Late morning, Thursday 18th January 2007
The house is set back somewhat from the road, not huge, but still imposing, a delicate Japanese maple tree framing it from the side and a white arch over the front door. Detached, it’s encircled by mature gardens and gives onto woodland at the back. It looks reassuring and solid, old but not decrepit. I know from my mother that it hasn’t been touched for years, but I can see its potential already - all those period features contrasting with a modern interior and I’d have my dream! There’s a wall dividing it from the road which curves round up the hill, and an old wrought-iron gate. What I love at first sight is the path leading directly from the gate to that arch in old mossy ivory stone at the front door: sheltered by a curved iron trellis which must be full of blooms come spring like the leafy arches of nursery rhymes! The branches curving around its structure might be a buddleia, the long weeping purple blooms my mother calls butterfly flowers. Now, in winter, the trellis looks curiously like a bare dressmaker’s crinoline. No season for butterflies! - but still charming and somehow regal. This place, done up, could look really elegant: I can already picture a shiny black door, the ivory limestone restored, the front garden a perfect, tidy balance of colour and texture, but with a delightful old-fashioned feel. I can visualise a new gate and the house numbers engraved on a marble plaque set into the wall... There are also rose bushes in two rows, one row on each side, with perspective towards the entrance. I’m enchanted!
We really can’t afford this house, but something about the way my mother insisted I go and see it piqued my curiosity. It’s not on the market officially, and owned by an old Colonel, wife deceased, adult son and family in Norfolk near my parents. The old gentleman apparently lives in retirement accommodation nearby, having refused to move out of the area and the property’s been vacant for the last couple of years and the time has come to sell up.
I rattle the gate, the old catch slips upwards and it swings open crushing a few strands of evergreen against the wall behind. I half crunch, half slide down the path which pitted and broken had caught and pooled overnight rain and turned the ground slippery with mud. Blown dry twigs provide the crunch. There’s no sign of anyone except a pair of Nike trainers in the old porch next to the hoop cast-iron boot scraper. I take off my glove and press the little round ceramic bell, cold in the damp mist. I’m not even sure if it works, so I stand, waiting, feeling chilled. No answer. As I stand there, the wind gusts, full of damp, and I think of that fairytale where you come upon a house in the woods. I ring the bell again. Bored and shivering, I reach into my handbag and find my Chanel lipstick in its glossy metal tube and a small enamelled mirror, and slick some on. A vain comfort mechanism I’ve gotten used to: gloss the outside and smile inside!
Just as I put the lipstick to my lips the old wooden door suddenly swings open, sending me jumping back. The lipstick snaps in half and flies to the floor, swiping the side of the white trainers with a deep slick of excruciatingly expensive crimson plum! I’m left holding the blingy case in one hand and the compact mirror in the other, half-open like an apology. The dark-haired and handsome young man behind the open door suppresses a grin. I flush deeply, and feel my cheeks burning. A feeling which I suddenly remember in a flash from years ago runs through my chest and trickles down to my knees: I’m embarrassed, hoping fiercely it won’t show, the cold air disguising my flushed cheeks. I bite my lip, open my mouth to speak, wonder what to say, and come up with nothing so shut the compact instead and slip it into my handbag. Then I look down at the neutered lipstick, and so does he. He grins again, a warm, broad grin with even white teeth - a boyish charm.
‘Hi, glad to meet you, you must be Helen Romeo? I’m Nico. I’m sorry, did I startle you?’
I shake my head, mute, but can’t help smiling despite my embarrassment. I’ve got one arm tucked around my waist and the other hand up, almost hiding my mouth, a “you caught me, what to do?” sort of body language! He touches my shoulder gently, a brief and unconscious reassurance and I notice there are a few grey hairs where his hair sweeps back, something I’ve always found sexy in men. Nico studies my silence a moment. ‘Well’, he says, ‘you certainly don’t need to make yourself any more beautiful!’ The way he says it, he means it, blurted out, straight from the heart. I blush at his impudence and practically hide my face with my hand: self-protection pose with a hint of cheekiness, classic flirting. Oh dear!
‘It’s Ok, sorry, I’m only joking! I mean, not about... well, let’s start again! I presume you’re Helen Romeo. I’m Nicola Tchaikovsky, the painter! My friends call me Nick.’
I raise my eyes and the corner of my lips slightly, a quizzical expression, and he continues: ‘Yes, you’re right, just like the composer! Mr. O’Leary, the owner, asked me to please come and open up for you, and show you round. I’m doing some decorating for him here and I’ve got a key. Nicola’s my full name– in my country it’s a boy’s name, meaning Nicholas, not a girl’s! So, today I’ll be Estate Agent – if you don’t mind me showing you around!’ Again that slightly crooked warm grin, and again, a surge. Oh God.
‘Um, yes of course...Nick? ...Please don’t call me Madam, Helen’s fine! ...um, sorry, can I call you Nico, it’s... I prefer it I think!’ I’m feeling all wobbly. I mean, his name’s perfect just as it is, I wanted to say!
‘Of course you can! And do you mind if I call you Helen? ...and may I throw that away for you?’ asks Nico, interrupting my thoughts, pointing at the sad empty lipstick tube I’m still clutching aimlessly.
‘Or do you want me to try and fix it for you?’ He points with his boot to the fatty red stick by the step, wrapped in a dry autumn leaf. ‘It looks like organic lipstick to me!’
I can’t help myself, and laugh out loud, a welcome release of tension. ‘Sorry!’ I tell Nico, putting on my most charming smile but careful now not to be flirty, ‘It was a shock! I didn’t think anyone was in! My lips were chapped in the cold, so I thought...’ Oh, God completely the wrong angle, why am I talking about lips here?
Nico waves my words away, knowing how to reassure when necessary. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll show you round. This is the hall...’
I’m a married woman with two young children trying to compose myself by pretending this gorgeous man is in fact an estate agent: but tt doesn’t work as I’m just thinking how much more handsome he’d look in a suit! Stop it, Helen! – I mentally rein myself in and force myself to focus on the property.
The house is spacious, on 2levels with a large undeveloped loft space on the third. Four incredibly roomy double bedrooms, big enough to add en-suites and still have plenty of space. All have sash windows looking out on the gardens. There’s a smaller room off the landing where the wide stairs change flights, facing the road, perfect for a dressing room. Opposite sits a bathroom, with old-fashioned deep bath and garden aspect, as the estate agents would put it. Downstairs on both sides of the generous hall with its arches and elegant cornicing, are two reception rooms, one opposite the other, lovely high ceilings. Past the left-hand reception room, the elegant staircase climbs up, housing a downstairs loo beneath it, and beyond to the left’s what could be a study perhaps - window out to the road at the side and the woods beyond.
At the back of the hall, facing the entrance, are two doors, one of which we pass through into the old-fashioned kitchen. It’s got more than plenty of space, currently accessorized only with an Aga and a long oak table seating, I calculate at first glance ten, four, four and two at either end. The door accesses the garden. The room adjacent was probably the old parlour, also with a door to the garden and more or less identical in size. As I glance in I can imagine a laundry room and large pantry with that much-desired spiral wine cellar going down, keeping the kitchen (extended and open-plan of course) free of fridges and food storage: more space for cooking and entertaining and for the kids to run around! For now, in its current state it’s all well-maintained, if terribly dated. But the potential is tremendous!
Nico’s being the real-estate dude, all expansive gestures. I can tell he’s awed by the size of a place like this, but at the same time he possibly spends his life painting all sorts of fancy properties. I’m ‘OK’-ing and being business-like and trying to avoid those eyes like melted chocolate, all the while trying to snatch little glimpses to add to my first impressions – not of the house, but of the man... Longish dark slightly wavy hair gives him a bohemian look which the big, smiling eyes and high cheekbones do nothing to dispel. He’s wearing painter’s overalls over an old sweatshirt and jeans, most of the buttons gone down the middle so his casual clothes, and the firm, muscular body under them, are (to my embarrassment) discernable underneath. He tells me he’s from the Ukraine, a place in the mountains. As we walk round the house, and I try to concentrate on the property, I’m following this man’s story and we’re chatting easily. In a very short space of time I’ve learnt that he’s got a Masters degree in Economics, and his father was a Doctor. His father died, his mother started to struggle financially, and he decided that for her, and his younger sister’s schooling, he’d leave his close-knit family and work in Europe. He hasn’t been home in three years. He gets a lot of racism: ‘But I don’t let it affect me, because they do not understand’.
‘Don’t worry’, I hear myself say, ‘money doesn’t help you if you’re basically ignorant!’ I’m thinking of one of the mums at school, not an Oxbridge type at all herself to put it mildly, who said her cleaner is “probably an uneducated peasant!” Well, she should meet Nico then! I feel a deep connection with this embarrassingly attractive young man, which leaves me, like the cliché, dazed and confused. I almost don’t know what to say when the time comes to go, hesitating for a moment under the porch, knowing I might never see him again. But I’m a married mum of two, never forget: so why should I?
We shake hands formally and I turn away, reluctantly, then a last little wave at the end of the path as I shut the gate behind me. And force myself not to look back one more time. Instead, the sight of him standing there at the door, smiling, burns into my consciousness and leaves an image - and almost immediately I just can’t wait to see him again...