An excerpt from

The Rooms We Never Enter

PJ Whiteley

Chapter 1 Waking Up is Like Dying

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.

I pulled out my Lottery ticket. Luckiest number between 1 and 10; luckiest number between 10 and 20; and so on. That should do it. I kissed it, and placed it back in my handbag. Then the sun, or rather the reflection of the sun, lit up the room, a vivid bright yellow in a flood of light. I looked out of the window. It was shining off the large sloping windscreen of a low sports car, parked just outside; actually, immediately outside next door, which was empty and up for sale, but all the houses are close by each other on our street. That’s different, I thought. Some sporty cars are not that expensive, really, but you could sort of tell that this one was, just by the aura it gave off, and the confident air of the man who locked it up; looked around him, like he was suspecting a thief or a mugger, before stooping back in to the car, seemingly to search for something. I walked over to the window for a better look. I know car makes well, thanks to Kevin. I recognised the circular emblem of a Mercedes Benz.

What was he doing here? I watched as he got out of his car. A kind face, but worried. He took out a white scarf with blue and gold edgings. ‘Rich White’, I thought; Southern White, maybe. That explains it. He’s probably only worried over getting to the stadium. I looked at the time on my phone. Eleven minutes to three already. He’d be missing the start, unless he runs. Curious and amused, I walked out into our front yard. He caught my eye as he walked by. More surprisingly still, he asked me the way.

I say ‘surprisingly’, but it’s relatively common that a guy talks to me. He seemed chatty and friendly, even if he was slightly insulting about the district, probably unintentionally, asking if the car was safe. I made a sarcastic comment about my thieving teenage sons – silly really, I have a teenage girl called Bronte who’s an absolute angel – and he took it well; apologized for his question, complimented me on looking too young to have teenagers. We chatted a bit, but after a short while I felt guilty that maybe I was flirting. I am single, so it is allowed but, well, he’s obviously got a bit of money. The phrase ‘gold-digger’ comes into my mind if I chat with a professional guy, at least sometimes. I’ve learned to worry as much about their motives, as mine.

Anyway, he’s probably married, I reflected. He’s allowed the Saturday off from the kids; maybe not every Saturday, maybe just once a month. That would explain his lateness – he agreed to take little Johnny for his football match in the morning before rushing off to watch the grown-ups play. There was an air about him, however, that indicated that there wasn’t a Mrs Mercedes-Benz back home; an air of apology, of loneliness, of self-contained maleness. And if he really had a lad big enough to play football in the morning, he would surely take him along for the Leeds game in the afternoon. Even daughters get taken along, these days, though I’ve never understood the appeal myself; nor has Bronte, thankfully. There did seem to be a sense of decency about him. He was very courteous towards me, and he seemed kind. Can one detect that, at first sight? You can be right, you can be wrong. Sincere, certainly. Not super-handsome, but presentable, and his confidence made him a bit sexy. For the first time in months, I felt the tiniest flicker of something like desire. This was absurd. I scolded myself and my body. We spoke a little. The accent was hard to place; not local exactly, but not cockney like Eastenders. I had glanced down at his left hand. No ring. He was wearing a rather bulky watch; old-fashioned.

After Mum brought Danny round, I watched a cartoon with him as we snuggled together on the sofa. Then he fell asleep, and I just made sure he was comfortable before getting up to make myself a cup of tea. I texted Sharon, mostly chat about kids; then Rita, asking if we could watch Britain’s Got Talent that evening at hers. She said she would be busy, so it would be just the three of us at home. Secretly, I didn’t really like all the garish acts, apart from some of the dancers; Bronte even less so. But Rita liked company to watch it and she was the Best Neighbour in the World. Then I texted Bronte, worried because I hadn’t heard from her for what seemed like days but was probably only two hours. She was on her way back; had done a bit of shopping, not too much, promise Mum. I had saved up £50 for her to spend. It had taken weeks, without wine or anything else for myself, and I was proud. I would have my first Chardonnay in four weeks with Rita and her family that evening.

It was coincidence, I told myself, that I just happened to be outside in the small front yard again at ten past five, quarter of an hour after final whistle; a coincidence. It needed tidying up, a task that took all of six or seven minutes, but more if you include pulling out a weed or two. The man turned the corner, and I could almost hear his sigh of relief upon seeing his car.

‘You’ve got three wheels left, not bad! Only one short!’ I said, cheerfully. ‘Told you that you could trust folk round here. Where’s home then, Ilkley, Harrogate?’

‘Surrey.’

‘Surrey, like, near London?’

‘Yup.’

‘So, you came all this way to spend the afternoon in Holbeck, for a footie match? I hope we won.’

‘Lost two-one.’

‘Oh dear, I am sorry. You could have spent your afternoon by your own swimming pool, or whatever.’

‘Nah, boring! Anyway, there was some funny banter from the crowd. Better than your average stand-up comedian on Channel 4.’

He then lost me completely, making some comparison to his situation and a Spanish film, or it might have been Argentinian, or maybe Hollywood after all. He apologized again and made to leave. Just before he got in his car, Bronte came home, carrying her latest painting back from getting it framed. He noticed this and paid her a compliment, which was nice. Then he seemed to glance up at the ‘For Sale’ sign on next door – next door to my right, that is; always rented out and never to anyone for very long, before getting into his sleek car and driving off.