Authors: Erin Kelly
Tags: #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction
‘Viggo’s going to send it down when I give him an address.’
‘Of course. I’m sorry it went tits-up with Jem.’
‘Thanks, Char. Hey, how’s your dad?’
Charlene shook her head. ‘Bad night. At least this job’s a piece of piss. I can phone it in, really. I’d never be able to cope with him if I was working on an art desk as well.’
‘Charlene Mullins, estate agent,’ said Luke in wonderment. ‘Are you rolling in commission?’
‘It’s lettings only, so not really,’ she said, spooning Nescafé into a JGP mug. ‘It’s a strange place. The agency actually owns all the property we rent out, so I’m only acting on behalf of one landlord. Makes it nice and easy, once you get used to all the funny little rules and quirks. The boss is very particular. We do things differently, apparently.’
‘The eponymous Jocelyn Grand?’ said Luke, gesturing to the letterhead above the map. Charlene nodded. ‘Joss. Well,
to us. He’s about a hundred, absolutely rolling in it. Lives in a big chav palace that looks like something out of the
up on Dyke Road. He comes into the office at nine on a Monday morning, regular as clockwork, and everyone jumps up like the Queen’s just come in. I don’t think he’s actually been hands-on with the business for years. He spends most of his days being driven around Brighton, checking up on his properties through a car window. He’s got a little routine he never deviates from, so we always know where he is. Right now . . .’ she looked at the clock, ‘It’s four pm on Thursday, which means he’ll be clogging up traffic in the Lanes for the next hour or so. Anyway, never mind him. We need to find you somewhere to live. How are you set for money?’
‘I’ve got a little bit saved, probably enough for a deposit and a month’s rent . . .’ In fact he had twice that, plus whatever he could get for the ring, but he was ashamed of his nest-egg and how he had come by it. ‘Anyway, I’m all right for the moment. I’m going to give freelancing another go.’
If Charlene thought this was a bad idea she was too considerate to say so. ‘Let’s go, then,’ she said, straightening a file on her desk. ‘We’ve got places galore in Whitehawk but I’ll try to find you something a bit more central first. Hang on, who’s this?’
A tall, suited customer with Jem’s colour hair stood in the doorway. For one paranoid moment panic was a cold current in Luke’s veins, but then he saw that this man was much older, mid-fifties at least. He had folds around his eyes that suggested a readiness to smile, he carried a plastic document file filled with scraps of yellowing envelopes, and a small keyring.
‘Can I help you?’ Charlene asked.
‘I’m returning the keys to 1 Temperance Place,’ said the man.
She blinked at him. Luke squinted at the map, trying to find a Temperance Place.
‘Sorry, I should have called ahead. I’m Michael Duffy. Kathleen Duffy lived there, she was my mother and probably your longest-serving tenant. She passed away last week.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ said Charlene, her blank professional mask swiftly replaced by one of automaton sympathy.
‘Thank you. I’m sorry we didn’t give you proper notice, it was all very sudden. A stroke. She was only seventy-four. That’s no age these days, is it?’ Charlene flinched. Her dad was in his late sixties. ‘Anyway, we’ve just cleared out the house, done a top-to-bottom clean for you. I thought I ought to return all this, though, along with the key. Some of them are almost museum pieces. She kept every rent book she’d ever had since she lived there. Every chequebook and cheque stub too, though I won’t burden you with those. Look, I’d better head, I’ve got a train to catch. When you do see Mr Grand, will you let him know that the family are grateful for what he did for her?’
‘Thank you, I will,’ said Charlene, taking the plastic wallet. ‘Listen, are you the next of kin? I’m sorry, I don’t want to be clumsy but I’ve never had to deal with a tenancy ending this way before. I don’t know if there’s going to be any deposit to return, or how it works. Can I take your details so that we can get any money owed back to the family?’
Duffy laughed. ‘I think we can manage without that,’ he said. ‘Listen, I really have got to dash.’
They found Temperance Place on the map: a little hyphen in the narrow twisting streets near the seafront towards Hove. There was no pink square.
‘Weird.’ Charlene bent before a computer terminal and tapped some details onto the screen. ‘It’s not showing up on the books. This system’s a shower of shite. Look, it’s probably way out of your budget, but property this close to the sea doesn’t come along very often. We can at least have a look. I can take you the scenic route.’
In a cramped little car park at the back sat a trio of Minis with the JGP logo painted on their bodywork. They drove down a busy shopping street and then rounded a corner to a shallow hill, and there was the sea and the sky, two bright blue plates, one wrinkled, one smooth, only the texture telling them apart.
Charlene loved to drive. She headed east and gave him a quick tour of the Marina, cut into the escarpment and hinting at the miles of white Sussex cliffs beyond. Luke didn’t like it: the yachts and penthouses reminded him too much of Jem’s dock. They turned back towards the city and inched the car along the seafront, round the Aquarium and past the arcades, a rival tide of pleasure palaces to battle with the sea. Wasn’t Brighton Pier one of those fabled places where it was said that if you sat there long enough, everyone you’d ever met would eventually walk by? He hoped that didn’t include Jem. Charlene swerved to avoid a group of young women, all dressed as ladybirds, who were staggering through the traffic to help one of their number who was being sick at a traffic island.
hen nights,’ she said, sounding her horn and scattering the ladybirds to the kerb. They passed flats and hotels that looked like wedding cakes and others that looked like multi-storey car parks, and eventually turned away from the sea and back into narrow congested streets. Here the houses were three or four storeys high. Uneven whitewashed walls spoke of layers of paint applied over centuries, not just a few years, to keep away the sea wind, and Luke guessed that these must have afforded sea views before the hotels came.
Charlene took a right turn at the angel statue that marked the border with Hove. Temperance Place, only just in Brighton, was the narrowest road yet, more like a mews than a proper street. It comprised the back walls of bigger houses and two little cottages that opened straight onto the pavement. It had only two parking spaces. Charlene parked illegally in one of these. Number 1 had black-framed, single-glazed windows and a tiny front door set in a round archway. She pulled the key from the plastic wallet Michael Duffy had given her and they were in.
It was like stepping into a museum or a film set. Specifically, it looked like somewhere that had been done up to impress in the late sixties and then never touched again. The place was tiny – you could almost reach the back door from the front. The kitchen was not fitted, but had an old-fashioned dresser and a cupboard with frosted glass doors. The crockery inside was the utilitarian pale blue Woods chinaware with its distinctive ridges on the cups and plates. A frilly skirt hid the pipes underneath the kitchen sink.
In the sitting room, hard sofas with wooden arms had antimacassars on the headrests. The walls were lined with a sludgy dark paper, the original rose print only visible where pictures had been. Not all these patches were rectangular. Above the tiled fireplace was the delineation of a crucifix and, over the light switch by the front door, a wavy oval outline, a vague but familiar shape that plucked at something uncomfortable deep within Luke. He stared at it for a few moments before recognising it as the silhouette of a holy water receptacle in the shape of the Virgin Mary; his own Irish grandmother had had one. He remembered with an upspring of old grief her home with its profusion of religious iconography. He had been in enough Irish Catholic households to be able to fill in the blanks left by picture frames: first Holy Communion photographs, a painting of a blue-eyed Christ holding a glowing Sacred Heart.
The ghost of another crucifix was printed on the wall of the only bedroom, which looked onto the street.
‘I think this used to be a second bedroom,’ said Charlene as they stepped into a slanted bathroom at the back of the house. ‘Look, there’s still an outside toilet.’ They peered through the net-curtained window onto a tiny brick yard. As well as a little outhouse there were dozens of flowerpots, shoots already shrivelling inside. The only colour came from a raised flowerbed, the size and shape of a large bathtub, in which geraniums in full red bloom jostled for space.
Downstairs, Charlene was all puckered brow and dark mutterings.
‘We can’t let this place. It doesn’t come anywhere near Mr Grand’s standards. I’m not sure it’s even legal.’ She looked at the gas cooker, with its eye-level grill, and the spin-dryer. ‘Who lives like this, in this day and age? I’ll find a washboard and a mangle in a minute.’
‘I could live here,’ said Luke. ‘I could
‘Not without housing standards breathing down our necks, you couldn’t. I mean, what were we charging her for this?’ She tipped the contents of the folder onto the table. ‘Usually when a property comes back on the books, Mr Grand likes to make sure the rent’s in keeping with the current market, but he’d want to refurbish this place completely before we did that. Depends really what she was paying.’ She held up a recent rent book. ‘I could’ve told you she was old just by the fact she had one of these. We let the old ones keep them on sometimes because it’s what they’re used to. Well, at least it’s up to date . . . hang on, what the fuck?’
‘What’s up?’ said Luke.
‘She was paying three pounds a month,’ said Charlene, showing Luke the relevant page, filled out in a rickety hand. ‘No one’s raised the rent in, what . . .’ now she pulled a ragged brown rent book from the bottom of the pile. ‘She’s been paying the same rent since 1968. I don’t get it.’
The date was rich with associations for Luke. The year that the Kray twins were finally arrested, it was like 1066 or 1914 to him.
‘I’m going to have to get to the bottom of this.’
‘You could just let me crash here for a few nights. Off the books.’
‘Mr Grand doesn’t do “off the books”,’ said Charlene.
‘Doesn’t he? Why isn’t this place on your system then? I reckon someone forgot to upload it or input it or whatever when your records went digital and that old lady was just sitting here laughing her head off ever since. How’s anyone even going to know?’
She didn’t have an answer for that. She drummed her fingers on the table. ‘All right, OK, you can stay but
while you get settled and while I find out what Mr Grand wants to do with the property.’
Luke threw his arms around her.
‘Don’t get too comfy. I might have to move you on tomorrow. Here, have one of these.’
She wrestled the front door key onto a fob in the shape of the JGP logo. Luke traced the gold letters under his thumb.
‘We give all our tenants one of those,’ said Charlene. ‘It’s a bit of a Brighton thing. You watch, now you’ve got one, you’ll start seeing them everywhere you go. And there should be a spare set next to the gas meter, if you ever need it. Let’s check.’
There was no key, just a little gold plaque that read:
A Jocelyn Grand Property
Lettings and Management
Telephone Brighton 25445
‘That’s another one of Mr Grand’s little finishing touches. He has one put in all his properties as soon as they’re ready to let. Always has. This one’s been here a while, though. Look how short that phone number is. OK if I leave you here for now? I’ve got to get home to Dad. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, let you know what’s what, all right?’
When she hugged him goodbye, Luke fought the sudden urge to beg her to stay.
He went out and got supplies – milk, bread, beer, fags, that day’s copy of the
– and settled in for the evening, too exhausted to explore the city, too raw to meet anyone new.
His dongle picked up a decent internet connection, and Luke surfed through the dusk. Emboldened by his flight from Leeds but still with trepidation, he typed his own name into the search bar, then let his finger hover over the Enter key. He had stopped self-Googling a long time ago, even before he’d met Jem, unable to bear the version of himself, the episode of his life, that the web presented. He struck the key and was relieved to see that the cream of his work – longform features for the
Yorkshire Evening Post
well as his work for
– had risen again to the top of the results. It looked like the storm that had devastated his career was finally back in its teacup, and from this he took comfort.
He clicked on a few local listings websites and history sites, knowing that tomorrow must bring with it some kind of structure and purpose if depression was not to descend again. He was too tired and wired to process any of the words or pictures that appeared before him, and decided to do it the old-fashioned way. He made a longhand list of museums, libraries and bookshops that he could visit tomorrow, and took down the names and details of a few amateur local historians and one professional. Jem was still calling and the texts kept coming thick and fast. After dark, their pitch changed in a way that suggested he had opened a bottle.
Going to keep walking the streets till I find you
Luke sighed and knuckled his eyes. He should at least send one reply to put Jem’s mind at ease. If ever there was a time to be cruel to be kind, it was now.
I’m sorry Jem. It’s over. I don’t love you any more.
I’ve left you and I’ve left Leeds. Please stop texting me.