched the ants. A discarded pear drop, half-sucked, maybe mine, the ants homing in on it from all directions. Several got stuck, struggling on the surface of this new sugar planet. It didn’t seem to deter the others.
My name was Marianne in those days. My house was further along, on the left-hand side, past Elif Vere where Miss File lived. I never understood why it wasn’t Elif Vera. Past Ferndean, still with the half moon of stained glass above the front door. The lady there wore a small dead fox round her neck, the mouth biting into the tail. A tippet, Nan called it. A fur tippet. Past the rundown place where Mrs Jacobs lived, who collected aprons – small frilly cotton ones she selected from Frank’s the Grocers (I saw her) and wore one on top of the other. An apron to keep an apron clean, to keep another apron clean. And then number thirty-four where I was born and spent the first seven years of my life.
I had prepared myself for change. Of course it wouldn’t look the same. I noted the concrete strip down the side, where once there had been grass, and the up-and-over garage my father used as a shed; where he mended his bicycle and smoothed bits of wood with a plane. Wood curls coming out of the top. The laburnum tree, which once had rained small black seeds all over the pavement, had been cut down. How uninteresting this house had been to me then. How much I would give now, for everything to be back exactly as it was, when I was seven years old.
Why were there no curtains? I walked to the end of the garden wall, and found the estate agents’ sign planted in a corner by the behind it. The sign had a picture of a polar bear. I couldn’t think why. I continued to worry about the polar bear, not letting myself think, not letting myself take in the implication of the words FOR SALE.