A Desirable Residence
A Desirable Residence is the second book I ever wrote. I’ve always been quite obsessed with property and in A Desirable Residence the house is almost the main character. The story is of three families all linked by the house – there’s the family moving out, the family moving in, and the estate agent who did the deal. They all become entangled with each other and it all becomes quite complicated. I wrote it a long time ago but the funny thing is it feels quite true to life.
I opened it the other day and read the first scene, which is about a woman who has been trying to sell her house for ten months. The estate agent has told her that in order to sell it she’s got to put in a new shower and drop the price and this freaks her out. She gets in a total rage and starts yelling at him. And I thought to myself, oh my goodness, I wrote that scene years ago but it feels very, very real – plus ça change!
Liz and Jonathan Chambers were in trouble. Mortgage trouble. They’d stretched themselves to bursting with their new exciting project – well, Liz thought it exciting – buying and managing the Silchester Tutorial College, and now couldn’t sell their old house. Here they were, stuck with two mortgages, mounting debts and a miserable adolescent daughter who hadn’t wanted to move anyway.
Then Marcus Witherstone came into their lives – and at first it seemed he would solve all their problems. Marcus, senior partner in Silchester’s leading estate agency, was large, assured, and wore an expensive overcoat. He knew the perfect tenants from London who would rent their old house – glamorous PR girl Ginny and almost-famous Piers. Everything was going to be OK.
But soon Marcus found himself involved with Liz in a way he’d never intended. Keeping his adulterous trysts secret from Anthea was uncomfortably easy – most of the time her head was firmly buried in Improve your Child’s IQ. Meanwhile, as Liz was lost in blissful dreams of Marcus, Jonathan was left to run the tutorial college. Neither of them had time to notice that teenage Alice was developing a desperate passion for the tenants, Piers and Ginny.
Everyone seemed to be entangled with everyone else, in the most awkward possible way. And as events closed in on him, Marcus began to realise that some deceptions are just a bit too close to home.
There wasn’t much point, Liz told herself, in getting upset. It wasn’t his fault, poor man. The estate agent had finished talking, and was looking at her concernedly, expecting a response. To gain time, she glanced out of the sash window of the office, the panes bright with the sun and raindrops of a confused September’s day. There was a little courtyard garden outside, walled, with a white wrought-iron bench and tubs of flowers. It must be nice in the summer, she thought, forgetting that this still was, to all intents and purposes, the summer. Her mind always worked at least half a term ahead.
‘Oh yes, sorry,’ said Liz, and turned back. ‘I was listening.’ She smiled at the estate agent. He didn’t smile back.
’I did warn your husband at the time the property went on the market,’ he said, ‘that this might happen. I advised a price rather lower than your asking price.’
’I know you did,’ agreed Liz. She wondered why he felt it necessary to remind her. Was he feeling defensive? Did he experience a need to justify himself; explain why their house had been on the market for ten months with his agency and had failed to sell? She studied his young, well-shaven face for signs of I-told-you-so; if-you’d-listened-to-me…
But his face was serious. Concerned. He was probably, she thought, not the sort of person who would countenance recriminations. He was simply pointing out the facts.
‘And now,’ he was saying, ‘you must make a decision. You have, as I see it, two realistic options.’ And a few unrealistic ones? Liz wanted to ask, but instead she looked intelligently at him, leaning forward slightly in her chair to show she was interested. She was beginning to feel rather hot; the sun was beating brightly through the panes of glass onto her cheeks. As usual, she had completely misjudged the early-morning weather and dressed for a brisk autumn day. She should perhaps remove a layer of clothing. But the thought of taking off her unwieldy jersey – which would necessitate first removing her spectacles and Alice band – to reveal a crumpled denim shirt which might or might not be stained with coffee, seemed too much to contemplate. Especially in front of this smooth estate agent. She glanced surreptitiously at him. He didn’t seem to be too hot; his face was tanned but not at all flushed and his cuffs looked crisp and cool. Starched, probably, she thought, by his girlfriend. Or perhaps, bearing in mind how young he looked, his mother. The thought amused her.
‘Two options,’ she said, more agreeably than she had intended.
A flicker of something like relief passed across his face. Perhaps he had been expecting a scene. But before Liz could react to it, he was back into well-grooved, grown-up professionalism.
‘The first option,’ he said, ‘would be to put your house back on the market and drop the price considerably.’ Of course, thought Liz. Any fool could have told me that.
‘By about how much?’ she asked politely. ‘Realistically speaking,’ she added for good measure, stifling a sudden. inappropriate urge to giggle. This conversation was unreal. Next thing she’d be saying, Let’s have the cards on the table, or, Would you run that by me again… Pull yourself together, she told herself sternly. This is serious.
‘Fifty thousand pounds. At least.’
Liz’s head jerked up in shock. The giggle rising up inside her suddenly subsided; she felt shamefaced. No wonder this boy’s handsome face was so concerned. He was more worried about her situation than she was. And, to give him his due, it was worrying.
‘We’ve already reduced it by twenty” she said, noting with slight horror that her voice was shaking. ‘And that’s less than the mortgage.’
‘I know,’ he said. He looked down at the papers on his desk. ‘I’m afraid the market has dropped considerably since you bought.’
‘Not that much. It can’t have.’ Belated worry made her belligerent. Of course she had seen the headlines in the papers. But she’d always skimmed them with her eyes; assumed they had no relevance to her. She’d avoided the chat of friends, some overtly anxious, others smugly triumphant. The property market this, the property market that. For heaven’s sake. Stupid phrase, anyway. The property market… It made her think of rows of market stalls covered in tiny houses, each with a price label tied around the chimney.
‘We can’t sell it for so little,’ she added. She could feel her cheeks growing even more hot. ‘We just can’t. We won’t have enough to pay back the bank, and we only got the mortgage for the tutorial college on the basis of selling the house. We had some people interested in it then; they actually made an offer.’ She stopped. A tide of humiliation seeped through her. How much older than this young man was she? And here she was, blurting out all her money worries: looking to him for an answer.
But he didn’t look as though he had one. His fingers ruffled the papers on his desk anxiously; he avoided her eye. ‘I’m confident that if you reduced the asking price by the amount I suggested, we would have a sale within a very reasonable time-scale,’ he said. He sounded as though he was reading from a prompt card.
‘Yes, but we need more money than that!’ cried Liz. ‘We’ve got a mortgage to pay off. And now we’ve got a business to run. And what’s a reasonable time-scale anyway?’ Too late, she realized her error. The estate agent’s head shot up, an unmistakable look of relief on his face at having been given a question he could answer.
‘Ah, well, these things always take a certain length of time,’ he began. ‘We’ll be promoting the house afresh, highlighting the reduced price, targeting a different purchaser altogether.’
As his voice droned on, happily outlining the benefits of local advertising and colour photography, Liz’s gaze wandered. She felt suddenly drained, worried and fearful. She had not, she realized, taken the sale of the house seriously enough. When the first buyers had pulled out, she had almost been pleased. She could hardly bear the idea of strangers in their home, using their bathroom, their kitchen, sunbathing in their garden. Even though she had been the driving force behind the move in the first place.
Of course, Jonathan couldn’t understand that. One night, several months ago, she had broken down in a torrent of weeping at the thought of leaving the house for good, and he had stared at her in amazement.
‘But you were the one who wanted to do all this,’ he had said, almost shouted. ‘It was your idea to buy the tutorial college in the first place.’
‘I know it was,’ she wailed, tears streaming hotly out of her eyes. ‘But I still don’t want to leave this house.’ He gazed at her for a few seconds in stupefaction. Then his expression changed.
‘All right, darling, then we won’t.’ His voice suddenly firm, he lifted her chin and looked into her teary eyes, in a gesture straight out of a 1940s film. ‘We’ll stay here. We’ll stay where we’re happy. I’ll phone the solicitors tomorrow.’
‘Oh Jonathan, why are you so stupid!’ Liz jerked her chin out of his grasp impatiently. She wiped her nose with her hand and pushed it exasperatedly through her hair. A second wave of tears, feeble and benign, squeezed their way onto her cheeks. ‘You never understand anything. Of course we’re not going to stay here.’
She had given a huge, shuddering sigh, and got up to close the window. When she returned to bed, Jonathan was facing the other way, not out of resentment, she was sure, but out of complete bewilderment. And she had realized that she really wasn’t being fair on him. Jonathan was inherently cautious; naturally un ambitious. It had taken a lot of her enthusiasm to persuade him into this enterprise. And here she was, weeping distressingly at him, worrying him unnecessarily.
‘Sorry,’ she had said, taking his narrow hand, watching his shoulders relax. ‘I’m just tired.’
Since then, she had gone to the other extreme; maintaining a blithe, positive approach that swept them all along, through the documentation, delivery vans and detritus of the move; into the shabby little flat that they were now to live in; out of safety and into precarious uncertainty. While Jonathan paced anxiously about the small, dusty rooms of their new home, searching for plug sockets; while Alice shuffled around blackly, in conspicuous, unspecified teenage gloom, she had been the one to smile, and throw open tea chests and sing Beatles songs, cheerfully mismatching tunes and lyrics. She had been the strong one; the face of reassurance. But now reassurance seemed to have slipped adroitly away from her, as though recognizing too great an adversary in the tidings of this fresh-faced, droning messenger.
‘A good interior makes all the difference,’ he was saying, as Liz’s senses snapped back into focus. ‘There’s a lot of competition out there; people with Jacuzzi bathrooms; conservatories…’ He looked at her expectantly. ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider installing a power shower? It might help attract buyers.’
‘Instead of dropping the price?’ said Liz, in slight relief. ‘Well, I don’t see why not.’
‘As well as dropping the price, I meant,’ said the estate agent, in a tone of almost amusement. It was that tone which suddenly touched her on the raw.
‘You want us to drop the price and install a new shower?’ She heard her voice screech; felt her face adopt the expression of outrage which she usually reserved for her most thoughtless pupils. ‘Do you realize,’ she added, slowly and clearly, as though to a class of sulky sixth-formers, we are selling our house because we actually need the money? That we haven’t decided to go and live in a tiny poky flat because we want to, but because we have to?’ She could feel herself gathering momentum. ‘And you’re telling me that because you haven’t been able to sell our house, we’ve got to put in a new shower at a cost of goodness knows how much, and then we’ve got to drop the price by – what was it? – fifty thousand? Fifty thousand pounds! Do you have any idea what our mortgage is?’
‘Yes, well, it’s quite a common situation you’re in,’ the young man said quickly. ‘The majority of our clients have found themselves to be in a negative equity situation.’
‘Well, I’m afraid I don’t give a toss about your other clients! Why on earth should I care about them?’ She wouldn’t, Liz decided as she listened to her own voice crescendo, let Jonathan know that she had yelled at the estate agent. He would only get cross and worry. Perhaps even phone up to apologize, for heaven’s sake. A spurt of indignation at her husband’s humility fuelled Liz further. ‘We put our house on the market nearly a year ago,’ she shouted. ‘Do you realize that? If you’d sold it then, like you were supposed to, we wouldn’t be talking about new showers. We wouldn’t be lowering the price by such ludicrous amounts. We’d have paid off the mortgage, we’d be fine.’
‘Mrs Chambers, the property market—’
‘Sod the property market!’
‘Hear, hear!’ A rich, easy, expensive voice joined the ensemble. The estate agent started, forced a smile onto his face and swivelled in his chair. Liz, who had been about to continue, took a deep, gasping breath and looked round instead. Standing in the doorway of the office was a man in a tweed jacket, with dark brown eyes and crow’s-feet and an amused grin. As Liz watched, he took a couple of steps into the room and then leaned casually back against the door frame. He looked at ease; urbane and confident, unlike the young estate agent, who had begun twitchily rearranging the papers on his desk. The man in the tweed jacket ignored him.
‘Do carry on,’ he said to Liz, giving her a quizzical smile. ‘I didn’t want to stop you. You were saying something – about the property market?’
Jonathan Chambers was sitting by the window in the grim little office of the Silchester Tutorial College, going through the last year’s business accounts. Miss Hapland, the former owner of the tutorial college, had done the books herself for thirty years in a manner which had become more and more idiosyncratic as the years progressed. In the months since her death, a nephew had perfunctorily taken care of the business side of things until the place was sold, and now the books looked even more confused than before.
Jonathan frowned as be turned a page, and in voluntarily wrinkled his nose at the rows of figures before him. It was a dull and wearisome job, this, which he had been tackling methodically at intervals since they had finally taken over the tutorial college that summer. He peered at the column headings and tried to ignore the odd ray of sunlight which played alluringly on the paper in front of him. This was the perfect afternoon for a walk or bicycle ride – and the temptation to give up and go outside for some fresh air was tremendous. But he had told Liz he was going to spend the day sorting things out, and it wouldn’t be fair to let her down. Not when she was out doing a day’s dreary shopping and tackling Witherstone’s about the house.
He paused in his thoughts, pen poised over a column of figures, and wondered how she was getting on. A sudden vision of a smiling estate agent popped into his mind. Yes, Mrs Chambers. I was going to phone you today. We had an offer on the house yesterday. The buyers would like to complete as quickly as possible. Some chance. As far as he was aware, nobody had even deigned to look round the house in recent weeks. Let alone put in an offer. No-one was interested. It was going to remain unsold. Mortgaged and unsold. The thought sent a small shiver of panic up Jonathan’s spine.
They had only been given such a large mortgage to buy this tutorial college on the basis that their house would be sold within months; that they would soon be able to pay off one mortgage completely. But instead of that, they now had two mortgages. The size of their total borrowing was horribly huge. Sometimes Jonathan could hardly bear to look at their mortgage statements; at the monthly repayments which seemed to loom so large on the horizon of their monthly budget, and yet eat so little into the outstanding debt.
It had never entered his mind, at the start of all this, that they might get to the stage where they had bought the college but not managed to sell their house. They had always taken the sale of the house for granted; had even worried that it would sell too soon, before they were ready to move out. They’d put it on the market as soon as they’d decided to have a go at buying the tutorial college; and an offer had come along within weeks, from a young couple with a toddler and a baby on the way. A good offer; enough to cover the mortgage with some over. But they’d hesitated. At that stage they weren’t certain whether they’d be able to raise enough money to buy the college. Was it wise to sell the house prematurely? Jonathan wasn’t sure what to do; Liz thought they should wait until their plans were firmer. So Jonathan stalled the buyers for a week while they thought about it. And during that week, the young couple found another house.
In hindsight, of course, they should have grabbed the offer while they had it. But how could they have known? thought Jonathan. How could they have predicted the dearth of interest in their house that had followed? He tried to be philosophical about their predicament. ‘The house will sell eventually,’ he often said to Liz, trying to convince himself as much as her. ‘It will. We only need one person interested. Not twenty. Only one.’
‘We only need one, and he’s been unavoidably detained,’ he once joked, trying to jolly things up. But Liz wasn’t interested in jokes any more. For her, the sale of the house seemed, in the last few months, to have taken on a new significance. It wasn’t simply the money. In her mind, it almost seemed a yardstick; a sign that they would succeed. It was she who had insisted, as the new autumn term approached, that they should move out of the house and into the tutorial college, as they had always planned. She was almost superstitious about it. ‘If we don’t move now, we’ll be admitting defeat,’ she’d wailed, when Jonathan said that in his opinion it was no bad thing that they had a bit longer in the house, just while they got used to running a business. ‘We’ve got to stick to the plan. We’ve got to.’ Even though, as Jonathan pointed out several times, the plan was based on the assumption that by now, their house would be sold. And even though Liz loved the house more than any of them.
There was a streak of fatalism in Liz which Jonathan found, on occasion, rather alarming. But experience had taught him not to argue with it. So they had moved out of their house and into the little flat above the college, and left the house empty, waiting to be sold. Liz had been, during the days since the move, almost maniacally cheerful, as if to prove to herself and everybody else that they’d done the right thing; Jonathan already dreaded the tumble in her spirits, which would surely come.
For himself, Jonathan really didn’t know whether they’d done the right thing or not. They’d both given up steady teaching jobs, a comfortable life and a secure future, to take on a business which, while not exactly declining, had certainly seen better days. If Liz was right, they would, between them, easily kickstart it into vitality, growth and profit. If Jonathan’s occasional pessimisms were right, it was foolish for the two of them, with no business experience, to take on such an enterprise. But since they’d moved in, he had only once confided his worst fears to Liz. She had reacted savagely, as though he were accusing her of dragging them down into ruin; as though he were blaming her for a disaster which hadn’t even happened.
‘For God’s sake, Jonathan,’ she’d shouted. ‘Why do you have to be so negative? I mean, you wanted to buy this place, too, didn’t you?’
‘Of course I did—’
‘And now all you can do is worry about money all the time. Oh God!’ Liz gave the tea chest she was unpacking a little shove with her foot. ‘This is all hard enough, without you being miserable the whole time.’
And so Jonathan had postponed telling her that he was going to have to take out an extra loan. The original loan they’d been given to get the business going was running out, and they still hadn’t ordered all the equipment they wanted. They needed money for the beginning of term. They needed a bit extra for emergencies. Another five thousand should cover it. Or maybe ten, to be on the safe side.
The bank had agreed immediately, pointing out in the same smooth letter that the interest rate on such a loan would necessarily be, as Mr Chambers must be aware, higher than that on the previous loan. Whilst we are confident in your ability to pay back this loan, we would point out that your total debt is now far in excess of that originally agreed. In particular, we are concerned that you are still maintaining two mortgages. Perhaps you could update us on the proposed sale of your property in Russell Street?
Jonathan clenched his pen slightly harder, and stared out of the window. If only he could. If only he could get shot of that house, once and for all.
Liz could feel her cheeks burning hotter and hotter. Both the young estate agent and the older man in the doorway were looking at her expectantly, obviously waiting for her to explain her outburst. She glanced at the twitchy young estate agent to see if he was going to say anything, but he was staring morosely downwards. It was up to her.
She looked up, and smiled shamefacedly at the man in the doorway. ‘I’m sorry I shouted like that,’ she said. ‘Don’t be silly,’ exclaimed the man in the doorway. ‘Sod the property market! I couldn’t agree more. What do you think, Nigel?’
‘Well yes, perhaps it would be nice,’ said the young estate agent, a craven half-smile appearing on his face. ‘Sod the lot!’ He began to laugh, then abruptly stopped, and cleared his throat.
‘And now,’ said the man in the doorway, turning to Liz, bestowing on her a charming smile, ‘do tell me: were you just making a general observation, or did you have something specific in mind?’
‘Mrs Chambers—’ began Nigel.
‘Can tell us herself what’s on her mind,’ cut in the older man.
‘Yes,’ said Liz hurriedly, before she lost her nerve. ‘I’m sorry I got so cross,’ she began, ‘but really, it seems an impossible situation. We put our house on the market ten months ago and it hasn’t sold, and now we’ve moved and we really need to sell, and . ..’ what was the boy’s name? Oh yes, Nigel . . . ‘Nigel tells me that we’re going to have to drop our price by fifty thousand and put in a power shower to attract buyers. But, I mean, we can’t afford to do that. We’ve just bought a business, you see, and we promised the bank we’d pay off the mortgage on the house by the end of the summer. And here we are in September . . .’ She spread her hands out helplessly. If she hadn’t been distracted by Nigel’s obvious growing discomfiture, she might have burst into tears.
‘What I said was—’ began Nigel, as soon as she stopped talking. The older man cut him off with an upraised hand.
‘We’ll return to the power shower in a minute, Nigel. Awful things, don’t you think?’ he added confidingly to Liz. ‘Like sticking needles in your back. Give me a good old-fashioned bath.’
‘I’ve never been in a power shower,’ admitted Liz.
‘Well, my advice is, don’t bother. Now, tell me, what is this business you’ve bought?’
‘We’ve bought Silchester Tutorial College,’ said Liz, unable to stop her mouth curving into a smile. They had actually bought a tutorial college. They were the owners of a business. It still gave her a thrill to articulate it; to watch for the reaction on people’s faces. This time it was even better than usual.
‘No! Really?’ The debonair, amused expression slipped from the man’s face, to be replaced by a disarming enthusiasm, and his eyes focused on Liz anew. ‘I was crammed for my O levels there. Wonderful place.’ He paused. ‘Actually, what am I saying? I still failed them all. But I’m sure that was my fault. I was a hopeless case.’ He smiled reminiscently. ‘I was taught English by Miss Hapland herself. I think she hated me by the end of it,’
‘She’s dead now,’ said Liz cautiously.
‘Really?’ His face fell briefly. ‘I suppose she must be. She looked pretty ancient even when she taught me.’
‘It only happened last year,’ said Liz. ‘That’s why the tutorial college was put up for sale.’
‘And you bought it. That’s wonderful! I’m sure you’ll have a much better calibre of pupil than I was.’
‘But you’re a graduate. You’re a qualified surveyor,’ objected Nigel, who was leaning back in his chair, staring gloomily at the ceiling. A cloud had passed over the sun; suddenly the room seemed colder and darker.
‘Oh, I got a few exams eventually,’ said the older man impatiently. ‘Anyway, that’s not the point. The problem here is what to do about your house. Where exactly is it?’
‘Russell Street,’ said Liz.
‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I know. Nice family houses. Got a garden, has it?’ Liz nodded.
‘Well, from what you’ve said, I would have thought one of your best bets might be to try and rent out your property for a while, just until prices pick up. Are you on a repayment mortgage?’ Liz nodded. ‘Well then,’ he smiled, ‘the rental income should cover at least part of your monthly repayment. Maybe the whole lot, with any luck!’
‘Really?’ said Liz, feeling a flicker of hope rising inside her.
‘And there’s no shortage of prospective tenants at the moment, especially for a nice, well-located house like yours.’ He gave her a warm smile, and Liz felt suddenly overcome, as though his compliment were to herself. ‘We can handle all the arrangements here, draw up a shorthold tenancy agreement, and then, when the market seems right, try and sell again. I certainly wouldn’t be tempted down the route of power showers,’ he added, flicking an almost imperceptible grin at her. It’s you and me against that idiot Nigel, his look said, and Liz gazed back at him, feeling ridiculously warmed.
‘I only suggested installing a power shower in the context of my first mooted option,’ said Nigel, clearly not quite daring to adopt the defensive tone he would have liked. ‘I was about to proceed onto the rental option.’
‘Yes, well, perhaps you should have mentioned that first,’ said the older man, a steely note creeping into his voice. Nigel’s back stiffened, and Liz wondered for the first time who this stranger was. Someone important, obviously. ‘In fact,’ the man added, turning back to Liz, ‘I might even know some people who are interested. A very sweet girl and her husband. She does PR for us – you know Ginny Prentice,’ he said to Nigel, who nodded. ‘Lovely girl, husband’s an actor. I’m sure she said she was thinking of taking a place down this way. Your house would do them perfectly.’
‘Gosh, that would be wonderful,’ said Liz. ‘But actually, I’m not sure about renting it out. I mean, we’re supposed to be selling to pay off our mortgage. The bank might not like it if we have a mortgage on the house and a mortgage on the business as well.’ She stared at him, mutely pleading, willing him to pull another rabbit out of the hat. He looked down at her consideringly. There was a moment’s still silence.
‘Who’s your lender?’ he suddenly said.
‘Brown and Brentford.’
‘Main Silchester branch?’
‘Yes.’ There was a pause, and Nigel looked up, a look of utter disapproval on his face.
‘I’ll see if I can sort something out,’ said the man. ‘No promises, of course. But I’ll try.’ He looked kindly at her, and Liz gazed back, pink-cheeked, gratitude filling her body like a balloon. She suddenly wished, foolishly, that she had bothered to put her contact lenses in that morning. Then abruptly the man looked at his watch. ‘Christ. Must fly. Sorry, I’ll be in touch. Nigel will give me your details.’ He gave her another crinkle-eyed conspirator’s smile.
‘But wait!’ cried Liz, her voice sounding shrill to her own ears. ‘I don’t know your name!’ A look of amusement passed afresh over his face.
‘It’s Marcus,’ he said. ‘Marcus Witherstone.’
As Marcus proceeded down the corridor to his own office, he was filled with a glow of benevolence. It was so easy to help people, he reflected; really, very little effort for the reward of such self-satisfaction. Sweet woman; she had been so touchingly grateful. And it had been worth it just to put that dreadful Nigel in his place. Marcus frowned as he pushed open the door to his office. It was his cousin, Miles, who had hired Nigel – poached him from Easton’s, the rival estate agency in Silchester. Said he was a young dynamic talent. Well, perhaps he was. But no amount of talent, in Marcus’s opinion, made up for that horrible nasal voice and smug young face.
Nigel was just another of the topics on which Marcus and Miles disagreed. Only that morning, Marcus had spent a fruitless half-hour trying to persuade Miles that they ought to be branching out into property abroad. Setting up an office on the south coast of France, perhaps. Or Spain.
‘All the big boys are doing it,’ he said, waving a collection of glossy brochures in front of Miles. ‘Look. Villas worth half a million, a million. That’s the kind of business we should be handling.’
‘Marcus,’ said Miles, in the dry, deliberate voice that he’d had since he was a small boy, ‘what do you know about French property?’
‘I know that it’s an area we should definitely be going into,’ said Marcus with determination. ‘I’ll go over there, make some contacts, suss out the market, you know.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Miles firmly. He spoke in much the same way as he had when, aged seven, Marcus had tried to persuade him to climb out of the window of their grandparents’ house and go to the village pub to buy Coke and crisps for a midnight feast. He hadn’t had any guts then either, Marcus thought crossly. And just because he was three years older, he wielded a tacit authority over Marcus that neither of them could quite abandon. Even though they were supposed to be equal partners.
He stared angrily at Miles, so bloody staid, in his ridiculously old-fashioned three-piece suit; puffing away at his stupid pipe. A pipe, for God’s sake.
‘Miles, you don’t live in the real world,’ he said. ‘Expansion’s what it’s all about. Diversification.’
‘Into areas we know nothing about? And at which we’re bound to fail?’ Miles took his spectacles off and began polishing them on his handkerchief. ‘I think it’s you who doesn’t live in the real world, Marcus.’ He spoke kindly, and Marcus felt a series of angry retorts rising. But he kept his mouth closed. If there was one thing Miles couldn’t tolerate, it was conspicuous family rows at the office. ‘This is the time to be consolidating,’ Miles continued. He replaced his spectacles and smiled at Marcus. ‘If you want to go to France, why don’t you go there on holiday?’
Now Marcus looked aggrievedly at the glossy brochures still sitting on his desk, tantalizing him with photographs of blue skies, swimming pools, bougainvillaea. And his own inspired jottings: Wither stone’s Abroad. Spread your wings with Witherstone’s. Weekending abroad with Witherstone’s. He hadn’t even had a chance to show his slogans to Miles. But perhaps it was just as well. He opened his bottom desk drawer and stowed the brochures inside. Maybe he would bring the subject up again in six months’ time. But now he had to go. He glanced at his watch. Five twenty already, and he had promised to pick up Anthea and the children from outside the library at half-past.
He glanced hurriedly at the fluttering yellow post-it notes decorating his desk. They would just have to wait till tomorrow, he thought, gathering up his briefcase, stuffing a few random papers inside. But as his eye ran automatically over the messages, one suddenly stood out and grabbed his attention. He stared at it silently for a minute, then looked around as though afraid of being observed, and sat casually down on his leather swivel chair, from where he could see it better without actually touching it. It was written in the same innocent, rounded handwriting as all the others, in the turquoise ink that was the trademark of Suzy, his secretary. It sat benignly between a request for details of small country estates by a Japanese businessman and a cancelled lunch appointment. And it was unremarkably short. Could you please ring Leo Francis, tel: 879560.
Marcus looked at his watch. Shit. Nearly twenty-five past. Anthea would probably already be standing outside the library, looking anxiously up the road, wondering loudly to the boys whether Daddy had forgotten to leave the office early. He looked at the phone for a torn, undecided second. Either way, the longer he sat there, the later he would be. But the thought of leaving it; of spending the whole evening wondering whether Leo had phoned about that – or for some other, innocuous reason; listening to Anthea’s chatter while a secret anticipation filled his mind and body – was unbearable. With a small surge of excitement, he picked up the receiver and dialled the number.
‘Francis, Frank and Maloney.’
‘Leo Francis, please.’ God, even his voice was shaking.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Francis has left for the day. Can I take a message?’ Marcus stared at the phone for a moment. Leo wasn’t there. He would have to wait until tomorrow to find out. A sudden, surprising sensation of relief went through his body.
‘Just say that Marcus Witherstone called,’ he said, and put down the phone. Shit. Oh shit. What was he getting himself into?
He closed his briefcase with slightly trembling hands, peeled the post-it with Leo’s number on it from his desk, folded it in two and put it in the breast pocket of his jacket. He would get rid of it in the kitchen rubbish bin at home. Although why on earth should he not legitimately have a message from Leo on his desk? Leo was, after all, a well-known local solicitor with whom Witherstone’s had often done business. He was being paranoid, he told himself firmly as he closed his office door behind him. And anyway, he hadn’t actually talked to Leo yet. He could still change his mind.
Feeling calmer, he strode through the outer office, nonchalantly pushing a hand through his hair, saying a cheery good-night to the remaining staff, smiling kindly at a young couple sitting in the waiting area, leafing anxiously through a pile of details. Outside, he nearly bumped into a woman unlocking a bicycle from the forecourt railings.
‘Oh, hello!’ she said, giving him a slightly tremulous smile.
‘Hello there,’ said Marcus in a jovial voice, bleeping open the locking system of his Mercedes.
‘I just wanted to say thank you,’ she continued in a rush. Marcus turned round to look at her again. Of course. It was the woman from Nigel’s office. She gazed at him in beseeching gratitude, and brushed a few locks of dark hair from her face.
‘Don’t mention it,’ he said, in his charming, all-part- of-the-service manner.
‘No really,’ she insisted. ‘It was terribly kind of you to take an interest. And I had no idea who you were,’ she added, glancing up at the illuminated ‘Witherstone & Co.’ above the office. ‘I’m sure you don’t normally go around organizing people’s problems for them.’
Marcus shrugged disarmingly. ‘I’m just an estate agent, like all the rest of them.’
‘Rubbish. You’re nothing like most estate agents!’ Marcus let out a laugh in spite of himself.
‘That’s about the biggest compliment you could give me,’ he said conspiratorially. ‘But don’t tell anyone I said so.’
‘OK,’ she grinned back, and wheeled her bike down to the pavement. ‘Bye-bye, and thanks!’
Marcus was still smiling as he got into his car. It just showed. People like Nigel, however bright and talented, simply weren’t popular with the customers. He would relate the whole story at the next weekly meeting, he decided, including the comment from the customer that he, Marcus, was nothing like most estate agents. That would get Miles worked up, all right. Not to mention the precious protégé. ‘I’ve decided, Nigel,’ he would say, in a kind voice, ‘to oversee the rest of this case myself. I’m not convinced you’ve grasped the best manner of dealing with the client. We can’t afford to have our customers upset, you know.’ He grinned to himself. That was precisely the reprimand Miles had used on him years ago when he told that obnoxious old couple they wouldn’t be able to sell their bungalow because it smelt disgusting. It would be highly satisfying to see Miles’s face as he said exactly those words to Nigel. And the best thing was that Miles was so hidebound by ideas of family loyalty, and presenting a united front to the staff, that he probably wouldn’t say a word in Nigel’s defence.
Liz arrived home with bright eyes and a bag of doughnuts.
‘Time for tea,’ she said, planting a kiss on Jonathan’s head from behind. ‘Time to stop working and have a doughnut.’
‘Did it go well, then?’ said Jonathan, following her to the kitchen. ‘Have we sold the house?’ Liz was filling up the kettle. When she turned around, her face was triumphant.
‘We don’t need to,’ she said. ‘We’re going to rent it out.’
‘The rent we get will probably cover the mortgage repayments. It’ll be completely self-sufficient.’
‘Says who? The estate agent?’ Jonathan sounded sceptical, and an impatient look crossed Liz’s face.
‘Not just any old estate agent,’ she said. ‘The top estate agent. Mr Witherstone himself.’
‘How does he know about it?’ Liz glared at Jonathan.
‘Can’t you stop asking questions? Honestly, I’d have thought you’d be a bit more pleased.’
‘I am pleased,’ protested Jonathan, picking up the bag of doughnuts and putting them onto a plate. ‘I think. But I can’t quite see how it’s going to solve all our problems. We’re supposed to be selling the house to decrease our mortgage.’
‘Yes, well, we don’t need to if we’ve got a rental income, do we?’ said Liz impatiently. ‘I mean, it’ll be just as if we don’t have that mortgage any more.’
‘I’m not sure the bank will see it quite like that,’ said Jonathan cautiously.
‘Well actually, I think you’ll find they will,’ said Liz triumphantly. ‘Mr Witherstone’s going to speak to them.’ Jonathan stopped, doughnut in hand.
‘Liz, are you joking?’
‘No, I’m not.’ A tinge of pink crept into Liz’s cheeks. ‘He said he’d talk to them. Pull some strings. You know.’
‘This all sounds very dubious to me,’ said Jonathan. ‘Can’t we just go ahead with selling the house? I mean, do you know what our total debt is? It’s going to be hard enough to keep up the repayments on the tutorial college, let alone the house too.’
‘For God’s sake, Jonathan! It’ll be fine! We’ll get some tenants in and they’ll cover the mortgage and there’ll be nothing to worry about.’
Yes, but what if they don’t, Jonathan was about to say. And what if the bank doesn’t agree? Then, looking at Liz’s flushed face, he thought better of it. The kettle came to a noisy boil, and Liz poured the scalding water into the teapot.
‘Anyway,’ she said belligerently through the steam, ‘it has to work. Otherwise we’ll have to drop the price of the house by fifty thousand. That’s what they said. We won’t sell it otherwise.’
‘What?’ Jonathan suddenly felt weak. ‘Fifty thousand? That’s impossible.’
‘That’s what I said,’ retorted Liz. ‘I mean, if we did that, we’d never pay off the mortgage, would we? It would just hang over us.’ Jonathan looked at her. She was reaching into the cupboard for a couple of mugs, and almost seemed to be avoiding his eye.
‘You don’t seem very worried,’ he said, trying not to sound accusing.
‘Yes, well, that’s because I’m not worried,’ said Liz quickly. ‘It’s all going to be sorted out. I told you.’
‘Yes, but what if this great plan doesn’t work?’ Jonathan could hardly bear to think about it. The extra loan was worrying enough. But this was worse. If their house was worth fifty thousand pounds less than they had thought, then that debt would always be there, even after they’d sold. Fifty thousand pounds. He compared it in his mind with the yearly salary he had received as a teacher at the comprehensive, and gave a small shudder. How could they even begin to pay back that kind of money? Even if they did start making a profit?
‘Here’s your tea,’ said Liz. She looked at his face and frowned. ‘Oh, come on. Don’t be such a misery.’ Jonathan roused himself, and gave her a small smile. Liz took a huge bite of doughnut and looked at him balefully. ‘I’ve had a really hard day,’ she added.
‘I know you have,’ said Jonathan, automatically adopting a soothing voice. ‘Well, why don’t you go and sit down, and I’ll bring you a piece of toast.’
‘OK,’ said Liz grudgingly, taking another bite of her doughnut. ‘Where’s Alice?’ she added, in a muffled voice.
‘She went out earlier on,’ said Jonathan. He opened a drawer and took out the bread knife. ‘She didn’t say where she was going.’
The house looked just as it always had done. Solid. Familiar. Home. Gazing at it from her strategic viewing position across the street, Alice thought that if she’d walked put it in a hurry and looked up, she might even have believed it was still home and that if she went inside she would find her mother in the kitchen or in the sitting-room watching Summer Street, her father playing classical music in the study, the smell of food in the air and Oscar asleep in front of the fire.
Alice bit ber lip and frowned and hunched her narrow shoulders in her old brown suede jacket. They’d had to give Oscar away. To Antonia Callender, of all awful, awful people. What a gorgeous cat! I bet you’ll miss him. You can come and see him any time, you know. Stupid bitch. There was no way Alice was going near Antonia’s house. She had hated her ever since they sat next to each other on the first day in the upper third, and Antonia asked Alice what her favourite drink was and laughed really loudly when she said Lilt. Of course, Antonia’s was gin and tonic. And then everyone else in the class had said theirs was gin and tonic, too, except the real squares. Now she kept asking people if they’d got stoned at the weekend, and last term she’d gone on about how she was going to stay with her cousins, who were really cool and smoked joints in front of their parents. Alice reckoned she made it all up. When they’d gone to her house to deliver Oscar, Antonia’s mother had offered Alice orange squash. But she hadn’t felt able to drink anything.
They’d taken him there in the car, in his travelling basket, which he hated. Alice could still remember the precise feel of the wicker on her knees, weighted down unevenly by Oscar’s pacing paws. He’d scrabbled heavily against the sides most of the way there, as if he couldn’t wait to be let out. But when they’d opened the little gate, he’d looked around nervously, and then retreated back as far as he could go. They’d had to tip the basket up to get him out, and then he’d crouched down, looking panic-stricken, before streaking across the rug and under the sofa. Then he’d made a mess on the carpet. Hah. That served them right…
An old lady with a shopping basket pushed past Alice, interrupting her thoughts.
‘Excuse me,’ she said crossly, and gave Alice a suspicious look. Alice stared back rudely. This was still her street. She’d grown up here; she still belonged here. Not in Silchester shitty Tutorial College.
She’d just had to get out of that place this afternoon. Her father was trying to sort things out downstairs, in the classroom bit, and kept shouting upstairs to the flat, asking her to come and help move desks around. Then he’d told her to turn down her music, then he’d told her she should really be a bit more helpful and lots of girls of fourteen had Saturday jobs, and all he wanted was half an hour of her time. The more he said things like that, the more she wanted to be as unhelpful as possible. So she’d shrugged on her suede jacket and made sure her cigarettes were in the pocket, and stomped noisily down the stairs. She couldn’t bring herself to say anything at all to her father – to have him smiling hopefully at her was even worse than hearing him shout – so she hadn’t told him she was going out. Anyway, it was pretty obvious.
It was getting cold, and drops of rain were starting to fall on her head. She fingered her lighter, and wondered what to do. She hadn’t really intended to come back here. She’d just thought she would go somewhere for a cigarette, maybe sit on the grass in the Cathedral Close. That was one tiny little good thing about living at the tutorial college, she thought grudgingly. At least they were nearer the centre of Silchester. But although she’d started off going there, she hadn’t ended up in the Cathedral Close. At some point on her journey she’d stopped concentrating, and had automatically started walking west, the way she used to go home from St Helen’s when she was little. And here she was, back in Russell Street.
It was really weird – to think that she’d walked where her legs told her and not where she was intending to go. Like being hypnotized, or sleepwalking, or something. She would tell Genevieve in her next letter, she decided. It was so weird, she would begin. Or, no, It was so spooky. Genevieve always said everything was spooky. Now she’d be telling the people in Saudi Arabia how spooky everything was. Probably she’d be telling them how spooky they were. An image sprang into her mind of Genevieve, standing in the desert in her cut-off Levis, telling an Arabian man in a white dress he was really spooky, and she gave an involuntary giggle.
Her cigarette lighter had been a goodbye present from Genevieve. She’d put it in a carved lndian box and wrapped it all up and actually given it to her in front of both sets of parents. Alice had nearly died when she opened the box and saw what was inside. And then, of course, her mother had gone on about what a lovely present, and could she have a look, and Alice had glared at Genevieve, who couldn’t stop laughing and said, ‘Oh yes, Alice, show your mum, go on.’ In the end, she’d had to scrumple up the wrapping-paper and shove the lighter inside it when no-one was looking and then retrieve it from the waste-paper basket the next morning.
And now it lay warm in her hand, silver and chunky and rounded. Alice looked surreptitiously up and down the street. She would, she thought, go and have a quick cigarette in the garage. There couldn’t be anything wrong with that; it was still their garage. It was still their house come to that. She should have brought a front doorkey with her; then she could have gone and smoked in the kitchen if she’d wanted. Or the sitting-room. Anywhere.
Trying to look as casual as possible – although surely she wasn’t doing anything wrong – she crossed the road to number twelve. The gate gave a familiar squeak as she pushed it open, and the rose bushes halfway up the path would have snagged her new black leggings if she hadn’t automatically dodged them. She skirted quickly across the front lawn, feeling stupidly guilty, and unlatched the gate to the back garden.
Of course her parents hadn’t got round to mending the lock on the back door of the garage. She knew they wouldn’t have. Heaving her shoulder against it, she pushed it open and walked quickly into the familiar darkness. The piles of newspapers that used to make a comfortable seat for her and Genevieve had gone, but one corner was still dry enough to sit down. She fumbled for her cigarettes, cupped her hand around the smooth contours of her lighter, lit up, leant back and took a deep, long, comforting drag.
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