So, faced with the prospect of doll houses, nicotine palaces, and the seismically challenged, we were struck with the niggling realisation that the house-hunting satnav had us stuck on cruise control down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. We didn’t need a map to know this road wasn’t headed toward a nice neighbourhood.
We were ready to give up. Reality wasn’t living up to the menu’s promise. We were stood outside the house of many cracks vaguely worrying that our final slam of the front door might precipitate its collapse. I felt I’d broken the heart of the agent who for some unaccountable reason seemed to think we’d be other than disappointed. It needs some work. I would have suggested demolition but I wasn’t sure it needed the help.
So we stood there in a fug of disappointment denser than the atmosphere in the nicotine palace. Over the road a ‘For Sale’ board peeked through a freshly manicured hedge. We’d been looking at weeds for days. What the hell, let’s take a look. Behind the hedge were three new houses. Not miniature house, no sign of toxic fog, and not a crack to be seen. The kind of house we’d come into this expecting. Somewhere you might want to live. The garden gates were unlocked, so we took a good look around. Tried the doors too, like trainee burglars, but they were locked more the pity. This is what the estate agents should have been showing us. Out comes the mobile phone and a quick Google later.
We did the calculus of financial optimism. Pulled out the crystal ball of future penury. Contemplated grand larceny. It wasn’t going to happen. We glanced back across the road. I was sure that house of many cracks had listed further to starboard in the meantime. That was what we could afford.
We spent a few more weeks in dank, dark houses of varying levels of disrepair and despair trying to make it work. We explored far realms of the borough, one bus route, then two, from the station. It could have been Middle Earth. We could make that commute in the morning. That surreal sense of optimism again. The same sense of optimism that deserts us when we find ourselves standing outside another semi, driveway part jungle (I don’t know, if you’re selling your house, maybe pull up the weeds?), and realised we didn’t even know what this place was called. We had to look at a map and it turned out the place was called a A Long Way From Where We Wanted to Be. As that was a bit of a mouthful, we called it Nowhere.
Optimism sprang a leak and the fight mostly dribbled out of us.
A couple of weeks later a walking miscalculation had stranded us at some indeterminate point on the North Downs at beer o’clock. Some frantic Ordnance Surveying had us rolling down a hill towards the nearest train station. Half-way down we pulled up short beside the driveway to a new development. Given our recent foray into B&E, we decided to take a self-propelled look around, sauntering down the side of one of the properties still for sale. As I looked into the window, my reflection turned out to be the estate agent. There was a mutual ‘argh’ and a round of explanations that we weren’t burglars or serial killers. Having spent a hot day stomping up and down hills, we probably didn’t look the average house hunter. But she offered to let us look around, which seemed charitable, considering we’d nearly given her a heart attack and that we probably smelt like we’d spent the last eight hours in the gym before rolling in a garbage pile.
I think she’d liked the fact that she’d snared city folks. The stench of money and kebabs. Trees! She pointed out like we didn’t have them in Zone 4. We do, along with pavements unholstered with mattresses that look like they might have been slept on by incontinent tramps. Judging from the nuptial kick to my shin, I might have said that out loud. Out on the patio, overlooking an admittedly pleasing vista of trees stretched across the valley (the view from our house was a car park, where we could watch neighbours engage in gladiatorial combat over parking spaces), she was layering on the country life, buttering a big scone with what I suspected was manure. Still, it was nice. I had to ask though, what about the bears? Where there bears in the area? My wife has edged over to the distant railing. I’m on my own. The agent took some time to answer as though she were giving it some genuine thought.
“Oh no, there are certainly no bears around here,” she responded with a completely straight face. Like there might be bears, just not in this development. Bears, obviously, make bad neighbours. Unfortunately, this rather serious discussion of ursine matters caused my wife to stifle a laugh. She should know better. Once a big belly laugh has been conjured into being, it has to go somewhere. A laugh like that is devious and merely denying it exit via the usual channels will result in it taking the nose, or if you have extreme nasal self-control, the ears. This one took the nasal route with a huge window-rattling snort that echoed down the valley. The agent looked mortified. My wife look mortified. The bears were hiding.
“Is there anything you’d like to see,” in a voice that suggested there really wasn’t.
At the top of road, my wife was trying to push me into a bush because apparently the gargantuan snort was somehow my fault when a Mini pulls up beside us. It’s the agent.
“I hope to see you both again,” she says, while looking like she didn’t, and if necessary she’d change her name and emigrate to stop that happening.
I was going to explain that this kind of spousal behaviour was normal in zone 4, especially if we’d not had a kebab for a while, which if you’d walked down the local high street at 11pm wasn’t far from the truth, but I got that look from my wife. The one that said I should stop speaking or she’d be doing more than pushing me through a bush.