The front-door key arrived with not a bottle but a case of St- Emilion. It was that sort of estate agent. It was that sort of property. For Frank, it was the culmination of a dream. Ever since his dad had first taken him “up West” from Peckham in the early Sixties, he had dreamed of living in Mayfair. Soho had the razzle-dazzle, but Mayfair had the class. Little Frank had looked at the white stucco and the columns, the doormen and the elegant ladies, and told himself: one day, I’m going to live here.
Now he did. Fifty-one years, seven board memberships, four hostile takeovers and three wives later, Francis Orthofer walked into his eight-bedroom town house in Charles Street on Friday evening and coasted across the hall towards the great fat sweep of staircase. In the bedroom, the wardrobes had already been stocked with his clothes; his shoes, polished, lined up in immaculate, colour-coded rows.
“Stereo,” he said aloud, trying it out. “Good afternoon,” a computerised voice replied. Nice. It worked. He thought for a minute. “Ghost Town,” he said. Reedy notes rose, then bass drum, horns… and over them an urgent growl: “This town… is coming like a ghost town.” He swayed a little, eyes closed, remembering the ska days when he was starting out. That night Frank slept the sleep of the just.
The next morning, a Saturday, he set out to introduce himself to the neighbours. A wealthy man he might be, but a haughty man he was not. He’d clocked a nice-looking boozer on the corner, and it had been rammed every week-night he’d passed it. Shake a couple of hands, then a solitary pub lunch. Just the thing. Bottle of fizz under one arm, he rang the bell of the town house one along. A butler answered.
“Master of the house home?” he asked cheerily. “I’ve just moved in next door, and I wanted to come and say…”
“I’m sorry, sir. My employer will not be here for the foreseeable future.”
”Oh. I see. Away on business, is he?”
“My employer lives in Qatar.”
“Oh, um. Right you are. Well…”
The story was the same all along the street. Qatar, Moscow, Dubai, Shanghai. None of the people who lived in the houses next door lived in the houses next door. These were not even their main residences. They were… what was the word? Pieds-à-terre? Jeepers. Still, at least there was the pub.
Quickening his stride, he approached the door, anticipating a warm welcome, a pint of something cold and, perhaps, a pie. It didn’t budge. The windows were black and inside he could make out stools upturned on tables. In the window a sign read: “Saturday: Closed. Sunday: Closed.”
It was the same with the two coffee shops and the delicatessen. He bought a slightly sweaty Scotch egg from the newsagent and retired to his new house to stew in his own juice.
Later that afternoon he telephoned his estate agent. It came as a mild but pleasurable surprise that he answered his phone. He seemed to be the only person within a square mile working this Saturday.
“About this house you sold me,” Frank began.
“Is there a problem, Mr Orthofer?”
“Well, the area – I mean, prime London property and all that, but I can’t – I can’t…”
“I’m sorry, Mr Orthofer. I’m struggling to understand.”
“Well, where is everybody? I’m at the house and…”
“You’re at the house? Why? Has there been a problem?”
“Why? I bloody live here.”
“You’re… living there?” Frank swore he heard a stifled giggle as he ended the call.
On Monday morning, Frank shared his exasperation with his PA, Sarah. “Where are all the bleeding young people? Where’s the nightlife? The sense of community?” Sarah assumed the question wasn’t rhetorical and called the estate agent.
Two months later, Frank threw a house-warming party. Half eight, and already his new pad was nearly full, loud with champagne and laughter.
This house was a bit more modest than the last – just four bedrooms but newly decorated and with all the mod cons. And – since he now owned the whole street – there was always room for expansion. Amazing what your money got you in SE15.
“All right, boys and girls?” Frank said, in an accent that suddenly sounded very like his old dad’s. “Here’s to Peckham!” He started an old record player. A pop of static, then: “Our house! In the middle of our street…”