The Alligator Summer

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I was born in Serendipity on a Wednesday in July. The temperature had been so hot that week in Hampstead that my mother had been forced to give birth to me with all the sash windows in the front bedroom wide open. I would forever hear about the heat of the summer of my birth, about the lunchtime my father fried an egg on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Talbot and the tale of the three alligators that crawled out of a sewer in Kensington in the middle of the day, prompting a citywide panic and newspaper sensation. Many people over a particular age still remember those blistering weeks in the middle of 1949 only as the ‘Alligator Summer’, but it’s a piece of history that never meant very much to me.

Serendipity was a magical house to grow up in, nestled amid the greenery of West Heath Road. It had seventeen rooms, living rooms, sitting rooms, single bedrooms, double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a library, a study for my father and a greenhouse. The greenhouse stood at the far end of the garden, bordering the fence, its rusting metal frame filled in with squares of glass, some of them cloudy with mold and condensation, others cracked and broken. Low hanging branches from the great elm tree next to it brushed the top of the glass on a breezy summer’s day and in the autumn leaves cascaded down and covered the glass entirely rendering the insides obscure to me.

Winter was the best time to be in the greenhouse, winter was the best time to be anywhere. There was light inside when the leaves were cleared away and the glass got too hot in the summer. I would brush aside the terracotta plant pots and rusting spades and trowels and I would climb up on the bench that ran around the edge of the interior, in my parka and my gloves and sit with my back to the wet glass and read for hours. Under the benches there were crates and crates of brown bottles, the labels all faded from the damp, I assumed they were beer, stashed there for storage before a party years ago and forgotten about. I kept quiet about them.

My father bought the house from an eminent psychologist Dr. Louis Rose, my nominal godfather, who was not exactly Freud, but he could spin an engrossing sentence out of thin air.

His wife, Maria, had been a Christian Scientist and she would refuse any medical intervention favouring the power of prayer to cure any ill. Serendipity, she told my mother as she handed over the keys, had a remarkable sense of serenity, which she believed enabled her to tune into the Almighty more easily. Four weeks after they moved to Belsize Park, so Dr. Rose could be nearer to the Royal Free, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

I can remember vividly running madly from one room to the next at great speed, dashing across landings and down staircases. If you run down staircases, as fast of you can, without holding onto the balustrade, your feet barely touching each step, you can sometimes, very briefly, get the sensation that you are flying, that you aren’t touching the steps at all, but are some how staying upright.

The staircase wall was lined with pencil pictures in varnished frames of scenes from fairy tales by the Brothers Grim and I used to sneak out of bed and stare at them long after I should have been asleep because the flickering shadows cast by the electric lights from the floor below seemed to bring them to life.

I was sat there one night when Dr Rose called by. He’d never called before, not since the move, so it was strange. My mother had taken me to see him a few times in Belsize Park and we’d sat in his consulting room me lying on his red settee like a patient while my mother sat opposite him as his desk imploring him, in cooing tones,  not to abandon his love life despite his loss.

“Do you want me to analyse your dreams Miles,” he would always ask me.

“Yes, tell him your dreams Miles,” my mother would say, expecting revelations each time.

“I don’t really have any,” I’d say, which was true then, I wasn’t really a dreamer in those days, my dreams would only liven up when my surroundings became duller.

I liked Dr Rose there was something very real about him. I think it was because he was a very honest man and it’s only through honesty, as I was to learn later, that you can project any kind of sincerity.

“If you want it back you can have it, we can make other arrangements,” my mother would say of Serendipity,  at least twice during every meeting with Dr Rose.

“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would reply every time.

“Yes, but she loved that house,” my mother would counter. “You loved being there with her, surely being among all those memories would be a comfort.”

What a stupid thing of her to say, looking back, she hadn’t lost anybody close then, she’d lived thirty seven years seemingly untouched by real grief.  She’d lost her mother, who she wasn’t very close to and numerous sets of grandparents and great grandparents. She seemed to put all the stock of her life into the men that surrounded her. Other women never interested my mother much, they were like a conquered country to her, nothing much to see.

“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would repeat, “there is no telling when these things are going to happen the bricks and mortar of house couldn’t have stopped it, nor the power of prayer, or any of that hokum.”

I often wondered how Dr. Rose could claim to be so much in love with a person who’s faith and appraisal of life he so doubted, but that night I realised, when he called round and I was sat at the top of the stairs, you have to let some things go for the sake of the greater whole. Just like for some people the summer of 1949 is an agonising memory and for others it’s only alligators.

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