I don't go to Chance House. Not right after school anyway. But I find myself wanting to go. The whole walk home to Grantley Street I keep thinking, ought to be going to Chance House. Why aren't I going to Chance House? And it's not just because I told some batty old woman that I would go, it's because I feel, about as powerfully as I've ever felt about anything, that the house is standing someewhere close, waiting for me. Maybe being batty is catching.
Grantley Street is a thin strip of houses, wedged between two roads. Our ftont door opens straight on to the pavement of Grantley and our rear patio on to The Lane, which is lucky considering it could open on to The Dog Leg. The Dog Leg can be scary. More about that later.
Our back gate is a nine-foot barricade of wood with a deranged row of nails banged in along the top. It's about two years since Mum made with the hammer, so the points are a bit rusty now. I perform complicated manoeuvres with the gate lock, the bolts and chain and then, once inside, remove a loose brick from the garden wall to get at the house keys. A moment later I'm letting myself into the kitchen.
“I call see you,” I announce in a loud voice.
I wish I could stop doing this. I'm not quite sure who I'm expecting to find in our kitchen. Niker. A burglar. Dad. But it's part of the routine now, a habit, a mantra. Saying it protects me, gives me one-up on Whoever's There. Proves I can't be startled, taken advantage of. Trouble is, I gave to do it in every room in the house.
“I can see you!” I yell into the sitting room. Then I thunder upstairs and repeat myself in Mum’s bedroom, in mine and finally in the bathroom. This little quirk started about three years ago, when Dad left and Mum took the extra shifts at the hospital. “No choice, now,” Mum said. The good news is I don't do the cupboards any more. I used to shout into the larder, Mum's wardrobe and the airing cupboard. This has to be progress.
Of course, I don’t yell if Mum’s home. Well, I did once, blasted into the kitchen shrieking, “I can see you!” at the top of my voice. Mum was sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee.
“That's lucky,” she said, “or you'd need new glasses.”
They call it obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Or compulsive-obsessive or Chance House Bonkers or something. People do it with band-washing. I read that in the newspapers. They wash their hands again and again and again, four times, six times, twenty times. Then as soon as their hands are dry, it's back to the basin again, wash, wash, wash. Washing until they bleed. By comparison I have to be a mild case. Almost normal in fact. Norbert Normal.
Anyhow. I'm in the house. I'd like to fell you that I get a chocolate biscuit and then go straight go to the computer. Well, I do get the biscuit but then I go upstairs to paint my models. Niker, when he came round, called me a “Saddo”. I didn't tell him we don't have a computer because of the money I told him I like painting model soldiers. Which, as it happens, I do. That was a little while after the Grape Incident. Which took place in The Dog Leg. Anyway, I didn't tell Mum anything about anything. But she's not stupid. She'd watched me avoiding The Dog Leg, even though it's the quickest way to school. And one afternoon she asked:
“Is someone on your back?”
“Someone bullying you?”
“Do you want to invite anyone home for tea?”
“If someone's on your back,” she said, “you can always try to make a friend of them. Ask their advice. Get them to help you with something. Invite them home. It sometimes helps.”
How come grown-ups are always so smart about your life, but not quite so smart about their own? Slap, slap, slap. That was Dad hitting her on the landing. Well, hitting her on the face actually, out on the landing. Or maybe on the shoulders. I didn't really want to look. I could hear plenty enough. Anyhow, I didn't notice her trying to make him into a friend next morning.
So what happens? Niker comes home. I didn't think for a moment he'd accept the invitation. In fact, it took me three weeks to pluck up courage to ask him, and even then I had to write the time and date down and pass it to him like some secret note. I thought he'd laugh. But he just looked at me and said: “Yeah. Why not.” Of course Mum had planned to be there, but she hadn't reckoned on a juggernaut jack-knifing on the A23 and ploughing into six other vehicles. Like every other member of nursing staff in Sussex, she was called into Accident and Emergency So when we got home there was a note on the table and a lasagna in the oven. Niker doesn't like lasagna.
“No computer and no food,” said Niker. “On the other hand - no parents.”
I had never intended to show Niker the lead soldiers - the ones that were my father's when he was a child. Dad had bought them in Willie Sureen, Sloane Street, with his own pocket money on one of the rare occasions he'd accompanied my grandfather on business to London. No more than half a thumb high, each man is intricately cast, from the sharp tip of his spear to the insignia on his tricorn or the buttons on his spats. Highlanders of the 45’ rebellion who died at Culloden, French officers who fought against Wolfe in Canada in the Seven Years War, a single Grenadier guard on his knees with a bayonet, a little drummer boy. Each delicately painted in Humbrol enamel, every silver belt buckle, cross-gartered stocking, black sporran tassel executed perfectly, every soldier a tribute to the skill of my father, who has such large, ungainly hands.
No, I never meant to show Niker these soldiers, which I keep wrapped in tissue paper in the Huntley and Palmer Superior Reading Biscuits tin in which Dad presented them to me on my eighth birthday I intended to show him the small, less detailed plastic models, also my father's, from the American War of Independence. Cavalry, artillery, foot soldiers, painted more sporadically by Dad, and left in their grey or blue plastic for me to finish. And painstakingly, with my sable brushes and thinners, I have been finishing them. The rifles of these soldiers are flexible, durable, whereas the smallest, most accidental, tweak can snap the sword of one of the lead solders.
So there they were that day, the plastic models, on my desk. The horses, the riders, the gun carriages, the infantry and even one or two odd cowboys, a belly-scuttling Indian, a First World War soldier, titbits to entice. And the paint of course. And the brushes. I knew it was risk. But that was what I was doing - risking.
Niker scanned my room. “What's in that tin?”
The Huntley and Palmer tin. Had I been looking? How could he
possibly have known? Why hadn't I hidden it, stashed it under the
bed, secreted it in Mum's room?
I feel cold even now when I think of him opening it. His hands on the stiff, slightly rusty lid. Him pulling and peering and me just standing there. The tissue was discoloured, brittle.
“What have we here. Norbert?”
He drew out a Highlander, red jacket, green bit, tam-o-shanter, a running man, heels kicking, chin bladed bayonet to the fore.
“Jeez,” said Niker, looking at the exquisitely painted criss-cross leg garters. “did you do this?”
“No, my dad.”
“It's good.” And he put the soldier down, turned it gently this way and that, admired it. “Very good.”
He unwrapped and looked at every soldier in the same way, taking time and care, asking me what I knew about the uniforms.
Two hours later Mum found us both sitting at my desk, paint brushes in hand. The lasagna, which I'd forgotten to turn down, was burnt, but there were fifteen chestnut horses with black bridles, blue saddle-cloths and fifteen horse stands. Niker had painted mud and grass on his stands. And also flowers.
Mums smile was so broad. But premature. Nothing changed at school. In fact it remained so much the same I sometimes think that Niker never came to my house at all. But then I sometimes think that my father, with those heavy hands, could never have painted the Highlanders. And he did.
So here I am again, sitting at my desk with the smell of turps about me and thinking about Niker because its preferable to thinking about what I'm actually thinking about. Which is Chance House.
You know how it is when there’s something niggling you, and you do your best to refuse it, chain it up in some dark and faraway place, only to have it come yap yap yapping back at you like some demented dog? Well, yap yap yap, here it comes again. Chance House.
“You can go there. Walk. It's not far.”
I'm really not painting. I’m just waving a brush about. So I might as well - yap yap - go downstairs and get Mum’s road atlas. This is how she finds me, crouching over England with a piece of string in my hands.
“Geography prep?” she asks, practical as ever.
“What is it?”
“Distance in miles from here to St Albans. How far do you reckon, Mum?”
“You're the one with the string.”
“Right. Fine. Ninety miles. Would it be ninety miles?”
“Sounds about right.”
“Could we go there?”
She sits down, kicks off her shoes and puts her feet up on a little pouffe.
“Bit far for a day out,” she says. My mum is a small person, with a small face and a little puff of blonde hair. She looks exhausted.
“Can I get you a cup of tea?”
“God bless you, Robert.”
It's only teabag tea but, the way she takes it, it could be water in a desert.
“I'd really like to go to St Albans. In fact, I think I have to go to St Albans.”
She shuts her eyes.
“Do you think we could?”
“Mmm.” She's asleep. I lift the teacup from her lap. Where her skirt has ridden up I can see blood throbbing in her varicose vein.
In the kitchen I make myself a sandwich and then I return to my desk.
“It's really not far,” yaps Edith Sorrel.
That's when I decide to set the dream alarm. It's not an exact Science but it sometimes works for me. All I have to do is think about whatever it is that's bothering me and then see the alarm for 3am. I've tried many different times of night but all my best results have come from 3am. Too early in the night and my dreams don't really seem to have got going, too near the morning and they seem to be petering out. At 3am, I'm normally in the middle of some seething epic. As soon as the alarm goes, I start scribbling. I write down everything I can remember in my dream diary. Even the stupid and inconsequential stuff. Mainly that actually. I note all the colours, the people. the buildings, the looks, the feelings. But I don't try to make sense of anything. In any case there often isn't much sense to be made. But in the morning it's different. Once or twice I've woken with some completely crystalline idea about a problem. An idea which often bears no relation to whatever I scribbled down in the night, but it's still there like some perfect jewel on my pillow. Of Course, it's not always like that. Much more often I have to go back to the diary, reading and re-reading until something jumps out at me - a word, a colour, a phrase, a clue. Something to work with. Naturally, I always hope for the jewel. But somehow I can't see that happening with Chance House.
Once I've decided to use the dream alarm, the evening normally passes mournfully slowly. But not tonight. It only seems a moment before I'm in bed. Then it's just a matter of going through the ritual. I lie on my back, close my eyes, and relax my body, starting with my feet. When all my limbs are so heavy that the mattress seems dented with them, I turn to my mind. This is when it can get tricky I think about the problem - in this case Chance House - but I try not to direct my thoughts. It works better if I can keep everything loose and unfocused. If images come, and they do, I attempt t0 follow them, but not to pursue them, so they can choose their own way. It normally takes a while for the vague, meandering flow to begin. But Chance House conjures itself at once, arriving exact and massive in my imagination. It's a huge edifice of dirty cream brick. Wide, concrete steps lead to a forbidding door. The door handle is a twisted ring of metal, fashioned like a rope. I imagine myself walking up the steps, grasping the handle in both hands and passing boldly into Edith's past and my future. But that's not what happens. I do walk up the steps. But the moment I touch the door, there is a flash and a bang and the house disappears. Or that's what I believe at first. A little while later, as I stand in the dark, it occurs to me that maybe I have disappeared.