There is a railway embankment on the far side of a strip of common land opposite the flat in Balham, South-West London. Clearly visible from the wide living room window is a siding onto which freight trucks are shunted by a tank engine. The locomotive seems angry: its wheels spin in exasperation and great gouts of steam squirt from its chimney. You kneel on a low chest covered with cushions watching through the breath-clouded window, rapt.
You are pushed in your pram from Emmanuel Road to Ritherdon Road, where Nanny and Grandpa Jones live in their second-floor flat. You pass first through the recreation ground on Balham Common and then through a series of connecting streets, all lined with Victorian terraced houses and short parades of shops. The terraces are punctuated irregularly by partially cleared bombsites. Great A-frame timbers shore up the surviving sections of the terraces. Their end walls are huge naked, two-dimensional cartoons of domesticity: fireplaces robbed of hearths, doorways yawning into space, walls variously painted or papered - kitchens, bedrooms, dining rooms, lavatories. Snapped-off joists protrude, some still bearing sections of floorboarding. One shattered attic under a shelf of eaves still retains a bathroom sink skewed away from the wall on a single lead pipe.
In Balham High Street, up near the railway bridge, you pass the boarded-up fascia of the Cameo cinema, closed since the War. Chains and a padlock secure its double doors. A broken shoe, silted in debris and dust, lies on its side on the top step. Is the owner within, one-footed, trapped in the dark? Even within the clank and rattle of the trams swinging in and out of their station across the street, there is in that derelict place still a sense of the thick silence that follows unspeakable disaster.
Your bed at Granny and Grandad Roberts’ house, 1 Hockenden Cottages, is as high as a haystack. Standing, you can lean your forehead against the edge of the faded eiderdown. The room smells faintly of lavender and limewash. High up on the bed, the sheets are creamy linen, cool and heavy. The pillows are stacked three-deep and to make the bed your own, you must beat a channel in the centre of the top one with your head. On the mantelpiece is a huge green marble clock, the face set into the portico of a Greek temple. It’s stopped at 12.20. Above it is a picture of Ruth and Naomi from The Bible. They are leaning against each other, smiling faintly. You sleep on your back and the picture is the first thing you see as you wake up to the dawn cry of the Essex’s cockerel next door each morning.
Wooden crates with slatted sides are piled high in each of the dappled clearings in the apple orchards that stretch away behind Granny and Granddad Roberts’ cottage. Faded writing is stencilled onto the end panels – McNair Vinson Farms. Deep amongst the trees, Georgie Essex and you climb high on the rickety stacks. Throwing crates down and shifting others into position, you create a fortress. The two of you crouch down inside the haphazard citadel of crates and breathe in the intoxicating fumes of generations of Cox’s pippins.