I like to think that it is a quirk of human curiosity, rather than a vulgar predisposition on my part, to presume that the conversation of a stranger can provide an accurate indication of the intellectual aptitude of the person in question and an approximate hint of the extravagance or modesty of the lifestyle that they lead. For example, when speaking to an elderly individual who appears to be highly educated and extensively travelled I tend to suppose that he or she must inhabit a large manor house with sprawling gardens that extend for miles and miles and hundreds of elaborately, if not hideously, decorated rooms that accommodate the numerous treasures, travel logs and interesting artefacts that the person in question has acquired over the years. Leonard had the eccentric and mildly aristocratic demeanour of such a man and consequently I imagined that visiting his house would be a magnificent experience. Even the address - 61 Clarendon Court Road - had a stately ring to it and I had seen a number of expensive-looking properties to the rear of the university that would have suited him perfectly.
However I was sorely disappointed.
It transpired that Clarendon Court Road was nestled amongst the Balti restaurants, fast food outlets, cheap off-licences and student advisory services in the centre of the main student residential area outside the university gates and it was one of several endless rows of terraced houses, each house flanked by a moat of bumper-to-bumper parked cars and distinguishable only by the different brands of beer bottles that littered the front gardens and the various club flyers that were sellotaped to the bay windows. This discovery was made even more disappointing by the fact that it was raining heavily on the afternoon of my first visit to Leonard’s house and the time and attention that I had given to my clothing and hair was quickly undone upon the very second that I stepped off the bus at the bottom of Leonard’s road. I recall my immense displeasure as I stood beneath the shelter of the bus stop and took the folded piece of paper containing Leonard’s address out from my pocket to remind myself of his house number.
Stuffing the paper back into my pocket, I took a firm grip of my umbrella and continued to battle through the rain, carefully counting the house numbers as I passed along the street.
I came to a halt outside number 63 and looked around in confusion. I had counted carefully, so where was house number 61? Taking notice of the number on the door in front of me, I turned and began to count backwards.
I stopped again outside number 60. Either I had forgotten how to count, I was going mad or Leonard’s house had disappeared! Leonard had mentioned during our phone conversation to arrange my visit that his house might prove difficult to find, but I had no idea that it would be this problematic. Then, as I peered through the rain at the houses in front of me and on the opposite side of the street, I noticed that between every second house there was a gated passageway that led to the back gardens at the rear of the properties. The gates to the passageways were the same height and width as the front doors on the houses and this, I suspected, may have been the cause of my confusion. I had simply mistaken a front door for a gate and passed it over. However as I drew level with houses 60 and 62 I noticed that there was no hidden front door – or even a house between the two! – but there was a narrow passageway with no gate that stood between the two buildings and led into darkness. I had a horrible suspicion that I would be trespassing on private property and I would be quickly sent on my way by an irate tenant, but nevertheless I decided to venture into the passageway in search of the elusive house number 61 and, if nothing else, to shelter from the rain for a while.
I hurried through the archway before anyone could see me, stopping for a second to take a breather and shake the water from my umbrella. The passageway emerged onto a narrow, muddy path that ran between the uniform rows of back gardens and there were no other buildings in sight so I almost turned back, but then I spotted a corner of guttering jutting out from behind an enormous yew tree at the end of the path which peaked my interest. It seemed unlikely that this was a residential building as it was situated at a considerable distance away from the main street and I suspected that it might be a warehouse or a block of garages, but I decided to take a look anyway and satisfy my curiosity.
As I traversed my way along the path, taking care with my footing over the uneven ground and cursing my choice of footwear, I was startled by the sound of loud barking to my immediate right. In the garden nearest to me stood three large dogs that snarled menacingly, scratched their nails against the fence and pressed their snouts between the wooden slats to glare at me. I hurried past the fierce dogs and continued along the path and what emerged from behind the trees was quite unexpected.
On the edge of the wood was a large, old house that stood in complete contrast to the small, pokey terraced houses on the main street. It was in a shockingly poor state of repair; a hand-made plaque on the gate read ‘Elmfield House’ but there was no accompanying house number, the front garden was bristling with weeds and littered with bricks and cardboard boxes, thin cream-coloured muslin was strung up at some of the windows to act as makeshift net curtains, the brickwork was crumbling away in several places and the paintwork on the window frames had flaked away to reveal rotting wood beneath. From its state of decay I assumed that the house had either stood derelict for some time or it was inhabited by a mad recluse who cared very little for its maintenance - either way, door-to-door salesmen and religious callers would certainly have given this house a wide berth!
I was reluctant to approach the house at first but, since I was completely at a loss on the location of Leonard’s address and I was loath to roam aimlessly around the neighbourhood in the heavy rain for the remainder of the afternoon (not to mention the fact that I was afraid that the dogs in the neighbouring garden might squeeze their way through the fence), I decided to make an enquiry with its occupants about the whereabouts of the elusive house number 61, so I took a firm grasp of my umbrella and yanked open the gate and dashed up the path. I rang the bell and hammered on the door with the rusty iron knocker and before I could draw breath, pull the wet hair out of my eyes or prepare my door opening smile, the latch drew back and the door was opened by Leonard. I was taken aback for a moment, not only by the discovery that Leonard was the occupant of the house but also by the speed in which he had answered the door. As sprightly as he seemed for a man of his age, even I would have struggled to move so quickly, but I presumed that the barking of his neighbour’s dogs had alerted him to someone approaching the house in good time.
Apologising for the bad weather, Leonard bundled me over the doorstep like a mother hassling an unruly child and he took my coat and tossed it over the stair banister on top of a pile of coats, scarves and jumpers (there were so many coats that for a second I thought that he already had guests). The interior of the building was quite magnificent and I could hardly believe that such an extraordinary house was hidden away from public view. The entrance area was surprisingly spacious but it was miserably dark as there were no windows and the only source of light was a series of twin candle lights that were mounted at regular intervals along the hallway. The walls were decorated with a vibrant emerald-green damask wallpaper, the doors were the darkest shade of walnut wood and the glossy black, hardwood flooring creaked like the rigging of a ship when I stepped on it (I mused that years of Leonard shuffling across the floor in his slippers had worn it down as smooth as a piece of polished jet). A dramatic wooden staircase with narrow treads dominated the centre of the hallway and at the foot of the staircase stood an ornately carved grandfather clock that was situated directly opposite the front door like a butler poised to greet guests. Although it was dimly lit and the decor had clearly not been updated in a while, the house had a homely feel and there was a clean, almost chemical, smell in the air which suggested that Leonard was fairly house-proud and he kept the place nice and clean.
Leonard was delighted to see me, but he was nowhere near as delighted as the black Labrador that paced frantically around his feet and wagged his tail as though he had not seen a visitor in a while. I smiled to myself as I watched Leonard fuss over my wet things and berate the inquisitive dog and I let out a sigh of relief because I felt completely at ease in my surroundings. I had worked myself into quite a nervous state about my visit but the warm welcome that I received upon entering the house was not dissimilar to the comforting relief that greets me when I arrive at my own flat at the end of an exhausting day. In many ways it felt like coming home.