Cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Dedication

Foundations

Dereliction

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Renovations

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Load-Bearing Wall

Chapter 14

Valuation

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Offer

Chapter 22

Survey

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Exchange

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Completion

Thanks

Copyright

About the Book

Pen and Jerry Manville’s North London home was once an example to their peers: the subject of The House on the Hill, Pen’s series of popular children’s books, and a recurring feature of the newspaper lifestyle sections. But since Pen and Jerry’s divorce, the house has fallen out of use, and so has the family.

Jerry, formerly an award-winning adman, is beginning to leave a trail of ex-wives and semi-estranged children across the city. In the south of France, Pen has perfected her garden, but her new marriage comes as more of a struggle. In the tedious heat of Dubai, their daughter Isobel, an accidental ex-pat, spends the days ignoring her own children and managing her virtual farm online. And in his grotty flat in deepest East London, her brother Conrad cleans his bicycles and wonders what to do with his life – besides pursuing his latest crush.

When Pen decides it’s finally time to sell the house, Jerry discovers some unexpected new occupants who are less eager to move on. Soon the Manvilles – each of them funny, flawed and sporadically lovable – will have to say goodbye to The House on the Hill.

Set in our age of property obsession, Completion is a state-of-the-nation novel about valuing the wrong things, investing in the wrong people, and whether home is ever really a house.

About the Author

Tim Walker was born in Surrey in 1980. He lives with his wife in California, where he is the Los Angeles correspondent for the Independent. Completion is his first novel.

Completion

Tim Walker

FOUNDATIONS

YEARS AGO, BETWEEN dessert and coffee, their dinner party guests would demand the guided tour of Jerry and Pen’s loft conversion. So while the six-cup espresso-maker gurgled on the eight-ring stove, Jerry and/or Pen would lead them up the several steepish flights of stairs from the dining table to the top floor. Catching their breath, they’d tiptoe past young Conrad’s half-open bedroom door and crowd into the upstairs shower-cum-loo, where the visitors would finger the aquamarine mosaic tiles and whisper about grouting for as long as it took to exhaust their collective knowledge of bathroom DIY, which was not at all long.

Jerry and/or Pen would allude to the excellent water pressure, and then lead them all, shuffling in ones and twos, along the hardwood landing to the children’s playroom. There, a male guest might absent-mindedly nudge a puck across the air hockey table, while his wife, girlfriend or life-partner made an abortive attempt at small talk with Barunka the Czech au pair, who by that point of the evening could usually be found curled on a beanbag watching American sitcoms with the sound way down.

At length, the members of this ad hoc tour party would step through the sliding plate glass onto the balcony, where each would gasp and then chuckle at the uninterrupted view of London’s skyline. How on earth, they tended to ask, did you find this house anyway? At this, Jerry or Pen would raise a large-arsed wine glass to his or her lips, swallow a mouthful of whichever plonk the Sunday supplements had recently been recommending, and reply that really, you might say the house found them.

One high summer at the start of Thatcher’s second term, shortly before the Islington boom began in earnest, the Manvilles – just married – heard from an old art-school boyfriend of Pen’s: his grandparents wanted to retire, he said, from their big, c.1890 semi-detached house on Highbury Hill to less unwieldy accommodation. He thought he ought to organise the viewing, as his family didn’t much care for the spiv estate agents who’d been busy conjuring fat fees from the gentrification of nearby Canonbury and Barnsbury. Their neighbourhood, he explained, had preserved its authentic, multicultural feel.

As they crunched across the gravel from the pavement to the door, Jerry was already weighing up which sports car he ought to buy to best fill the yard. The elderly couple ushered them from the hallway into the open-plan ground floor, where the light from the bay window at the front reached through the sitting room and into the dining area beyond, teasing the rays from the French window at the back. We could fit our whole crappy Kentish Town flat into this one room, thought Jerry, and still leave space for a roller-disco. Pen had what she would eventually describe as her Television-Property-Show Moment; she was seized at once with the desire to make the place her own. Of course, it may just have been a dizzy spell brought on by the pregnancy. And, of course, television property shows did not yet exist. But one day Pen would watch them, and she would recall the sensation vividly.

Below the ground floor, in a half-submerged basement, were the kitchen and downstairs loo. A shallow set of steps led up from the back door to the long, lovingly kempt garden. One flight above the ground floor were a spacious bathroom, a study, and the – frankly, vast – master bedroom. On the second floor: another, more compact bathroom and three charming bedrooms, two of them rear-facing, one of which Pen decided simply must become her studio just as soon as she’d torn up the lace curtains and the ghastly patterned carpet. The gentleman of the house directed Jerry up a tremulous wooden ladder and told him to poke his head into the loft space. It was musty, with symptoms of woodworm. But it had potential.

The smitten second-time buyers doubted they could raise sufficient capital to put in a non-insulting offer, even with the assistance of a kindly high street bank. But the owners had taken a liking to Jerry and Pen, and to Pen’s five-month bump, and decided to sell them the house at a knock-down price without a bothersome agent’s intervention. They all agreed it would make a fine home for a young family. The Victorian fixtures and fittings notwithstanding, at somewhat less than £100,000 it was a steal, even then. There were tears from the women on both sides of the transaction when the day of the exchange came. Be kind to our little house, the gentleman implored Jerry politely. I will, he replied, thinking, It’s not little, and I’m going to tear it to pieces.

Gifted with a convenient spell of gardening leave, he acquired the necessary plumbing and electrics manuals and set to work opening up the walls, connecting as much new pipe and wiring as his beginner’s expertise would allow. It took longer than he’d anticipated, but he persevered, and when the man from the local electricity board finally came to approve his work, he congratulated him on his thoroughness and precision. Jerry, dusting his palms on his jeans to shake the bureaucrat’s hand, had never felt so much like a man.

Electricity and running water were nevertheless limited for a few long autumnal months, during which the couple camped in the sitting room with a portable heater and all the blankets they could muster. Jerry was not entirely pleased to yield to Pen the single fold-out camp bed, which he’d transported from his parents’ garage in Macclesfield. But there was no denying that her condition gave her the greater need for comfort – and waking to a light-filled room that he could truthfully call his own was some consolation. They raced to install new radiators in time for the winter and the arrival of their first child: a girl, Isobel. (Afterwards, Jerry would regret having succumbed to the fad for cheap electric storage heaters, and replace the ugly units with a gas boiler and central heating.)

Almost every weekend, they invited their friends over for DIY parties. They refitted the first-floor bathroom, then the basement kitchen-diner, then the second-floor bathroom. They re-floored, re-carpeted, replastered, repainted and re-roofed. Tony Glassop, Jerry’s nominal best friend, would loiter in the bay window drinking bottles of continental lager and laughing that they were fools for not having called in professional decorators at the earliest available opportunity. But everyone else was happy to muck in, as long as Pen laid on a buffet lunch. They’d smoke and eat sandwiches on the front steps, and watch the football fans thunder past on their way to the Arsenal ground.

Pen enhanced the paint job in every room with custom-designed stencils and sponge effects, all the while wondering whether the emulsion fumes would harm her sleeping baby. She picked out furniture from catalogues and mingled it tastefully with furniture from the local junk shops. The previous owners’ kitchen dresser was stripped and sanded and heaved to the dining room. Through trial and error, Jerry honed his carpentry skills sufficiently to fit shelves for the large photographic volumes that they would now be obliged to buy. He inserted original nineteenth-century skirting boards and architraves, and overmantles for the old cast-iron fireplaces they’d sourced from salvage. There was a brief debate about the colour of the front door, which, at Pen’s insistence, was painted in Racing Green. (Jerry had argued for Mustard.)

With the essentials of the interior complete, they commissioned repairs to the crumbling chimneystack, and to the lead roof flashing. Jerry dug a trench in the back garden and sank a soakaway, to drain the excess rainwater from the gutters and the clay soil – unearthing, as he went, a not-insubstantial collection of buried gin bottles. Thus he surmised that at least one of the former occupants had been a covert alcoholic. Well, every home has its secrets. They used some of the bottles as candlestick holders. Pen designed a rock garden with a water feature, and planted her first bed of herbs just beyond the kitchen door. She tilled soil, laid down turf and, to her husband’s horror, started listening to Gardeners’ Question Time.

By the time the house was complete – or, at any rate, complete enough to hold a house-warming – Jerry estimated that the renovations were between 40 and 60 per cent his own work. He knew where the contours of coloured wire and copper piping clustered and diverged behind each plastered and painted wall. He knew that the slates of the roof would protect his family from weather, because he’d battled his vertigo to put most of them up there personally. When a floorboard creaked beneath a snugly fitted carpet, he could recall having sanded and varnished said floorboard himself.

And yes, of course, when they came to re-redecorate each room in its turn over the course of close to fifteen years, their original efforts were improved upon by specialists, their amateur handiwork buried beneath layers of expert craftsmanship. But Jerry’s legacy remained, memorialised in torchlit trips to the fuse-box, in trickling taps, and in the occasional rust-tinged circle of damp on the ceiling of Isobel’s bedroom.

The loft conversion was the long-planned pièce de résistance and, perversely, Jerry’s least favourite bit of the whole endeavour: he was obliged to surrender its construction to professionals early in the house’s second decade under his ownership, when the children had grown out of their nurseries. By then his work at the agency had robbed him of the spare time to devote to such an undertaking, yet it had also rewarded him with the cash to pay somebody else to project-manage it – and an architect to realise Pen’s dream design. Thanks to new governmental red tape, he wouldn’t have been legally permitted to do the work himself. Besides, the technical know-how had by then deserted him, and the pages he had learned it from were lost to spring cleans and second-hand bookshops.

As for the house’s trifling fame beyond its own four-or-so walls, it wasn’t long after Conrad was born that Pen had left the art department at Manville Glassop Cohn to go freelance, and resolved to try writing a children’s book in the surplus hours supplied by the presence of the au pair. ‘Conrad and Izzy and Mum and Dad too,’ she wrote – almost without thinking – on her first morning at the drafting table in her so-called studio, ‘lived in the house with the very best view.

Then and there, she conceived a series of illustrated books for two- to seven-year olds, in which a cheeky young boy named Conrad with grand schemes would get himself into scrapes, from which his clever older sister, Izzy, would invariably rescue him. At the end of each adventure the pair would return, tired but happy, to their large and desirable home (the one at the top of the Hill) where they would eat Marmite on toast under their parents’ adoring gaze. Pen would extrapolate the stories from her children’s wild imaginings, and compose the illustrations herself.

Gathered on the balcony, the guests would coo obligingly at whichever details of the building’s backstory Jerry and/or Pen had chosen to recount that particular evening. Some of those present would have heard chunks of the narrative before. Others might even have featured in one of the preceding anecdotes. Satisfied, they would study the horizon for a while, hugging themselves to fend off the chill as somebody’s husband pointed out the BT Tower or Centre Point. Somebody else would make a risqué joke at the expense of the Major government, or tentatively lament the mainstreaming of Britpop. The smokers (there were more of them in those days) would finish their cigarettes and stub them out in the soil of a window box, from which the cleaner would extract them with a tut the following week. And then they would step inside, slide the plate glass back into place, whisper goodnight to Barunka the Czech au pair, and descend the stairs – all four flights – to the basement kitchen-diner, where Pen or Jerry would have poured the coffee.

Finally, as fading conversation was replaced by the sound of night buses grumbling down Highbury Grove, somebody’s wife would offer half-heartedly to help with the washing-up. Coats would be retrieved, air-kisses distributed, and the visitors would drift off into the North London night, leaving Jerry and Pen alone in the house on the Hill, among the devastated remains of dinner.

DERELICTION

1

JERRY MANVILLE’S MOST enduring mid-career triumph was the campaign he’d devised to launch Ppalleena!, a then-obscure Korean probiotic yoghurt drink, into the UK marketplace. His work helped to grow the brand by £50 million in a single year, which, in the 1990s, made it a masterpiece. This feat had been achieved by suggesting to the consumer that one small bottle of the stuff per day could, by some ill-defined alchemy, make its drinker feel better physically, and therefore psychically. Almost at once, in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, the dissatisfied masses had flocked to supermarkets in search of digestive bliss. They added the innocuous placebo to their refrigerators and their daily nutritional routines without ever once subjecting it to proper scrutiny.

Granted, Jerry had flown first class to Seoul to attend a mildly convincing presentation by the manufacturer’s in-house dietary specialists. But the science in the sell was cursory. Manville Glassop Cohn’s creative team magicked up an ad in which a grumpy, sickly-looking woman in pyjamas received an unexpected early-morning visit from a Buddhist monk driving a Ppalleena!-branded milk float. The monk handed the woman a bottle of the Korean yoghurt, which she drank on her doorstep (the firm hired animators to depict the gloop reaching her gut and filling it with ‘friendly bacteria’ in the least creepy way possible), at which point she and her pyjamas were instantaneously suffused with a healthy, enlightened glow. As he trundled away on his float, the monk waved excitedly and yelled, ‘Feel better!’ in Korean, which they subtitled with some brightly coloured East Asian typography,1 and then repeated in more measured English: ‘Ppalleena!: Feel Better.’ The Buddhist milkman starred in a series of calculatedly and increasingly bizarre commercials, briefly became a cult figure among housewives and teenagers, and earned MGC a coveted spot in the D&AD annual. More importantly, the ad worked: 30 seconds, £50 million.

Of course, they’d never get away with the same material these days. Advertising Standards were far stricter about the stated benefits of friendly bacteria – as they were about over-generalised, faintly patronising depictions of Asians. Yet it seemed, nevertheless, as if every second product on the shelves in Jerry’s local Waitrose was now eager to brag that it contained some allegedly active ingredient that reduced cholesterol or the risk of heart disease. He felt partly responsible, and the manufacturers must have felt that he was partly responsible, too, because they’d rewarded him with a lifetime’s supply of probiotic Korean yoghurt. Every Monday he received, by registered post, a chilled jiffy bag containing seven 70ml bottles of Ppalleena!. When they had first begun to arrive, soon after the campaign launch, he’d been going through some personal difficulties and was committed to a programme of self-improvement. What remained of that programme now, if nothing else, was the yoghurt. He still drank his shot every morning, without fail. Needless to say, it did not make him feel better. Not physically; not psychically.

In retirement, though, the Korean yoghurts were proving as good a way as any to deduce which day of the week he’d woken on. Which is why, that morning, but for his tortoiseshell-framed spectacles, sandbag paunch and a pair of Calvin Klein Y-fronts, Jerry was standing naked before his open fridge-freezer, calculating the implication of the two remaining 70ml shots: Saturday. On the shelf below the yoghurts, and arrayed with equal precision, was a stack of single-serving ready meals. On the shelf above, the last two bottles from a box of mail-order white wine, and a solitary lager, left there by Glassop on a rare home visit some months previously. Jerry plucked a yoghurt shot from its perch, peeled off the foil lid with a veteran’s panache, and downed it in one, tonguing the rim to extract the last of its contents. From across the apartment, he could hear his BlackBerry’s treble-heavy approximation of ‘Don’t You Want Me’. He ignored the call, as he had twice already, and foraged noisily in the utensil drawer for his omelette pan.

He’d consumed no more than three medium-sized glasses of claret the previous evening but, at the dawn of his seventh decade, Jerry found that each new day brought with it a hangoverish fug, and each night a drunk’s wee-hours dash to the loo. As recompense, he’d decreed that every breakfast would contain at least one fried or buttered item. He draped an apron across his fleshy middle and prepared himself a cheddar omelette, half a pack of grilled bacon, fresh coffee and two slices of toast. Afterwards, the slap of his feet on the floorboards echoing around the studio, he strolled with his dish to the dining table where his BlackBerry lay.

The flat was a spacious third-floor, one-/two-bedroom warehouse conversion in fashionable King’s Cross: artfully exposed brickwork, high windows and all mod cons, a stone’s throw from the necessary amenities and unbeatable transport links. The mezzanine master bedroom and its en-suite wet-room both boasted an enviable view of sky and the neighbouring rooftops. Once, it had presumably stored vast amounts of something bound for somewhere. He’d done nothing much to personalise the place in the past year or two, besides strewing it with a few of his most treasured belongings: his Eames lounger and ottoman; his triptych of signed Paul Rand prints; his Anglepoise.

The £900,000 asking price posed some financial risk to a recent retiree, but Jerry and his ex-wives had become accustomed to a certain standard of living. And, since so much of his modest fortune was incarcerated in the properties that Pen and Genevieve part-owned, he’d decided he should spend his few remaining fluid assets on himself, and hang the consequences.

The day was bright and baby blue, and from beyond the double glazing came the comforting hum of a London weekend. Jerry took a contrary pleasure in eating alone at the table alongside seven empty chairs, chewing his omelette slowly and relishing the results of his own rudimentary culinary skills. The BlackBerry blinked with the arrival of an email. He finished his mouthful before picking it up.

From: ‘Pen’ <penelope.bowles@dotmail.com>

Sent: 09 July 2011 10:32

Subject: House

Have tried calling with no luck. Long lie-in? Don’t forget you must check on the house this week as the agent is keen to start viewings next Mon. Do call Monielle to give it a proper clean if you think it needs one. She is £12/hr now. Will email her mobile no again if you have mislaid.

P

As he thought about composing a reply, the phone rang again, this time with the riff from ‘The Rockafeller Skank’. Jerry had assigned a different ringtone to each of his former wives, on the basis of vague chronology: the Human League for Pen, Fatboy Slim for Genevieve. He answered it reluctantly.

‘Hello.’

‘Jerome?’

Genevieve called him by his full name. Once a sign of affection, it was now an accusation.

‘No, Genevieve, I have not forgotten.’

‘Have— Well, I’m just checking, because you know Xander and I want to get out of London by midday.’

It was an irony of retirement that Saturday and Sunday were now the busiest days of Jerry’s week; the days when his dependants took their opportunity to make demands on his time. Monday to Friday, he would rise late for breakfast, then go to a nearby café to read the newspaper and drink a cup of coffee. Back in the flat, he might play a round or two of Solitaire on the computer, before opening the Microsoft Word document that contained the patchy first draft of his ad-man’s memoir. An hour or so later, he’d close it again, having made little or no progress. Once a week, for old times’ sake, he ate a long lunch with Tony Glassop in a restaurant on Charlotte Street. Afternoons were spent skulking at his club in Soho, or browsing in stationery stores for expensively bound notebooks to add to his informal but growing collection. Later on, he might meet some friend or former colleague for a drink, or take in an art-house film at the Curzon.

Recently, if he happened to be at home in the evening, he’d developed a twice-weekly habit of masturbating to YouTube clips of attractive female newsreaders, or Nigella Lawson – whose frequent expressions of sensual pleasure inevitably stirred his dormant loins. (He had once met Nigella at a drinks party, pre-YouTube, and persuaded himself that flirting occurred.) He was scared of straying too far from the Internet mainstream in search of titillation, after an embarrassing episode featuring a virus that flooded his computer with hardcore pornography. He’d been forced to rifle through the Yellow Pages at 11 o’clock in the evening to find an engineer who could rescue the shuddering wreck of his hard drive. The man had completed the repair job without passing judgement on its sordid causes, for which Jerry was grateful and gave him a large tip.

‘. . . Jerome?’

‘I know, I know. Xander prefers to be punctual.’

‘Oh, for God’s sake . . .’

‘I’ll be there at half eleven.’

Jerry hung up and bit a hunk from his toast. His decision to say screw it all and revert to white bread might have been seen as a small personal victory after life with Genevieve: gluten-avoiding, green-tea-drinking, farmers’-market-frequenting Genevieve. But the very fact that he even considered it as such made it, in truth, a defeat. Still, he had to claim an advantage whenever he could. For instance, he already had the morning’s schedule mapped perfectly so as to be twenty minutes late to pick up his daughter – late enough to wind up Genevieve, but not so late that he couldn’t plausibly blame the traffic on Marylebone Road.

Jerry knew from his friends’ experience that third wives were the thing. Andy Brandt, a former ad director who at one point in the late 1990s briefly held the Guinness World Record for the largest volume of gasoline ever detonated for use in a feature film, had informed Jerry with great conviction that a first wife represented naivety and misplaced optimism. Post-divorce, she would merely remind you of your lost innocence, and of the richly deserved guilt of leaving her for your (probably) younger, (probably) better-looking second wife.

A second wife was a symptom of your overbearing pride and unfounded confidence. Once shed, she would inevitably inspire resentment, even rage: at her, for having led you astray, and at yourself, for having been led. Third marriages, however, commonly emerged from a period of self-reflection, and the subsequent acceptance of one’s immutable failings. They constituted, finally, contentment. And, bluntly (Brandt had insisted), most men who’d managed to accumulate three wives lacked the remaining time or energy to fit in a fourth. Brandt himself, it’s worth noting, was already on his fifth wife – but he was, he told Jerry in all seriousness, exceptional. Jerry was still awaiting that elusive third.

After finishing breakfast and clearing the debris into the dishwasher, he laid out his linen suit and a soft white cotton shirt. He stood under the shower for a good fifteen minutes, gazing short-sightedly at the blurred peaks of St Pancras as they vanished beneath the condensation on the wet-room’s window. He dressed and made the bed, then he sat on it half-listening to the end of Week in Westminster. His DAB radio lived on the bedside cabinet next to his glasses case and the copy of Proust that Glassop had given him as a joke – on top of which lay whatever thriller he’d actually been reading that week. He patted his pockets unconsciously, checking for wallet, BlackBerry and keys.

His car was parked in the basement; a rare signal red 1972 Lotus Elan +2 coupé. His first boss always boasted of having purchased one direct from the production line, and Jerry had promised himself that he’d someday drive the same. The restorer had done a fine job exposing the original silver metal-flake roof and trimming the interior with real oatmeal leather.

Jerry had tired of computerised cars, each new microchip or power-assisted steering component removing him from the feel of the road by degrees. But since owning the Lotus, he’d started to appreciate their reliability. He had to avoid driving at night, because the headlamps often flickered or failed for no particular reason, leaving him to fumble aimlessly with fuses in lay-bys. He had to avoid parking on slopes, because the handbrake was not to be trusted. He enjoyed all the knowing smiles he received from passers-by, but he had to avoid being seen getting in and out of the car: the chassis sat unfeasibly low to the ground, and exiting it was a challenge fit only for a younger man.

 

There really was traffic on Marylebone Road, so, by the time the Lotus growled to a halt outside his former home in Notting Hill and Jerry managed to clamber from it, he was in fact a whole half-hour late. He stepped around the designer luggage in the doorway and found Genevieve adjusting her hair frantically at the hall mirror, a frizz of tension in the cool white corridor. When they’d bought the house at the turn of the century – a wedding-cake slice of Georgian terrace in a crescent behind Kensington Park Road, for almost half of Jerry’s take-home from the sale of MGC – Genevieve had been adamant that they hire a minimalist interior designer to redecorate it to within an inch of its planning permissions. Jerry had acquiesced, and then watched with mounting disgruntlement as whitewash consumed every wall. By the time it was complete, he wasn’t even allowed to leave a magazine lying around, for fear of disrupting the passage of clean lines through the space. He had pretended not to despise it, simply so as not to cause any more rows than were strictly necessary.

‘Late again, Jerome?’

‘Sorry, I got caught in—’

‘I’d booked the taxi for 12.15, anyway,’ said Genevieve, wrenching her eyes from herself and settling them disdainfully on her ex-husband. ‘Seeing as there’s always such terrible traffic on Marylebone Road.’

Rumbled, thought Jerry. Damn her.

‘Where to this weekend, then?’ he asked, hoping to fill their obligatory chat with inconsequential pleasantries.

‘A house party, in the Cotswolds. One of Xander’s art chums just bought an estate there.’

‘Hmph. All right for some.’

‘Do you have anything planned for Alice?’

Jerry puffed his cheeks. ‘Thought I’d take her to lunch first. See what she fancies.’

‘I’ve told her to take her guitar with her so she can practise.’

‘Hmph’: a puzzled ‘hm’, and a peeved breath out through his nostrils. Jerry wasn’t sure that he approved of Alice’s music lessons – not to mention her Spanish lessons, her acting lessons and her horse-riding lessons. He had genuine concerns about putting his child under excessive pressure to achieve, thus potentially jeopardising her future mental health. Also, it was bloody expensive.

‘She’s getting quite good, Jerome. Ask her to play you a song.’

‘Does she do requests?’

Genevieve put one hand on her hip. Jerry vainly searched the monochrome hallway for something to look at that wasn’t his ex-wife. Her boyfriend, Xander, emerged from the sitting room wearing a gratuitously tight sweater. Xander was a contemporary-art auctioneer and had, fittingly, selected the most pretentious possible variation on his prosaic Christian name, Alexander. Beyond these two facts, Jerry had deliberately taken no interest whatsoever in the details of his successor’s life, career or ambitions. Xander treated Alice with the wariness of a novice lion-tamer, and he took Genevieve away for luxury holidays and mini-breaks at every possible opportunity, both of which suited Jerry just fine, thanks very much.

‘Jerry,’ said Xander.

‘Xander,’ said Jerry.

As if sensing a conversation reaching its nadir, Alice appeared on the stairs with her rucksack and a child-sized guitar case.

‘Hi, Dad,’ she said, trotting down the steps and offering Jerry a high-five.

When Jerry met Genevieve, she’d been slumming it as a stylist in a fashion photographer’s studio. Her work was passable, in Jerry’s opinion, but considerably less alluring than her face, legs, tits, arse, etc. She resented him now, he suspected, not merely for the decline of his own talents and influence, but also for having fooled her into trusting an inflated estimation of her own gifts. She wasn’t quite so young that their union had been unseemly, and though she was technically young enough to have been his daughter, she was somewhat older than Isobel, his actual daughter. He had divested her of some of her most precious years, and she had punished him for it. Yet Alice – just eight, and already destined to be beautiful in a more interesting way than her mother – remained as a trophy of their time together: living proof of his sometime demigod-like status among ad-men.

‘Hello, sunshine,’ he replied, obliging her with his open palm. She was wearing a customised vintage Madonna T-shirt that, as she turned to kiss Genevieve goodbye, displayed the words ‘The Virgin Tour’ across its back. Jerry had given it to her for her last birthday. It was important to him that Alice should develop not only a taste for high-quality eighties pop music, but also a healthy appreciation of irony. She was going to need it.

He always hoped his daughter would find it a treat to be driven in the Lotus, but he was invariably disappointed. ‘Mummy says you drive too fast,’ she would say, or ‘It’s very noisy, isn’t it?’, or ‘Dad, why does your car smell funny?’ She was referring to the stink of leather mixed with petrol, which, to Jerry’s mind, was one of the great smells of the world. Today, she’d already complained that the vibrations of the 1.6-litre engine made her ears itch.

‘How’s school?’

‘’S okay.’

It certainly ought to be okay, at £5,000 a term. She fiddled with the old Philips radio as they sped down the Embankment, the sun shuffling streetlamp-shadows across the dashboard. Jerry displaced his irritation by putting his foot down.

‘What do you want for lunch?’

‘Don’t mind.’

They ended up in a Pizza Express on the South Bank, for lack of any better ideas. Tourists bleated around them in thirty different languages. The pizzas arrived under-seasoned, and with suspicious alacrity. Jerry could tell by the extra-friendly smiles from the waitress that she took Alice to be his granddaughter. As she bent over to grind the black pepper, he deliberately stole a second-long look down the front of her blouse: if he was to be considered an old man, then he would act like one. He hosed his Sloppy Giuseppe with chilli oil.

‘How’s your pizza?’

‘Nice.’

‘Your mum says you’re getting pretty good at the guitar.’

Alice grimaced with a mouthful of dough and cheese, and said something indistinguishable.

‘Can you play any Dylan?’

Now she raised one eyebrow as if to say, Daa-aaa-ad. Jerry was impressed by her physical vocabulary. He used to practise for hours in front of the mirror, trying to get his eyebrows to move independently of one another, with little success. He had to think about the manoeuvre for too long to make it worthwhile. But it seemed to come naturally to Alice.

They shared a plate of profiteroles and wandered along the crowded riverside to the Tate. There was a retrospective Jerry had been meaning to see, and Alice provided the necessary excuse. He occasionally forced her to accompany him to age-inappropriate shows (gratis, Alice being under twelve), while insisting to himself and others that it was educational. He needed someone with whom to discuss the art – and he had absolutely no intention of letting Xander hold sway over his daughter’s cultural opinions.

The exhibition was by a Chilean artist whose modus operandi was to take everyday objects – cars, furniture, kitchen appliances – and render them useless. He removed motors or wheels or drawers and replaced them with random secondary objects: lampshades, pieces of fruit. He sabotaged product design. The idea, Jerry presumed, was to draw attention to each object as an object, rather than as a device. To celebrate not its function, but its mere existence.

It wasn’t bad, given Jerry’s firm belief that most conceptual artists were posturing idiots, who once in a while created something exciting or witty by pure chance, and then retroactively justified its existence with pages of impenetrable monograph codswallop. Too self-regarding to be straightforward; too dense to do anything that actually communicated anything to anybody from beyond the art-world circle jerk. And yet, he often found it expedient to borrow their half-baked ideas, so as to realise them more fully himself, in the service of something useful: brand management.

Alice bounced through the vast gallery ahead of him, all but oblivious to her fellow visitors. It must be bliss to be so at ease, thought Jerry. There had to have been a moment in his own childhood when he’d been conscious without being self-conscious, but he could not recall it. Give her another couple of years, he supposed, and she’ll probably have an eating disorder. He caught up with her as she stood transfixed by a cylindrical sculpture welded together from re-purposed bicycle parts. Tornado IV, read the caption card.

‘Do you like it?’ he asked quietly, resting his hand on the crown of her head.

‘It’s cool,’ said Alice.

‘You know, a lot of contemporary art is about taking something familiar, and encouraging people to look at it in a different, unexpected way.’

‘Oh,’ she replied.

‘That’s sort of what I used to do, as well.’

‘What, art?’ she said, and gave him a sceptical look.

‘Yes. Well, no. Advertising.’

She giggled.

‘What?’

‘That’s funny.’

His BlackBerry honked in his pocket. A couple of the other gallery patrons glanced at him disapprovingly. A text.

Did you get my email? P

Jerry exhaled, deleted the message, put the phone back in his pocket and proceeded to complete his leisurely tour of the exhibition. He sought out his daughter again, and found her gaping through the window towards St Paul’s. He took her hand and guided her to the lifts. In the gift shop, he bought himself the more costly version of the exhibition catalogue, and helped Alice to pick out a poster of some Monet water lilies for her bedroom wall that he thought Genevieve and Xander would both hate. When they got back to the Lotus, he was obliged to weather the approval of some American students, who were taking pictures of it with their cameraphones. To Alice’s bemusement, Jerry waited until they had dispersed before lowering himself gracelessly through the driver’s door and inserting his bulk behind the wheel.

‘Are we going home now?’ she asked.

‘Hmph. Not exactly.’

Jerry aimed the Lotus nose-first into a large space on the street opposite the house. The parking spot was sufficiently level to put the handbrake on and walk away without concern for the car in front. He didn’t like to use the driveway, just in case a chunk of gravel happened to flick up and scratch the bodywork. The road was quiet save for the tinny pings of the cooling motor, and what sounded like reggae drifting from an open window somewhere nearby.

‘Isn’t that where you used to live, Dad?’

‘That’s right,’ said Jerry, sizing up the old place.

When Pen had called in January to say she was finally ready to sell, he’d felt the pang of ownership for the first time in a decade. And when she told him she thought the first- and second-floor bathrooms could do with a refit to boost the resale price, he’d surprised her and himself by offering to oversee the work. So, for six blissful weeks in spring, he’d consulted designers, enlisted building contractors and eagerly supervised the renovations.

‘With Auntie Pen?’

‘Er, yes.’

(Auntie Pen? Christ, the ideas Genevieve put in the poor girl’s head.)

‘And Conrad and Izzy?’

‘Er . . .?’

‘From The House on the Hill?’

‘Oh, right. Yes, and Conrad and Izzy. Now look, stay here; I’m just going to go inside quickly. Listen to the radio if you want.’

He’d been almost sad when the painters completed the last of the touch-ups. He’d enjoyed driving up there now and then to drink coffee in the kitchen with the workmen. Sometimes he’d watched a bit of television. Once, he’d even mowed the lawn. With the work complete and Pen’s possessions all but moved out, there was little left in the building besides curtains and carpets. Yet it remained reassuringly familiar. He opened the car door and put one foot on the tarmac, bracing himself for extraction.

‘Can’t I come with you?’

‘No, you just wait here,’ he replied. ‘I’ll only be a minute.’

‘Oh, puh-leeeeeeeez, Dad.’

She squirmed in her seat to demonstrate her enthusiasm, and the car rocked gently back and forth. Jerry was always reluctant to permit too much traffic between the compartmentalised subdivisions of his life. Letting Alice see inside the house on the Hill would be a serious breach of those restrictions. But then again, the place was all but empty and, if everything went according to plan, it would belong to somebody else by next month. It couldn’t hurt.

‘Okay. Come on then, we’re not staying long.’

Alice skipped after her father as he crossed the road, searching his fob for the appropriate pair of keys. As he mounted the steps to the door, she crouched in the driveway, picking up a handful of gravel and letting it trickle out through her fingers.

‘Don’t do that,’ Jerry muttered.

He inserted the thickest key on the ring into the lower of the door’s two locks. But, as he tried to turn it, he met with some form of invisible resistance. Hmph. He grabbed the knob and pulled the door towards him with a grunt of exertion, hoping to loosen the mechanism. There was no give, but he tried turning the key again anyway. Nothing. Jerry studied the fob, and teased a Yale key free from the pack. Perhaps he hadn’t double-locked the door last time he was here? It was possible. Alice was still crouching in the gravel – now, apparently, digging to discover what lay beneath it.

‘Alice, don’t do that!’

He raised the Yale key to the second lock, but it refused to slide more than half an inch into the keyhole, however much he wiggled it. Feeling a little foolish, he pressed his lips to the door and blew into the hole, as if that might dislodge the hidden obstacle, then he tried the key once more. Still nothing. There was no escaping it: the key did not match the hole. Would Pen have had the locks changed without telling him?

‘Dad, what does this say?’

‘Hang on a minute, Alice.’

He stared at his handful of useless metal. There were three more Yale-style keys there, but he could identify them all: the King’s Cross flat; the Notting Hill house (Emergencies Only!); and the padlock for the 100 square-foot storage space that he rented in Paddington.

‘. . . Dad?’

Alice had stopped playing with the gravel now. She was peering at something in the bay window. Jerry could hear the sound of reggae in the air again: was that Peter Tosh?

‘What does this mean, Dad?’

There was a sheet of A4 paper fixed to the outside of the glass – or was it the inside? Jerry couldn’t quite see from where he was standing.

‘Read it out, Alice.’

‘“Section Six”,’ she replied, reciting the words slowly and precisely. ‘“Criminal Law Act. 1977.”’

‘Fuck,’ said Jerry, and the hand that held the keys dropped to his side. Alice let out a little yelp – in response, he presumed, to his swearing. He was about to apologise, when he heard a gentle slap on the step beside him. He looked down. There, on the ground, were the smashed remains of an eggshell, most of the contents of which had spattered over the lower half of his left suit-leg, darkening the linen like dog piss on a lamp post.

‘Fuck,’ he said again. There was laughter from above, and Jerry looked up just in time to watch a second large egg travel the final foot or so to his forehead, where it exploded, spraying his face with slime.

‘Fuck!’ he cried, staggering backwards.

‘Daddy!’ Alice squealed.

Jerry peeled off his spectacles and squinted up at the window of the master bedroom, where there were two indistinct dark shapes bobbing with glee. One of them sounded female, and he could just about discern her dayglo pink hair.

‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?! This is my fucking house!’

‘PROPERTY IS THEFT, MOTHERFUCKER!’ yelled the girl with the pink hair, sticking her arm out and making what Jerry could only assume was a lewd gesture, before she disappeared back inside the master bedroom. Her companion cackled, and then coughed mightily.

‘Sorry, mate,’ he said in a Midlands accent, his croak that of a seasoned smoker of something or other. Jerry couldn’t make out the man’s face without his specs, which were still slick with goo. The reggae suddenly grew much louder: someone had turned the volume up. It was definitely Peter Tosh.


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KNEELING BEFORE THE wall at the back of the barn, where the cool yellow brickwork catches the mid-afternoon sun, Penelope Bowles, née Barclay (formerly Manville), plucked a fat tomato from the vine and breathed it in. It was firm and earthy and sweet. She resisted the temptation to take a bite, plopping it into the trug with its companions. Clutching her secateurs, she reached over to harvest a thick sprig of basil, and then rose slowly to her feet, knees creaking with the effort. She brushed her soiled hands on her smock, which was already freckled with years’ worth of paint splatter, and tucked a thread of her greying hair behind her ear. The shadows were lengthening in the valley, a breeze rippling the nearest cornfield. Above the chatter of birds came the familiar cough of Bruno DeLambre’s Land Rover approaching up the track. Bliss, all things considered.

The vegetable garden at Le Boqueteau was proving a triumph. Already that summer it promised to yield bell peppers, courgettes, cabbages, runner beans, lettuce and purple sprouting broccoli. Were she not so fond of them, Pen could have paid the plants only scant attention, and they would still grow in abundance thanks to the large quantities of sun, the regular – but not too regular – rain showers, and the fertile Dordogne clay. Some of the flowers on their modest handful of hectares really did plant themselves, such as the violet-blue Viper’s Bugloss that blew in on the wind and scattered like ink flecks in the long grasses at the fringes of the property. Herbs, too, grew profusely, and in her fruit grove she’d successfully cultivated damsons, greengages, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb and quince.

She took up the trug and rounded the barn, meandering across the lawn towards the farmhouse. The grass around the swimming pool was mown short, but a few strides from the water’s edge she allowed it to grow roughly, like a meadow. Her calculated neglect had been rewarded with a dappling of wild gladioli. From the poolside lounger she retrieved her spectacles, paperback and glass of now-flat mineral water, in which a drowned bug floated next to the curled-up lemon slice. The lawn was dotted with crab apple trees, which had blossomed in spring, but were still bearing fruit in the form of David’s spicy crab apple preserve. The path that led from the pool to the front of the house was bordered with lavender, battled over by butterflies and bees.

Bruno’s jeep was parked on the drive under a magnolia. His skittish pointer, Remy, tumbled up to her, wagging his tail furiously, and she obliged him with a ruffle of the ears. She could hear David and Bruno’s faltering, pidgin conversation from behind the house, so she walked along the terrace to the kitchen entrance, Remy sniffing at her ankles. Passion flowers and Californian lilac crept around the latticed porch awning, and two small bay trees stood sentry either side of the kitchen door. Pen’s plans for the garden felt sickeningly close to completion. Her most cherished project, however, was to convert the run-down barn – presently a garage – into a gîte, so she could invite her London friends to France without feeling that she had to play hostess twenty-four hours a day.

The kitchen was clogged with the smell of David’s damson jam bubbling on the stove. Pen found her husband’s passion for jam-making just the slightest bit effeminate, but she didn’t tell him so, for fear of bruising his ego. And, in any case, it had proved an excellent way to bond with the local community. Whenever either of them went to church on Sunday armed with a new consignment of confitures, expat congregants would crowd about them far more eagerly than they did the vicar. Often, when he was at work in England, their thrice-weekly phone conversations would conclude with David asking Pen to pick some fresh fruit and freeze it in preparation for his arrival. He had been in France for just a week now, and already his dedicated jam shelf was filling up with various flavours, each labelled in painstaking calligraphy, ready to distribute after the following morning’s service.

She deposited the tomatoes on the kitchen table, where there already sat a small wooden crate filled with wild cèpe mushrooms. She picked one up and thumbed it softly, smiling to herself and silently rethinking the supper menu. Her mobile phone was on the worktop near the sink, but there was still no message from Jerry. Not that she’d expected one; she knew him too well for that. She had sent emails to her children, too, to tell them it was finally going on the market; that after years of hemming and hawing, of hesitation and procrastination, and months more of logistics and bathroom refits, there would – a week from now – be a card in the estate agent’s window, with a price and a picture of the house on the Hill.

As she washed her hands under the cold tap, David loped in, pursued by a limping Bruno.

‘Oh, bugger,’ said David, hurrying to the stove to check his jam thermometer. He quickly lifted the pan free of the hob and placed it on the chopping board to cool. ‘Bugger, bugger, bugger. Think I may have left this batch on the heat for too long.’

‘Oh, dear,’ replied Pen, privately contemplating the absurdity of this tall, distinguished man fussing over a little pan of jam. She dried her hands on a tea towel. ‘Bonsoir, Bruno.’

‘Hello, madame.’