George Mowatt, management consultant-turned entrepreneur, is one of the wealthiest people in Britain. Karen Barnes, a single mum living in a terraced house in south Leeds, is not. When George decides that his third home should be close to the stadium of his beloved sports team, they become neighbours. Both George and Karen have been unlucky in love and the chemistry between them is instant. Yet their lives are a world apart, and their hearts keep missing each other’s beat.
The gulf in their experiences presents a culture clash, while the difference in income raises questions over whether George’s appeal lies in his character, or his solvency. Karen’s feelings are genuine: she detects kindness, generosity and a hint of melancholy about George. Moreover, hints that his business could be in trouble cause her to wonder if he was actually in debt. George is fascinated by how a smart, attractive Mum with a talented teenage daughter could be single and clearly struggling, and he loves her quick wit and sweet nature.
The rooms that they dare not, or cannot, enter are imaginary, physical and metaphorical. Karen is haunted by a recurring dream in which she discovers there are magical upstairs rooms in her house, that she is delighted to explore. For George, the rooms he does not enter are real: the family rooms in his large Surrey home that lie unused after his divorce. Both have to find the keys to open doors to new ways of understanding and expressing themselves, if they are to find love.
Just as they begin to chart a route to happiness, someone from Karen’s past reappears, and she is forced to reveal a secret she has kept from them both. The Rooms We Never Enter is a funny, heartfelt tale of missed opportunities, unlikely romance and a love that seems to be forever out of reach. It also raises sharp questions over the extent to which traditional gender roles have really changed in modern Britain.
I had The House dream again. It was the best yet; which is to say the worst, the most vivid. I sensed, even at the most serene moments, that I was condemned to waking up. No! No! I don’t want to wake up! Waking up is like dying all over again! I want to watch Bronte playing, sunlight glinting on her black shiny hair at the top of each swing, giggling. In the dream she is seven again. She jumps off the swing, rolls in the soft green grass and white and yellow daisies, picks up my hand and says: ‘Come on Mum! I want to show you the rooms we’ve never been in yet.’ She leads me in, up one set of stairs and then another. Nothing is like our real house and yet, in the dream it is familiar to me, until we reach the second set of stairs. ‘Why have I never noticed this before?’ I say to her. ‘A whole extra storey, that I’ve never been in!’ We’re both giggling now. ‘Come on, Mum, these are the best rooms.’ The light streams in through elegant dormer windows, lighting up deep, soft settees and four-poster beds; Axminster carpets and oil paintings. ‘It’s like a palace,’ I say. ‘It’s our palace, and I’m the princess,’ she replies.
I know I am dreaming. It’s too strange now, but I fight against waking up. I wake up. There is no second staircase, no extra rooms, no swing, no lawn; indeed, no garden, except for a front yard so small that if I were to sit on the window ledge and stretch out my legs, I could almost rest my ankles on the front wall. The sun was shining, at least. It shines on the rich and the poor alike. Bronte is 15, not seven; 16 in two weeks’ time. But she is lovely; my treasure – kind, clever, funny, artistic with a great singing voice and good taste in music, for the most part. She’s there at the breakfast table when I go down, eating cereal and listening to music on headphones. It was Danny who had wakened me up and I’d helped him get washed and dressed, complaining. Him, not me. Three years old and already with a mind very much his own. I hoped he wasn’t going to turn out like Darren. Bronte, fortunately, is beginning to resemble Terry: soft in manner, artistic and kind, with high cheekbones and a beautiful face.
Danny would be with grandma in Beeston today; Bronte hanging out with some friends ‘til some point in the afternoon. Then, in the evening, we’d all gather together for the telly; maybe Rita from next door would join us too. It was Saturday, but I didn’t have a weekend shift. I’d saved up £20 for myself, and I planned to go by buses to Headingley, or maybe even Otley or Ilkley if I had time, shop in the charity stores there for designer brand cast-offs – my little secret; and gather some house details – my guilty obsession. As it was a nice day I didn’t even mind if the buses took a long time. I would sit on the top deck, watch the world as we went by.
It was early afternoon when the number 64 returned to Holbeck Moor, and I got off. Don’t be fooled by the term ‘Moor’; it’s not like Bronte country, more like a rec. But anyway, I was well pleased with my purchases: a beautiful green designer top for a fiver, nearly new; and a small handbag, plus half a dozen estate agent colour brochures for north west Leeds, nice houses near the Otley Road. The brochures were all free, of course. The staff all cheerfully handed them out to me, as I was scrubbed clean, well presented and gave a warm smile. I didn’t have to confess that I was skint. I couldn’t afford any of the houses; not even a garage, probably, but that’s not the point, is it? I was happiest I’d been for a while, looking forward to the pizza and wine, with cola for the kids, that evening.
Bronte wasn’t back. I texted her, and she texted straight back, which was a relief. She was still in the arcades; back around five. I called Mum to check Danny was OK. He was playing with toy trucks. She’d bring him back for his tea. I had around two hours to myself. I pulled out the house details. One caught my eye immediately: a gorgeous period cottage in Headingley, nicely photographed, beautifully decorated. Just under £250,000. Only two bedrooms, mind, though they did look nice; one of them ensuite. I often dreamed of just wandering in from the bathroom naked, or just a towel wrapped around me, on smooth polished wood flours, from luxurious shower room to deluxe bedroom, natural light pouring in through skylights or dormers. Still, quarter of a million for a two-bed house in Headingley! What is the world coming to? But a nice garden, mix of patio, plants and a bit of lawn, south-facing. All handy for the shops, pubs, restaurants bars and cafes. And the cricket and rugby ground. You’re never far from sport in this part of the world. Might be appealing to a future Mr Lucky, my imaginary Mr Right, as elusive and out-of-reach as a spacious semi or cottage. Dream on, I tell myself, but dreams can be pleasurable, especially when they’re all you’ve got.
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