Read 31 Dream Street Online

Authors: Lisa Jewell

31 Dream Street (5 page)

He saw something then, slotted into the back of the bedstead. A blue book with a scuffed canvas cover. It looked like a notebook, or possibly a diary. He leaned across the bed and pulled it out. It was a thick book, crammed with bits of paper. There was a gold logo
embossed on the front that said ‘Regal’ in fancy lettering.

Toby sat down and opened the book. It smelled of wet leaves and damp lino. On the front page, in predictably spidery handwriting, were the words ‘Property of Augustus Veldtman’. Toby flicked through the book to determine what kind of journal it was and soon realized that what he had in his hands was, basically, the inside of Gus Veldtman’s head: lyrics, poetry, shopping lists, accounts, letters, diary entries, thoughts, quotes, bills and scripts. There were till receipts from ten years ago, marked with little notations – next to the listing for a packet of Waitrose Honey Roast Ham were the words ‘pleasant enough’. The label from a cheese-and-pickle sandwich had been detached and placed in his diary with the words: ‘Made me sick. Write to manufacturers to demand compensation.’

There were lists of pills he’d taken, books he’d read, meals he’d eaten. There were bus tickets and doctor’s prescriptions and postcards from someone called Michael who lived in Germany (‘I think of you often, my friend, especially at this time of year.’).

Most of the contents of the book were mundane and repetitive, but every few pages there’d be something peculiar that caught Toby’s eye. One page was empty except for a random thought, framed with quotation marks:

‘There are two toothbrushes in the beaker in the bathroom today. They are resting side by side and look like they are copulating.’

Another, less concise page contained a detailed description of the condition in which he’d found the kitchen one morning:

‘Towering mountains of filthy plates that put me in mind of the leaning tower of Pisa having been defecated upon by a flock of poisoned geese, surfaces encrusted with scabs of putrid food, a slick upon the kitchen floor which, for all I know, might have been a spillage of raw human effluence. I am sickened to know that people can live this way.’

Another passage described an encounter with Ruby in the hallway:

‘She appraised me as a stallion might appraise a mule, before returning to her room where another of her feckless men lay in wait. Within minutes my ears were once again assaulted by the painful sounds of her frantic mating.’

There was also much talk about a person called Boris.

‘Boris continues to ignore me. He thinks this game will bring him my attentions, but he is wrong.’

‘It is the fault of Boris. He is a selfish and ill-mannered individual. I hope he shall die before too long.’

‘Boris and I enjoyed an hour of fresh air today in the garden. He sat on my feet and we admired the triumphant blue fists of hyacinth bursting through the chill February sod.’

It wasn’t until Toby read the passage: ‘Boris seems to have developed a digestive complaint. His faeces are loose and foul-smelling. I have been compelled to replace his litter five times today,’ that he realized that Gus had been referring to his cat.

Toby pulled back the corner of the mattress and peered through the wooden slats. Boris looked up at him. ‘Hello, Boris,’ said Toby. The cat glanced away awkwardly. ‘Gus tells me you’re selfish and ill-mannered.’ The cat turned away and curled itself into a ball. ‘And maybe he’s right.’

And that was when he saw it. A black fabric bag wedged between the bed slats. Attached to it, by an elastic band, was an envelope addressed to him. He opened it and pulled out a letter, typewritten on thin, crackly paper:

My Dear Toby
,

Well, finally I am gone. I sincerely hope that my death didn’t cause you too much inconvenience, that I didn’t drag on with some incessant disease or terrible plague. If I did, then I apologize. I chose to be alone and, if that choice resulted in you being responsible for me in any way that you found tedious or bothersome, then I do apologize
.

I have bequeathed to you my meagre possessions and my meagre cat. Do what you wish with the former, but please be kind to the latter. And of course there is my literary ‘estate’ – ha! – for what it is worth. Additionally, and more importantly, I have fulfilled the cliché of the elderly person who does not trust anyone else to look after their money and hoarded my life’s savings underneath my mattress. I am
not sure of the exact amount, but it is a substantial sum. I would like you to have it, but on one condition. And THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. You are a good man, but misguided. These people in your house do not appreciate you or your generosity. They are holding you back. My greatest fear for you, Toby, is that you will end up like me, alone, misunderstood, unappreciated, and I fear this could happen all too easily. Please, Toby, use my money to make your life everything it could be. Sell your house; lose your shackles. The house is just bricks and mortar. Repair them, then repair your soul
.

I do not believe in an afterlife so I will have to trust you to fulfil my instructions. But you are the most trustworthy man I have ever known, so I feel confident that you will do so. God bless you
.

Your friend,
Augustus Veldtman

Toby breathed in and out slowly, trying to calm his racing heart. And then he picked up the bag, pulled open the drawstrings and peered inside. He saw a flash of red and shut it again. Red – wasn’t that the colour of a fifty-pound note?

He opened it again and pulled out a note. It
was
a fifty, crisp and glossy and mint. He pulled out another one. And another one. He poured the contents of the bag onto the bed. It was a sea of red. No tens, no twenties, no fives. Just fifties. He clapped his hands across his mouth, so that he wouldn’t scream or squeal or shriek. ‘Calm down,’ he soothed himself. ‘Just – calm
down.’ He took a deep breath and began counting. Five minutes later he stopped.

£
62,550.

Sixty-two thousand five hundred and fifty pounds
.

Slowly and methodically he piled the notes back into the bag, stuffed the bag up his jumper and, with the stealth and light-footedness of an alley cat, he made his way back to his bedroom.

8

Amitabh didn’t mess about when he got home from work the following night. No sooner had he unwrapped himself from his winter layers than he’d sat Leah down on the sofa, turned off the TV, picked up her hands and said, ‘Leah, I love you. But I’m not going to marry you.’

She sighed. ‘I knew it.’

‘I’m really sorry.’

She dragged her hands through her hair and sighed again. She couldn’t think of anything to say.

‘It’s not your fault.’

‘Right.’

‘It’s just, I couldn’t do that to my parents.’

‘What?’

‘It would kill them, completely.’

Leah stared at him in confusion. Amitabh’s parents
loved
her. Amitabh’s parents thought she was delightful.

Amitabh paused and sighed. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’m thirty now. It’s all well and good mucking about in your twenties…’

‘Mucking about?’ Leah felt her stomach muscles knitting themselves into a knot.

‘God, no, not mucking about. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just, you and I. This…’ He gestured around the room. ‘This can never be…’

‘Jesus Christ, Am – what are you saying?’ Her heart was pumping adrenalin through her body on an industrial scale.

‘I’m saying, I can’t marry you. Not now. Not ever. My parents can accept you as a girlfriend, but never as a wife.’

Leah could hear the words, but couldn’t make sense of them. ‘What?’ she said. ‘Because I’m white?’

‘Yes, because you’re white. Because you’re Christian. Because you aren’t professional. Because your brother’s gay. Because you drink. Because you swear.’

‘Oh, my God.’

‘I thought you knew this. I thought you accepted it.’

‘No,’ she said numbly. ‘No, I didn’t.’

‘So what did you think?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think. I thought they liked me.’

‘They
do
like you.’

‘So why…?’

‘It’s the way things are, Leah. That’s all.’

‘So what if we didn’t get married? Couldn’t we just carry on the way we are?’

Amitabh stared at the ceiling and exhaled. ‘It’s not as simple as that.’

‘Why not? If the only problem here is that your parents don’t want you to marry an English girl, then don’t marry me.’

‘But I’ll have to marry
someone
.’

‘Why?’

‘To have a family. I have to have a family.’

‘You don’t need to be married to have a family.’

‘Yes’ – he stopped and sighed – ‘I do.’

Leah gulped then as everything finally made sense. ‘So are you saying that the past three years have just been…
a phase
?’

‘No. Of course not. I just didn’t think it through. I was young. I thought I had all the time in the world. I didn’t think that you and I would last so long…’

Leah stared at him, at this
stranger
with whom she’d shared the past three years of her life. It was as if he’d suddenly announced that he was a bigamist or a terrorist or a secret agent. She’d read stories over the years about inter-racial couples who’d found themselves in this position; she’d seen them on the
Kilroy
show and she’d felt so smug, thinking that that would never happen to her and Amitabh because his parents loved her and approved of them as a couple. And beyond their first couple of meetings, she’d barely even noticed that Amitabh was Indian, to be perfectly honest.

‘Are we going to split up?’

He nodded. Shrugged. Nodded again. ‘I think so,’ he said.

Leah started to cry.

12 January 2005

Toby,

It has been a long time. I’m sorry not to have been in touch but that’s the way life goes. Jemma and I are divorcing. She is to stay in Cape Town with the boys (we have two sons, 12 and 9) and I am moving to Johannesburg. I have some business to attend to in London at the end of March and will be staying in my flat in Chelsea for a couple of weeks.

I would like to see you again. I am interested to see what became of you, after your less-than-promising start in life. And what became of the house I bought you all those years ago. If you’d had any sense you’d have taken advantage of the property market and moved up the ladder considerably. Peter tells me the house should be worth more than half a million in the current market, in a finished state, so that should be sufficient to subsidize your ‘poetry’! I’ve watched the book pages of the Times over the years, waiting for a mention of your name, but, alas, have seen nothing!
Anyway – I look forward to hearing a full report of your life. I haven’t given up on the possibility that you might still have made me proud. I believe you will be forty soon, the age at which a man knows whether or not he will be able to call himself a success when the grim reaper comes to call.
I will be in touch, via Peter.

Best,
Reggie (Dad)

9

It was almost impossible for Toby to ascertain what all the disparate members of his household were up to at any given point of the day, so finding a moment when the house was empty so he could invite an estate agent in for a valuation was a challenge.

But a few days after his father’s letter arrived in the post he found himself unexpectedly in possession of the knowledge that Ruby was at rehearsals, Joanne and Con were at work and Melinda was ensconced in a salon in Crouch End having her highlights done.

The agent who arrived at his house five minutes later was called Walter. He had a moustache. ‘Well, I must say that this is a very exciting opportunity,’ were his first words upon entering the house and shaking Toby’s hand. ‘It’s not often that a property like this comes on to the market.’ He wiped a slick of sweat off his forehead with the back of a hairy hand and wrote something in an A5 notebook. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, gazing round the entrance hall. ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes. Quite magnificent. So, you are the owner, Mr Dobbs?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘And you’ve owned the house for how long?’

‘Fifteen years. Almost.’ Toby gulped. The combination of Walter’s suit, moustache and notebook made
him feel like he was being interrogated by a detective

from a 1970s TV drama.

Walter nodded approvingly.

‘I must warn you,’ said Toby, sensing that Walter was getting too excited, too soon, ‘I haven’t maintained the house particularly well. It’s in need of a fair bit of TLC.’

‘Ah, well, let’s see it, then.’

Toby led him through the house. Due to the short notice, he hadn’t had a chance to tidy or clean, and random items were strewn carelessly about the place: shoes, mugs, papers, hairbrushes, empty jiffy bags, CDs, old toast, a plant that was halfway through being re-potted on a sheet of newspaper on the dining-room table, the combined detritus of five people’s separate existences.

‘It’s a bit messy, I’m afraid. I live with quite a few people and they’re all out.’

‘Oh, so you don’t live alone?’

‘No. I live with some friends.’

‘I see. No family, children?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘just us grown-ups.’ He laughed nervously.

Walter didn’t say much as they moved round the house, just scratched notes into his notebook and made the occasional approving noise. Toby felt guilty as he opened the doors of his tenants’ rooms for Walter to peruse. He never, under any circumstances, went into his tenants’ rooms. He tried his hardest not to look at anything.

Ruby’s room, predictably, was the messiest. The windows were hung with silky lace-trimmed shawls and dusty strings of fairy lights. The floor was covered in clothes, books and CDs. Her bed was unmade and overloaded with cushions and discarded underwear. A full ashtray sat on her dressing table, surrounded by scruffy cosmetics and piles of jewellery. It looked like the bedroom of a student, of someone who’d just left home and didn’t know how to look after themselves. It smelled of forgotten sex and cigarettes.

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