Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)
St Andrew’s Road, E17
It could have ended very badly. Or worse.
The last days of November were dripping away and the scarce leaves were holding onto the nearly bare skeletons of the trees with inherent desperation. Inevitably, following the example of their hundreds and thousands of predecessors, they would soon turn into yet another ornament on the damp pavement, yearning for the flabby Environmental Cleaning Officer in the orange jacket to gather them with her coarse black gloves and fold them into black bin liners.
He was driving too fast; much, much too fast.
Luckily, Julie Halfhide was one of those overly slow and extremely conscientious drivers who never exceed speed limits or forget to indicate or – God forbid – overtake. Over her five years of experience in Walthamstow – and based on the limited and well-practised routes to the superstore at Crooked Billet roundabout, the hospital and the yoga studio – Julie had succumbed to the clichéd beliefs about who really owned the local roads: testosterone- overdosed young lads in fast cars and enraged middle-aged van drivers.
The remnants of the summer had turned into a distant memory and the warmth of the early autumn had abruptly descended into darkness and misery. November offered rain, wind and cold; not in any particular order but in every possible combination and on the loop. And – if you were particularly lucky – you might even be treated to all three climate components simultaneously.
Still, Julie had plenty to be happy about.
She was driving home from the antenatal appointment at Whipps Cross. After smoothly negotiating the large and petrifying roundabout outside the hospital, she gently slid over the numerous speed bumps in Wood Street and then joined the slow-moving and jam- packed traffic of Forest Road. She waited patiently at the long red lights at the Fire Station – although she could just about have made it through on amber – before turning into Higham Hill and finding herself behind a slow moving W15 bus. St Andrew’s Road was only two bus stops away and Julie didn’t see a chance to overtake the bus; not that she wished or needed to.
While her pregnancy was still not showing, sitting behind the wheel was far from being a comfortable experience. Her abdomen had already started pushing out and clothes felt tight. It was no worse than the uneasiness you would get from overeating and bloating; yet the reality of her blessed state was unmistakably present. Julie couldn’t wait for her tummy to get unambiguously larger; for the baby to start kicking (and at 16 weeks that shouldn’t be far away), and for the little one to finally land into her arms. The arms tired from all those years of waiting in vain and all those times the hope had been flushed down the loo.
Once outside the scanning unit she phoned Matthew. And left a message.
Everything was fine. They were beyond the most critical point. Maybe it was the progesterone she had been prescribed or maybe it was pure chance but everything was – perfect.
The tears running down her cheeks as she walked towards her car outside the Maternity Unit where those of relief and joy; regardless of the parking ticket that had expired minutes ago – it wouldn’t be the first time she had got served with a threatening penalty notice in this very car park. Matthew had wanted to come but Julie insisted he went to work. After an onsite consultation with a client in the early afternoon, he also had to rush to the meeting with their solicitors in Walthamstow.
Baby finally. And a new house too. All at once.
During a random walk on a Saturday morning in September they had stumbled across the three bedroom semi-detached house with a large garden. The agent was putting up the For Sale sign and they had smiled at each other. It was just around the corner from their place and Julie even knew its inhabitants, if only by sight: a young family with an older boy and much younger twin girls. Julie and Matthew had been talking for years about selling their first floor maisonette and buying a house with a garden; and then all of a sudden the right moment, the right place, the right feeling came along – as if the universe was giving them a sign.
The day her digital pregnancy test displayed “pregnant 3-4 weeks” the agent phoned. Their offer had been accepted! And the sell-buy procedure went into gear. Then it all abruptly went on hold. Something to do with the house the other family were moving to and a few – minor – structural issues with their new home. Matthew was dealing with it all; so she didn’t need to worry about a thing. She only had to relax and take it easy.
Julie had already met with her HR manager and discussed the possibility of decreasing her number of days in the office. Her job wasn’t stressful per se but the commuting was. There were never any seats available and she still didn’t feel right wearing the “Baby on Board” badge. Not that she believed that displaying her state would make a big difference on the overcrowded Victoria Line. She had witnessed women with protruding tummies standing next to oblivious youngsters lost in their own digital world and never raising their eyes. Even with everything being alright, Julie couldn’t see herself working up to the end, like her boss had done. That woman had left work on Friday and given birth on Sunday. Three months later she was back at work leaving her husband at home. Admittedly, Julie’s boss was earning more than her TV writer husband who could still do freelance work in the evenings and at weekends; not something that would work with her and Matthew. And anyway Julie genuinely wanted to stay at home, nurse her baby, take her or him for walks and cook dinner in the expectation of Matthew walking in and shouting “Honey, I’m home,!” She smiled at that image.
As she turned into St Andrew’s Road Passenger’s song came on:
Cause I'd love to feel love but I can't stand the rejection
I hide behind my jokes as a form of protection
I thought I was close but under further inspection
It seems I've been running in the wrong direction oh no
Lots had changed in St. Andrew’s Road since they moved in the area. Its right-hand side, cramped terraced houses and miniature maisonettes, had remained the same, or if anything the buildings were getting more and more dilapidated. On the other side, brand new developments had been popping up day by day; all modern-looking blocks of small flats with balconies to – apparently – cater for the needs of a modern generation of single occupants. Not that it was clear who could afford to spend half a million on an apartment these days and in this zone. Only the deserted building of what used to be a fabrics factory was still dodging the demolition cranes.
Unlike all the narrow one-way streets that dominated the area, St. Andrew's was a spacious road, almost a boulevard, surrounded by large pavements and adorned with trees. These days, cars lined the road on both sides and as it was one of the few two-way roads in the maze of one-way streets, driving through required Grand Prix levels of manoeuvring skills with constant zigzagging in and out of the spaces between the cars and the side roads.
As her silver WV Golf drove past the deserted fabrics factory, a sleek black car came out of Blackhorse Lane and raced furiously up St. Andrew's Road.
Julie found herself inside an action movie moment; one of those instants which you see on the screen and feel unreal: digitally enhanced, exaggerated. The car was flying through the air, claiming the road, demanding everyone and everything cleared the path in front. Terror cut through Julie, her heart stopped, drops of sweat broke out on her forehead. There was no time or space for manoeuvre.
There were cars parked on both sides of the road. The junction with Sutherland Road was a few car lengths away. In normal circumstances she would have turned there, letting the maniac drive past.
She instinctively jumped on the brake (the first emergency stop since her driving test twenty years previously), her whole body swaying forward, embracing the steering wheel, head nanometres from slamming against the windscreen. Eyes closed, Julie waited for the bang. In the darkness of her clenched eyelids she could see the news on the front page of the Walthamstow Guardian – Mother-to-be killed in St Andrew’s Road.
Complete silence. Gradually she lifted her head and opened her eyes. The other car had miraculously managed to stop; millimetres of air were left between the two vehicles.
Julie opened the car door, stretched her head up and yelled:
“You idiot! You're driving far too fast. There are kids walking back from school, there are cats, dogs too…”
No movement in the other car. The driver was obviously waiting for the road to clear. But it was easier for them to reverse to the junction with Sutherland Road!
The door of the glossy black car opened abruptly. A tall, slim man jumped out and rushed towards her. Julie could see the houses turning into wild west saloons and him carrying two guns ready for the standoff. Impulsively, she central-locked the doors.
The cowboy of St. Andrew’s road hit the car roof violently with clenched fists.
“You stupid woman! You bitch! You should be at home not on the road…” he shouted.
How strong are car windows? Could they be broken by the impact of human wrists???
He wore a thick gold chain around the neck and had one of those perfectly sculptured beards and trimmed short dark brown hair. His grey suit was slippery and shiny; you could see your reflection in it. He looked very young. Julie stretched her hand towards the passenger seat, reached her bag and started digging for the mobile.
By the time she had retrieved her phone, the trimmed cowboy had returned to his car, reversed and driven off. The one photo she managed to take showed a moving vehicle turning left into Blackhorse Lane. Only its colour was indisputably obvious – black.
A car appeared behind and beeped.
OK OK OK, I’m going.
But – he should not get away with it!
The only police station Julie knew about, the one opposite the fire station in Forest Road, had closed down at some point over the last five years. Otherwise she would have driven directly there. She slowly edged onto Blackhorse Lane and drove home in second gear. There was a large parking space in front of the house and she drove into it, sighing with relief. No chance she would have been able to perform a reverse parallel parking manoeuvre in her shaken state.
With one hand protectively positioned around her tummy and with the other leaning on the wall, Julie walked up the stairs to their maisonette. Her steps were slow and careful, her knees wobbly and her heart rate on overtime. She collapsed on the sofa, still in her coat and shoes, and dialed Matthew’s number. It went straight to the answering machine. Her watch showed 4.33. Of course – he was at the meeting with the solicitors.
She googled and phoned the local police number.
No, no, no, she was not letting that shiny idiot get away with it!
They were sending someone to take a statement.
Julie walked into the narrow kitchen and flicked the kettle on. For a few seconds she hesitated between the camomile and the mint tea. Considering the afternoon she was having, calming camomile seemed a better option. By the time she had unbuttoned her coat, thrown it over the bannister and shaken off her pumps, the kettle was done. She poured water into the mug and cuddled her tummy, staring through the window. Please, baby, please be OK. Covered in dying leaves of various colours, the garden looked even more neglected than the last time she had looked. The flat downstairs had the exclusive access but they never used it or cared about it. By the time you arrive we will be in a big house with a garden. We’ll get you a swing and a trampoline and one of those climbing frames. Just please, please please baby be OK.
It took an hour for a policeman to arrive. The young, gentle and shy officer followed her upstairs. She showed him into the living room and offered a tea. Thank you, madam, an ordinary one please; with two sugars and a dash of milk.
“You have something to report?” He asked as she returned with his tea. She placed the cup to the side of his open notebook and sat opposite.
“Well, yes, very dangerous driving. It almost killed me!”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that… But – are you OK? No injuries?”
Julie Halfhide thought of her unborn baby, unsure whether she should include that information or not. Would mentioning it make the situation seem more serious; or would it be considered as an overreaction, attributed to the hormonal imbalance?
“Did you manage to get the plate number?”
“Make of car?”
Julie took her mobile phone and showed him the photograph.
“Not much we can find out from this… A large black car… What about the driver?”
“Young, talk, dark skin and hair, with a small beard… You know one of those fancy ones… Just a line from one ear to the other with a small square on the chin itself…”
“Was he Indian?”
“Not sure; he could have been Turkish, Italian, Bulgarian…”
“What about the accent?”
“Accent? Local... Definitely local.”
Matthew stood in the living room door scanning the scene, eyebrows frowning in an unspoken question, eyes filling with anxiety.
A nutter almost crashed into my car in St. Andrew’s Road and then threw punches at the roof. The incident abridged into one sentence. Matthew sat next to Julie on the couch, unzipped his jacket and reached for her hand.
“I do understand, madam, really do… but I'm not sure what we can do! And there were no witnesses around?”
“Well I didn’t see anyone… And even if someone saw it all, I doubt they would have come out to face such a madman! He was so full of rage!”
“Couldn’t you go door to door in Andrew Road, asking for witnesses?” Matthew asked the policeman.
“Well, it’s not a common practice for minor offences… Luckily nothing happened and no one was hurt!”
He closed his little notebook, put it back into the front pocket of his navy blue protective vest, squeezed the pen upright next to it, wished them a nice evening and left.
Julie burst out in tears.
“What about the baby! Maybe all of this stress will hurt our baby!”
“Calm down, sweetheart!” Said Matthew, removing his jacket and shoes on the lending.
“I need to go back to the hospital! I need to have another scan! I need to be sure that our little one is alright!”
Matthew sat back on the sofa and cuddled Julie.
“You probably just need to calm down…”
Even the mention of calming down made Julie more anxious, more upset; her crying was approaching that uncontrollable mode of hysterical yelps.
“Let’s first phone the NHS number or your GP?” suggested Matthew.
Julie nodded in agreement; swallowing the unpleasant saltiness of her tears and deepening her breathing.
The GP surgery was closed for the day. It had to be the NHS Direct number.
A calm female voice asked whether there was an actual physical impact directly on her tummy. What did she think by it? Had the steering wheel, or some other object, pressed into her abdomen? No, no, it did not! Her head and shoulders had slammed forward but her chest and tummy stayed behind, immobilised by the belt. No – there was not an actual crash between the cars. No – the air balloon did not activate either. No – she could not feel any pain. After a few “I see”s and “I understand”s the voice told Julie to relax and rest. Because everything was going to be alright! How the hell could she know that from the other end of the line? Because babies were resilient and the water they live in acts like a bumper. She would see… Right, yes, so why did she have all those miscarriages before? It might do her good to rest a day or two anyway and if she noticed some bleeding she should go straight to the hospital. Otherwise – the hospital would see her at the next scheduled scan, in four weeks.
Late at night, after a quick pasta dinner, after another four camomile teas and a tepid shower – she was dying for a hot soaking bath but according to the books they were not good for pregnancies at risk – Julie snuggled up to Matthew, lining her body like cling film around his side. He put his warm hand on her belly.
“Everything will be fine! Are we going to find out if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Do you have a preference?”
“Of course not! Just curious!”
“We can ask at the next scan…if we want to know…”
“I will definitely come with you on that one!”
Then Matthew told Julie about the new solicitor.
“So much better than the other one; very young but very sharp and ambitious. I doubt he will be working in Walthamstow for much longer. He is heading for the City! Of course – after he gets us our house.”
Matthew was dealing with it all – the bank, the solicitors, the real estate. Her presence had been required only at the initial meeting with the mortgage manager and it would be again for the signing of the deeds at the solicitors. Hopefully before Christmas. Under the grainy light of the side lamp, Matthew looked at Julie as she fell asleep. He could see their sprog: a tiny being with Julie’s thick brown curls and his blue eyes; or his blond hair and Julie’s hazel eyes.
First thing next morning Julie phoned the office. Her line manager wasn’t around and she insisted of speaking to the head of the department. Father of four himself – although his wife did all the childcare, school runs and domestic chores – he insisted on Julie actually taking the rest of the week off and not working from home, which she was suggesting. Okay, but she would still be checking emails…
Over the days that followed Julie went to the toilet at least once an hour. There were no traces of blood but that feeling of relief never lasted for longer than 60 minutes; or less. No movements yet. She spent hours on the internet. How early you feel your baby moving depended on the position of the placenta, but eventually the baby got bigger and stronger and all expectant mothers could feel the baby kick… And how do you explain all those surprise labours? Oops…the baby is here and I did not know I was pregnant!
The winter got fiercer, the air darker and temperatures plummeted to an all-time low. Julie put on her anti-slip walking boots, thick coat and two scarves and revisited the spot of the near-crash in front of the derelict fabrics factory in St. Andrew’s Road; four times in four days. The terraced houses – where she hoped someone might have seen what happened and maybe even written down the plate number – looked lifeless. It was certainly possible that no one had witnessed it from behind those impenetrable curtains and blinds.
On one of the days, Julie saw the young Bulgarian girl sweeping the leaves off the pavement in front of the main entrance to the factory. Julie approached her and smiled. The girl removed her headphones and stared at her with her deep dark eyes; with a mixture of disbelief, fear and incomprehension. She was extremely young, late teens at the most, skin pale and soft like porcelain.
“I Bulgarian. No speak good English!” said the girl.
“Did you see a black car driving like a maniac down this road?” Julie said slowly.
“Just now?” Asked the girl.
“No, no, on Monday! Three days ago, around 4.30?”
“No. I finish at 4!”
A feeling of relief washed over the girl’s face; she turned around, grabbed the handles of her two-bin trolley and rushed towards the opposite end of the road. Her male friend – also wearing an orange Environmental Cleaning Officer jacket – sat on the wall and smoked a cigarette.
Julie oscillated between dreadful worry and a self-induced calm that never lasted long. Matthew either phoned or texted a couple of times a day. Her answer was a rehearsed “not bad… Still a little bit worried, though…” His response had an equally pre-recorded resonance: “It will be fine. Just don’t worry. LoveU”.
Julie’s tummy was finally showing and friends, family and colleagues – just about everyone really – started enquiring about the gender and the names. Julie liked Veronica and Jack. Matthew liked Erin and Finley. Sporadic bouts of anxiety and uncontainable cries were still a regular feature of her day. And the scan could not come soon enough.
Matthew sorted all the paperwork with the bank and the solicitors. Their solicitor insisted on an additional check on the bay window roof and the rising damp. The levels of damp were acceptable but the bay window roof needed to be replaced asap and the solicitor negotiated a discount.
“This chap knows his job!” said Matthew admiringly. “Nothing gets past him. He is completely dedicated to our best interests!”
Four weeks and two days later – a month of struggling to recover from the shock and regaining some kind of balance – Julie was back at the scanning unit of Whipps Cross. Matthew holding her hand.
The baby was absolutely fine; perfectly formed and very bouncy. The nurse turned the blue monitor towards them and asked if they wanted to know the gender.
“Oh yes, please!” they said in unison.
“It’s a girl! And a very active one by the look of it!”
They laughed. Matthew could already feel two small arms hugging his neck.
The scan coincided with the date of exchange. Straight after the hospital, Julie and Matthew drove to the solicitors in Walthamstow. The receptionist smiled, walked them down the corridor, opened the door and announced them.
It was him!
The man who had almost crashed into her in St Andrew’s Road got up from behind an antique-looking desk. In the very same shiny grey suit, with the same sculptured beard and that thick plated gold necklace. He shook Matthew’s hand, but she stayed at the back, folding her hands behind her back, and instead just nodded slightly.
“I have great news for you, Mr and Mrs Halfhide. I would like to congratulate you. You've got yourself a house for Christmas!”
The dizziness and nausea came instantly and Julie collapsed into the armchair next to the door. The two men turned towards her. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and her bottom lip quivered.
“Are you alright?”
The solicitor jumped, and poured a glass of water from the watercooler behind his desk, before running over to her.
“Here! Or would you prefer a tea? Or a hot chocolate to raise your sugar levels? I can pop out to get it for you?”
Sharp and blinding winter sun gushed through the large windows.
He did not recognise her.
Matthew pointed at her tummy and said “hormones!”
“Oh I understand that, trust me! My three sisters have five kids between them!”
“Expensive Christmas for you too, then!”
“You could well say that!”
Julie felt a ticklish sensation on the right side of her tummy. Like a touch by a passing butterfly’s wings; so gentle, so instantaneous. When it came back a few moments later, there was no mistake. Her little girl was finally announcing her presence. Mummy, everything's fine… Mummy, everything's fine…
London, June 2016