An extract from Paul’s MA novel
I was down in the basement at Number One, Lavender Square.
I wasn’t in the gym. I’d already done my sets. Four by fifteens – a footballer, after all, needs speed more than bulk. And I wasn’t in the pool. I’d already done my five hundred metres. That was twenty-five lengths. It was a proper pool and five metres wide, so it stretched out under the garden. If you did back stroke, you could see through the sky lights and make out the stars. I’d done front crawl, keeping an eye on the freaky sea-life mosaics below.
I was in the cinema – a real movie theatre, four metre screen, Dolby surround and three banks of seats – deep, snug, with side tables for snacks. The system showed anything. Anything you wanted, you could find it on there. Not just Sky and BT, and Amazon and Netflix and Apple TV, but anything in the world, from every video tube that’d ever been built. You could even get Bloomberg. The real deal – real time markets, not just the TV channel. That was in the spec.
I should know. I set it up.
I was watching football. Arsenal were losing and looking dead rough. Chelsea looked hungry and good for another goal. I was lying on the sofa in the middle of the back row, because anything closer would just hurt my eyes, and praying for half time and a chance to regroup. The Blues pressed and the ball reached Babinho. Their Brazilian striker was a bit of a beast. He turned his marker for the eighty-fifth time and fizzed in a shot. The goalkeeper missed it, but it skimmed off the bar and into the crowd, who let out a gasp. And that was that. The referee blew and the adverts began.
I stood up and stretched and took off my cap. I always wore it when I was watching the Gooners. It was blue and tight with a small gold canon stitched in the front. Maybe on account of the abject first half, I slung it at the sofa.
I picked up my mug and crossed to the door. Before I left the room, I muted the sound.
It was one of my rules. The rules I followed at Lavender Square.
Rule four: when you leave the cinema, turn off the sound. Just in case. It was supposed to be soundproof, but you never knew. When the door was open, you could hear it upstairs.
Rule three: when you leave a room, turn off the lights. So I did that too when I went out the door.
And rule two: never turn on the lights in the hallways. Not in the basement and especially not up on the ground floor. The main fitting there was like a gigantic glass turd, dripping down from the top of the house. The white marble floors shone below it like the ceramic bowl of the world’s biggest toilet. Light that and I may as well’ve hung up a three storey banner shouting out to the Square, ‘Come and get me! I’m here!’
So, off I went, through the shadows and up the stairs. As I crossed the hall, I rubbed the head of the small gold statue on a table to the side, praying to that Goddess for second-half luck. I went into the passage off to the right, towards the leathered-up library and the ultra-tech study. Stuck between them and the grand central drawing room – ugly as shit, looked like it was jacked from the set of Titanic – was the smaller of two kitchens.
Smaller, yeah, but my mum’d go nuts.
I turned on the console lights and crossed to the island. I dropped a tea bag into my mug, then put on the kettle and went for a wander while I waited for it to boil. At the back of the kitchen was a door into the drawing room. The drawing room made me gag, even in the dark, so I went straight through it and stood for a moment in the double doorway leading back into the hall.
I stared at the front door. It was just what you’d want, armoured and black, with a rock-solid, muscular weight, surrounded on all sides by frosted glass. On the window above it, facing out to the Square, some kretin had etched the words Number One. I was just thinking how stupid it looked when you saw it from inside – enO rebmuN – when a light appeared out in the street. It passed across the window on the right, went out of sight, then slid into view to the left of the door. It came to a stop.
And went out.
I ran to the window, but all I could see was a vague, blurry shape. A car, maybe, parked out the front. Then some movement. The driver getting out? Not coming here? It didn’t seem possible. But the blur came nearer. Moving up the path.
I was halfway down the stairs when I remembered the alarm and stopped in my tracks. I heard a sound and that was that. I was fucked, that was all there was to it. The clunk of a deadlock, being undone.
Never go in by the front door. Thank god for rule one!
I ran up the stairs and stabbed the alarm code into the pad. The system started beeping – and there was the kettle, starting to hiss. I’d forgotten that too.
I dashed to the kitchen, flicked off the lights, heard the second deadlock – faint but for sure. I turned off the kettle, but the fucker was hot. As I ran to the sink, I slopped water onto the floor. I stopped myself swearing and poured the rest down the sink.
Was that the third deadlock? I might just get out. Security, eh? Worth every penny.
I dashed in cold water, stuck the kettle back in its spot, and right after that the front door opened and a man’s voice yelled very loud, ‘Stop what you’re doing and get the fuck out!’
For three months I had been in Notting Hill when I first discovered Lavender Square. I at once decided this was where I would live. Within one week I had made the decision of which house would be mine. Beautiful and grand, bigger than anything else on the Square, with white walls and one of those blue plaques, and row upon row of symmetrical windows. To me, it was perfect. It seemed to me then, that all I had to do was to sell it to Yevgenny.
That was the easy part. The difficult business was to find out the owner.
I tried Land Registry, but of course there was nothing. It belonged to a company in the British Virgin Islands, like many around here. I dropped letters through the slot beside the front door, but my urgent instructions to telephone my cell were rudely ignored. I made it my business, when I was not working or when Yevgenny’s wife was being demanding, to run by the house three times a night.
It is five hundred twenty five metres from the apartment where I lived. I measured it on my Fitbit when I ran through the streets. Yevgenny seemed to think I should feel like a Queen, but the apartment smelled of cooking oil from the public house behind it and the bar’s noisy garden kept me awake. How could he imagine this would suffice?
Did he think I was just another slut from the steppes? I went to the best goddamned law school in Russia! And after all I did for him, both in the office and in elsewhere, he owed me Number One. When I had that, I might find a life.
So, I ran there, night after night, whenever I could, seeking its signs. But there were none. Never. The houses in the Square were resolutely shut up. The windows all shuttered, the doors firmly locked. It seemed like a ghost place – in the middle of the city, a desert of peace. Which was very attractive. The one thing I missed about that forgotten little town I used to call home was the silence.
The garden in Lavender Square was beautiful. Filled with green, even in winter, and from February crocuses covered the lawn. The railings around it were high and spiked, but sometimes I climbed them, pushed through the shrubbery and cocooned myself inside, and sat on a bench and listened, just listened, to the pulse of my heart and the distant hum from Notting Hill Gate. I gazed at the sky and the planes flying over, and the moon and such stars as could cut through the NOx, and tried to reconnect to that yearning soul that came out of Russia. It was difficult to hear yourself, being new in this town.
Then one night, late in April, I finally found life.
I had lapped the garden and was just returning past Number One, when a car pulled up outside the front gate. I hid in the shadow of an overhanging tree, and stared in surprise. It was a beautiful car, a metallic blue Ferrari, just like Yevgenny’s at his chateau on Cap d’Antibes. A car like that could easily be driven by the owner of my house.
The driver got out, but I could not see him properly, even when he bent down and retrieved a briefcase from behind his seat. All I saw was short grey hair and a thin slice of a rather plain face. I was about to approach him, when he started shouting.
‘Fucking this!’ ‘Fucking that!’
It seemed to me that he must be very unpleasant or very unhappy. Either way, of the few small things I had learned in my life, the one I suspected would keep me alive was that men in that mood should not be disturbed. I stopped and watched as he bleeped the Ferrari and went to the door and started on the locks. It took many moments and he swore all the time. He was still swearing when he entered Number One.
I decided to run another two k and return in ten minutes to find him, I hoped, in a better state of mind.
I stayed totally still. I couldn’t believe that whoever it was out there in the hall was talking to me.
But of course he was! Stop what you’re doing and get the fuck out? Who else would he be talking to?
Would it be best to give myself up? Fall on his mercy? I knew how that’d go. A kid like me – a man I should say, legally-wise – hoodie and high tops and skinny black sweat pants, sneaking around this house in the dark? What’s he gonna think? What’d he do? He’d have a bloody heart attack, maybe a stroke! By the sound of things, he was well on the way.
And if not? The feds, of course, and nothing but trouble! That’d be the end, all of it over. Or maybe Philip, and that’d be bad enough. Who knew, Philip might call the feds himself? He was a lawyer at the end of the day.
I raised my hands like I was facing a gun, and moved slowly towards the kitchen door.
I nearly replied, but I wasn’t Bryan.
‘Bryan, stop crying!’ He was yelling again. ‘I make the decisions. You’re just my bitch! Now turn everything off, lock everything up and get the fuck out. Go fucking home and take a fucking holiday. I’m in charge. I know what I’m doing.’
A brief hush – only vague sounds. Footsteps on marble. A coat, maybe, falling on the floor. I thought for a moment the phone call was done.
‘Bryan, fuck off! I’m hanging up now. I’ll call you when I’m ready.’
A small hard slap, like he’d banged his mobile down by the statue. Then footsteps – coming my way. I was right by the door! I slid back to the side of the island, and sank down with max stealth, so I was pressed up against it and hopefully out of sight. At the last moment, I reached up and grabbed my mug. I laid myself flat. If I was lucky, he’d head to the library, pour himself a Scotch.
The ceiling lights blazed on.
I pressed into the angle between the island and the floor. I glimpsed to my right the puddle on the tiles. My final rule: always leave a room exactly as I found it.
Too late for that.
For a few seconds, there was only a slow, kinda methodical breathing. Was he standing there, three feet away, doing his yoga? Sounded like he needed it. A metallic dragging noise, then he was at the sink, running the tap. His back was towards me. I tried to look up, but all I saw was a pair of blue trousers and sharp shiny shoes. I hadn’t taken a breath for a good thirty seconds. As the tap ran, I had to let it go.
He came back to the top of the island. The kettle clicked as he snapped it on.
Oh shit! The mugs and the tea… They were in the cupboard right by my side. I started to edge backwards, but I didn’t stand a chance. Feet appeared at the end of the island. I waited for the shout.
His mobile rang, out in the hall.
The feet stopped and swivelled away.
‘Archie!’ he said. ‘Good to…’
He must have been on bluetooth and maybe got cut off. I heard him go out.
I took my chance. I wriggled on my back across the floor and onto the puddle. I squirmed about in a weird soggy breakdance, mopping it up. I wormed my way to the back of the kitchen and crouched behind the console by the drawing room door. If I timed it right, I could sneak out there and he’d never even see me. Timing the run was one of my strengths.
His voice rose. Next thing I knew, he was back in the kitchen.
‘Archie, tell me, have I ever not paid out your end? Tell me that, you gay gangster cunt!’
He opened the cupboard right where I’d been just moments before, and banged a mug on the worktop.
‘Ain’t gonna happen, Archie! The money is gone. The money’s at work. Gus can do whatever he wants. He can wank himself dry all over my face, and it ain’t gonna happen. I run the money! This is my call.’
This guy was outstanding!
Water pouring. The clink of a tea spoon stirring in the mug. A click and a rattle and the sudden, tinny voice of another guy, throwing a fit. Something appeared on the floor by my feet. An AirPod! I gave it a quick kick, sending it skittering back across the granite.
My man was unfazed. He let out a grunt as he bent to pick it up.
‘That’s up to you,’ he said. ‘But you’ll have to find me first. I’ll be in touch.’
Silence for a moment. More of that breathing. A loud slurp. Then footsteps, and I figured he’d left.
I ducked into the drawing room, crossed to the doors, sneaked a peek back down the passage. A glow from the library tinted the floor. Maybe he’d gone for the Scotch after all? I crossed the hall on tiptoe, checking down the passage as long as I could. When I couldn’t be seen, I made a dash for the stairs.
I tripped over a coat. Idiot had left it in the middle of the floor!
I was on all fours and my mug’d fallen with a crack on the marble. By some kind of miracle it was still in one piece.
I held my breath.
I grabbed the mug and scuttled to the stairs. I got myself down them as quick as I could. I was just about to go into the cinema when I heard him again, up in the hall.
He didn’t sound sure. And I was sure he wasn’t sure. If he truly believed there was someone in his house, creeping around in the middle of the night, would he really call them? Or would he get the fuck out?
I crouched behind the banisters, looking up through the rails. He appeared at the top of the flight. A mousey looking man. Cropped grey hair, and if you saw him in the street you’d just pass him by. Could this be the owner of Number One? He didn’t seem the type. For a moment I thought he was gonna go away, but he came down a step. And a second. A third. He stood still, breathing slow. I could hear the tiny rough sounds of his clothes.
When he’d gone from the hall, I got myself out, double-quick time. I went into the cinema, turned off the screen, went to the sofa and grabbed my plate and glass. I stuffed them and the mug in the fridge in the wall. The screen shut down and the room went dark. I felt my way back to the door, and edged it open.
I couldn’t hear anything, so I hustled along the passage beside the stairs, into the lobby beneath the front door. The second entrance there was the one I always used. I slung my kitbag over my shoulder. I eased my way out and locked up the door, the deadlocks clanging like bloody great bells. I tapped the app to kill the CCTV, and crept up the steps. When I was safely out on the pavement, I straightened myself up and stretched myself out.
I found myself staring at a Ferrari 488. A Spider, too. It was in the launch colour, metallic Blu Corsa. I couldn’t help it – it was one of my things. I simply had to take a good look. I walked around it, around and around.
One day! One day, when I got myself a club. And if that never happened, then some other way.
Ten minutes later, I was at home. It was only then I remembered my cap.
Nine minutes twenty-four seconds, two point one kilometres, then I was back in Lavender Square. Not a bad time, considering the pedestrians on Bayswater Road.
Would Number One man have a liking for perspiration? It made certain men weak. Was he one of those? I smoothed my top and pulled up my leggings to make sure they were tight. I had never met a man who did not prefer tight. Any unfair advantage would do. But then, I had many.
I was not especially concerned.
I took a deep breath, preparing mentally to make my approach, and something strange happened. From the stairs beside the portico to the lower ground floor, as if he had materialised from out of the earth, a young man appeared in front of the house. He came out quickly into the street. When he saw the car, he abruptly stopped, illuminated by a street light like a heavenly ghost. He stretched out his arms and his sweater rose up. His stomach shone. His muscles glinted in the sulphurous glare.
He was beautiful, yes, I saw that at once.
He stared for a moment.
He walked around the car.
He glanced about, as if wary of being seen.
He jogged away with a long, relaxed stride.
After a suitable pause, I went in his pursuit.
* * *