I saw it on Wednesday evening, on the homeward crush of the Northern Line, at about 6 o’ clock. It was probably because it was that time of the day why I didn’t spot it. The tube rattled its sleepy cargo home, and we inside dreamed of hot baths and dressing gowns, rocking dozily to our destinations. Here at the fag end of the day London dragged itself through the final push. Sometimes the Evening Standard flings its arms out into the inner Home Counties and draws some other England in, and that evening, the man sitting in front of where I stood rattled the page of his Homes and Property supplement, there they were – postcodes from Hertford, Cobham, Saffron Waldren. And then I realised. For the last half minute or so I’d been staring at Annie’s parent’s house. It was undoubtedly theirs : the red-tiled roof, the windows of the dining room, in which we’d all sat, at the front, and the style, just the right side of tasteful Home Counties stately. Then the man got off the train, taking Annie’s house with him.
The last time I’d seen Annie was at some point in late 2009. She’d been on the ground floor at Fenwicks, fussing over tights. At first, I thought she looked odd and then realised I’d never seen her without eyeliner on before. Annie’s look had always been the same – Amy Winehouse after a hot bath, a good scrub and an hour at the Clarins counter. She always seemed to be in the wrong place to me. Annie had never been in the right place, because I had never been to Gloucestershire and Gloucestershire seemed the only right place for Annie’s well-bred profile and forthright chin. She oozed military efficiency in a fourth generation public school way. We didn’t get it of course, and continued our nervy, well-rehearsed ennui, dismissing her graceful enthusiasm for naivete. When she smiled her eyes gave off a flinty gleam and her teeth were revealed – pretty, patrician and (with the exception of an implant following a altercation with a Fifth Form hockey stick) filling-free.
Annie and I used to spend Thursday nights at our favourite pub – gone now – in Dean Street. It suited her as it was as dark and nicotine stained as Annie was pale and white. She drank gin and tonics and had had three serious boyfriends. We gossiped about make up, work tales and fashion tips and silently competed in that sly grotesque way women in their twenties do. It was Charlotte who had befriended her, in the beginning, I think, but she settled in. I remember noticing her contentment in swimming around the edges of the group of us, always with the self-possession of someone who knows they have a gift. She never tried to influence the centre of our social crowd, and in doing so, seemed to draw people to her with her stillness. She was an only child.
It was after I’d known her for about six months that she invited four of us out for Sunday lunch, to her parent’s house. It seemed an unusual gesture to us – we never seemed to be ask for Sunday lunch anywhere – but in early October Charlotte, Rob, Nick and me tumbled out of a train somewhere east of Welwyn, hoping to dull our nerves with wine. I don’t know what we expected, but we certainly hadn’t expected a tennis court, nor the series of crystal decanters in the drawing room, nor lines and lines of paintings and certainly not a separate orchard for fruit trees. Annie was the first person I ever heard say that coffee was a “psychoactive drug”. She had just made Rob three espressos after lunch. Pudding was cinnamon heavy pear tarts, made from the fruit trees that glistened in the sharp rain and which Annie’s mother pointed out to us from the warm drawing room. We listened to a lot of music that afternoon, with Rob falling a little bit in love with Annie’s attractive and well-preserved mother. By the time we left with our foil-wrapped slices of cake after tea, we may not have been in love with Annie but we were certainly in love with her home. On the return train in the dark Sunday evening, London seemed wanting.
I have never been sure when Nick started to gravitate towards the house east of Welwyn but when I first found out about Annie’s and Nick’s liaison I thought she either had a taste for the absurd or had been blind drunk. Annie’s destiny was to find love with some radiant man with strong, joyful shoulders, who could muster witty repartee and complement her grace. Instead, she had gone for someone far more trivial in the man stakes. At Nick’s shared flat up in hideous Muswell Hill, the girlfriend remained, apparently oblivious to her boyrfriend’s errroneous masterplan. She was crammed in there with his home-made bookshelves lined with records featuring the standing classical library for a jazz musician – Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninov. It was a small bowl of inspiration but one from which he retrieved holy draughts nightly when regaling limpid-eyed ladies with his latest tales when his girlfriend was out. But the chances of those limpid eyes divinely abandoning themselves to him were slipping away now, as Nick hit his mid-thirties and his hairline was gently moving backwards, like an eiderdown in the night. Nick hadn’t had a gig in three months.
His front forelock, dyed at home with the girlfriend, who dressed like an off duty Second World War ARP warden, flopped about and stood mutely to attention over a face that had been sat on by half of the female cast of Mamma Mia. It was a face that had seen better days. It looked as if it had seen all of them actually, since about 1846. Creases of smoker’s lines made aggressive beelines for Nick’s ear. From there the signs of good living would mutate, presumably, or move off into another space, as Nick’s head did not have enough room to show the bonhomie and midnight fervour it had sampled over the years. Nick would only drink his coffee in Flat White in Berwick Street. He was that sort of person. In the same way, Nick would only buy books at Foyles. Even though the only books he’d ever read were The Great Gatsby and The World According to Clarkson. His choice of hats were inspired by the first book, his clothes by the second, which meant he looked like a cross between an Oxfordshire racing tipster and A A Gill.
Charlotte told me that they had been meeting somewhere in Mornington Crescent, and in the beginning I could never understand why this was. Mornington Cresent? This area free of allure or romance, an area so ill-defined it was unable to decide whether it was part of Euston or Camden? There was nothing there. I defied anyone to have rewarding sex in a place such as Mornington Crescent. The Gods simply wouldn’t allow it. But meeting Annie for lunch in November, it was clear that she was indeed being sexually satisfied somewhere in the Mornington Crescent environs. This was met with woeful annoyance by Charlotte, who had felt that she had had no choice but to fake two climaxes with Nick the previous winter on a Warwick Avenue living room floor. You see, that was what Nick was occasionally for. You could sleep with him, if you liked, but you certainly didn’t fall in love with him.
At Christmas, everything switched up a notch. Mornington Crescent became a thing of the past, and Nick’s girlfriend suddenly disappeared, as if she had only ever been a night mirage. Soon we forgot her entirely. Weekends blossomed and overspilled into Mondays up at the family house east of Welwyn, where Nick and Annie would love, eat, laugh and flop about on the Heals sofa with The Sunday Times. He was absent from his usual town haunts, he unburdened himself to Charlotte one evening in The PItcher & Piano that he was certainly in love, or something that felt an awful lot like it, but Annie’s cup of happiness appeared suddenly laced with danger when she started peppering her conversation with phrases such as “When we move out to the country….” and “Nick’s going to make this fabulous table from oak” and “Dad thinks it’s a great idea.”
Dad did think it was a great idea, although I wasn’t sure at this stage what “it” was. Nick? This Nick? Nick who had lost two teeth on a night out and who carried on drinking through his crusty, bloody mouth? Nick who wasn’t quite sure whether that tottering, sturdy legged toddler in the next road wasn’t his, or Nick who the mothers liked because he reminded them of the boys they would flirt with when they were 19 and, subsequently, who they had not seen go to seed? This Nick was now sprawled over Annie’s parents’ sofa politely exchanging their generous plates of scones and jam for his Wildean bon mots and the occasional musical anecdote. He played them like a piano. The clock ticked on the mantelpiece and Annie’s parents continued to be drawn in.
Nevertheless, I never saw Annie more doe-eyed or happy as she was in those first few months. Time ticked on stealthily in London, marked by Nick’s absence until, a few days before Christmas, we were all invited up to the house for supper. It was a very dark, glittery sort of evening. There was Annie, and there was Annie’s fragrant, beautiful mother (Rob a little bit more in love with her with every glass that she filled for him), Annie’s father, a gargantuan man whose waist stretched out until it was buffetted against the linen tablecloth and then there was Nick. He had a new suit on. He wore expensive suede shoes, but there was something elusive in the shadow of his face and his left eye had developed a twitch. We smelled danger and knew trouble was afoot when he began laying out his plans – to develop a business that would go into nightspots and shake up the profit margins a bit. His plan was to sack the hash-riddled bar managers and reduce the fee of the DJ to slim things down a bit. Horrifyingly, he was now planning to be some sort of management consultant for nightclubs. In deep candlelight, that night, we could even believe it might actually happen. Annie’s father certainly did. This business, it seemed, was what Dad thought was such “a great idea”.
The wedding was a vast, tub-thumpingly sentimental affair. Annie wore her grandmother’s wedding dress. We didn’t even think Nick had a grandmother. His family was represented by one resentful woman in a royal blue two piece suit and three striking looking men wearing signet rings. The bride and groom had originally planned to write their own vows in a civil ceremony (Annie always wanted to do things a little differently) but in the end the family considered the close relationship they had with the village church and it was decided to have the ceremony there. We found ourselves cloistered in a hellhole of a 15th century church that was struck through with mildew and damp flowers, followed by a grand affair in a marquee, where, during the cutting of the cake, I watched Annie’s mother’s arm snakily work its way around the back of Rob’s waist and clutch him. The honeymoon was in Argentina, regular reports and sights of which arrived on Facebook with due regularity. Nick looked suntanned and younger throughout the holiday, whilst Annie was as porcelain and perfect as ever, still with what now looked like painfully optimistic up-flicks of her signature black eyeliner.
Of course, when Dad’s cheque book stop writing cheques and when it all fell down, Mornington Crescent wasn’t there to help. It was a bit like the crumbling of an empire, or a terrorist attack. To start, it was drips of comforting excuses – the management were resisting change, Nick would say, the business is taking its time to produce profits, there were issues with cashflow, nothing ever is as cheap as you think it’s going to be – until it became a massive implosion and the fabric of life fell apart. The flow of money happily continued until, well, it didn’t. The money from her father seemed to disappear into Nick’s pockets, and at some point the well ran dry and the cheque book got closed. It was just after this that I bumped into Annie in Fenwicks, a grim day the following autumn. She looked like all the flesh had been carved out of her and only the dry husk was left. All the lines and wrinkles that had avoided her face had been storing up somewhere all this time and only now were breaking through. After a few years sticking to the edges she’d plunged into one of the central cogs of our group and got buffetted and pushed about by its centrifugal force. By this point, the payments on the flat her parents had helped them purchase had well and truly fallen behind, and Nick’s hopes that the threat of bailiffs would do what his girlfriend had done two years previously and disappear altogether were very much dashed. They took everything, leaving behind only the couple’s mutual loathing.
Walking away from Fenwicks, I realised for the first time why Mornington Crescent had seemed so safe to her. A nowhere place, straddling the indetermined barriers between inner London and outer, a Zone 2 half way point, a place that is of the city and yet starting to bleed towards its outer circle, a non-station on the Charing Cross branch where no one boards nor alights a train. For a woman who had always felt safe on the periphery of things, it suddenly made sense. I never saw Annie again, but I did see Nick – about a year later, rolling out of somewhere in Romilly Street drunk at half past three on a cloudy afternoon, with a limpid-eyed straggler gripping onto his arm. He still had the expensive suit on. Thinking back to the picture in the newspaper, and thinking of the beloved house now up for sale, I wondered just how much they’d all lost because of him.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on November 7th! Thank you