Valentine’s Day was approaching, and this day is usually very eventful for me. Eventful in a card-writing and -posting type way, rarely eventful in a romantic dinner or lovemaking type way. But this Valentine’s Day would be different. At 6pm I had a date with Lily. And there was to be no coffee, drinks or dinner, I was going straight to her place and straight to the bedroom. I was guaranteed to see something well-proportioned with an extended rear, and I … OK OK I’ll stop with the filth, you all know this wasn’t a real date I had a viewing on a house.
I’d seen a very spacious little house in Gravesend which had acres of space for all my crap. There was a loft, there was a basement, there was an outbuilding at the end of the garden; so much space and just within my budget. I’d excitedly booked an appointment asap, but the snag was I was going to be in Manchester for a work meeting that day, and heading back. What could go wrong?
Getting back to London
The first challenge was making it out of Manchester alive. The last time I’d been in Manchester one of my colleagues got mugged, statistically speaking this meant there was a 100% chance of me being mugged, buggered and/or stabbed on this second visit. Thankfully this didn’t happen, but it was a close shave. As I was leaving the venue a couple of junkies came in looking for trouble; they were distracted by reception while we were taken outside and escorted to our taxi. The car door was closed before I could ask if we were going to have outriders with us too. It was back to the station for our train back to London, which I then had to time with a train out to Gravesend, by 6pm. What was even more ambitious is that I’d never been to Gravesend so I was hardly going to walk out of the station and know where I was going for my Valentine’s date.
I got lost along the way, in the unlikeliest of places.
I had been to Manchester only once before, I had never been to Gravesend. The part of the journey I got lost in was a simple ten minute walk ALONG THE ROAD between London stations, in a part of London where I USED TO ACTUALLY WORK. I’m sorry about all the capitals but sometimes as a writer it’s impossible to convey the stupidity of something without using caps lock.
You know what, I am being too hard on myself. I remember this incident well, and I recall the culprit. Signage. As I came out of Euston Station there was a big sign saying for Kings Cross / St Pancras (they are side-by-side / connected), turn right at the bottom of the stairs and keep going. I perhaps took “keep going” more literally than it was intended. I travelled for the full ten minutes before becoming suspicious. I also lay blame at the amount of construction around the area since I worked there in 2006, as I had just assumed I didn’t recognise any buildings due to them having been replaced, renamed, renovated or reclad. It took me another 5 minutes to reorient myself, even with Google Maps. I was at least 15 minutes away from my destination, and despite leaving ample connecting time from the Manchester train, I was going to miss the train to Gravesend. I prepared myself for a long walk back and then onward proper, as I e-mailed my contact Tom at the agency to tell him to warn the Lily I was meeting that I would be late.
It was along the lines of “I’m coming from Manchester” not “I’ve become lost between two neighbouring train stations in the city I’ve lived in for 16 years and on the road I used to work.”
By the time the trains were factored in I was going to be there about 6.30, not the 6.10 I had sheepishly advised Tom to tell Lily. I’ve since learned that when telling people you will be late (which is the topic of about 40% of the text messages I send), be overly pessimistic in your estimates. I had a tendency to do the opposite, so as to try to minimise how late I was sounding. I’d then end up being double-late; late as advised and also later than that. To avoid this disappointment, if you’re running ten minutes late and need to advise waiting friends, family, colleagues or acolytes, say twenty, thirty or sixty. Then you turn up “earlier” than expected, to much acclaim. In theory.
I didn’t even have time to grumble at the cost of the train ticket to Gravesend, or the opportunity to sit rocking as I calculated what that would be every day of the week, all year to go to work. But cost aside this was truly an express train for all my things. It went St Pancras (short Tube trip from work), Stratford (netball), Ebbsfleet (of no consequence), Gravesend (potential new home). All in twenty minutes. The fact it cost £1 a minute off-peak and £2 a minute peak for work was a secondary concern.
Valentine’s Day in Gravesend
I arrived and immediately WhatsApped this photo to Hannah – “IT’S REAL!”; she was aware having lived here for many years but it helped cement the idea for me. I left the station (on the wrong side) and started walking (the wrong way) down the street – but I quickly corrected myself.
I navigated the quirky streets of Gravesend far better than I’d handled the one straight road between Euston and St Pancras, and by 6.25 I was knocking on the door of this terraced house with all the storage space for my shit. I knocked a few times before an angry Lily answered the door. She did that thing where she pretended she had no idea who I was or what I could possibly be there for – like “I was meant to be meeting an Alan at 6pm but obviously it’s 6.25 so you can’t be Alan so you must be someone else.” I explained I had come from Manchester (again) and that I’d messaged Tom to say I’d be late. She was still annoyed and told me to wait outside.
It was a few minutes before I realised this was because she was showing someone else round, rather than a punishment.
Eventually she returned, showing out a couple. Had it not been for Kieran talking me so thoroughly through the proper house-buying process, I might have assumed I was supposed to physically fight this couple for the house. “Did you definitely tell Tom you were going to be half an hour late?!” she snapped.
“I mailed him to tell him I was coming from Manchester (again) and was going to be late.” I was being very careful not to lie in case she checked, I did tell Tom but I said 6.10 which was in hindsight quite inaccurate.
“And did he confirm that was OK?” she barked. Now we were in perilous territory, I thought I’d done the right thing by telling people I was going to be late, now I was meant to be checking for responses – I was lost in London, I was lucky just to get that message out. I mumbled something hoping she’d drop it, which she did, showing me in abruptly.
I mean why was this a big deal, I was a bit late, where did she have to be that it was important? Oh. It was Valentine’s Day. It seemed I was holding up Lily from a romantic time with Mr Lily, or some guy off Tinder. Or Tom for all I know. Now there would be a turn-up.
I’d seen some unusual fixtures and fittings in my years of house-hunting, but this house had something very unique sitting in the living room. An old man. It took me a few moments to realise this must be his house. I knew this would hamper my ability to give feedback to Lily on the spot or ask searching questions like “…the fuck is this meant to be” while touring. I asked him if it was OK for me to look around (seemed the polite thing to do) and was on my way.
The place was OK, but in some areas in quite a poor condition. It was very lived in, possibly across several generations. Less “wear and tear” and more “wear’s the paint that’s meant to be on this wall” and “tear this down”. There was a downstairs toilet that looked as if it had just been brought in from the garden. It all just needed work. Had the potential to be amazing though. There was a little loft bedroom that was barely big enough for me to stand up in, the basement was (like the place in Tooting) there in theory but had not been given walls or anything to make it an actual room. Outside there was indeed a big outbuilding – a workshop type thing that had been built but pretty much left on the inside.
There was a huge amount of space and potential here, but as with the place in Tooting, it was going to be a long time before I had the money to do any significant work. I needed somewhere that was ready to move into. Didn’t need to be perfect but this house was just a bit too rundown to move straight into, and I had precisely zero money beyond my deposit and moving fees. All that was left was to thank the old man, and say my goodbyes to a still-bitter Lily.
“One last question,” I asked her, “Anyone in your office called Harry?”
“No,” she said, “Why?”
“Never mind.” The other guy from the agency was called Tom Dix, and on the train there I’d invented a comedy scenario of him and a colleague called Harry. It was too much to hope for.
I only saw one place during that trip, despite the trek, but it was good to just get a feel for Gravesend and make progress.
Three more helpings of gravy
I was to return a week later to see three more places, this time via a different agent after I felt I should give Lily some space. One was close to the station, two further out; with my limited knowledge of Gravy (the place) and my propensity for getting lost, I suggested to “Michael” the young agent that I meet him at the closest place. He was having none of it. There was some kind of scam going on, I knew it, where he was planning to show me shitty places and work up to the best one, which was the one beside the station. I knew this was what he was up to. I told him I knew this was what he was up to. He still insisted his way was better for “mumble-mumble-something-you-know-mumble” and I let him have his way. I couldn’t risk pissing off another estate agent or I’d be back house-hunting in places that were 3 or more train stops from netball.
There was something spookily coincidental about the locations:
- “Russell Road” – I was at school with someone called Russell!
- “Edwin Street” – I was at school with someone called Edwin!
- “Old Road West” – I had a teacher who was old!
It must be a sign, and not like one of those ones that tells you to turn right at the bottom of the stairs and keep going. After a fifteen minute walk from the station (stupid Michael and his ways) and Google Maps open permanently, I’d arrived at the first place. On the corner of the road a sign said “Old Road West”. See – it WAS a sign.
Lived in and rundown were the themes of the day again, and when I say lived in I mean by at least a family of 12. But this was the cheapest of the places, and due to Michael’s transparent scam I knew they would get better. It was reminiscent of the trip to Strood – get these out the way, show me the one I like.
The second one was nicer, although it didn’t seem to have a functioning front door (which goes back to my original very broad house-hunting wishlist). It had a bathroom with a sliding door, what was it with the doors in this place. It felt futuristic so I quite liked it. There was a touch-sensitive LED light around the bathroom mirror – again, futuristic. You can see it doesn’t really take much to impress me. Then the biggest shocker – double patio doors in the kitchen leading out to the garden. Now you might be thinking “Alan that’s not so uncommon,” or “Alan, I’ve got those at home,” or “Adam – sorry, Alan – didn’t you have four patio doors in the flat you rented in Tooting?”
Yes, the shocker was not the existence of such non-futuristic doors. It was the fact they weren’t pictured on Rightmove. The kitchen going out to the garden was by far the most saleable thing in this house, and it was the one thing they chose not to show on the website. It baffles me to this day.
The garden was on a strange incline and was so uneven I fell over twice. Also the fences between the neighbouring gardens were so low, you might as well have just had a chalk line separating the properties. There was also a little road just behind reminiscent of the double-danger council flat in Mitcham. It didn’t look anywhere near as shady though. It was a nice place, apart from the front door. A contender. Time to move on to the place near the station, in Michael’s little estate-agent-car, you know the ones they all have them. At least one benefit of us doing them in this order meant I didn’t have to walk far for my train home.
It was getting dark and as we approached the house the lights were on, which seemed to faze Michael. One of the benefits of this house was that it was empty and chain-free. I quickly made a list of the potential scenarios in order of how nightmarish they would be:
- The owners
- Someone has left the lights on (probably Michael)
- Burglars ransacking the place
Inside Michael popped his head around various doors as I gagged on the smell of paint. I’m still not sure what was happening here. Either the owners had paid an old couple to paint the house, or the people painting were the owners. I was immediately impressed – ready to move in was just what I was after. It was pokey but seemed to have stairs and doors all over the place. It was basically a two-up/two-down but with an extra two in the middle. From the ground floor, which seemed to be two rooms opened up into one and was mid-paint, Michael took me downstairs to the kitchen, half-submerged. A downstairs kitchen, now there’s something I hadn’t even thought of. I wouldn’t even have to be on the same floor as my sink full of washing up, wouldn’t have to look at it all sitting there, judging me. The third bedroom was also here with, bizarrely its own front door, opening out directly underneath the front door I’d come through.
I’d gone from a house with no front door to a house with two. With my mind turning to dating prospects I momentarily wondered if there were some cultures where number of front doors was seen as a status symbol. The bathroom was in an extension – the closest to an outside toilet I’d seen since, well since the house on Valentine’s Day. Up we went, seemingly climbing stairs for hours to the top floor.
I’d always fancied one of these types of house, the ones that are really small but with 3 floors; I’d looked at dozens on Rightmove and always found it a bit weird since there’s no reason why I should suddenly want to introduce lots of stairs into my life. I just liked the idea of it, and this house was basically mostly stairs – or as I like to describe them when I have stuff lying around, emergency shelves.
The main bedroom had a built in wardrobe covering one wall – I could have skiploads of crap stashed in there and no-one need ever know. The sliding doors on the wardrobe were not as impressive as the one on the bathroom in the last house, but still a boon.
Out in the small garden, Michael commented that the ground was so uneven that it was as if a horse had trodden all over it. I reminded him that a) he was meant to be the estate agent selling me on this place, and b) I had actually fallen over in the garden of the last place it was so bad. In the middle of the garden some contraption was sticking upright out of the grass. He explained this was one of these rotary things for drying your washing; neat, I’d read about those, futuristic, but that’s coming out and a netball post is going in.
This place was not as nice as the dream house in Strood, but it was by quite a margin the next best I’d seen. I’d even by this point mastered the art of playing it cool, wrapped things up and enigmatically left. But I had decided already I wanted to try to get this place.
On my own this time, I was going to make an offer…Continue with Part VI