The front of family home, circa 1970
We left for Marlborough College in mum’s Peugeot 205, with me driving. The plan was to meet the Textiliste at Marlborough for a cream tea – the Polly tearooms have always been a favourite – after which we would register for our courses and obtain access to our accommodation. Mum was doing decoupage and mosaics, the Textiliste printing, morning and afternoon and I was mixing a morning of outdoor adventures with an afternoon of poetry appreciation.
Not that I had an inkling at that moment. No, I was thinking about mum’s house. We were delayed leaving while we sorted out keys for the estate agent and instructions for the alarm. He, Mr Gubbins, sounded very perky. ‘There are some lined up for later today, from those who have already registered and…’
‘But the particulars won’t be ready until Tuesday you said.’
‘True but I’ll let them have a photocopy of the draft and, if they like it, I’ll send them the final version.’
‘Don’t forget to tell them about the survey.’
‘Of course. And when will that be ready?’
‘Well, the surveyor went round yesterday so he hopes to have it by mid week.’
‘If anyone shows an interest Mr Le Pard, I’ll pass it on.’
‘Make sure they know they are bidding, taking into account…’
Mum tugged at my arm. ‘I’m sure Mr Gubbins knows how to organise a sale, darling. It’s why his fees are so astronomical.’
We looked at mum, unsure which of us she was seeking to mollify. Or chastise.
In that summer of 2006, an overcast humid July from memory, Marlborough seemed like an oasis. One group had built a complicated dry stone wall; another sand-carved a Harry Potteresque sculpture. We had a lovely dinner, settled into our rooms and readied ourselves for our courses to begin. Mum and the Textiliste enjoyed a Pimms and we listened to a jazz band as the sun set over Wiltshire.
Monday morning and I was to learn to kayak. To begin with I headed for the swimming pool and still water; frankly I hated it. I’m not keep on water deeper than my thighs and the idea that I was to maintain stability using my thighs brought on cramp and a feeling that staying in the office would have been preferable. By the time I had dried off and dressed for lunch I need to run to mum’s workrooms. Her lack of mobility from her knee operation and some of the distances we knew we would have to travel meant we had hired a wheelchair for the week. Mum loved it – she saw no reason to move herself if someone else was willing to do it – but decoupage was a way away from the dining room necessitating a regular sprint.
the front August this year
It wasn’t until we sat down that I checked my Blackberry. Back then it was only ever going to be work but I had already been sucked into the habit of checking even on holiday. There was a text message from an unknown mobile asking me to call. As I headed for poetry workshop I rang the number.
Gubbins: ‘Good news. We’ve had an offer. Two actually.’
‘The highest is £30k below the asking price and the buyer is in a long chain.’
‘I’ll check with Mum but I think we’ll say no.’
‘I agree. We had six viewings…’
‘… on Saturday and another five on Sunday. There are three second viewings today and another three new viewings planned. We can certainly do better than that.’
I skipped my way to the workroom, in my head praising Le Gubbins.
Mum was delighted. When I told her I had rejected the underbid she smiled and touched my hand. ‘I’ll leave all that up to you, darling. I know you’ll do the best job. Mr Gubbins is good, isn’t he?’
I didn’t comment; I’d remembered the survey. I needed to make sure the bidders were aware of the need to see it and confirm their bids on the back of it.
Tuesday and I was mountain biking. Once again I was running hither and yon to get mum to lunch but checked the phone as soon as I could. Sure enough Gubbins had called.
‘The particulars are out. They look rather magnificent, though I say it myself. And a single lady, who has just retired is really keen. She’s gone in at £5k under but I’m sure we can push her up.’
‘Did you tell her about the survey? I called the surveyor and you will have the final version by Friday.’
‘Mr Le Pard, shall we secure a sale first?’
‘We will ensure everything is in order. So we hold out?’
I sat, pondering the beauty of Keats’ sonnets, desperately wanting to tell Mr Gubbins to do what I asked. My phone went off in the class and I died a death by tutor-glare as I fumbled to turn it off. Gubbins.
I called as soon as we finished. ‘Mrs Wotsit has agreed to the asking price. Mr and Mrs Thingy are seeing it again today. I wondered what you want to do.’
‘Is there still a bit of interest outstanding?’
‘We’ve barely started Mr Le Pard. I’d say, if you were so minded we could give it, say, another week to ten days and go to best bids. The market is hot hot hot. You may even make £500k.’
I sort of liked Gubbins. I could also sense his ability, like that of the avid darts player who can subtract any number from 501 in an instant, to calculate his fee off any amount in seconds.
‘I’ll talk to mum but that sounds like a good idea to me. And the survey…’
‘Mr Le Pard…’
I’ve been put through the mill, buying and selling property in England with our antiquated and creaking system that encourages a lack of moral fibre and unethical behaviour. That’s why I wanted the bidders to know any defects thrown up by the survey. That way, I reasoned, they couldn’t raise some bit of damp at the end of the process to chisel the price.
So this conversation, over yet another pre-dinner Pimms came as a bit of a blow.
‘I spoke to Gubbins.’
‘He is a nice man.’
‘Yes, well, he tells me Mrs Wotsit has offered the asking price and…’
‘Oh how marvellous. After just three days. Mr Gubbins is good, isn’t he?’
‘Arguably he’s off the pace.’
‘I think that is a rather churlish thing to say.’
‘Mum, your house is gold just now. Everyone loves it…’
‘Your father would be pleased.’
‘Of course. The thing is, there are several people still interested…’
‘Well, of course we don’t want to disappoint anyone but well, that’s just the way it is, I suppose.’
‘We could go to best bids.’
Her perma-smile slipped a little. Not a good sign. ‘What are ‘best bids’?’ This was said in the same voice she used if I came home covered in something I hadn’t gone out in. As in ‘what is that on your shirt/shoes/trousers/pullover/face?’
‘We wait until everyone has expressed an interest and we ask them to put in their best price, into a sealed envelope and then we open them all and the top bid wins.’
‘But why do that when we have the asking price? All they’ll do it put in the asking price.’
‘No that’s the beauty, mum, they go above the asking price.’
I had truly farted in front of royalty, while asking mum if her cake was shop bought. She couldn’t have looked more horrified. ‘You can’t do that.’
‘Because we asked for a price and now you’re asking for another one.’
‘But there’s nothing to stop us.’
‘There’s nothing stopping Sainsbury trying to raise the price of their own brand baked beans – not that I buy them because they reduce the salt – when I reach the till but they just don’t. I’d have to go to Tesco if they did.’
‘Mum, we aren’t worried about brand loyalty.’
‘I’m worried about your moral compass. You’re not becoming one of those awful impregnators, are you?’
‘Do you mean entrepreneurs?’
‘Don’t be clever. Your father would be horrified at how your standards have slipped. Best Bibs, indeed.’
‘Mrs Wotsit won fair and square. We sell to her.’
Mum looked away. The argument was over. There was no need for a moderator. The ‘I’ll leave it to you, darling’ was a short lived but oft repeated example of how parental flattery can be used to keep you on track until such time as what you were doing conflicts with what Mum wants. We accepted the asking price.
I was miffed. The Textiliste understood but shrugged. She wouldn’t have told mum. She knew which way the conversation would go. And I forgot the survey until the Friday when Gubbins called to confirm Mrs Wotsit had instructed her lawyers.
‘The survey? Have you given it to Mrs Wotsit?’
‘I haven’t seen it.’
‘The surveyor said he delivered a set of six copies yesterday.’
‘I will check and pass it on.’
‘Mrs Wotsit needs to understand her bid assumes she has read and accepted the results.’
‘She’s getting her own done.’
‘I will deal with it. You enjoy your holiday.’
He didn’t. He sent all the copies to mum’s solicitor who passed one on without comment. Six weeks later the solicitor called me to say Mrs Wotsit wanted my reaction to their survey results. ‘Are her points in our survey as well?’
She checked. ‘Yes, all there.’
‘Tell her, that her bid was based on her accepting the property as seen and as revealed by our survey.’
She came back. ‘That wasn’t her understanding.’
I knew it. I bloody knew it. I didn’t tell mum but I did call Gubbins. He blamed the solicitor who blamed him.
‘You know what, Mr Gubbins, I really don’t care. We will lose the sale but we will not be chiselled. Not one penny.’
He huffed, he puffed. I think he had a go at the solicitor. In the end both reduced their fees by the amount of the chiselling.
I still wish we had gone to best bids though.
And this time here are two of my poems from that poetry appreciation course, where I first decided I liked writing sonnets.
Only skin deep (after Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130)
The azure of the wide Pacific seas
Has depth, unlike your bland insipid eyes.
A dancer’s legs are shaped by art to please
But yours are not for show, they need disguise.
My tongue, whose form can change to suit all tastes,
From gentle probe to pert, priapic beast,
Becomes a dry and flaccid thing, all chaste,
If suffocated by your doggy breath’s release.
Facial engineers, who can craft Kate Moss
From Quasimodo, turn and run a mile:
I’d give my soul to Satan, bear any loss
If they’d mould Venus from your Cubist smile.
Let’s face it, love, on me you’ve placed a hex:
It’s not your looks that bind us, just the sex.
Still wet from the womb, she flapped a fat hand,
A mindless hello that captured my soul.
Older, unsteady, like a day old foal,
She gripped me so tight, determined to stand.
She didn’t let go till the first day at school;
Then she wept as I forced her fingers apart.
From that betrayal she developed her art;
Round her finger I’d twist: her so willing fool.
One day, so glorious, yet so full of tears
I released her hand as I gave her away.
I smiled her free, and hid my dismay
At the thought of that other hand wrapped round hers.
But it’s only a loan, for when I come to my last
She’ll be holding my hand, as I let go life’s grasp.