We met, as before, at West Brompton station, and took the next train back to Hampstead Heath. I., as usual, spent the journey eagerly scanning the horizon for diggers. They were in rather short supply, but our way from the station to home took us past a monstrous crane, so all was not lost.
Hampstead, that like Chelsea used to be inexpensive and bohemian, is now, also like Chelsea, comprehensively bankered, house after house polished inside and out until the whole place looks like a colony of boutique hotels. Here and there, however, an island of reassuring shabbiness remains. Until recently, the house with the crane was one such. It’s in Downshire Hill, a now fabulously expensive street of Georgian and neo-gothic houses that leads from Rosslyn Hill to the heath. When Bruce was a student he spent a summer in one of these, then a draughty studio, with a business purveying a penis-enlarging substance called Magnaphall operating out of its back room. (Shamefully, he even sent an anonymous sample, under plain cover, to someone we knew. How we chortled!)
The house with the crane was a few doors down from Bruce’s studio. We used to wonder about it when we passed, for it was completely overgrown with ivy, and a long-dead motorbike, similarly overgrown, languished ivy-clad in the garden. We wondered if anyone actually lived there, and how long it would be allowed to stay in its delightfully unregenerate state. Then, a couple of years ago, in an wonderfully appropriate twist, we heard that its reclusive owner had been a one-time spy, and had been murdered for reasons mysteriously unreportable, supposedly to do with China (and, presumably, espionage.) Since he died intestate and had no relatives the house stood empty for a while, but was then, inevitably, bought by a developer.
It has now been demolished, and a spanking new replica is being constructed over one of the vast basements which hedgies use to demonstrate that their bank balances are bigger than anyone else’s. Clearly the Magnaphall ambience persists, but in a suitably more expensive form. Hence the crane, which now I come to think of it probably fulfils a function not dissimilar to that of the basement (mine is taller than yours!) And not only was it there, it was in use as we passed, collecting a huge bucket of concrete from a mixer parked in the street. The mixer spewed concrete into the bucket, which the crane then lifted into the basement while I. goggled, entranced.
Later, we went into the garden, where I.’s gaze at once fastened upon a small bike belonging to a little boy who lives in one of the other flats. He rushed up to this desirable object, from which I had, with great difficulty, to dissuade him, explaining that it wasn’t our bike to play with. But the damage was done: the other toys we’d brought out with us had lost all interest for him. He’d move a car desultorily around, then look up at me and intone, ‘Not our bike!’ perhaps in hopes that the ban would somehow, miraculously, have been lifted, or perhaps just to express mourning. When we left the garden I steered a course to avoid it, but out of sight did not mean out of mind.
Sadly, I. and I shan’t be having very many more of these sessions. After some weeks of suspense, Esther and the philosopher are about to exchange contracts on their buy-and-sell. All is finally in place, in two weeks’ time they’ll be relocated and can resume living in the present. And everything will change, for all of us.
After which, though Granny will still be a frequent visitor to I.’s, his visits to Granny’s house will, I fear, be few and far between.