The House they never bought by John Langan

The House they never bought by John Langan

Something impelled them to go there, that last afternoon. Once, several years before, they’d almost bought that house. Somehow or other the deal fell through, for reasons which seemed clear enough at the time and which, indeed, became a cause of contention between them, though the details had long since been forgotten, or at least become submerged. They went to live in town instead, in an inner city district, on the verge of gentrification then, and where they had their children (though they sent them away to school, of course, as one did). Now, years later, they were out for a country drive on a slow Sunday afternoon and, being in the right neighbourhood, decided on a curious impulse to look in on the house which had once almost been theirs. Evidently the place had retained, or perhaps acquired, a kind of significance for them.

‘The turning’s here. The turning’s here- here!‘ she said, raising her voice and increasingly agitated.

‘All right, all right- I’ve got it.’

‘You’re always missing turnings- I don’t know how you do it! I can’t seem to point them out early enough.’

‘It’s easily missed that turning. It was last time. I remember that now.’

‘I don’t know why we’re bothering with this. Why are we bothering with this?’

‘Just a run, that’s all. Just a run- or maybe curiosity, I don’t know. Does it matter?’

The kids were still away until next week, when half-term would begin. Sometimes, just recently, she felt she regretted sending them away. Both were boys; this too she seemed to regret nowadays (as if it were, quite suddenly, the season for regrets). There’d never been a girl, and though they were still only in their late thirties and, therefore, had time left for another child, nevertheless she (at least) knew that there would be no further children.

‘Can you remember why we didn’t buy it?’ she asked, tetchily. Her throat felt dry, her mouth bitter. She hadn’t necessarily meant ill by the question, but it had come out sounding pointed, indeed almost accusatory.

‘Why do you ask? Why is it important now?’

His rhetorical questions, by way of a response, also seemed tetchy.

‘I don’t know why it’s important,’ she said, though it seemed as though, in some recess of her mind, she understood full well the import of her question.

‘Just that sometimes things lead on to other things: and pan out differently, if you do one thing rather than another. You know what I mean, don’t you?’

‘Not really- can’t you be more explicit?’

Somehow she didn’t feel that she wanted to be explicit. There might come a point, perhaps, when she would speak with more clarity, but for now she would continue to postpone the moment. And maybe he sensed something anyway: perhaps he wasn’t as obtuse as he seemed.

Changing down a gear, on the approach to a left turning (remembering it, this time), he crashed the gears in irritation, his hand glancing against her leg as he went into first. She flinched in annoyance. Once he might have questioned the way she recoiled so sharply from his touch. Then again, once he’d have apologized, with some tenderness, for his own clumsy disregard. After a while, you just got neglectful of these things; which seemed a great pity, though perhaps unavoidable, he thought.

‘We’re almost on it now, I’m sure,’ he said, trying to raise the mood a little, though without too much conviction.

‘Well, if you’re sure,’ she said tersely. She seemed to have gone into a default mode of withholding things; this thought occurred to her, for some reason, that very instant.

One more turning, and there it was: Culver Down Lane. They’d both remembered the address and now read it again, on that same battered street sign on its rusted poles; had things been otherwise, it might have signified home these past eleven years.

‘There you are,’ he said, his voice edged with a controlled belligerence, like a politician making a point. How she’d always disliked that characteristic in him: always – she felt sure now.

The lane ended in a cul-de-sac, where the small town- an over-extended village, really- petered out and the tarmac came to a ragged conclusion before a five-barred gate and a stile. Beyond, a large frost-hardened field sloped upwards towards a few yellowing trees and a heavy, sullen sky.

‘There’d have been a problem with damp,’ he said. He sounded a little breathless, hunched in that dreadful old Barbour jacket he seemed so determined to hang on to.

‘The drainage, you see: water draining downhill. We’d have got it all.’

The house stood to the right of them, the last one in the lane: a neat, well-ordered, four-square place, modest yet somehow Augustan. A place of distinction, she felt, bitterly.

‘A real Georgian house!’ she’d said excitedly back then, her young eyes gleaming with innocence, with maybe a degree of avarice commingled. He remembered how the estate agent had given him a sly, conspiratorial smile, as if to say, between men: humour the lady, treat her; go on, you know she likes it, she’s bought the place already- you know how they are!

‘It’s even got a fanlight too, a genuine one!’ He’d wanted to shut her up. He’d been through this with her beforehand: play it cool, don’t show too much enthusiasm- you lose leverage that way. But he’d never got this through to her.

‘There’s a lot to do here- a lot of work. And how far’s the station from here- fifteen minutes walk, twenty minutes?’

In those days, he’d had this crazy, high-stress job with a broking firm in the City and she kept saying to him you can afford it, my little whizz-kid and he could have done: he could have paid for the new roof, damp course, central heating, the lot, just from the year-end bonus. Until, one day, all his easy-come easy-go riches just seemed to disappear, like the froth on a glass of newly-poured champagne.

And so, years later, they still lived in that same rather cramped terrace house they’d wound up buying in Stoke Newington, on the rebound from that house. They’d been keen to move up just another step on the property ladder (to use another irritating expression of his, which had often been on his lips). Time, which had over the years wrought changes in their bodies, seemed however to have frozen their financial status. These days, after a few false starts, yesterday’s whizz-kid broker lectured in finance at one of the universities in town. He said he enjoyed this. Her father paid most of the school fees.

He stopped the engine and they sat there for a moment or two in a silence which seemed almost reverential, as if they’d arrived at some old monument or war memorial. Their breath misted the windscreen; he wiped it with his hand then wound his window down a little.

‘Oh not too much, please- it’s cold outside! It’s cold out here- so cold.’

‘There you are, you see- you could never really have lived here.’

She shivered, and then looked ahead at nothing in particular, as if enclosed within a bubble of resentments and apprehensions. He too looked ahead, bleakly. Then they both turned their heads simultaneously to look upon the house they’d never bought.

It looked good. They’d certainly added value, those buyers. New roof, new sash windows, new panelled door painted a deep, warm red and next to it one of those ceramic blue and white number plaques. Roses grew up the wall to a height of six feet or so: a few petals still clung, amongst the dead heads, against the gathering October chill.

A light was on in one of the front rooms. The curtains were open. It was still only late afternoon, so you wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to pull the curtains to. They could see a brass chandelier hanging from the ceiling, old prints on the walls and wallpaper of what seemed like a Victorian, William Morris-type pattern. A young woman with long, blonde hair, and a strong yet attractive face appeared to be setting the table, perhaps for tea and cake or something (dinner being yet some hours ahead).

‘Surely not his wife?’

‘Daughter maybe; we never met them anyway. Why should we have done? May not be them of course- they may have sold years ago.’

She didn’t bother taking him up on any of this. Why should she be bothered? There was a time when she might have ventured a contrary suggestion, but not now.

A man- tall, in sweater and jeans, healthy and vaguely outdoor looking- entered the room, then two children: you could just see the tops of their heads appearing and reappearing in a bobbing dance above the level of the window ledge. One was a girl- you could make out the ribbon-tied top of a pony tail. The man rubbed his hands together and smiled- a large, fatherly smile which seemed to gather the room within its radiance. They watched all this, feeling like eavesdroppers on the contentment of others.

‘He’s seen us, he’s seen us! Stop looking, for Christ’s sake!’

In a fluster, he opened the glove compartment, pulled out a map and pretended to be consulting it, his face a ludicrous mask of concentration. It was a road map of the Algarve. She looked at him, in disgust.

‘Oh for Heaven’s sake!’ then she let it drop: she could have given him some kind of a lecture but again decided it wasn’t worth the effort. She didn’t think the guy had noticed them anyway, and what if he had- the calm and felicity in that warm, bright room seemed somehow inviolate, a state of affairs neither their attentions nor anything else might disturb.

It was just beginning to get dark. Cold came over the fields towards them, as if it had been waiting for them: cold which seemed irresistible, such that you couldn’t even disperse it by running your engine and putting the heater on. They just stayed there with nothing more to say to one another. He turned to face her; she looked tired. He didn’t want to seem like he was staring, looking for flaws, but there was so much grey in her hair lately and her eyes looked dead. Her clothes looked tired too, the sort of clothes you just throw on when you’re no longer interested in making an effort. He turned away and started to fiddle with the mirror, ostensibly adjusting it for some purpose, perhaps merely for diversionary reasons, and briefly studied his own reflection. He too looked drab. He felt drab inside: his soul felt drab. Therefore, he made his mind a blank again.

But she was thinking still. Her thoughts were flowing quickly, though in images, as if she was avoiding putting words to them. The years appeared to her like so many drawers stuffed full with old photographs, yellowing birthday and anniversary cards, invitations to weddings, birth announcements and theatre programmes from long-forgotten nights out and she seemed in her mind to be trashing all this stuff, to be saying to herself and maybe the world in general that it was all done away with, irrevocably. Then she looked over at the house again: one last confirmatory look towards that window, which was curtained now. Strange, that they’d come back here, consented to this seemingly pointless return: to the pathway untaken, the page unturned or unwritten. These thoughts made her feel relieved, or at any rate prepared.

‘Rob- Rob?’

He wasn’t looking at her. She touched him gently: he didn’t recoil or resist. Then he turned to face her again. No words would pass between them yet- there would be time for words, time for process- but for now, no words were needed.

Cold rain hit the windscreen in a sudden scattering: like a judgment, beyond appeal.

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