‘Sterling Close’ by Barbara Jaques

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In nineteen-seventy-one Britain decimalised, meaning that the small housing development that had been planned as Hedgecroft Mead was instead named Sterling Close, because the person responsible for such things believed themselves to be witnessing a momentous occasion.

Nothing of note happened as a result of either change, though during that same year a boy was born who would in time find his way to live in the close. The close was a collection of five houses, each similar but none the same. Commonly, these might now be called executive homes, and perhaps they were even then. After all, a penny remains a penny.

To understand what happened to the boy when he became the man whose address was, for a short time only, Number Four Sterling Close, we should look briefly to the past. Not events such as a shilling becoming five pence and a pound no longer being a pound, for anyone born after that year was clueless to know what two bob was, let alone what these two Bobs might buy should they venture out together.

Currency has nothing to do with our tale, save the coincidence of the year and the name of the street; a name no one ever thought about.

The houses in Sterling Close were sold off-plan. This meant no one had a chance to inspect what it was they were committing their lives to. You may wish to hold onto that thought, when you learn more about the residents of Sterling Close. How can it be, you will wonder, that people of such similar taste came together. And therein you will have your answer.

Fortunately for those who signed on the dotted line, the developer was a decent one. The houses were well built, each highly specified with modern conveniences and large gardens. These were homes people hungered for, as they drove by in their Ford Anglias while marvelling at the beautiful countryside location, a site so near local amenities that residents could practically walk to the pub. Or to buy new exotic foods, such as Vesta curry.

Years passed, and a time arrived when unprecedented change began sweeping the country; the planner who had believed decimalisation might bring that change, was long dead. Greedy housing developers began rampaging across the countryside, lush fields falling one by one in the never-ending feast upon greenbelt, fertile soils concreted over because local authority protection was cut and laid out to dry.

But set aside from it all, Sterling Close continued to stand as it always had, alone. Unlike other rural estates, swallowed up by the need for housing, the close remained separate, and rather than become sucked into suburban sprawl it was ever more isolated.

While entire districts popped up and cities grew, so did supermarkets and other retail sheds, until one day the little town that had always served Sterling Close so well, felt a tap on the shoulder. It turned a meek head only to discover itself bereft of everything useful. Where once several butchers and bakers, haberdashers and hardware stores traded well, a plethora of hairdressers and charity shops had taken over.

Since it wasn’t healthy to eat curlers or drink peroxide, nor possible to fix a leaking roof with second-hand paperbacks, the heart of the town stopped dead from shock. The road passing Sterling Close thickened and widened to aid escape to what some might have called greener pastures. The little town, once buzzing with good day to you and nice to see you and fancy a drink this Friday, Mary, had morphed into a commuter town. Community spirit lay buried beneath an industrial park.

Sterling Close became not only more isolated, but noisy.

Of course, just as people remained in the town, so they did in Sterling Close, despite the change. If one could ignore the sound of the main road then it was charming. Here, crops of golden wheat still rippled in the soft summer breeze, and between rush-hours the twittering call of skylarks could be heard high above.

And deer continued to hazard a guess at whether or not it was safe to cross, hit and miss rate either worsening or improving year by year depending on perspective. Because besides the consumption of many other meats, the people of Sterling Close often picked up deer whose judgment had been found wanting. At certain times of year they would enjoy a plentiful supply of pheasant, too.

Living as they did, seemingly cut off from everywhere else, Sterling Close was a snug community growing ever more tightly knit. There were arguments from time to time, and even an affair in nineteen eighty-two, but for the most part people managed each other’s company very well.

The boy who became the man, moved into Number Four Sterling Close because he inherited the property from his mother. She had lived there most of her adult life, always alone save for a string of cats. His late father, a tiny Englishman who’d been married to his difficult Italian wife for exactly one terrible year, raised their son alone; the two of them relatively happy in a tiny French village on the border of Limousin and Auvergne.

During his childhood, the son occasionally stayed with his mother and had fond memories of Sterling Close. These memories were not of her, or children he might have played with, for there were none, but of the location. By nature, he was not a city boy and so whether France or England, countryside or seaside, he loved it. When old enough to choose, however, he stopped going. Mother and son had nothing in common except their mutual lack of affection; he’d never had the sense that she’d wanted him there.

As an only child, her will-less estate had automatically passed to him. Number Four was the largest in the close, boasting five bedrooms and three receptions, two bathrooms, plus a laundry room and separate utility. No one understood why she lived this way, in an executive home in the middle of nowhere, but she had chosen the life and that was that. When her son was informed of her death and how he would benefit, he’d felt a tug of regret natural even in loveless relationships. It was closely followed by elation. He closed up his father’s house and packed his bags and left for England with a spring in his step. He was now a wealthy man, which made him a free one.

To celebrate the new homeowner’s arrival, the neighbours of Sterling Close threw a welcome barbeque. It was mid-July, and though unseasonably cold, the idea of summer pushed everyone into believing it was warm enough to cook and eat outside. This was his initial take on it, though he came to realise they often ate this way.

Coincidentally, a big old roe buck had been mown down by a passing truck, and so the event had morphed into a gourmet feast of venison burgers, a claim made after the guest of honour tasted the meat and was unable to prevent himself gagging, or visibly shuddering. It had to be well hung, they’d said, as all old deers should be. As a novelist, albeit with no finished work to his name, the new owner of Number Four corrected the grammar.

The next day he’d felt unwell, and so lay in the bed of his dead mother until lunchtime.

It surprised him how frequently his neighbours ate together. It was late September when his too often wine-addled brain finally registered this fact in full. Hardly a few days went by without some culinary event, whether an American supper where everyone pitched in, or a fine dining experience meaning one household slaved. He was always invited and often accepted, quietly watching while his new acquaintances laughed at jokes he could not understand, sometimes himself speaking mildly of things he hoped might be of interest. He soon realised his life in France was not one of these things, the topic holding no more appeal than anything or anywhere beyond the give-way sign at the junction. It seemed, providing he was willing to discuss recipes and gardening and ask meaningless questions about how they all came to be such good friends, he was permitted to be part of things.

Almost.

It was a strangely warm Sunday afternoon on October thirty-first when he said something that brought a flash of silence that in turn caused him concern. He and the other residents had been standing in the road enjoying a street party ahead of Halloween. This event was an annual occurrence; a bit of fun ahead of trick-or-treating, he was told. Fun ahead of the fun, he’d said. Exactly, was the straight reply.

Despite having grown up in France, he was, because of his father, a man very aware of Halloween and its traditions from across the Atlantic. As it was during his childhood, Sterling Close remained for the most part a childfree space, so naturally he’d gone on to ask which children would be coming. This was when that fleeting yet observable silence came, the one to touch his consciousness when many other silences had passed it by.

Chatter returned quickly, wine and beer flowed, and the hot barbeque blackened the jerky basted animals laid upon it. When querying the identity of these indefinable shapes, he was informed with a kindly smile they were rabbits scraped fresh from the road. Fortunately, he no longer felt any compulsion to eat what was offered, no obligation to suffer as he had during and after his very first barbeque. For the night he had shuddered at the gamey taste of the burger, was the night he formulated a lie.

It was a declaration that he was, in fact, a vegetarian trying to be polite and fit in. He had only nibbled the burger, he’d said, because they had been so keen for him to try it. Their faces, the collective noun for looks given in this sort of situation perhaps being, a tapas of expression, varied, but all were condemning; they thought him weak for not speaking up in the first place. This untruth hadn’t seen off further offers of meat, however, rather his perceived desire to fit in continued to be tested. Nonetheless, this dietary claim did stop the absolute insistence that he a least try whatever was offered; essentially, he could decline and be heard.

Like his father before him, he was a small sinewy man, the sort who might at first appear frail but is in fact incredibly strong. His father’s use of this strength had been his wife’s delight, when he would gather her much larger form in his arms, lifting her from the fireside rug before pressing her against the wall, soft legs wrapped about his bare bottom. This was how their only child was conceived; it was because of this easy power that he existed at all. The couple were never a good match other than when locked together, and it was certainly enough to sustain obsession for a month or two, and interest for a good few more. Not, alas, for a lifetime.

The diminutive size of Number Four’s new owner gave cause for those residing in Sterling Close to declare he should start eating meat. They would pinch his stringy arms and suck air through their teeth, heads shaking, claiming he was underweight. What his lightweight frame never did was prompt anyone to reference his mother. She was a large woman, not fat, but big and shapely and the opposite of him. In fact, he came to realise, from the day he moved in no one mentioned her at all, not even in passing.

Watching people leaning over a bucket full of water trying to bite apples, he felt himself wilt. There was nothing wrong with the life he had left behind except that it bored him; he had moved from France thinking only to find a new way of being. He’d thought of his mother’s home as somewhere that might offer positive change, with its size and beautiful views, its large garden and comfortable space. But the roar of the road did not match the memory of a peaceful idyll, and the sense of seclusion had distorted into loneliness.

Nothing about his life seemed changed, as if all the tedium he’d run from had followed him to his mother’s door and crept inside on his heels. He still drank too much wine and ate very little healthy food, and was now forced to cook his meals in secret, for he loved meat very much. No window or door was left open while he cooked, not even the extractor fan could be switched on, for this would push the aroma outside and give him away. Many nights he did not eat meat at all, since he felt compelled to be social. Those nights he went to bed with a packet of smoky bacon flavoured crisps, or a bag of pork scratchings. Once, he took both.

The queue for apple bobbing was as long as it could be, because as soon as one person was finished they wanted to try again. He suspected the water in which the apples floated was not water at all, but something far more interesting. He couldn’t bring himself to ask. With a gloomy sigh, he made the excuse of feeling unwell and returned to his house. Once inside, he closed the front door and leaned against it. Outside felt to be as much a prison as inside. He would have to move.

It was a shame, he thought. When first he’d heard of his inheritance, Sterling Close had offered hope, but it was far from perfect and in very many ways. He poured a large glass of red wine and slumped down into an easy chair out of sight of the window. The curtains were closed as they always were now, but he felt better knowing he could not be seen even through a tiny gap.

In the silence, broken only by bursts of laughter from outside, he looked about, eyes roaming the room and doorways. Whilst once upon a time it had certainly been a state of the art residence, now it did not offer even the Internet. He had tried and failed to set it up and every excuse possible had been offered, from old phone lines to faulty connections. None of it seemed plausible. If it weren’t for the fact the man responsible for the local exchange lived in Sterling Close he would not have believed any of it. Hardest to accept was this big boss was not connected either. How could that be, he wondered, as he sipped his wine? But there it was.

His mood lightened at the thought of moving and being able to surf the net and open emails without travelling to the nearest supermarket café. Even his phone connection was so poor he could access nothing at home. As he pondered, his plans accelerated, shifting quickly from thinking he would sell and then move out, to deciding to leave within the week. He had enough money left from both his parents’ estates to find a motel somewhere beautiful and connected, a place to live while he looked for the perfect home to buy; some place that was new, a house not his father’s or his mother’s, but his own.

In fact, he realised, by not renting a regular house he could move around the country on a whim and check out lots of different areas. He could even move back to France. There, he might feel motivated to finish one of the novels he’d been writing for years, because moving away hadn’t offered a single drop of inspiration. He’d never expected to find a second such boring existence.

Three light raps interrupted his thoughts. He stowed the glass from sight, messed up his hair and clothes, put on a tired expression, sagged his shoulders and answered the door.

‘Yes?’

Before him was a woman, one of the wives of the street. They were virtually identical so he couldn’t easily recall her name.

The generic woman wrinkled her powdered nose apologetically, ‘Sorry to disturb. Will you be trick-or-treating tonight?’

It was a ludicrous question. ‘I don’t have any children.’

‘None of us do. Are you coming? It’s fun.’ She said it not as an excuse for going out and doing it anyway, but as a matter-of-fact.

‘No. I’m feeling much worse.’ He waited, until he realised there was not to be any further apology for bothering him. ‘Besides, I need to start packing.’

It was the woman’s turn to pause. ‘Packing?’ she asked, after a moment.

‘Yes. I’m moving.’

‘I didn’t realise.’

He chose not to elaborate.

‘Shame,’ she said, her gaze running over him, head to foot and back again. ‘Never mind. We’ll miss you, I expect.’ She smiled sharply, before turning and hurrying away.

I won’t miss you, he thought, grabbing his drink and slugging it back. He poured another and started for the storage cupboard under the stairs, spirits lifting rapidly. He still had his packing boxes and could rent the place fully furnished – fully equipped, even. Truth told, he could be gone in a day.

He began gathering up the few items spread out to make the house a home, and started organising everything carefully into boxes. His mother’s private things were gone even before he’d moved in, though he had no idea where they were and neither did the solicitor. In fact, the solicitor had suggested she didn’t have many possessions to speak of, in any case. On the surface of it, this seemed unlikely given she had lived for so long in one place. But he cast aside doubts, since the solicitor also lived in Sterling Close and seemed a sensible sort. Besides, he must have been inside and seen for himself at some point. It was the solicitor who suggested that he should move in rather than sell, though then they’d still not met face to face. Perhaps, he now thought, the solicitor had assumed him to be a good fit. He must have been disappointed to discover that he wasn’t.

Soon the large hallway was stacked with boxes, though not so many they couldn’t be stuffed into the big four-wheel drive, bought thinking he’d need it living in the country. Beneath the thickening fog of alcohol, he felt extremely satisfied. One moment he was bored rigid watching middle class, middle aged numbskulls playing mindless games in middle England, and the next he was as near to being on the road to freedom as could be.

Through the small pane of glass in the front door, he noticed night had fallen and these exact same people were now dressed up as ghouls and witches. What tricks they were performing was hard to determine, and who was left inside each house to dole out treats, equally so. Besides his own, there were only four properties and between them ten people. He thought there seemed to be one or two more out there tonight; someone’s visitors, he supposed. Turning for the stairs, he headed for bed.

It was while brushing his teeth and wandering restlessly about that he found himself looking from a bedroom window, not his own at the back of the house, but a spare room to the front. Below, the barbeque was fired up. And it was the barbeque, for it seemed to belong to no one in particular, a communal item located on a shared piece of grassy land where a pavement might ordinarily sit, between front garden walls and the short circular road itself, leaping driveway entrances. It was well groomed, as was everything in Sterling Close, for this was a road, he’d discovered on inheriting, that was private. The residents tended everything, which had come to make him feel more claustrophobic than ever.

There were no street lamps. There had been originally, apparently, but the residents removed them rather than pay for upkeep. Instead, strings of multi-coloured fairy lights were hung from trees, and beneath the mild glow, he noticed what he was sure were two people fighting. It was a short wrestle, with one person collapsing very quickly. What struck him was how no one else seemed bothered by the fracas. Whoever was on barbeque duty did not move so much as a centimetre let alone an inch, other than to stoke embers and turn flesh, and the person walking around gathering empty plastic cups carried on as normal. Everyone else continued to chat. The assailant leaned over the fallen, and it was with relief that he saw another individual finally take notice. This person carried a flashlight, beam wobbling about here and there revealing very little, until finally it settled – he was suddenly and blindingly aware – upon him.

Toothbrush in hand, he waved lamely. Now they would know he was not quite as ill as he’d claimed. The beam dropped away, and though heavily shadowed, he could see the two begin dragging the third from sight.

He’d fallen asleep very quickly after that, and slept an hour for each of the two bottles he’d somehow managed to consume whilst packing, but then woken unexpectedly as people do who have drunk too much. He went downstairs and poured himself a pint of chilled orange juice, glugging it down in one before topping up with water. As he walked back up the stairs, glass in hand, he felt an urge to look again from the bedroom window. This time he peered carefully, peeking from behind the open curtain. Outside, people were still milling about, and from the back garden of one house came the bright orange glow of a bonfire blazing. He had noticed the pile of wood and waste building up and assumed it was for Guy Fawkes Night, the celebration each November fifth when British people burn life-sized effigies of this Catholic traitor-come-freedom-fighter, depending on your view; burning even when Catholic themselves. He’d been wrong about that, it seemed. The fire was for tonight, and, he supposed, there was no human effigy.

Looking down, he saw a parked car blocking his driveway. He couldn’t tell whose vehicle it was and felt a little miffed; not through of any sense of trespass or ownership, since he had not developed any emotional connection with the house at all. It was only that his leaving might be delayed, and since he had decided to go the thought of staying a second longer than needed was irritating.

Back in bed, he lay wakeful until five when he got up and had a mug of tea while loading the car in the dark. The other vehicle had gone. He left Sterling Close at six without a word to anyone, driving straight to the twenty-four hour supermarket café he always used. There, he ordered a full English breakfast to soak up the wine he knew was still swilling, and searched for the names of rental agents who might have an interest in managing the property.

Within half an hour an email arrived from the solicitor. His first thoughts were the man was up and about very early, his second that he must be psychic.

The communication opened and ended in formal legal fashion, but the body of the text was plainly written:

 

Of course, we are all very sorry you had to leave so soon. Naturally, we wish you the very best. Life is a fine meal, and you are still very much on your first course, so we understand the desire to taste more.

Since you plan to rent out your mother’s house we have a proposition. We, as a community, wish to rent it from you and sub let. It will offer us a little extra income and allow the rare privilege of choosing our neighbours. Your mother always rented out the rooms and we miss the input of fresh blood; that extra fat new people lend our minute community. Only occasionally do properties become available here, the last was in nineteen eighty-two.

Let me know your initial thoughts on this proposal, and whether you might consider selling to us instead of renting. Our incomes mostly allow for a medium level of comfort, so be assured we can certainly raise funds for the venture. I am convinced your late mother would consider it an appropriate and tasteful move; she would think the disposal of her house in this way to be a job well done, so to speak.

Please let me know whether you are agreeable to any of the above and I shall come back to you in due course.

 

Apart from the very strange coincidence of everyone knowing his plans at the very moment he was acting on them, he was thrilled. He would definitely sell because that way he could cut ties and spend the proceeds as he saw fit. Suddenly, ahead of him was not a motel but a hotel. Somewhere with fine food and no busy road roaring outside, perhaps instead there would be the gentle lapping of waves.

He cut into a sausage, the first time he had done so without looking over his shoulder since moving to Sterling Close. On the tray lay a handful of change, and amongst the coins one that stood out. It was large and silvery, an old two shilling piece, no longer legal tender but accepted as a substitute ten pence in the transitional years of altered currency; a ten pence that had since changed form. He fingered it, knowing nothing of this, before putting it back with the rest of the money.

Perhaps he might very soon find a way to finish a novel, he decided. He ignored the fact that to finish something it must first be genuinely begun. Maybe some other place would speak to him of history and intrigue, give him the edge he was looking for. He thought of the widely touted saying stating truth is stranger than fiction. Not so, he decided, chewing thoughtfully and enjoying the flavour of seasoned meat in his mouth. For nothing interesting ever happened to him. No, as the only son of two rather ordinary people, he’d have to go out there and find it.

So he continued eating, eating and thinking as all men do; the boy that became one of the few to live in Sterling Close.

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