Squeezed Middle: The horrors of house-hunting

"Quarter of a million quid for a wreck," he huffs…

‘‘You’re not going to do better than this for £240,000,” says the estate agent as he opens the door. There is definitely pity in his voice.

The estate agent’s face is almost as shiny as his suit, which is in turn only marginally less shiny than his large, lustrous patent leather shoes. It’s as if he is holding up a man-sized mirror to show me beyond dispute how pathetically poor and needy a muesli-muncher like me is, in comparison to a dynamic wheeler-dealer like him.

The estate agent has already told me he owns five antique shops and a four-bedroom house in Epping, Essex. He thought about applying to go on The Apprentice, but decided against it because “the prize is only a quarter of a million quid. It’s nothing when you think about it – I want to be a multimillionaire.”

I nod meekly, a mere pawn in his game.

Inside the house, the hall is dark. The door is pushed up against a snowdrift of post. There are vomit-like swirls on the carpet and a strange smell is emanating from the kitchen. It could be rotting meat. Is there a body buried beneath the peeling cork tiles?

“You’ll have to use your imagination,” the estate agent says. “Just blank out what it actually looks like now, and think about… the potential.” I close my eyes. If I hold my breath as well, I can imagine I am in a nice Victorian terrace in Islington with distressed pine flooring. I can almost forget that I am in a small, grey-brick two-up two-down just off the North Circular. Almost, but not quite: the hum of traffic is audible from the living room.

I walk through the tiny kitchen and push open the back door. There, stretching into the distance, is the most enormous garden.

It is completely choked with brambles and fruit is rotting on a gnarled old apple tree.

But it is a garden big enough for my dream veggie patch, for my boys to have their football pitch… twisting, nooky, ramshackle and perfect for adventures.

By the time I get back to our too-small flat, the house has been sucked into my subconscious middle-class processor and spat out the other end. With a coat of white paint and some proper bookshelves, a wood-burning stove in the sitting room and one of those cheap but nice IKEA kitchens, the place could be lovely.

“Well, it needs a bit of work,” I tell Curly excitedly when he gets home. “But it’s got… potential.” He is busy lifting the cot back into the bedroom so we can sit down at the table for dinner.

Curly, Larry, Moe and I live in a continually shifting reality where sitting room transmutes into bedroom and back again, the dining table becomes a desk and the bed doubles as a changing mat.

“Quarter of a million quid for a wreck,” he huffs, before embarking on his favourite monologue. “Thirty-four years paying the bloody thing off… modern-day slavery… up the revolution…”

Once he’s got it off his chest we decide to put in an offer.

 

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war