London, March 1999
THE AGENT MUST HAVE SCENTED HIS EAGERNESS. THERE WAS already a bid on the house, he said. A little below the asking price. The contracts had already been drawn up. But if Jay was interested there were other properties available. The information, true or false, made Jay reckless. It had to be this house, he insisted. This house. Now. In cash, if they liked.
A discreet phone call. Then another. Rapid French into the mouthpiece. Someone brought coffee and Italian pastries from across the road as they waited. Jay suggested another price, somewhat higher than the existing offer. He heard the voice on the other end of the line rise by half an octave. He toasted them in café-latte. It was so easy, buying a house. A few hours’ wait, a little paperwork and it was his. He reread the short paragraph under the picture, trying to translate the words into stone and mortar. Château Foudouin. It looked unreal, a postcard from the past. He tried to imagine standing outside the door, touching the pink stone, looking over the vineyard towards the lake. Joe’s dream, he told himself dimly, their dream fulfilled at last. It had to be fate. It had to be.
And now he was fourteen again, gloating over his picture, touching it, folding and unfolding the thin paper. He wanted to show other people. He wanted to be there now, to take possession, even though the paperwork was only half completed. His bank, his accountant, his solicitors could deal with the formalities. The signing of the papers was merely an afterthought. The essentials were already in motion.
A few phone calls and it could all be arranged. A flight to Paris. A train to Marseilles. By tomorrow he could be there.
Pog Hill, July 1975
JOE’S HOUSE WAS A DARK, CROOKED TERRACE, LIKE MANY OF the houses which lined the railway. The front gave directly on to the street, with only a low wall and a window box between the front door and the pavement. The back was all crowded little yards hung with washing, a shanty town of homemade rabbit hutches, hen houses and pigeon lofts. This side looked over the railway, a steep banking sheared away to form a cutting through which the trains passed. The road went over a bridge at that point, and from the back of Joe’s garden you could see the red light of the railway signal, like a beacon in the distance. You could see Nether Edge, too, and the dim grey flanks of the slag heap beyond the fields. Staggering unevenly down the steep little lane, those few houses overlooked the whole of Jay’s territory. Someone was singing in a nearby garden, an old lady by the sound of it, in a sweetly quavering voice. Somebody else was hammering wood, a comforting, primitive sound.
‘D’you want a drink?’ Joe nodded easily in the direction of the house. ‘You look as if you wouldn’t turn one down.’
Jay glanced towards the house, suddenly aware of his torn jeans and the dried blood on his nose and upper lip. His mouth was dry.
It was cool inside the house. Jay followed the old man through to the kitchen, a large bare room with clean wooden floorboards and a large pine table, scarred with the marks of many knives. There were no curtains at the window, but the entire window ledge was filled with leggy green plants, which formed a lush screen for the sunlight. The plants had a pleasant, earthy smell which filled the room.
‘These are me toms,’ remarked Joe, opening the larder, and Jay saw that there were indeed tomatoes growing amongst the warm leaves – small yellow ones, large misshapen red ones, or striped orange and green ones, like croaker marbles. There were more plants in pots on the floor, lining the walls and growing against the doorpost. To the side of the room a number of wooden crates contained fruit and vegetables, all arranged individually to avoid bruising.
‘Nice plants,’ he said, not really meaning it.
Joe shot him a satirical look.
‘You’ve got to talk to em if you want em to grow. And tickle em,’ he added, indicating a long cane propped up against the bare wall. There was a rabbit’s tail tied to its extremity. ‘This is me ticklin stick, see? Very ticklish, toms.’
Jay looked at him blankly.
‘Looks like you ran into some trouble back there,’ said Joe, opening a door at the far side of the room to reveal a big larder. ‘Bin in a fight, or summat.’
Guardedly Jay told him. When he got to the part where Zeth broke the radio he felt his voice jump into a higher register, sounding childish and close to tears. He stopped, flushing furiously.
Joe didn’t seem to notice. He reached into the larder, picking out a bottle of dark-red liquid and a couple of glasses.
‘You get some of this down yer,’ said Joe, pouring some out. It smelt fruity but unfamiliar, yeasty, like beer, but with a deceptive sweetness. Jay looked at it with suspicion.
‘Is it wine?’ he asked doubtfully.
‘Blackbry,’ he said, drinking his with obvious relish.
‘I don’t think I’m supposed to-’ began Jay, but Joe pushed the glass at him with an impatient gesture.
‘Try it, lad,’ he urged. ‘Put some art in yer.’
He tried it.
Joe clapped him on the back until he stopped coughing, carefully removing the precious glass from the boy’s hand before he spilled it.
‘It’s disgusting!’ managed Jay between coughing jags.
It certainly tasted like no wine he had ever tasted before. He was no stranger to wine – his parents often gave him wine with meals, and he had developed quite a fondness for some of the sweeter German whites, but this was a completely new experience. It tasted like earth and swamp water and fruit gone sour with age. Tannin furred his tongue. His throat burned. His eyes watered.