The terraced houses running either side of the street are all of Regency vintage – narrow, three-storey town houses, many with the original bow windows and filigree iron balconies, heavy oak doors, leaded fanlights and pointed black railings. But whilst it looks as if they’ve all managed, more or less, to hold on to these features, time and the vagaries of the housing market have both had an effect. There’s scaffolding up at three of the houses; the rest are either restored or falling to pieces, so that the overall feel is of a street going through a significant change, a street that doesn’t quite know what it is yet.
For example, the house opposite Zelda, the patient I’ve come to visit, is now a boutique hotel. Zelda’s house has yellowing net curtains sagging in the window; the hotel has a series of fine, egg-blue painted shutters. To the side of Zelda’s door is a mish-mash of doorbells, sellotaped names, no names at all, and clear signs of forced entry on more than one occasion; the hotel – a five-star plaque.
I knock, then let myself in with the key safe.
Zelda is in the drawing room – smoking room, these days.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll put it out,’ she says, dabbing her fag into the side of a pyramid of butts in the ashtray beside her.
‘Thanks’ I say, but it doesn’t make any difference, as there’s probably more smoke in the room at the minute than a test facility at Philip Morris.
‘How much do you smoke a day, d’you think?’ I ask her. It’s a moot point, especially given her breathing problems.
She screws her face up.
‘I dunno. Fifty, sixty maybe?’
‘Wow! It’d be cheaper doing heroin.’
‘Don’t get me started,’ she says, and laughs, such a loud and sludge-wracked thing, it’s almost enough to drown out the noise of all the renovation work next door.