The flight from Gatwick to France was cancelled and there was no prospect of another for three days. Paddington station was closed and the road to the south-west of England and home was impassable. Gatwick airport railway station was in chaos as train after train in both directions was cancelled due to snow.
Then a friend came to the rescue and offered her flat in south London until I could book another flight. A train to Clapham Junction then a bus would get me there. The keys were in a key safe attached to the rear of the porter’s lodge.
A rogue northbound train arrived and everyone jumped on irrespective of its destination, as though it were the last train out of Berlin before the Russians turned up. At Clapham Common the bus was still gamely running and it stopped right outside the imposing 1930s block of flats. The porter’s lodge was deserted but I located the key safe. Revolving the numbered wheels to the correct code and flipping the safe open was very difficult as I had no feeling in the tips of my fingers.
The flat was enormous. And pure 1930s — original metal windows, vast bath, art deco-style fireplace. I called my friend to learn how to turn on the heating. ‘Amazing flat, Penny,’ I said. She gave a brief history. During the war, General de Gaulle had lived in that very flat, she said. Post-war builders had uncovered the buried fuel tank in which his government-issued petrol was stored. And the flat had witnessed a tragedy. She’d bought it a decade before. The previous occupants were a very elderly lesbian couple. One died of natural causes and the other was so grief-stricken that she set fire to herself and burnt to death in the guest bedroom. If I looked carefully at the bedroom ceiling when I was lying in bed, she said, I would see the smoke damage.
I set up camp in the kitchen. It was the soonest warm and there was a telly. I hadn’t watched a television for months. I switched on and flicked through the channels. Nothing appealed until I arrived at one devoted to history called Yesterday. Currently showing, weirdly, was a documentary about General de Gaulle so I sat down and watched it. During the first world war the big contrarian lump was shot in the knee and in the hand, bayoneted in the thigh, gassed, blown up and taken prisoner, subsequently making five escape attempts. We followed his dissenting career until the Germans invaded France again and de Gaulle left France (or rather, France left him) for London, from where he broadcast his daily resolve-stiffening appeals to the French people. After which he presumably returned to the kitchen I was sitting in, and stared testily out of the window.
I made a pig of myself with that telly. If the televisual fare became too uniformly banal even for the likes of me, I read. From the thousands of books lining the flat, I chose Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough by Duncan Hamilton, which in its own way is every bit as gripping as David Peace’s novel about Clough, The Damned United.
And so for the next three days I led a solitary, mute and interior life in an enormous, snowbound 1930s London flat, albeit with three ghostly presences: General de Gaulle, an elderly barbecued lesbian and Brian Clough — though one imagines they were too busy bickering among themselves to pay any attention to their mortal guest.
My flight was rescheduled for noon of the fourth day, which meant quitting the flat at 9 a.m. at the latest. I packed my bag the night before and fried sausages for the journey. The next morning I cleaned up and switched everything off, and I was standing in my cap, coat and gloves at two minutes to nine like some sort of anal retentive. All I needed to do before closing the flat door behind me was take the rubbish bag outside and dump it in the dustbin, which was located on a shared back balcony. This balcony was accessed via an exterior door in the communal hallway.
I went through this door, plopped the bag in the dustbin with a flourish of finality and turned to leave again. Unfortunately, the door had swung shut behind me and could not be opened from the outside. I banged on the windows and door but the block was as silent as the tomb and my phone was with my luggage. I sat on the dustbin and despaired. And it sounds far-fetched, but were those the faces of Charles de Gaulle, Cloughie and the burnt lesbian, hostilities suspended, staring balefully out at me through the kitchen window? ‘Help! Help!’ I shouted.