I recently decided to move house. It started with a resentful yearning to own two bedrooms, but I quickly discovered that to afford a spare room, I must leave my seedy area of west London for a worse one, or leave London altogether. Not easy after 30 years.
Since I made up my mind to move, my normal life has disappeared. In the ceaseless hunt for houses I have no time for blogging, writing, painting, exhibitions or sociable lunches: the things that used to give life its shape. As there are not enough affordable houses, there is intense competition involved, which has changed me into something like the unpleasant yuppie I was 30 years ago: anxious, resentful, greedy and tense.
I put in offers while looking elsewhere, bidding against others when I know I’m not really interested. I obsess on rising prices and desirable locations and spend most of my waking hours on property websites. Now that I have no time for my real friends, my main companions seem to be estate agents, who ring and text me at all hours like the most devoted lovers. They are mostly foxy young men, but not foxy in the American sense — I mean they remind me of scavenging foxes: sharp little faces and watchful eyes. Also: oily quiffs, tight suits and unpleasant elongated boots with squared-off toes.
Some seem to have an innate contempt for clients. I arrived at a property which looked pretty in the pictures but turned out to share its only outside space with the local fire-engine. ‘You should look it up on Google Earth if you want that kind of information,’ said the young vulpe dismissively. Sometimes the foxes don’t even bother to show up and leave me shivering on a damp doorstep — richer fish to fry I suppose.
Because of the shortage of decent houses on the market, and all the talk about them, it’s become normal for the foxes to give sky-high evaluations for the most dismal homes. They play on the avarice of both sellers and buyers. If some sucker pays the price — more money for the foxes! If not, no harm done except to the disappointed seller, and who cares about them?
It was a relief to get into hospital this week (I am a volunteer visitor) and forget about it all. For a while I was diverted by an old Irish man and a young French girl recovering from heart surgery. Then I went to the bedside of a dying man.
His wife was sitting by him. She told me about his long illness, became tearful, and went off to the lavatory. He opened his eyes suddenly so I tried a bit of conversation, asking him about his life before he became ill. He could only speak faintly but I clearly heard him say ‘exclusive luxury property’.
I’ve never met an estate agent in hospital before, not even in A&E suffering from bullet wounds. I suppose I imagined they must creep off to die under bushes in gardens somewhere. With a feeling of dread and self-loathing, I heard myself pouring out my situation to the recumbent form; the search for a property, discovering that everything I can afford is ghastly, getting pushed increasingly far from the centre of town, finding a tatty house in the suburbs where I never wanted to live. I told him about the pain of giving up my London postcode, and his eyes became quite glittery as I talked. When I finally stopped, he cleared his throat and asked what sort of price I was getting for my own property. I told him.
‘You were robbed,’ he croaked. ‘That wasn’t a good price. You must get more valuations, the market is going up.’ I imagined telling my buyers, a young couple with a lovely child, that I suddenly wanted more money. Even though I’ve been corrupted by the whole business, I’m not totally soulless yet. I shrank at the thought.
‘Don’t be a fool,’ the old agent whispered. ‘You’re creating problems for yourself. You’ve got to make the money work for you. Get a better offer! Go on. Or keep your flat, remortgage, use the equity to buy somewhere else. Two properties better than one! Then you’re free to move on, following the market.’
I felt suddenly exhausted — by my own greed and his. I just want to find a near–adequate place, get everyone off my back and move in. The old estate agent saw the fight go out of me, and all the instincts of a lifetime returned. He began to gesture urgently to a bag sitting on a nearby chair. In a front pocket I found one of his business cards. Just then his wife returned, so I left and as I went he called plaintively after me, ‘I know a very good broker!’
Later that day I heard that he’d died. ‘He fell asleep and never regained consciousness,’ a nurse told me. I didn’t say anything about our conversation, but that night I went out into my garden to meet the foxes. Their yellow eyes glinted as they weighed me and the situation up, looking for some advantage. I said a short prayer for all of their kind.