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Authors: Ruth Rendell

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BOOK: Portobello
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'He knows better than that,' said Uncle Gib. 'What, me lend a
thousand quid to a fellow who's only my dear late wife's greatnephew?
I should coco.'

But all this talk of money stayed in Uncle Gib's mind. He
a property owner but he wasn't making prudent use of his
property. As a religious man dedicated to God's work, he attributed
this to his innocence and lack of wordliness. But next day,
when Lance was out, he went up to the top of the first flight and
untied the rope that cut off access to the second floor. That faculty
which, in most people, detects dirt and disorder had been left out
of Uncle Gib's make-up. Up in the three rooms on the attic floor
he noticed nothing of the cobwebs and the grime, nor did the
lack of bathroom facilities or even running water strike him. There
was no furniture, of course, and some idea retained from one of
the short periods in his middle years when he hadn't been inside
told him that the law wouldn't let you evict a tenant from unfurnished
accommodation. Still, that was easily solved. Take that
good table from Lance's room, a couple of chairs from the dining
room and pick up a mattress from somewhere. A bed wasn't
needed, a mattress on the floor would do perfectly well.

No need to think twice. Uncle Gib sat down at the table in
the kitchen to compose his advertisement. Lately he'd seen quite
a bit on the TV about young people not being able to get on to
the property ladder and, seeing the prices of those places he
studied in estate agents' brochures, he wasn't surprised. He'd be
doing a service to humanity, showing love for his neighbour by
offering accommodation to rent. So how much to ask? Rented
property advertised by some of those agents was fetching four and
five hundred pounds a week. Uncle Gib was a realist and, though
he had an inflated idea of the value and desirability of his home,
he understood three rooms in it weren't in this league.

Using the reverse side of the
No Entry
card (waste not, want
not) he wrote:
To let: self-contained furnished flat in fashionable
movie-featured Notting Hill. £
per week.
He added the address
and phone number. When it was done to his satisfaction he took
it down to the newsagent in Powis Terrace and paid – through
the nose, in his opinion – to have it put in the window.

Every other shop these days had been turned into an estate
agent. He passed five on his way to the Portobello Road except
that he didn't pass them but stopped in front of each one, noting
to his satisfaction how houses no bigger or better than his own
were commanding prices of seven and eight hundred thousand
pounds. More than that if, like his own, they were detached. His
would soon be in the million league.

In the window of the Earl of Lonsdale he saw a notice offering
a trading site to let outside. Such signs weren't uncommon and,
every time Uncle Gib saw one, he thought of the stall his father
had had here and from which he sold fruit and vegetables and in
the winter roasted chestnuts; thought too how maybe he could
take that site and keep a stall of his own. But perhaps not, perhaps
it was too late. No, he would become a landlord instead and maybe
a millionaire, even if a homeless one.

He went into his favourite delicatessen and bought black
pudding, salami, a piece of Cheddar, half a dozen large eggs for
himself and the same number of small ones for Lance, and a
bottle of orange squash. It never did to economise on food.


Ella showed her engagement ring to Dr Carter, Dr Endymion,
Dr Mukerjee and the practice nurse, Martha Wilcox. Aware
from the appearance of the ring that Ella's fiancé must be
a rich man, Malina Mukerjee expressed the hope that this didn't
mean she'd be giving up work, did it? Ella assured them all that
she wouldn't. She was sitting behind the desk in her room, called
a 'doctor's office', American fashion, preparing for the arrival of her
first patient, a mother of four, all of whom she had brought with
her, when her phone rang.

It was Joel Roseman. 'I do want to be your private patient,' he
said without preamble, 'and I'd like to start today. What do I have
to do?'

'Mr Roseman, I have patients waiting. May I call you back?'

He sounded disappointed, like a child whose mother is busy.
Ella opened the office door and let in Mrs Khan, her two daughters
and her twin sons, all of whom vied for the job of interpreter,
their mother having not a word of English. It was almost midday
before the departure of Ella's last patient, a woman with nothing
wrong with her but complaining loudly about a rumour that all
prescriptions in future were to cost a pound each.

Joel Roseman picked up his phone on the first ring. He sounded
as if he had been sitting by it for the past three hours. 'I haven't
been out yet,' he said. 'Could you come to me? Would you do that?'

All of them in the practice made house calls occasionally.
Besides, if he was to be a private patient, Ella felt she could
hardly refuse him. Moscow Road was at the other end of Notting
Hill and she was about to say she couldn't manage it today when
she realised she could. She easily could. The euphoria brought
about by her engagement was enduring, filling her with energy
and a desire to move about, be out in the fresh air, enjoy life.
Sunshine had come back, if intermittently, and she would walk.
Walking would help her reduce to the size 12 she hoped to be
for her wedding dress.

'Two o'clock this afternoon, Mr Roseman?'

'That will be lovely.'
, the little boy's word. 'Please call me

A mansion block, red brick, with gables and turrets and things
she thought were called cupolas. Ten stone steps up to glass doors
with art nouveau panes and ironwork. A porter sitting at a desk
behind glass directed her to the lift down a narrow green-painted
passage but the lift itself was a rather luxurious carpet-lined box
with gilt-framed mirrors on two walls. Joel Roseman opened his
door before she got there. He looked frail, thinner than she remembered
and, though he wore jeans and a sweater, he had a dressing
gown over them. But no sunglasses today.

No doubt this was because the place was dark. Almost her
first thought was that the flat, which seemed very large for one
person, was the kind of place she would have expected an old
lady to live in, not a young man. And that, he told her, as she
tried not to show her incredulity at the stuffy darkness, the
cumbersome Victorian furniture, the drab shabby covers and
curtains, was exactly what it had been. Old Mrs Compton-Webb,
ninety-six, had died there, her body discovered by a great-grandson
a week later.

'Pa bought the place lock, stock and barrel. Isn't that what they
say? All the furniture and those carpets, the lot. Everything dark
red and dark brown and mud. I expect it was done on purpose, to
punish me. He was wrong there because it suits me. I like the

Doors were open and she could see into darkened caverns
where carved cabinets, marble-topped tables and thickly padded
chairs all crowded together, loomed in the dimness.The curtains,
of mud-coloured or ox blood-coloured plush, were thick enough
to exclude all external light. Not even bright cracks of it showed
round their borders. The atmosphere was stuffy and musty, and
it seemed to Ella that the suffocating silence was unnatural in
the heart of busy Notting Hill. It was a relief to be taken into a
sitting room where there was a little more light, the fawn, red figured
velvet curtains held back by loops of brown braid, and
the blinds behind them raised perhaps six inches. For her benefit?
The furniture here was brown velvet, the carpet the kind that is
called a Turkey, not Turkish, crimson patterned with brown and
black squares and triangles. On a console table, a bronze bust
of one of the Caesars was reflected in the mirror behind it and
again and again infinitely in another mirror hung opposite. Ella
found herself staring in horrified fascination at these endlessly
repeated gaunt profiles and bald heads.

'I'm always meaning to make some changes,' Joel said in the
kind of hopeless voice people use when it is clear they will do
nothing. 'I could afford it. Pa gives me loads of money but I never
get around to it. Would you like something to drink?'

She thought he meant tea or coffee. He came back with two
glasses of water. She noticed that he walked slowly and his hand
trembled when he set her glass down. 'What do I have to do now?'
he said.

'To be my private patient? Nothing. Or, rather, you've done it
and here I am.'

'So now you ask me what seems to be the trouble?'

She smiled. 'Something like that.'

'Well,' he said, 'you will believe me, won't you? You won't say it's
all in my head or I'm making it up, you won't say that?'

'Why don't you tell me what's wrong?'

He was silent. She looked at him properly for the first time,
saw a pale fine-featured face, dull eyes, dark hair falling forward
over his forehead. He drank some water, spoke in a low voice
she had difficulty in hearing. 'When I was in hospital I had a
near-death experience. That's what they call them, don't they?
A near-death experience?'

How many times had she heard this before? It sometimes seemed
to her impossible for one of her patients who had had an anaesthetic
not to have dreamed while unconscious of that long tunnel
and paradisal bower at the end of it. He seemed to expect an
answer. 'Perhaps,' she said. 'Go on.'

'The surgeon told me afterwards. It was during the operation. I
can tell you his words. He said, "We nearly lost you. Of course we
got you back but it was a ticklish moment."'

Ella's immediate reaction was to disbelieve this. If it was true,
she was sure Joel's surgeon wouldn't have been so indiscreet as to
say so. A nervous patient could be seriously frightened by something
there was no need to disclose. But she said nothing beyond
asking him gently to speak up. She knew what he would tell her,
it would be the long tunnel again, the golden river and the white
city beyond meadows full of flowers. They always saw something
like that. And he did tell her that, but not only that.

'Like I said, I went through the tunnel – I guess that was the
bit where I was dead – and at the end I came out into these sort
of fields with a river flowing through them. There was tall grass
with tall flowers growing in it and the sun shining, and beyond
that was this city, white marble it was but it looked very light,
almost like it was made of very thin glass or even cloud. All the
buildings had steps up to their doors and rows and rows of tall
columns. Are you following all this?'

'Yes, of course,' Ella said.

He drank some water. 'There were walls round the city with
sort of battlements and angels were sitting on them. It was warm
there but not hot. I could see people in white robes – I could
see them through the gates in the walls – they were walking on
lawns under trees, talking and singing. One of them came out
through an archway and he came up to me. He took me by the
hand and he said something to me about it not yet being my
time. I was just to take a look at the city so that I'd know what
to expect when my time came. So I looked at the city and up
at the angels on the battlements. They had wings like great white
birds. I looked at them but they didn't look at me. Then this
man led me back across the fields and along the river bank until
we came to the tunnel. Going back through there was when I
think the surgeon and the anaesthetist were bringing me back
to life.'

'It was like a rather nice dream, then?' Ella said.

'It would have been.' Joel was silent for a moment, clutching his
glass of water so tightly that she thought he must break it. Then,
shaking himself, he relaxed his fingers and set the glass down on
the table. 'It would have been,' he said again, 'except that I brought
him back with me.'

In the dimly lit stuffy room, she felt a kind of chill, the small
shiver people used to say meant someone was walking over where
one's grave would be. 'I'm sorry. I don't understand.'

'I said to you before I started please to believe me, not to say
I'm making it up. Because to do that I'd have to want to do it and
I don't. I hate it.'

'I won't say you're making it up. But I do need you to explain.'

'The man who came up to me out of the city and through the
archway – well, I suppose it was heaven, or hell maybe if hell
can be beautiful and peaceful – that man came back with me,
through the tunnel, into this life. Do you understand now, Dr
Cotswold? When I was conscious – well, not then, but later –
he was sitting by my bed. He wasn't anyone I've ever seen in this
world.' Joel seemed to consider. 'Maybe he was, though, maybe
he was a sort of friend I had when I was a child but grown up,
of course.'

Guessing, Ella said, 'By "sort of" do you mean an imaginary

He nodded. 'That's what I mean. But I don't know if this man
is my friend grown up. It's years and years, and he looks different.
If he is he's changed his name. My – well, imaginary – friend was
called Jasper. This one is Mithras.'

Tugged into this dream or nightmare, whatever it was, Ella had
begun to feel disorientated. Naming the creature of Joel's fantasy
and the fairly obvious transit of that name from a child's idea of
what a boy might be called to a man's maturer concept of a denison
of heaven or hell, brought her back to practicalities.

'Joel, you don't need me at all. Surely' – she must be tactful
here – 'you need someone you can tell all this to who would be
sympathetic. I don't mean I'm not but I'm a doctor of medicine,
I'm really not qualified to help you over this.'

'You mean a psychiatrist?'

'I meant a therapist, yes.'

'You think I'm mad?'

'No, of course not. Of course I don't think you're mad because
you have – well, a very active imagination.' She took her phone
directory out of her bag. 'Look, why not let me phone this woman
who's an excellent psychotherapist and make an appointment for
you to see her?'

'She'll think I'm mad.'

'No, she won't. She's the last person to think like that. Are you
well enough to go out now if you go in a taxi?'

He said lifelessly, 'Oh, yes, I've been out. I'm supposed to go
out a bit, only I can't walk far. Mithras doesn't come with me.'

'So I can phone Dr Peacock?'

'Sure. Go ahead.'

He kept his eyes fixed on her while she made her phone call.
It seemed to her that it was darker in the room than it had been
when first she came. Not much sun could penetrate this place but
what there had been had gone, the sky clouding over. She told
Joel she had made an appointment for him two days ahead in the

'I'd like to tell you about Jasper,' he said.

'Perhaps it would be best to save that for Dr Peacock.'

'And my pa. I'd like to tell you about him and why he hates me.
You will come back, won't you? Just because I'm going to this Dr
Peacock doesn't mean you won't be my doctor any more?'

'Of course it doesn't, Joel. But I think you should come to me
now you're better.' Anyone overhearing this would assume she was
speaking to a boy of ten. 'We'll fix a time for you to come after my
usual surgery hours.'

She got up and he got up. Out in the gloomy hall, he said,
'Mithras is here. He didn't come in while you were with me. He's
been waiting out here, over there in the corner by that thing, the
thing like a tree where you hang coats.'

Ella said calmly, 'Would you please switch on a light?'

The sudden brightness made her blink. Joel covered his eyes
with one hand. 'Dr Peacock will let me know how you get on,' she
said. 'And you must let me know too.' She held out her hand.
'Goodbye for now, Joel.'

'Goodbye.' He wasn't looking at her but at the corner where the
coatstand was.

He opened the front door for her, still looking away. The fresh
air, the hazy sunshine, passing traffic, people, brought her back
from something that was more than unease. Savouring her relief,
she began the walk to Chepstow Villas. She had no patients this
evening and Eugene had said he would be home early. It was a
pity really that she couldn't tell him about her experience of the
afternoon in that dreadful flat, hearing those dreadful things. But
she couldn't, any more than a priest could disclose what was told
him in the confessional.

Several replies came to Uncle Gib's advertisement. Applicants
were attracted by the low rent but all but one of them were
repelled by the condition of the house, the bare and dirty rooms
and, above all, the absence of a bathroom. The one who wasn't
belonged in that class of people Uncle Gib described as beggars
who couldn't be choosers. He was a young man from eastern Europe
and he had a job washing dishes in a tiny café in the Portobello
Road, nearly as nasty as the house in Blagrove Road. At present,
he told Uncle Gib, he was sleeping on the floor of his friend's

To him the top flat was a palace.

'I toilet in garden,' he said, 'and wash in kitchen.'

'Scullery,' said Uncle Gib, 'and only when I'm out, mind.'

BOOK: Portobello
2.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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