Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Magic of Peaches in the Suburbs

The house does not exist. Or if it does, it is not where Google Maps says it is. I have come to the corner of a silent, wide-laned suburban street on the outskirts of the market town in which I am staying. The street is everything that the new builds of the last half-century should be: clean, its small houses politely near-identical, its front porches sporting neat hedges and flowerbeds. There are no cars. It has the death feel of a residential street where everyone is at work. A woman looking for a seamstress on a weekday afternoon in 2017 is so out of place and time that I feel not so much like an interloper as like a ghost.

What is really perplexing is that I am looking for number thirty-one and where it should be is number sixty-six. On the other side of the street, unhelpfully, is one hundred and eight. In one direction of this right-angle lies the distant thrum of the main road from which I have walked. In the other, the unknown. I take the latter, my bag of clothes weighing on my fingers.

The street curves for a long while parallel to the way I walked to get here. I count the deserted houses down from sixty, but I am convinced I am running out of road. Things seem to come to a head at thirty-six where it is not clear that anything before that exists. I have the uncomfortable, hackle-rising sensation of being a human pawn in the virtual reality of a bored and possibly malevolent town planner, circa 1976. Then, suddenly, I recognize the view ahead: it’s the small square that I walked around about ten minutes ago. And looking onto it is number thirty-one.

I ring the bell and stand well back from the door, mistrustful of whatever sprite might open it. When someone appears it is not a sprite, nor the seamstress. ‘Hello,’ I say to the gentleman in his seventies, whose face registers neither surprise nor expectancy, ‘I’m looking for S.?’

‘She’s upstairs,’ he says, in an accent that is slightly untraceable. ‘Come in.’ For a moment it occurs to me that I am entering an unknown house that is not where I expected it to be, nor is its apparent owner who I thought it was. I go in anyway. Ushered into a generic enough living-room, we stand awkwardly and exchange pleasantries. Jeremy Corbyn is gesticulating on mute on BBC News.

Then I hear scuffling from the back end of the living-room and a chunky English bull terrier appears. Its eyes lock onto mine and I realize that after surviving the malevolent town planner, the ghostly suburbs, and the misplaced house, this is what it comes down to. I am going to be mauled by a dog in the house of a sprite and possibly a seamstress. (The only reassuring thing about this situation is the recognizable nature of its literary genre. It is very Angela Carter.)

The dog wanders over to my feet and looks up expectantly. I find myself stroking its tawny coat, and suddenly we are fast friends. I sit down on the sofa and it presses itself against my legs and offers the underside of its chin for scratching, to which request I oblige. Its owner expresses concern about the dog hair that I will be covered in and I respond that it is totally worth it. ‘What’s her name?’ I ask. 

The elderly gentleman looks both shy and giggly at the same time. ‘Peaches,’ he says. The dog cocks its massive head slightly. ‘We figured, Bob Geldof had his Peaches, so why couldn’t we have ours?’ ‘Why not,’ I say. (Later: it occurs to me that Peaches the human suffered an untimely end. I wish a better one for Peaches the bull terrier.)

‘Also,’ the elderly gentleman says, warming to the theme, ‘you know Ice Age?’

‘The film? A bit.’

‘The mammoths,’ he says enthusiastically, ‘have a daughter called Peaches.’ (Later: it turns out that Peaches the Ice Age mammoth looks a lot like Peaches the bull terrier.)

Peaches the Mammoth
English Bull Terrier

I tell him that I love this, because I walk my partner’s brother’s dog, who is a Staffy cross, and I call her a ‘peach’, both because it is so apt (she is a glorious dog), and because I take especial pleasure in her glory considering how people can think askance of Staffies. And (feeling guilty) bull terriers for that matter.

We both look at snuffly, solid, muscular Peaches. Peaches gazes at me contentedly.

Sounds on the stairs: a woman appears in the doorway of the living-room with her previous client, apologizing for the delay. This must be S. ‘Do you want to come up?’ she asks. She too has the slightly untraceable accent. Peaches sits down, firmly, on my feet.

After S. and I have discussed what needs doing to fix my weary jeans for another winter, she offers not just to show me out but to walk me to the alley that cuts back to the main road. We wander through the empty street in the temperate September air. She tells me how they used to live on the other side of the world, and how odd the numbering of the streets is around here. ‘You know,’ she says contemplatively, ‘we got Peaches because her previous owner went to jail.’ 

As I walk back to where I am staying, I am almost sorry that each footstep takes me further away from the eeriness of the suburb. There be magic.