‘I suppose it’s safe to let you come in?’
These are his first ever words to me. Sardonic, of course; spoken with humour, but flecked, I come to realize later, with vigilance.
I am standing on his doorstep; the shoes I bought on Oxford Street at the weekend have rubbed a blister into my left heel, while a red leather satchel containing the papers for Friday’s team meeting is slung across my chest. My face must register shock or anxiety, or possibly both, because his shoulders immediately drop, he laughs and pushes the door further open so that a mechanical drone from a radio or television spills onto the pavement.
‘I’m sorry. A joke; a bad one. Come in.’
Although it is summer, the tenth of June to be precise (you see how the date will stick with me) an abstract, city dusk has fallen. An invisible sun is slipping beneath the earth, the air turning mauve as cars and buildings light up like fairground rides. A few doors further up the street a couple is leaving one of those ubiquitous pasta places. An argument drifts over their retreating footsteps.
‘I didn’t,’ the man protests, ‘I was only checking the train times to Manchester.’
I am tired. I was caught by Maggie as I headed for the lifts, fell asleep on the tube, got off at Acton Town instead of East Acton, and then spent a fruitless twenty minutes trying to follow the directions I had scribbled on a yellow post-it note before I noticed my mistake.
‘I’m Bruce,’ he says, because I haven’t moved. ‘Bruce Tyler.’ And he holds out his hand.
I can’t help but stare at him. He is quite old, mid-forties, I guess, dark hair with threads of grey that flatter rather than age, brown eyes and a strong, tanned face suggestive of travel and money and instantly more compelling than the milky complexions of my civil service colleagues. He is mid-height and wearing jeans with a white, immaculately laundered shirt that looks like it belongs behind a suit but is unbuttoned at the neck, and he is cradling a large glass of red wine.
‘Really,’ he adds, ‘I don’t bite.’ He gestures at the wine. ‘I opened this a while ago. I got a little bored waiting for you.’ He smiles again, but when another moment passes a frown begins to crease the space above his nose. Actually, I’m not reacting to what he’s said. At the time, I barely register the oddity of his opening remark. The reason I am paralyzed, rooted to a spot between the bins and a tub of shabby geraniums, is because he looks exactly like an older, more sophisticated, version of Daniel. Finally, I shake myself, mutter an apology – something about work and getting lost – and then I step over the threshold.
Inside the place is striking, just as I was promised on the telephone. He’s gutted the entire ground floor to make it one big space, the kitchen at the far end with white cupboards and grey tiles, the front all taupe carpet and magnolia woodwork. Bookshelves have been fitted either side of the fireplace. One has been modified to accommodate a flat-screen television and somewhere on the far side of the world racing cars are screaming around in tarmac circles. He walks over to the television, switches it off, and we are stranded suddenly in the middle of an awkward silence.
‘A glass of wine?’ He angles the bottle over an empty glass, pauses and cocks his head to one side. ‘Or perhaps you’re the type who doesn’t drink during the week?’ He is teasing me already, his voice a singer’s baritone with an accent that slices square the end of his words. I should feel uncomfortable or patronised, instead, absurdly, I am flattered at his familiarity. I take the glass and let him lead me towards the back of the house.
He maintains a steady chatter; where he has sourced this fabric, why he used Romo rather than Sanderson, or Ross rather than Conran. The names trip from his tongue like family members. I open cupboard doors, run my hand along the breakfast bar, and ask the usual questions about how long he’s lived here and whether the roof is OK and are there any damp problems, but by the time I follow him upstairs I already want to buy the house so badly I am formulating phrases I can use with Edward, stamping down the knot of guilt that has settled in my stomach.
Four doors lead from the landing. First, at the front, he shows me the main bedroom, awash with creams and pale yellow. Next a room that is perfect for a cot – though instinctively I choose not to draw attention to the ring on my finger, my soon-to-be wedding. The third door he opens with a flourish. Inside is a bathroom. The bath, the size of a bed, is sunk into black marble, the shower has a vertical line of body-jets and a floor-length mirror along the inside wall. Standing in the doorway I find I am blushing and whether it is association, premonition, or simply the effects of alcohol on an empty stomach, is impossible to tell. In any case, Bruce has already moved towards the other, fourth, room. Here the door is slightly ajar, the darkness inside diluted by the soft gleam of a nightlight. He holds it a little further open to reveal twin beds and two child-size forms nestled under duvets. Without him doing anything, I understand that I am not to go in.
‘Normally my ex-wife has custody of them,’ he says. And shuts the door.
Back downstairs, he tops up our glasses and sits on a beige leather sofa. He gestures at the facing one.
‘So Claire, what do you think?’
I take another mouthful of wine, buying time, but I cannot see a reason not to tell him. I explain that Edward and I have agreed to buy a house already, from an elderly couple who are moving in with their son; that the price has been agreed and solicitors instructed; that I only came to view the house because his agent was so insistent. I hear my words, earnest and concerned – and empty. I stop and he smiles, clearly amused.
‘But you did come didn’t you, Claire?’ When I say nothing, he raises his eyebrows encouragingly, as if he is prompting a child in a nativity play. I nod slowly, caught moth-like by his gaze. I think, this is how Daniel will look in twenty years time, but I won’t be the one to see it. ‘And you have no legal obligation to buy the other property?’ Bruce continues. I shake my head obediently. ‘Well then …’ He shrugs dismissively, reaches for the bottle, and begins to ask me questions about my work.
An hour later, I am still talking. We have covered the Department – its external and internal politics – my home, even Edward. It will turn out, of course, that he was sizing me up – assessing my potential – but at the time it really seemed as if he found me entertaining, even charming; possibly attractive. Curled within a golden pool of meticulous lighting, the hideous shoes kicked beneath the sofa, I am feeling quite loquacious. There is no stopping me, although my enunciation, thickened by wine, requires increasing attention. I am still in full flow when he glances, rather obviously, at his watch.
‘Goodness,’ he says.
I look at my watch too. ‘Goodness,’ I repeat. I gather my things in a clumsy rush. At the door, there is a large rectangular mirror set within an ornately carved frame. I see my face, flushed along the cheekbones, my dark-blond hair, flat like feathered wings against the sides of my too-thin face, my eyes which are green, and the rather rumpled brown cloth of my jacket. Bruce assumes I am staring at the mirror.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘Spanish. From before the civil war.’ He runs a proprietary finger around the edge of a pale walnut rose petal.
‘Yes,’ I say, and touch the mirror too. And then, because he seems to expect more, I add, rather blandly, ‘How lovely to own something so special.’
Back in our rented flat, Edward is reluctant but ultimately persuadable. Within a week we withdraw our other offer. I send the elderly couple a bunch of flowers and a careful, handwritten note expressing the hope that they soon find new buyers.
Three weeks later I come back from lunch to find Agatha bent over my desk, peering at something through blacked-rimmed glasses. She steps smartly to one side as I approach.
‘Your phone has been bleeping, Claire.’
It’s lying on top of a document entitled Waste Recycling, Treatment and Disposal Sites only I know it was left underneath the file, which is why I didn’t see it when I gathered my things. Now, miraculously freed from its papery covers, a text message is pasted in the middle of the screen.
Claire – call me. Bruce
I wonder, momentarily, how he got my number, but assume the solicitors must have given it to him. Agatha watches as I zip the phone into the side-pocket of my bag. She has the desk opposite mine; they butt onto each other, divided only by a low Perspex screen. If my gaze strays from my computer I sometimes find myself looking straight into Agatha’s round, pale-blue eyes, and when my telephone rings I become aware of the sudden hush, the fixed set of Agatha’s shoulders, and the gentle fingering of her papers so that not a word is missed. Recently I have taken to conducting my personal telephone conversations in the toilets.
‘Go on,’ I dare her silently, ‘ask me who Bruce is.’ But she won’t have the nerve. Agatha is in her thirties, single, and wears A-line skirts from Marks and Spencer that fall a good inch below her knees. I suspect that we are not so far apart, she and I; the difference is mainly Edward, and a finger’s width of fine wool cloth.
After about forty-five minutes, I pick up my bag and head for the ladies’. The building where I work is in the heart of London. It boasts an elegant stone facade and overlooks a back street near Tottenham Court Road. But it, too, has been gutted. The work areas surround the central lift shaft and are arranged into a series of open-plan stations separated by full-height partitions. When I first arrived I would often circumnavigate the entire floor without managing to identify my desk amongst the maze of wood veneer. This time I find my way without incident, passing, en route, a meeting room, though possibly ‘room’ is inapt to describe the transparent, box-like structure in question. Inside, I can see my colleagues; one is jabbing his pen at the points of a graph. The others have the glazed expression of passengers on a long-haul flight. One of them, Lucy, catches my eye and briefly taps three fingers to her lips. I pull a sympathetic face.
I tell myself the call is about something tedious, possibly the land registry or the seller’s questionnaire. Nevertheless, I can feel my heart quickening in anticipation of the conversation. The ladies’ is empty. Absurdly, I check my hair in the mirror before I stand at the window and locate his number, the traffic a silent, metallic, river below. He answers just as I am steeling myself for the disappointment of voice-mail.
There is a fraction of a second where he is still speaking with someone else, and then, ‘Claire!’
I get a warm feeling in my stomach, as if I have swallowed a mouthful of brandy.
‘Can you come round to the house tonight? After work?’ His voice is light but has surprising urgency.