It had taken almost an hour on the bus, but Laura didn’t mind. She liked watching London life in all its mundane glory passing by the windows. The heat was having an effect on everyone from fractious babies to irritable adults, but once the bus had struggled up the hill from Archway, the air and the atmosphere seemed to cool just a little.
Laura could feel the day’s warmth radiating from the paving stones through the thin soles of her sandals as she walked the last few hundred yards home. She scanned the street ahead and smiled as a familiar figure came into view, sauntering down the middle of the pavement as if he owned the whole neighbourhood.
“Busy day?” she enquired as he got closer, and in response he wound himself round her ankles before flopping down heavily onto his side and stretching his legs out straight. Laura squatted down beside the old grey cat and gave him a fuss just as he knew she would, as everyone always did.
“You’re a big old softie aren’t you Brian?” she said fondly, wondering not for the first time about who his owner might be, and what had possessed them to name the cat Brian. But Brian was what it said on the tag that hung from his faded velvet collar and he was quite the local personality. A noisy moped buzzed past and the cat jumped to his feet. Laura stood up too and headed for the house.
She put her shoulder to the flaking paint of the once elegant front door and gave it a not so elegant shove. At the second attempt the door swung open and she pulled her key from the lock, stepped inside and gave a repeat performance in reverse, using her bottom this time to push it shut. Evening sunlight streamed in through the stained glass panel above the door and sent colours dancing across the cracked coving.
“Laura, is that you?”
“No, it’s Edith Cavell.”
She dropped her bags on the tiled floor and headed down the hall, poking her head round the door at the end which opened into the untidiest, loveliest kitchen in London. Facing the door in a worn and faded armchair sat her landlady, quietly confident.
“St Martin’s Place, 1920,” she said with a smile.
They often played this game, but Mrs Patterson always won. She knew where all the city’s statues were, even though now at over eighty she hardly ever left Muswell Hill.
Laura had lived here for two happy years now. From the moment she’d first set foot in the cool quiet hallway one summer afternoon it had felt like home. A solitary childhood had not prepared Laura well for the full horrors of communal living as a young woman on a limited salary – it was a cruel world that forced only children to share flats. But the only alternative had always been what the estate agents would describe as “a conveniently located studio,” but which always turned out to be a squalid little bedsit in a less than salubrious part of town.
Mind you, the flatshare that she’d been escaping from that particular summer was not exactly in Mayfair. Very definitely on the wrong side of Turnpike Lane, which she found hard to believe had ever actually had a right side, it was a gloomy maisonette in a tired Victorian terrace. The flat itself was tired too, and so was she after six months living with The Girls Who Never Slept. It reached the point where Laura could not begin to get to sleep for worrying that one or both of her flatmates would wake her later on. They must have thought her so dull, but she did not want to go to nightclubs or parties on Tuesday nights and then struggle in to work after two hours sleep and nursing a hangover.
It was after another one of those nights that she’d mistakenly ended up in Muswell Hill having fallen asleep on the bus home from work. Laura wandered into a Greek food shop to treat herself to a restorative hit of sugar from the delicious looking Baklava piled high in the window, just as the shopkeeper came out from behind the counter to pin a card on the small noticeboard beside the door. She bumped into him and he dropped the card. Apologising she bent to pick it up, and saw the magic words Quiet Flat. She held the card in her hand and looked up at the man she would come to know as Mr Angelou.
“Is this flat for rent nearby?”
“Oh yes. Mrs Patterson’s house, not far.”
So she walked straight there, and only went back to the gloomy maisonette for one last time to pack up and leave flat-share hell for good.
Laura had her own small apartment on the top floor of this once grand house. Dulcie Patterson had lived here all her married life, and since she was widowed she had let out what once upon a time were the Housekeeper’s rooms so that she could afford to stay on in her family home. Two years later Laura was definitely her favourite ever tenant – kind, interesting and interested.
She looked at the young woman fondly as she came into the kitchen and sank into the other chair.
“How are you today Mrs P?” Laura asked as she kicked off her shoes.
“Very well thank you my dear. Mr Angelou brought the paper and my shopping, the sun is shining and I think it’s going to be a lovely weekend. Do you have any plans?”
“No, of course not.”
It was Friday night and Laura’s plans for the weekend extended as far as white wine and television, with perhaps a wander down the high street tomorrow to the second hand bookshop.
Mrs P sighed. Improving Laura’s social life had become her great mission.
“Well I saw something in the local paper that might interest you.”
She handed over the newspaper with a short article circled in the vivid green ink she always used: ‘Volunteers wanted to revive a beloved local landmark.’
Laura’s eyes widened as she read the piece. “It’s the cemetery!” she exclaimed.
Mrs Patterson smiled in satisfaction. She knew that Highgate Cemetery had become one of Laura’s favourite places to wander, just as she herself had strolled there in years gone by. They shared a curiosity piqued by the faded inscriptions to half remembered lost loves and long forgotten Victorian philanthropists. The article explained that although graveyard’s charming state of overgrown romance was one of its major attractions, this had finally reached crisis point and the caretakers were desperate for help. They were hoping that they could tempt enough local people to volunteer with the opportunity to explore some of the areas usually strictly off limits in exchange for a little hard labour. Laura jumped at the chance.
“It’s tomorrow. They need people to go and help clear brambles and stuff. Can I borrow your gardening gloves please?”