#86 – Where the heart is

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I twist around in the passenger seat of our rented car, which Oliver is driving at 25mph past some M1 roadworks, and look at the children. All three are fast asleep, their mouths slightly open. Jack is snoring. If only they had been like this on the red-eye flight from Boston last night, I think; instead, they chose to be “those children” who fidget, cry, kick the seats in front, and provoke people in the seats behind into making loud comments about kids needing to be banned from transatlantic flights and why do babies need European vacations anyway.

“They’re going to see their grannies, you small-minded, provincial hicks! We are a global family, unlike you, who apparently have never travelled outside your hometowns before!” I wanted to yell — but, of course, I didn’t. I didn’t yell it because it would a) have been rude and b) not the whole truth.

Yes, the Patricks are having a spontaneous couple of weeks in the old country, and the children are going to see their grannies. But that’s not all of it. Not by a long way.

The real reason we are here is that, with the nights drawing in and the autumn winds howling around the eaves at night, I don’t want to be alone on Halloween in our antique Massachusetts house after Oliver leaves for a long business trip to Rotterdam.

Not while Jack is still carrying on animated conversations with something or someone only he can see, I don’t.

It wasn’t difficult to persuade Oliver to let us come with him, because his mother has been dropping unsubtle hints about visiting us at Thanksgiving. Given the disasters that occurred last time she spent Thanksgiving with us, when I ended up in hospital twice — first with turkey-poisoning and then with a sprained ankle — Oliver was happy for an opportunity to avoid more medical bills. Four extra plane tickets seemed like a bargain in comparison.

It wasn’t just the thought of living with Jack’s pretend friend that made me want to pay a visit to Blighty, though. Getting Jack out of the awkward environment of his kindergarten class also played a part.

Patsy Traynor, flouting the wishes we voiced at the parent-teacher meeting, went ahead and arranged for Jack to see the school psychologist on a daily basis, without telling us. This subterfuge might have gone undiscovered if I hadn’t called into school one day with Jack’s forgotten lunchbox and found him sitting in the admin office with a grey-haired man, drawing a picture of a girl which he’d labelled “Mi Frend M”. When Jack saw me and jumped up to give me a hug, the grey-haired man hastily tried to hide the evidence of Jack’s art therapy, but it was too late. Words were said, threats were issued, and sabbaticals from school until the permanent teacher returned from sick leave were planned. It’s kindergarten, for heaven’s sake — what is the worst that can happen if a child misses a few months of kindergarten? He fails nap time? Two weeks away from school while everyone cooled down would hurt no one, least of all Jack.

And then the final reason: last month I was reading my diary and came across the New Year resolutions I’d made at the beginning of 2013. One of them, quite overlooked in the drama of having to find somewhere else to live in Woodhaven, was this:

2. Go to England and see what sort of a dog’s dinner Sandra has made of our house.

When Sandra moved into our house, in July 2011, she was supposed to stay for just a few months until she found somewhere permanent to live; yet here we are in October 2013 and she’s still dossing around there, rent-free.

Oliver has been no help at all. He doesn’t see it as an issue.

“It’s not a problem,” he kept saying, whenever I suggested it might be nice to have a paying tenant to help with the mortgage. “Money’s not everything. She’s keeping the place aired. It’s someone we know. She’s looking after it.”

Except I now know he has no idea whether she’s looking after it or not. He’s never been inside the house since the day we moved out. Although he visits his mother on trips back to the head office, I found out, after some careful questioning, that she always finds a reason to meet him in a coffee shop or pub, rather than at the house.

“And you don’t find this arrangement suspicious?” I asked him.

He gave me a blank look. “Should I?”

For someone who is supposed to be intelligent, Oliver can be very dense at times. Particularly, as we already know, when it comes to his mother. He doesn’t find it suspicious that she, a woman who once covered herself and some swinger friends with white emulsion and daubed hand- and buttock-prints on the wall of the spare bedroom in a previous rented house, would prefer to meet Oliver in Starbucks or The Dog and Duck? Please.

Initially on this trip I’d planned on staying with my own parents and paying a surprise afternoon call on Sandra, but when I phoned Mum to break the glad news that her daughter and three grandchildren were descending on her house, the short notice of our impending visit sent her into a flat spin with a migraine.

“If only you’d given us more warning,” she kept saying at the end of the phone call. I could hear pill bottles rattling in the background as she looked in the medicine cabinet for Nurofen. “But the spare bedroom needs decorating, and Jack will have to sleep in your old room, and it doesn’t seem right to make a five-year-old boy sleep in a room with pink wallpaper, so that’s two rooms we have to strip and paint before you can come.”

Only my mother could think this a reasonable excuse.

“Stay with mine, then,” Oliver said, after I’d clicked the phone’s off-button as hard as I could. (I miss the old phones that you could bang down when you hung up on someone.) “It’s our house, after all — she can hardly refuse to let you and the kids stay because the bedrooms need decorating.”

He was taken aback, therefore, when Sandra was nearly as uncooperative as my own mother when he told her we were coming to stay for a few days.

Oliver, as well as being dense, can be very naive.

*  *  *

Oliver signals right, and we turn into Acacia Drive. It’s more than two years since I’ve seen the street where we lived for such a long time, and it feels both familiar and foreign at the same time.

We park in front of our house. It is not, I realise with a little shock, quite our home any more.

It’s not just because the paint on the front door is peeling, or that Sandra hasn’t pruned the yellow rosebush I was so fond of.

It’s as if a little of the love has faded.

It’s like bumping into an old boyfriend after a few years and wondering what you saw in him, and why you wasted time and energy crying when he dumped you at the school dance for that tart Zoe Watkins.

“Are you glad to be home?” Oliver asks. “It must be hard for you, coming back to the house with someone else living in it.”

I look at the house again. The picket fence we put up to stop Jack from running onto the road has lost a post and looks like a gap-toothed kindergartener itself.

I wonder what Sandra has done or not done inside, and am sadly surprised that I don’t care as much as I did even fifteen minutes ago.

“Not as hard as you’d imagine,” I say.

© 2013 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 81-90, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

#85 – A trick of the light

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Talk about déjà vu. January last year,  all over again.

I sit on an uncomfortable plastic chair on one side of a teacher’s desk. On the other side of the desk, in a larger, more padded chair, sits Patsy Traynor: Jack’s ex-preschool teacher and now kindergarten teacher. Behind her is an expansive window, west-facing, and the afternoon sun blasts through the glass, forcing me to squint if I want to read her expression. This is a little intimidation trick of hers that I’ve encountered once before; although in this case forewarned doesn’t mean forearmed.

A hostile silence hovers between us as she opens a manila folder labeled “Jack Patrick” and runs a fingernail down the middle crease — her shell-pink nail varnish is chipped, I note with satisfaction — then picks out a sheet of paper with the heading “Behavioral Report”.

She looks up and smiles. I don’t smile back, because it’s not a friendly smile. It’s a smile of pleasurable anticipation, and the pleasure belongs only to her.

“Mrs. Patrick,” she says. No cosy first-names today, although she knows mine well enough. She looks down at the report in front of her. “Mrs Patrick. I asked you to meet me here today because—”

“I know why you asked me here,” I interrupt her. “Actually, the letter you sent home with Jack was addressed to both me and my husband, so if you don’t mind, we’ll wait until he arrives before we start.”

The smile falters a little, and she looks pointedly at the clock on the classroom wall.

“The appointment was for four p.m., and we are already running five minutes late.”

“Some people work full time,” I say, and smirk to myself as Patsy swells up with indignation.

If you really want to piss off a teacher, simply insinuate that their workday finishes at three-thirty.

I fold my arms and sit back in my chair, waiting, avoiding catching Patsy’s eye. In the far corner of the room, inside an igloo-shaped tent, Jack is ordering around Beth and George. He’s trying to make them sit still and listen to his newfound skill of reading a Dr. Seuss book about dogs and cars. Beth and George aren’t impressed with his instructions to stay in the tent when there are so many exciting playthings outside it to scatter and destroy; George registers his disapproval with a determined “No!” (his current favourite word) while Beth lets out a high scream. There is the sound of a hard object hitting the floor with some force. After a pause, Jack’s voice cuts clearly across the room:

“If you don’t behave, I’m going to tell M and she will break your favourite toys.”

I feel rather than see Patsy’s smug moue, and I squeeze my eyes shut. It’s a defensive reaction, against both Patsy and the sunshine behind her that dazzles me.

Hurry up, Oliver. I need some backup here.

On cue, to my relief, the classroom door opens and Oliver strides across to the desk. He’s in his best suit, not for Patsy’s benefit but because he’s been meeting new customers today,  and is still in professional work mode. He exudes brisk confidence and an air of brooking no nonsense.

I’ve never been so glad to see him in all my life, and that includes the time he was late for our own wedding because his best man was in the throes of an almighty hangover and drove to the wrong church. Oliver must also have had an almighty hangover, because the pair of them waited outside for half an hour before realising that a locked church, a lack of guests, and no vicar might be significant.

Oliver shakes hands with Patsy, introducing himself, then, before sitting down, he moves to Patsy’s side of the desk and twiddles with the venetian blind behind her chair, moving the slats so that the sun shines upwards instead of directly in my eyes.

“Better?” he asks me.

We exchange small, conspiratorial winks, and I bite my lip to stop myself laughing at Patsy’s expression. Her face is red and her eyes very wide, as if she can’t believe that someone has had the gall to do now what she should have done out of courtesy fifteen minutes ago.

She picks up Jack’s Behavioral Report again, although with not as much assurance as before. Oliver seems to have flustered her.

“I asked to speak to you both because of issues Jack is having in the classroom. He appears not to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction, and while we encourage strong, lively imaginations, we do try, at this point in child development, to make it clear to our students that the two viewpoints are separate.”

“So in other words, you’re saying Jack is a liar.” Oliver slices neatly through the spiel of  edu-jargon.

Patsy’s face reddens further. “Not at all, but—”

“In that case, you must be saying that he’s telling the truth?”

“Not quite, but—”

“You must be saying one or the other. Which is it that he’s telling you? Fact or fiction?”


“Fact or fiction? Quick!”

Oliver’s not giving Patsy a chance to get a word in. He reminds me of Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction: “Say ‘What’ again! I dare you! I double-dare you!”

“Imaginary friends are one thing!” Patsy bursts out. “But his obsession with this particular friend, Emily, or whatever her name is—”

“It’s M,” Jacks voice says from inside the nylon igloo, and I stifle a giggle with my hand. “She likes being called M.”

“—This obsession is out of hand. And I would like your permission to refer him to the school district’s educational psychologist for further assessment.”

Oliver stands up. “If that’s all you called us in for,” he says, “you might as well have phoned. Because the answer is No. Jack is not a liar, and he’s not a psycho either. You, on the other hand, I have always had my doubts about, and I’m not about to take childrearing advice from someone who accepts bribes for playground equipment. Come on Libs. Kids!” he shouts in the direction of the igloo. “Time to go home now. If we have to be in a madhouse, I prefer the homegrown type. No wonder homeschooling is so popular,” he adds to Patsy.

*  *  *

“And then what?” Maggie asks me the following day, when Jack is at school and I’ve taken the twins to see their adopted granny. Their adopted ex-grandpa, thank goodness, is busy in the back yard, splitting logs for Maggie’s wood-burning stove.

I shrug. “We went home, and Oliver sat down with Jack and lectured him long and hard about differentiating between fact and fiction.”

“So he was only standing up for Jack against Patsy at school. He doesn’t really believe the story that there is the ghost of a little girl in your house. Although you do?”

I think back to the day we found the shattered Dresden shepherdess. It was in the centre of the dining room floor, a long way from the shelf where I’d put it. To get to its final resting place, it would have had to jump seven or eight feet through the air. We don’t own a cat, and to my knowledge, there had been no freak earthquake that morning. And yet, all my life, I have pooh-poohed the idea of ghosts and ghouls.

In other words, I am having a crisis of faith.

“I believe there is something,” I say finally. “I just don’t know what, exactly. The china shepherdess broke in the dining room, which happens to be the room that won’t warm up, no matter what you do to it. And there’s Fergus — he wouldn’t come in the house at all. I’ve heard that dogs are sensitive to… things.” I shiver, despite the warm sunshine that is shining through Maggie’s windows. “It could just be circumstantial, of course. Logic tells me that it probably is, and everything can be explained by rational argument. But whenever I start to explain things away with logic, I come up against the biggest obstacle — that I honestly believe Jack thinks he is telling the truth.”

Maggie nods thoughtfully, and rocks back and forth in her rocking chair. Beth, who is sitting on her lap and playing with Maggie’s long string of amber beads, leans back, puts her thumb in her mouth, and closes her eyes.

“I remember Cathy saying that Chuck had an imaginary friend when he was a little boy,” she says at last. “In that very house.”

“So you said, in one of your emails. He grew out of it, though.”

Maggie wiggles her hand in a comme ci comme ça gesture. “He was very old to have a pretend friend. Eleven, twelve. And I don’t know, but… I got the impression that he said he’d grown out of it, to humour her. I remember visiting the house once, and he didn’t know I was there, and he was talking to someone – someone who wasn’t there. He’d have been about fifteen at the time.”

I sit still, turning over possibilities in my mind. George waddles over to me and puts his head on my knee. Any minute now, he will go to sleep, standing up where he is.

“He was very keen that I read the folder of old documents relating to the house. It’s full of papers to do with plumbing and roofs, but there’s also records of people who used to live there, a couple of hundred years ago. Perhaps I should read it more carefully.”

But later, in bright sunshine, when the house is full of real people and real laughter. Right now, I’m not very keen on going back to my silent, empty house with two sleepy toddlers.

“What did you say Jack’s friend was called?” Maggie asks. “You told me in an email but I’ve forgotten.

“He calls her M. Like the character in James Bond. Or Dial M for Murder.”

I shiver again., then notice that Maggie has stopped rocking in her chair and is rubbing her arms.

“Are you cold?” I ask. “I thought it was just me. Shall I turn the heat up?”

Maggie shakes her head, and I see that she has lost some colour from her cheeks.

“Chuck used to love the film The Wizard of Oz. Cathy said he’d named his imaginary friend after one of the characters.”

I laugh. “Like, Dorothy? Toto? Tin Man?”

Maggie is still shaking her head. “No. Cathy always thought it was an odd choice, but assumed it was because Cathy and her husband didn’t have any brothers or sisters. He named her after the aunt.”

I stare at Maggie, and start to rub my own arms, which have sprung a rash of goosepimples.

Aunt Em.



© 2013 Kate Allison


Posted in Episodes 81-90, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

#84 – Stages of youth

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“No. For the last time, she can’t come to school with us,” I say to Jack, as I lock the front door behind us and start to hustle the three children into the car. “We’re already late. You want to meet your teacher today, ready for when school starts tomorrow, don’t you?”

Jack pouts. “But she wants to. M says she’ll be lonely if I go without her. She says she’ll break something in the house if we leave her on her own.”

You know, I’ve had just about enough of Jack’s overactive imagination and this pretend friend.

“M” has been an invisible fixture in the house for the last six weeks, and she’s a demanding little sod — worse than my own three, live, already demanding children. I have to lay an extra place for her at every mealtime, and recently I’ve been evicted from my favourite spot on the recliner chair in the living room because Jack says that M is already sitting there.

Now the brat is ready to smash my china if she doesn’t get her own way.

I could just play along with the game and say, “Of course M can come with us”, but that would precipitate the need for an extra car seat because M is not old enough to sit in the front seat, Jack says.

And the name. What sort of name for a girl is “M”, for crying out loud, unless you happen to be Judi Dench in a Bond film?

“She’s very upset,” Jack says, with the air of someone washing his hands of all blame for the consequences. “You’re going to be sorry.”

“I hope you’re not threatening me,” I say, as I make sure his seat belt is fastened properly. “Otherwise it won’t be me who is sorry. I promise you that.”

Jack is unrepentant.

“I was just telling you what she said.”

Thank goodness school starts properly tomorrow, is all I can say, when Jack will (I hope) make new, human friends and forget about the fictitious girl in our house. The same girl who now has the nerve to  threaten vandalism if I don’t allow her to come along to kindergarten orientation with us.  I mean, it’s obvious she can’t come. She isn’t even enrolled at the sch–

Oh, this is ridiculous.

It’s got to the point where I almost believe in her myself.

*  *  *

Before I take Jack to meet his new teacher, I drive to Maggie’s house on our old street. Maggie is looking after the twins while Jack and I go to school for the morning.

“So it’s not Jack’s first proper day of school today?” she asks. “It’s just a meet and greet with the teacher, find out where the sand box is, that kind of thing?”

“Breaking them in gently, that’s right.”

“Didn’t happen in my day,” a Southern, male voice chips in from Maggie’s armchair. “My mother stayed in bed and let me walk to school with the neighbour’s kid on my first day.”

Derek. Maggie’s ex who, if I’m not mistaken – and I hope to God I am mistaken — will shortly be her ex-ex.

He arrived in Boston with her on the flight from Miami nearly three weeks ago, and seems in no hurry to return to his home in Virginia, or Maryland, or Delaware, or whichever state he comes from. We met on the second day of his visit, and took an immediate dislike to each other.

“We Northerners must be made of softer stuff than you tough Southerners,” Maggie says in a sugary voice that’s quite unlike the acid tone this comment would elicit from her had it been made by anyone else.

I have no idea what witchcraft Maggie’s ex has spun on my friend, but in the four weeks she was in the Keys, Maggie changed. She’s never been one to show or act her age — “Age is but a number” she is fond of saying — but since she came back, she’s been nearer in mental age and outlook to Jack than to me.

I did wonder if she was starting to become prematurely senile, until I saw Maggie and Derek together one afternoon. Then I realised what had happened.

They’ve teleported themselves back forty years. She is behaving as she did when she was nineteen, and he thinks he’s the dashing young state trooper who stopped a redheaded English woman for speeding in a borrowed Corvette.

And it won’t work. You can’t be teenagers when you’re drawing a pension — at least, you can’t be the same teenagers that you used to be. By all means, have a second youth; but the key word there is “second”.

Reliving their first one will end in a pool of tears, I’m sure of it.

Maggie’s my best friend, and I don’t want to see her hurt. But what can I do?

*  *  *

At the elementary school, Dr Felix Roth, the Principal, is in his element as he greets all the parents in the foyer.

I tell a lie. He doesn’t greet all the parents. He greets the parents who know him well enough to call him by his first name because they’re on the PTA, and he gives a weak smile down his nose to all the others. I get my own back by pretending not to know who he is, and Jack and I make our way to Room 43, where Jack will be spending the next year with his kindergarten teacher, Mrs Healy. My friend Willow tells me that Mrs Healy is a plump, cosy, grandmotherly type, close to retirement age.  A lucky class placement for Jack, says Willow.

Room 43 is heaving with babies, toddlers, and five-year-old children. Jack pushes his way into a group of boys who are playing in a nylon igloo tent, and I look around the room to see if I recognise anyone.

With a sigh and feeling of déjà vu, I see Jodee Addison, mother of Jack’s Valentine crush this year, Crystal. Then, to my absolute dismay, I see Caroline Michaels.

Caroline, the wife of Oliver’s boss, whose son Dominic was the catalyst for Jack’s defection from Patsy Traynor’s nursery school. I’d heard on the grapevine that Caroline was going back to England and divorcing her boss husband after the fiasco at the Christmas party last year, but her presence in the classroom suggests that she prefers the expat-married-to-a-slimeball lifestyle to the divorced-and-living-in-Milton Keynes version.

As the teacher doesn’t seem to have arrived yet, I move closer to Jodee and Caroline, who are venting their opinions on something, and eavesdrop shamelessly.

“It’s too bad,” Jodee is saying loudly. ” You’d think someone in her position of trust would look after her health better instead of eating saturated fat all day. Such a bad example for the children.”

“It’s not just her suffering because of her bad health choices,” Caroline says, her lips pursed self-righteously.  ”I mean, a heart attack? Really? Only herself to blame. Thoughtless, I call it.”

Jodee nods vigorously.

Wow. Some woman has had a heart attack and this is the sympathy these witches give her. I wonder who they’re talking about. Poor soul.

Caroline says: “There should be mandatory six-monthly physicals for teachers, and they should be made to diet down to an acceptable weight or lose their jobs. Having a heart attack in your late 50s, when it’s entirely preventable, is nothing short of selfish. And now our children have to suffer.”

Wait. Is she talking about Mrs Healy?

I’m about to turn and ask the mother next to me, who is also listening, jaw on the floor, to Caroline and Jodee, when the Principal enters the room.

In his high, squeaky voice, he tells the gathered parents that, as some of us may already know — here, Jodee and Caroline look smugly at each other — Mrs Healy sadly had a heart attack two days ago, and is still in the ICU at St Whatsit’s Hospital. Her condition is stable but critical, and she will not be coming back for the foreseeable future. With school starting tomorrow, parents will appreciate that time was of the essence, he says, and the school is extremely fortunate to have found a longterm substitute teacher with much experience, who comes with glowing recommendations.

“Someone who is probably known to many of you from pre-school,” he adds, with a smile that can only be described as arch. “May I introduce to you —” he looks behind him, out into the corridor, and beckons to someone with his arm “– Mrs Patsy Traynor, who will be taking over the captain’s wheel of your child’s kindergarten ship until Mrs Healy is able to return to work.”

Patsy looks over the classroom, sees Jodee and Caroline, and beams broadly at them.

Then she sees me.

I wonder how easy it is for Jack to be transferred to another school.

*  *  *

Two hours later, back home, I unlock the front door and Jack races into the dining room.

“M! I’m back!” he shouts.

And then: “Mummy, I told you she wouldn’t like it if I went out.”

On the dining room floor, in shattered pieces, is the despised Dresden shepherdess that my mother’s aunt gave Oliver and me on our wedding day.

Well, I reflect with a shiver, as I sweep up the bits before Beth and George can toddle over them in their bare feet – everything is clear now.

And I suppose that,  if we have to have a poltergeist in the house, at least this one appears to share my taste in internal decor.

© 2013 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 81-90, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

#83 – Letters from afar

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From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 1, 2013

Hi Maggie!

Sorry to interrupt your holiday – or should I say “vacation”? – but I thought I’d better drop you an email. Fergus wasn’t very well last week, not eating, looking very sorry for himself, and I took him to the vet. The vet says it’s nothing to worry about, probably just the heatwave getting him down.  So I have to make sure he stays hydrated, and I’ve got a huge horse-tablet supplement that I squash up and hide in his food. Which, of course, he won’t eat.

It might help if the stupid dog came into the house instead of staying outside in the heat on hunger strike, but he won’t. Pining, I suppose. Such a drama queen.

How’s Florida? Has your ex arrived yet? (!)

Love, Libs


From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 2, 2013

Hello my dear

Not to worry, I’m sure Fergus will be fine. It will take more than a bit of outdoor sulking to finish him off.  If you’re passing by my house, there’s an unopened bag of those organic treats he loves in the pantry. Just keep them away from Jack and any of his little lady friends

Florida is very hot.  Well, naturally. It is August. On balance, though, I prefer unbearable Florida heat to unbearable Massachusetts cold. At least you don’t have to shovel ninety-five degrees of sunshine from your driveway.

Derek isn’t here yet. He arrives tomorrow. I have deliberately not cleaned the apartment, because I wouldn’t like him to think I’ve changed in our years apart and am now the perfect housewife. I am not, and never will be, a replacement for his dear, departed, oh-so-perfect second wife, Cassie.

I try not to speak ill of the dead, but since I spoke only ill of the woman while she was alive, a death certificate with barely dry ink shouldn’t make any difference.

Much love, Maggie


From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 4, 2013

Ouch! Well, no one can ever accuse you of being a hypocrite

I got the treats from your pantry, as you suggested, but to be honest, Fergus seems fine as long as I don’t force him to come in the house. So – I can’t believe I did this for the ungrateful hound — I’ve set his bed up in the children’s Fisher-Price playhouse, in the back garden. Jack plays in his bedroom or the uber-air-conditioned dining room most of the time, so it’s not a problem.

Did I tell you that Jack has a new imaginary girlfriend? Her name is M, he says. Just M.  She was born in England like him, he says, and her dad is in the army, and she’s lonely. I’m always amazed at children’s imaginations, but I’m not convinced his obsession with “M” is entirely healthy. We even have to set an extra place at the dinner table for her.

Hopefully, this nonsense will stop in September when he goes to kindergarten and makes some real friends.

How’s Derek? Are you playing nicely together, or is he turning out to be an imaginary friend also?



From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 7, 2013

Sorry I didn’t answer right away. (That’s the difference between emails and old-fashioned letters – no one expected an immediate answer in the good old days of first class stamps and duck egg blue Basildon Bond.)

Derek has been here four days now. I must confess that when I offered him the chance to spend two weeks in the Keys with me, I was a) feeling sorry for him and b) drunk on our daughter’s wedding champagne. Sadly, he can hold his drink better than I, and therefore remembered my offer the next morning. I could have argued, but Sara and her new husband were witnesses.

Will explain more later, but I have to go now. Derek and I are heading off for a catamaran cruise this afternoon. All the years I have been coming to the Keys on vacation, and I have never been on one before — isn’t that strange?

M x


From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 11, 2013

When you said you would explain more later, I was expecting another email from you the minute you got back from your cruise. Don’t leave me in suspense like that!


From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 12, 2013

So sorry, Libby!  I should have said — the catamaran involved was in South Beach, Miami, and instead of coming back immediately, we decided to stay a few days. Neither of us had been before, and it’s a wonderful place. Very romantic, if you’re that way inclined. Which, obviously, having acrimoniously divorced forty years ago, we are not.



From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 12, 2013

Acrimoniously divorced people don’t generally vacation together. There is nothing obvious about your situation at all.



From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 14, 2013

Back in the Keys now.

By the way, don’t let Jack’s imaginary girlfriend bother you.  It’s a phase a lot of children go through.  I remember Chuck when he was small, living in the same house — he had an imaginary friend, too. Cathy was quite worried about it, but as you can see, Chuck turned out fine.



From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 15, 2013

It must be nearly time for Derek to go home now, am I right? Are you sorry or glad?



From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 19, 2013

Maggie? Are you there?



From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 20, 2013

Sorry! It’s been a busy and surprising few days. Spontaneity – the zest of life, I find.

I keep meaning to ask – did you ever get round to looking through the folder of old papers about the house, the one that Chuck left for you? And dare I ask if you’ve checked out the basement?



From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 21, 2013

I did indeed. There’s quite a history. The house as it stands now is not the original. There was an older building on the grounds before it, built before the Revolutionary War. Someone kept meticulous records, and even the names of some of the family members are there. Funny to think there were children Jack’s age running around the place two hundred and fifty years ago.

Have I been in the basement? You have to be kidding me.

I take it that Derek has gone back to Virginia and you’re on your own again. Remind me which day you’re coming home? Do you need me to pick you up from the airport?



From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 23, 2013

Tomorrow, August 24th. We’ll get a taxi from Logan, so don’t worry.



From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 24, 2013

Wait — “We”?

© 2014 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 81-90, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged | Leave a comment

#82 – A chilly reception

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© Tiff20 | Dreamstime.com

Well, here we are.

After all the trials, tribulations, tears, and tantrums, Oliver and I — and Jack, George, and Beth, of course — are finally in Our House.

Our house.  How wonderful to be able to say that again.

I can’t begin to describe the feeling of being in a house that we own, or at least pay a mortgage on, rather than being in a house owned by a sociopathic landlady with the hots for Oliver.

It’s not perfect, of course. These last few days, the northeast of the country has been sweltering in ninety-five degree constant sunshine, with no cooling thunderstorms to break the heatwave. When you live in an old, cedar house such as ours — Ours! That word again! — air-conditioning under such circumstances is a good idea. Working air-conditioning, that is: the kind that kicks in when the thermostat reaches a certain level and cools the air down again. While the AC unit we have makes a big deal about kicking in, with lots of vibrations and shaking of the foundations, it doesn’t pay much attention to the part of the process where it’s supposed to pump cold air through the house. There’s only one room where it works, and that’s the dining room with the French windows at the back of the house. In fact, the room seems to be a cold air terminus, getting all the cold air while the rest of the house has none. We alternate sitting in that room to cool down, and sitting in all the others to warm up again.

So “Replace AC Unit before next summer” figures pretty highly on the house-repair list, which is growing at an average rate of four items per day.

“I can’t see it getting any smaller,” I say to Maggie, who has popped round for one last morning coffee before she disappears to the Keys for a month. At the moment she and I are in the Cooling Stage, sitting in armchairs in the icy dining room.

“It will,” she says. “It might never disappear completely, but I’m sure the list will shrink.”

I don’t find this as comforting as she probably intends it to be.

“It was in tip-top condition when Cathy had all her faculties,” she goes on. “She was always having something or other done to it. Which reminds me…” She delves into her tote bag, and pulls out a bulging manila file. “Here’s the paperwork from Chuck.”

I take the file from her and look at a few of the most recent papers on top. There are receipts for repairs to the central heating — we’ve yet to see how the house stands up to the frigid chill of a Massachusetts winter, and the number of repair bills here doesn’t look encouraging — and yellowed instruction booklets for kitchen appliances that were state of the art in 1975. Nothing that seems relevant to the immediate tasks of unpacking our belongings from Sonoma wine boxes and cleaning every room in the house. And goodness me, there are a lot of rooms.

“I’ll go through that properly later,” I say, then ask, “Did you bring Fergus? I haven’t seen him.”

“Jack took him to play in the back yard.”

I look through the glass of the French window and nod, satisfied. That’s the other great thing about living here. Despite the house having twelve acres to its name, there’s a fenced yard that the children can safely play in. Just like the back garden at home in Acacia Drive, only twenty times the size.

“I’ll miss Fergus while I’m away,” Maggie says.

Call me slow, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Fergus wouldn’t be jaunting off to Key Largo with his new owner.

“Who’s looking after him?” I ask. “Anna?”

Maggie shakes her head. “The Pooch Hotel. I’m dropping him off this afternoon. It’s very nice, they look after the dogs well, I’m sure he’ll be fine—”

“But it’s for a month! Kennels for a month will cost you a fortune!” I’m horrified that the dog I persuaded her to take off my hands is eating into her retirement fund like this. “Why on earth didn’t you ask me to have him for you?”

Maggie wriggles in her seat. “Moving house and everything? I couldn’t possibly impose upon you at such a time.”

I smile at her, feeling a rush of affection for her that, God help me, I rarely feel for my own mother without being quickly overridden by irritation.

“You could never impose,” I tell her. “Not on me. Call the kennels this minute and cancel Fergus’s booking. Any cancellation fee will be cheaper than paying for the full month.”

She looks relieved, I think, but still goes through the ritual of “No-I-couldn’t-possibly-Are-you-sure-Well-all-right-then.”

“Of course I’m sure,” I say. “Who better to look after him than his previous owners? Jack will be thrilled. Go get his things right now, before you change your mind.”

*  *  *

I’ve been dying to hear more about Maggie’s holiday plans, ever since she told me that she was vacationing with her newly rediscovered ex-husband, Derek. But Maggie’s a private person, and there’s no point trying to wangle information out of her if she’s not ready to give it.

Today though, perhaps as a quid pro quo for me looking after Fergus for a month, she’s ready to spill the beans.

“Derek won’t be in Florida with me all the time,” she says, once she’s returned with Fergus’s basket, personalised dishes, and a mound of dog toys. She spoils him, and I hope he’s not expecting the same five-star treatment at the Patrick Pooch Hotel. “He’s only visiting for the middle two weeks. He was going to get a hotel room, but I told him that was silly, I’ve got an apartment with plenty of space.”

She sets Fergus’s dishes on the floor of the mud room — we’ve moved back into the non-airconditioned part of the house to get warm again — then straightens up.

“I only hope I won’t regret this. Forty years ago, I was ready to kill him after five minutes in his company, and here I am now, offering him two weeks in my spare bedroom.”

I’m relieved to hear he’s in the spare bedroom, given Maggie’s racy reputation of her younger days.

“I felt sorry for him, though,” she continues. “At Sara’s wedding, I mean. He’d lost his wife, Cassie, only four months before, and he seemed utterly lost. It was such a long time since I’d seen him and I was reminded of the very first time we met. In my wilder days,” she says, and laughs.

I’m standing at the sink in the mud room, washing dishes that are covered with ink from the newspaper we packed them in. I hold my breath, hoping she will tell me more and not stop with a story half told, as she so often does.

“It was quite the whirlwind romance,” Maggie says, staring out the window at the garden, although her eyes are unfocused and I can tell she’s not really watching Jack and Fergus playing on the lawn. “I was visiting the States for the first time, hitchhiking my way down the east coast. One young man stopped to give me a lift in his Corvette, then foolishly gave in to my nagging and let me drive it. Derek pulled me over for speeding.”

I cough. “Derek was a cop?”

“A state trooper. He gave me a warning, then insisted I come sit with him in his police cruiser. I thought he was going to drive me to the station and have me deported or something. Instead, he asked me out to dinner. We were married a few weeks later, and I never used my return ticket back to England. In the years after, though, I often wished I had.”

Yet here she is today, planning a holiday with her ex.

“What’s changed?” I ask.

Maggie doesn’t answer for a while.

“I suppose,” she says at last, “I’m hoping that our thirty-odd years apart have been more helpful than our five years together.”

*  *  *

When Maggie has said goodbye and gone to finish getting ready for her trip tomorrow, I call Jack and Fergus in from the garden in a futile attempt to disprove the theory that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Jack runs himself a glass of water from the fridge then takes it into the dining room, shouting at Fergus to follow him.

“Fergus is thirsty too, Jack. He’ll be with you in a minute.”

I fill Fergus’s water bowl, and he drinks for a long time. Then he trots across the kitchen and stops at the doorway that leads into the cool dining room, where Jack is brandishing a Matchbox car at Beth and repeatedly asking her if she knows what sort of car it is. (Beth, it appears, to Jack’s disgust, does not.)

“Go on,” I say to Fergus. “Go to Jack.”

But Fergus just sits on the kitchen floor and whines.

And even when the temperature on the kitchen thermometer hits 85 degrees, he still won’t enter the beautiful — if rather chilly — dining room.

© 2013 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 81-90, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

#81 – Send the past packing

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The best thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

And the worst thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

Chuck, you see, nice, reasonable man that he is, has given Maggie the keys to his mother’s house and told us to move our stuff in before the official handover date. “Make things easy for yourself,” he said.

Fantastic — or so Oliver and I thought at first. We could take our time and move everything in stages, starting with the least critical items. But after a couple of days of wrapping china in newspaper and getting our hands and clothes covered in printer’s ink, we began to see why most sensible people fork out a big pile of dollar bills and pay someone else to do it.

We used cardboard wine crates from the local liquor store to pack everything in, then, after only four trips over to the house with the car filled with Napa Valley Cabernet Shiraz boxes, Oliver announced he was leaving for a business trip to Vancouver.

“I’ll be back on the eleventh,” he said. “That gives us four days to get everything together. No problem! Piece of cake!”

What, pray, does Oliver know about cake? About as much as he knows about packing, I’d say.

Before he went, we’d barely made a dent in it — packing, not cake — and now, with less than a week to go before we hand the keys back to Melissa, it’s all down to me to pack the rest up and move it across town. Not the big important pieces like bed, chests, tables, or sofas, you understand, but the fiddly, inconsequential things like clothes, toys, non-perishable food, ornaments, books, CDs, Oliver’s extensive collection of rocks and dead beetles that he catalogued when he was twelve and can’t bear to throw away…

Piece of cake. Right.

“I’ll help,” Maggie said to me, after she saw Oliver trundling his carry-on case towards the taxi marked Airport Shuttle Service.

I protested out of politeness, but not enough for her to change her mind.

“No, I insist,” she said. “It will take you twice as long on your own to transport the boxes, because you will have to take the children with you. This way, I can stay with the children while you drive over to the house on your own.”

Well, when she puts it like that… Sometimes a girl has to take whatever kind of me-time she can get.

* **

Maggie sits on the floor of our living room and wraps up a Dresden china figurine in the sports section of the Boston Globe. I don’t like the ornament, and one part of me is hoping that it will get broken in the move, “accidentally”, of course. My mother’s aunt gave it to us for a wedding present, and while it was very kind of her, Dresden china isn’t our style. Great Aunt Esther might as well have given us a set of antimacassars or an aspidistra.

“Chuck left me a big folder of paperwork relating to the house, to give to you.” Maggie carefully places the Dresden in a cardboard crate and moves onto the next item — a pair of Wedgwood candlesticks from my grandmother. “Old paperwork. Old deeds, plans, that kind of thing.”

“Oh yes?”

I confess, I’m not paying too much attention to Maggie. I’ve just found Oliver’s badminton racquet case with the stuffed tiger in it, and I can’t help but remember the awful chain of events it precipitated last year, shortly after the twins were born.

“Mmm. I haven’t looked at it, because the house will be yours, not mine, but it could be interesting. For example, while the official date of the house is 1830, I remember Cathy saying that she thought there might have been another building there before. Something to do with the basement being only a few feet high and her not being able to stand upright in it. I’m not sure what her reasoning was, but maybe you’ll find the answer in the folder.”

I jam the badminton racquet and all its emotional baggage in a suitcase.

“Your friend Cathy must have been very tall, then,” I say. “The basement’s like any other. Dark, creepy, and full of noisy machinery. I can stand upright in it, no problem.”

“No, not that part. I mean the part behind the furnace.”

Maggie falls silent, and at first I think she’s admiring Granny’s Wedgwood candlesticks, but then I realize she’s been distracted by the packing paper and is reading about the dramatic arrest of a New England Patriots player accused of murder.

I think hard about the basement in the house we’re buying. I remember the furnace, because it was surprisingly new in such an old place. But it was next to a wall. There was no more basement space behind it.

I tell Maggie this, and she tears herself away from the gory details of local sports scandals.

“Oh no, you can’t see it now. Cathy had some work done on the house, back in the late seventies. Had the basement sealed off behind the furnace, because it was neither use nor ornament since you had to bend over double to get in there.” She places the Boston Globe-wrapped candlesticks in the box with the Dresden shepherdess. “Or at least, that’s what she… Goodness me, are these your wedding photos?”

She holds up a cream suede album.

“May I look?” she asks.

I wave my hand graciously. “Be my guest.”

I’ll have to put her in charge of the mugs and glasses. She’s too easily distracted. Still, this has reminded me of something.

“You never showed me the photos of your daughter’s wedding at Christmas,” I say, and wait as she slowly turns the pages of our album. She’s stalling for time, I think. “You promised you would, and then forgot. And we won’t have time next week what with moving, and the week after that you go to the Keys for a month.”

She looks up from the photos. She’s on the page where Oliver and I have our hands on the knife, ready to cut the wedding cake. It was a traditional, heavy fruit cake, and I recall thinking at the time that a circular saw would have been more useful than that dinky, ivory-handled cake knife.

“After we’ve finished packing for the day, how’s that?”

She sounds rather strange, I think. And I’d bet a lot of money, or at least a Dresden shepherdess and a couple of candlesticks, that she’s hoping I’ll have forgotten by the end of the day.

* * *

I make five trips to the house on Main Street, and by the end of the fourth, the sun is bobbing along behind the trees, and the children are getting cranky. To make it easier for Maggie, who is also looking tired and cranky, I decide to take Jack along with me for the last trip. He’s very excited at seeing the new house again, and wants Fergus to come along too, so we have a little family outing — me, Jack, and Fergus — which makes me feel strangely nostalgic, because it’s how we used to be in Milton Keynes, before America and before the twins were even thought of.

At the new house, I dump the boxes with all the others in the living room while Jack and Fergus play in the back garden, then I walk down the hallway to the dining room at the back of the house. The room has French windows that open out into the garden — or at least, they should open out but they’re stuck together with many layers of paint. I knock on one of the small panes at Jack, and beckon him to come back in the house.

After a few seconds I hear his running footsteps on the wooden floor, and he bumps into me as I’m closing the dining room door. He’s alone.

“Where’s Fergus?” I ask. Fergus, now that he no longer lives with us, slavishly and perversely follows Jack around whenever they’re together.

Jack points. “He’s tired.”

Fergus is lying down next to the open front door at the other end of the hallway.

“Fergus! Here, boy!”

He sits up and whines softly, but doesn’t move any nearer.

“Guess that’s a hint that he’s had enough house-moving for today,” I say to Jack. “You know what? I know exactly how he feels.”

* * *

Back at Juniper Street, I deliver Fergus to Maggie, and she murmurs something about turning in for the evening, but I’m not letting her off that easily. I remind her of her promise to show me Sara’s wedding photos and how she’s off to Florida for a month, so she trots over to her house to get them.

When she returns, I have to stop myself from snatching the album out of her hands. I’ve heard so many rumours about Sara Sharpe, this mystery woman of Woodhaven, that I’m dying to see what she looks like. A femme fatale, I imagine… The sultry looks of Nigella Lawson and the seductiveness of Greta Garbo.

I’m disappointed. She’s serious-looking, her hair dark and smooth, as severe as a ballerina’s. On most of the photos, she wears a little frown as if she’s thinking very hard about what she’s doing — and, let’s face it, you shouldn’t have to think hard about a wedding on a beach in the Seychelles. She looks absolutely nothing like Maggie.

“No,” Maggie says. “She’s the image of her father, that’s what she is.” She points at a man in the photo. “Him. Derek. My ex-husband, whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years until that day.”

“That must have been awkward,” I say. I try to imagine meeting Oliver for the first time in thirty years at Jack’s wedding, and fail utterly. “I suppose that’s one advantage of Sara being an only child. You won’t have to meet him again.”

I hand the photos back to Maggie, and I see that her face has turned pink.

“Are you OK?” I ask. “Do you want me to turn the air conditioning up?”

She shakes her head.

“No, I’m fine.” She throws her pashmina around her shoulders and stuffs the photos into her handbag. “It was, as you say, a little awkward meeting Derek again.”

She looks down, fiddling with the clasp on the bag. “He’s widowed now, poor man. I never liked my replacement, but he obviously did. I felt sorry for him.”

“Not your problem any more, though, right?”

Her face goes a bit pinker.

“I might as well tell you, Libby. My vacation in Florida — I’m spending it with Derek. My ex-husband whom I divorced in 1976.”

© 2013 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 81-90, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

#80 – A place of our own

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Melissa stands in our hallway and jabs at her clipboard with a purple pen. I feel my upper lip curl into a sneer; I don’t trust anyone who uses purple ink.

“So,” she says, prodding the clipboard and tapping her high-heeled foot in a staccato rhythm. All she needs is a washboard and bells and she could be a one man band. “So. The scratches on the floors in the foyer –”

“I keep telling you, they were there when we moved in! Fergus and the kids had nothing to do with those. More likely you caused them with your stupid shoes.”

She smirks. “Prove it.”

I can’t, of course. When we moved in, it didn’t occur to us to take photographs of every floorboard, every rug, or every kitchen cupboard.

“The scratches,” she continues. “The stain on the master bedroom carpet –”

“Caused by the disrepair of the skylight, which was your responsibility.”

She waits patiently for me to finish, then says, “Replacement of locks, permanent marker on kitchen cabinet, scratched hardwoods, and stained carpets. I’ll get a quote for repairs but it won’t be less than $600. Professional cleaning, $400. Landscaping outside because you let it get overgrown…another $400 or so.”

I swear, she makes this stuff up as she goes along. The garden is no more overgrown than it ever was, but again — we don’t have photographs to prove it. And professional cleaning? Really? I’m perfectly capable of coming in myself with a vacuum cleaner and duster, and frankly, if the professional cleaner is the same one who came before Oliver and I moved in, I’ll do a better job. Just give me the fee.

After a quick calculation, I say, “That leaves $200 to come back from our security deposit, correct?”

She frowns. “Oh, and I nearly forgot — the deck needs power-washing because you let it get splashed with grease while you were barbecuing. So that will be…”

Let me guess. $200 to clean the deck.

“…another $200. Looks like you won’t be getting any of your security deposit back, Libby!”

*  *  *

“Where are you moving to?” she asks as she pokes through the closet in the hall; looking for something else to bill us for, I suppose. Her oily voice suggests she knows exactly where we are going to live, but I tell her anyway.

“The apartments near the mall, until we find a house we are able to buy.” I choose my words carefully. Are able to buy doesn’t mean the same as can afford.

“Have you looked at the new houses in Banbury? They’re very nice.”

Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Seeing as she’s the selling realtor and her new boyfriend built them.

“Yes,” I say, unable to keep my temper any longer. “We’ve looked at them, but frankly I’d rather live in a cardboard box in the middle of the road than line your boyfriend’s pockets by buying one of those crammed-on little hen-houses.”

An error of judgment to let my temper show. Melissa emerges from the closet and announces that there’s a cracked floor tile that needs replacing, which will cost another –

OK. That’s it. I’ve had enough of Melissa Harvey Connor and her real estate bullshit.

“Of course,” I interrupt, “we really wanted to buy that old house on Main Street. The antique. But the owner didn’t accept our offer, and we weren’t willing to offer more because it needs such a lot doing to it.”

I watch her. She’s avoiding my eye and has a fixed smile on her face, the one she always has when she’s trying to hide something.

“That’s right,” she says. ” I talked to the owner and gave him your offer, but to be honest, he was insulted. It’s priced very reasonably as it is.”

Actually, it isn’t. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done some investigating, and although the price might have been OK a year ago, if at the top end of the range, house prices in this area have taken a nose dive since then. It’s now way overpriced. All right, so our offer might have been cheekily low, but seeing as no one else had bought it, you’d think the seller would be willing to enter negotiations.

And anyway, how did she talk to the owner? Maggie has been trying to get in touch with him for two weeks with no luck.

“You’d think the seller would have made a counter offer, though,” I say to Melissa, fishing for more clues. “If you were talking to him on the phone, I’m assuming you tried to actually, you know, sell the house for him.”

She opens and shuts her mouth a couple of times, looking like a surprised trout that I’ve caught and am slowly reeling in.

“He was much too insulted,” she says eventually. “He said he’d rather burn the place to the ground than sell it to someone who offers such a stupid price.”

Lies, all lies. I know when Melissa is lying, and I’ve seen “Melissa’s patented excuse” expression before. While she might fancy herself as an actress, she’s not going to give Meryl Streep any sleepless nights.

“Seriously,” Melissa says, trying to look serious but failing, “you should look again at those houses in Banbury. They’re really cute. I don’t know what you’ve got against them, they’re ready to move into, they’re brand new, not like that dusty old barn on Main Street. Who would want to buy that old shack?

“I can think of someone.”

Melissa and I both jump, and we turn towards the voice at the front door. While we’ve been arguing, Maggie has quietly let herself in with the spare key I gave her for emergencies.

“Maybe one person who would like to buy it is the selling realtor,” she says. “The one who has done her best to keep the ‘old shack’ for herself until she can get rid of her tenants and sell the house she’s been renting out. Then she can buy the ‘old shack’ and sell it to her property developer boyfriend for a little more profit. But he still gets a good deal because he’s going to parcel up the 12 wooded acres it’s built on, apply for planning permission, and put a couple of dozen cookie-cutter houses there instead. Of course,” Maggie adds, “it would help if more people would buy his latest batch of cookie-cutters in Banbury because right now he doesn’t have the means to buy the ‘old shack’ himself, which is why Melissa here is trying to get it for a good price by feeding the seller of the house a lot of lies about how no one is interested in it.”

Melissa puts her hands on her hips. She’s put weight on recently. She has a lot more hip than hand.

“I could sue you for that,” she says. “That’s libel.”

“Only libel if it’s in writing, although you’ve given me an idea. My contact at the Woodhaven Observer might be interested in a little investigative journalism. By the way,” Maggie gestures to a tall figure stepping into the hallway, stomping his wet shoes on the doormat, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”

The man finishes wiping his feet and nods at me and Melissa.

“Who is this?” Melissa demands. “Are we having a party here or something that I didn’t know about? I came here for a professional visit, and you just barge in with your boyfriend and your spare key –”

The man turns to Maggie. “Yep. I see what you mean about her.”

“Melissa.” Maggie’s voice is soft. Dangerously so. “If we’re going to talk about professionalism, I’d be careful what I said, if I were you.”

She smiles brightly at me and Melissa. “As I was saying. This is a friend of mine. Or more accurately, the son of a dear, deceased friend of mine. I believe Melissa has corresponded with him on occasion.” She emphasises the last word. “And this,” she says to him, “is my very good friend Libby.”

The man steps forward and holds out his hand to me.

“Chuck Morande,” he says. “A pleasure to meet you, Libby. I hear you’re interested in buying my mother’s house. If I hadn’t had a phone call from Maggie here, I would never have known, so I thought a trip to my hometown was in order to take care of things properly. Woodhaven realtors today aren’t the professionals they were in my day, it seems.”

And however much I regretted not having a camera at the ready to take photos of this house two years ago, it was nothing compared to the regret I felt at being without a camera now to take a picture of Melissa’s face.

* * *

“A toast, I think.” Maggie takes a bottle from her fridge and pours out four glasses of sparkling wine for the adults, and three plastic cups of cranberry juice for the children. We decided to come back to Maggie’s house for celebrations; the air in our own was still too thick with the atmosphere of accusations and Melissa’s defeat. “To Chuck — for making the trip from Montana when a telephone call would have sufficed.”

Maggie, Oliver and I raise our glasses. “To Chuck.”

Chuck sips at his wine and looks faintly embarrassed. “It was only an airplane ticket.”

“Ah, but without that ticket, Libby here would have to live fifteen miles away near the mall, and I wouldn’t see her anymore.” Maggie smiles at me. “I’d be quite lonely without Libby in Woodhaven. As it is, she will be living in Cathy’s old house just five minutes away.”

“I wouldn’t have sold my mother’s house to that realtor anyway.” Chuck drains his glass and holds it out to Maggie, who refills it. “My own toast now — to Libby and Oliver. I hope you’ll be as happy in that house as my parents were.”

Oliver and I exchange glances. Chuck had been more than willing to accept our “insulting” low offer, and had even offered another reduction to help us with our closing costs. He was just pleased that his mother’s property was going to a family who loved it for what it was and who wouldn’t turn it into twelve acres of McMansions.

“I’m sure we will,” Oliver says, “thanks to you. In a few weeks, we’ll be in a place of our own again.”

He clinked his glass against mine.

“We’ve missed that, haven’t we, Libs?”

I nod, barely able to speak for the lump in my throat.

A place of our own. Yes.

© 2013 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 71-80, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

#79 – Gladiator games

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© Tiff20 | Dreamstime.com


Summertime. Crickets, cicadas. Long evenings, hot days.

Or, back on Planet Earth in 2013: June. Thunderstorms. Hailstones, lightning. Flood warnings, incessant rain. Central heating returning for another encore, and cabin fever causing small children to ricochet off walls and demand opportunities to test the effectiveness of recently purchased wellington boots.

Rain or no rain, after several days cooped up inside, we are going for a walk this afternoon.

It’s a slow process, though, I’m discovering. It’s taken nearly five minutes to get Jack, plus the twins in their double pushchair, from the front door to the other side of our street, because the very puddles I need to avoid with the pushchair are those in which Jack wants to jump with his new, camo-patterned rainboots.

As the children and I bicker and squelch past the entrance to Maggie’s long gravel drive, I spot Maggie trotting from her house towards us, holding a black and red golfing umbrella above her head and squinting into the driving rain.

“You do know,” she shouts, “that if someone who is not English sees you out in this downpour, they will call child protection services? Or at the very least, they’ll call the men in white coats?”

We laugh. The Woodhaveners’ attitude to rain is a private joke between me and Maggie. Woodhaveners will happily cope with two feet of snow and an ice storm, but send them a bit of rain and they flap around, panicking about damp basements and aquaplaning cars.

I explain about the cabin fever and Jack’s new wellies. “What’s your excuse for going out in it?” I ask.

“Checking the mail for Montana-postmarked letters,” she says, and I groan softly.

Maggie’s been waiting for a letter from Montana for about a week now. A letter from Chuck, the current owner of the house I want to buy. Chuck is strangely inaccessible by modern communication. After our liquid lunch in the Maxwell Plum, Maggie phoned the emergency number he gave her a few years ago — his neighbours’ number — and left a message.

The message was that Maggie thought he should know that someone (me) was interested in buying his mother’s house, and Maggie had reason to believe he might not know this (because we think Melissa, his real estate agent, hadn’t told him we’d put in an offer) so would he please call Maggie back ASAP.

After two days with no response, she phoned again. Chuck’s neighbours sounded slightly annoyed and told her they’d most certainly passed on the message to Chuck, who had said he would write a letter to Maggie. Yes, they told her, a real letter. On paper, in an envelope, with a stamp, with her address on it. Surely she had heard of such an invention in Massachusetts?

“More to the point, hasn’t he heard of Facebook in Montana?” I asked. “Who writes letters on real paper these days, for goodness’ sake?”

“People who live in the middle of nowhere and communicate mainly with horses, apparently,” Maggie said.

Now, as Maggie opens her mailbox and I see that it contains only this week’s issue of the Woodhaven Observer, I’m starting to think that he’d decided to bypass the postal system and deliver it himself. On horseback.

I voice this theory to Maggie, who looks at me sympathetically.

“At least you’ve got somewhere to live in July now,” she says. “You won’t be homeless.”

This is true. Oliver, via his company’s HR contacts, has managed to get a three-bedroomed apartment near the mall, in the same complex we stayed when we first arrived in America, two years ago. So, no, we won’t be homeless –  but the apartment faces the freeway, it’s noisy with the heavy traffic, and I’m not counting on many undisturbed nights from the twins. It’s most irritating, because they’d both just started sleeping through the night.

We looked at some new houses in Banbury, two towns away. The houses that Melissa’s new boyfriend built. This detail would have been enough to put me off buying one, if the cost hadn’t already done so. The base prices of the houses seemed reasonable enough, but once you started adding in the cost of options, the real prices zoomed vertically, because the “options” weren’t terribly optional. The houses don’t come with decks, for example; not a big problem, you might think, until you realise that the French windows (or French doors, as they call them here) leading out into the back garden have a five foot drop to the ground when you open them.

Both Oliver and I want, more than ever, to stay in Woodhaven, in the magical old house that used to belong to Maggie’s friend, Cathy.  Oliver even calls it “our house” whenever we drive past it.

If only we could speak with Chuck, the actual seller, instead of having to go through real estate agents who have their own unscrupulous agendas. Because Maggie, Oliver, and I are absolutely convinced that Melissa has her own agenda in all this. It’s no coincidence that a house with a lot of acreage and a need for fixing up isn’t selling if she’s a) representing the seller and b) dating a local builder/property tycoon.

But without Chuck’s side of the story, we have no proof.

As we all stand in the rain, a black Escalade tears up the street and drives through the water-filled pothole next to us in the road, sweeping a wave of muddy rainwater onto the sidewalk and all over our little group. Beth and George are safe behind their clear plastic rainshield, but Jack, who was nearest the road, is drenched. He bursts into tears, and sobs that his new rainboots are broken because they’re filled with water.

“No, they’re not broken. They just don’t work when the puddles come from above,” I say, mopping his face as best I can with a tissue that is similarly damp. “We’d better get you home and dried off. Honestly, some drivers, no common courtesy or even common sense…”

“That’s our Melissa, all right,” Maggie murmurs.

I look up. The black Escalade is now parked on the driveway of my house and, sure enough, Melissa Harvey Connor is getting out of it.

“What’s she doing here?” Maggie asks.

“Beats me. Can we disappear up your driveway and hide until she goes away?”

Too late. She’s already seen us and is gesturing furiously.

“I suppose I’d better see what she wants. You wouldn’t like to come with me for moral support, would you?”

“Much as I love a nice bit of gladiatorial entertainment with my afternoon tea,” Maggie says, “I’m expecting a parcel delivery, so I’d better not. Good luck,” she adds, as she starts to wade up her driveway towards her house.

Who is the gladiator and who is the lion?  She doesn’t say.

I look across the street at Melissa, who has seemingly forgotten I changed the locks on her house eighteen months ago and is trying to open the front door with a key that doesn’t work.

When I eventually reach the door, I get my own key out of my purse and Melissa steps aside.

“I’m here to inspect the house for damage,” she says, and my heart sinks. Three children, two adults, and a dog have lived in this house in the last two years. “You know, for things that have to be put right before you move out, that you have to pay for.”

She holds up her useless key.

“New lock system, for example.” She smiles, baring sharp canine teeth. Or perhaps feline.  I’m the gladiator, it turns out; the one facing a big cat. “Cost to you: $300. And that’s before we even get inside the house, Libby.”

© 2013 Kate Allison

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#78 – Trust no agent

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There is nothing better than spending a sultry, summer afternoon in the cool darkness of the Maxwell Plum. We’re the only customers here, Jack is at nursery, and the twins are napping in their double pushchair beside our table. If I shut my eyes like this, thereby ignoring both the twins and my thirty-something reflection in the window, I can almost believe I am twenty-two again. Of course, I didn’t know any Americans when I was twenty-two, so the three other accents at the table aren’t authentic, but —

Wait — you thought I was with Oliver? Heaven preserve us. I’ve come here to get away from Oliver and his irritating, logical arguments. The three ladies I’m with now — Willow, Anna, Maggie — will give me nothing but sympathy. They are absolutely, completely the best friends I’ve had since my days in University halls, and for that, I’m grateful. Very grateful. Sooo grateful. And I get more grateful with each top-up of Chardonnay.

You see, sometimes, only girl-time will do. Girls will listen, nod, listen some more, fill your glass with more wine, and offer anecdotes of similar experiences to the one you’re bending their ears about.

They will never, repeat never, say, “For God’s sake, Libs, quit moaning. I’m not paying more than $140k for that heap of dry rot, and the owners are not accepting less than $200k, ergo we are not buying it. End of story. If you want a solution, go and look at those nice new houses in Banbury and stop being such a damned hopeless, stupid romantic. There’s nothing romantic about leaking roofs and rotten floorboards.”

“And even though he knows I’ve got my heart set on this house, that’s what he said. That’s what Oliver said,” I say, leaning back in my chair and stifling a small hiccup, my eyes still closed to keep up the illusion of being twenty-two. “I know you guys would never say that and call me a stupid romantic.”

Girls are more supportive than that.

Or at least, they should be, but as I open my eyes, I see my three friends looking at me with one expression.

Concern? Or is it amusement?

“What?” I say. “What’s wrong?”

Maggie’s lips twitch.

“You’re not used to liquid lunches these days, are you, my dear?”

“She drove here, right?” Willow asks Maggie. “Because I can totally drive her and the twins home and pick up Jack and she can get her car later.”

“It’s a nice afternoon! I walked!” I’m not happy at this unsupportive conversation about me that’s taking place as if I weren’t here. “And it’s not my turn to carpool today, so someone else is bringing Jack home.”

“Thank God for that,” Willow says. “Because you’re barely fit to push that stroller home, let alone drive anything with an engine. And there I was,” she says, turning to Anna, “thinking all Brits could hold their drink.”

Anna gets up from the table and heads towards the restaurant’s kitchen.

“Perhaps it’s time we put the wine away and switched to coffee. What do you say, Libs?”

* * *

“Tell us again. You want to buy The Forge, the old house at the bottom of Main Street?” Maggie draws patterns with a spoon in her coffee foam. “The one with acres and acres of land? I know it. The owner, the one who died recently, she was a friend of mine.”

“That dotty old lady? Really?” Willow sniggers. “I heard the rumours about her, how she’d dance naked in the back garden and talk to the trees and flowers and stuff. A real tree hugger.”

“And that,” Maggie says, a stern expression on her face, “is why you should never pay attention to rumours. I used to work for that ‘dotty old lady’ as you call her. She was my employer, before I bought her craft shop and all those teapots. I expect Anna remembers her.”

Anna shakes her head.

“You must do,” Maggie persists. “You remember when I opened Maggie May’s, when you were in high school here, when you and Sara were attached at the hip.”

Sara again. Maggie’s mystery daughter who swans off to the Seychelles to get married but won’t come to see her mother in her hometown.

Anna’s still shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she says. “So much of that time is a blank. I think I’ve blocked it out.”

Maggie places one hand over Anna’s, on the table. “And I don’t blame you one bit,” she says in a gentle tone, which makes me wonder what happened to Anna at high school. “It’s a shame, though. Cathy was a great character.”

“Cathy!” I exclaim, feeling slightly more alert now. I have no idea what Anna puts in her coffee, but it’s good stuff. “The cat-shaped teapots in your kitchen!”

“The same.” Maggie beams at me. “Well, she was in her sixties when I bought the shop from her, and she must have been well into her nineties when she died last year. The poor soul had been suffering from dementia for about ten years. Didn’t recognise her own son four years ago, but knew what people were doing, all right, when they tried to put her into a nursing home. The last six or seven years, she’s been in that house with a team of nurses and carers coming in every day. And when they didn’t keep a close enough eye on her, that’s when she’d strip off and run around the back garden and talk to the trees. She got frostbite once, doing it in the winter. Senility is a very cruel fate for the old.”

She fixes Willow with another stern stare, and Willow looks down, abashed.

“Why won’t her son sell it to you?” Maggie asks me.

I shrug with rather more vigour than I’d intended, and knock over my glass of water which is nearly empty but still contains enough liquid to flood my side of the table and drip onto my lap.

“I don’t know,” I say, as Anna and Willow rush at me with paper napkins. This must be what it’s like to be Jack at every mealtime. “Donna didn’t say. She just said he didn’t accept our offer, and didn’t come back with a counter offer.”

“I wonder why that was.” Maggie rests her chin on her hand and gazes out of the window at a group of high school kids gathering on the village green that splits Main Street lengthways. “It’s not as if he needs the money. Or maybe that’s why. Perhaps he’s hanging in there until he gets a high offer because he can afford to do so.”

“He doesn’t need the money?” Willow voices the surprise of the rest of us. “Who’s got so much money that they flatly turn down $140k?”

“People who win a small fortune on the Powerball lottery and retire to Montana, that’s who. Believe me, that $140,000 is a drop in his ocean of winnings. That’s how Cathy was able to afford her team of 24/7 nursing staff for so long.”

“Wow.” I pat with another napkin at my shorts. They look as if I’ve had an embarrassing accident, and I hope they dry before I have to walk back home. “What does he do in Montana?”

“Chuck’s a hermit. A hermit with 400 acres. He came to see me last time he was here, four years ago — that was after he found out his mother didn’t know she’d even had a son, let alone recognise him. He was very concerned about her and, since he’s such a hermit, was worried he wouldn’t know until it was too late if anything happened to Cathy.”

“Hadn’t he heard of cell phones?” Willow asks.

“There was barely a signal where he lived, he said, and he liked it that way. No interruptions, no telesales. So he gave me his neighbour’s number and told me to call there if there was anything he needed to know urgently. Otherwise, he was quite happy to rely on regular mail for normal communication.”

Anna, Willow, and I all gape at Maggie. None of us can imagine living without a cell phone in reach of our fingertips. And I can’t remember the last time I wrote an envelope that didn’t contain either a greetings card or a cheque.

Through the wine-fuelled haze, the coffee penetrates my brain, and something occurs to me.

“Do you think he has a phone now?”

“I have no idea,” Maggie says. “But he didn’t when Cathy died a year ago.”

“So, I’m wondering,” I say (actually, I’m wondering if I’m still tipsy and have missed a vital point in the argument I’m about to make); “how did Melissa contact him with our offer?”

Silence from the girls. Either I’ve put forward a really good argument, or I’ve said something very silly.

“On the neighbour’s phone?” Anna sounds uncertain.

“Email?” Willow suggests.

“I’m not sure Chuck has ever come in contact with a computer.”

I look from Maggie to Anna to Willow.

“Is this the Chardonnay doing my thinking for me, or is it entirely possible that Cathy’s son doesn’t know he has a potential buyer?”

*  *  *

Evening hangovers are the absolute worst, but I’m feeling less fragile now, and in any case I think today’s was worth it. Maggie walked home from the Maxwell Plum with me and the twins, and on the way she promised to phone Cathy’s son in Montana, or rather, his neighbour, to see if he’d  reconsider our offer on the house.

Meanwhile, I am racking my brains (as best I can, under today’s circumstances) to wonder why Melissa might be telling blatant lies so as not to sell us a house that she’s listed. It means she won’t get the commission, surely?

Oliver comes in from work, two hours late. He’s been at someone’s leaving bash in the Irish pub in Banbury, near the new houses and condos that Donna’s shown us. They’re nice enough, I suppose, but they’re so crammed, with such small lots, that we might as well be living back in Acacia Drive in Milton Keynes.

“Guess who I just saw in the pub?” Oliver says. “Our landlady. She’s got herself a new bloke.”

I wince. Oliver is a bit loud when he’s just been to the pub and has spent two hours shouting to make himself heard.

“Am I supposed to be surprised at that information?” I ask.

“Quite a well-known bloke in these parts, apparently,” Oliver says, ignoring my comment. “Local builder. Rich as Rockefeller, by all accounts. Built those little condos we looked at in Banbury.”

That’s all it takes to make me dislike Melissa’s new boyfriend.

“Yes, he does quite a bit of that kind of thing,” Oliver continues. “Buys falling down houses with lots of land, knocks them down, then puts up a load of smaller new houses. No wonder he’s rolling in it.”

And no wonder, I think, as the bright flash of understanding nearly blinds me and banishes any remains of hangover, that Melissa is dragging her heels about selling us a falling down house built on twelve acres.

© 2013 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 71-80, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

#77 – First refusal

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“You have got to be kidding me. What were you thinking, Libs?”

Oliver prods with his toe at an oak panel in the empty, echoing living room. The panel cracks; a large piece of wood falls backwards into the abyss behind, and a suspicious scurrying tells us we have disturbed someone’s living quarters.

“Christ in a bucket,” Oliver mutters, as I try to keep an optimistic smile on my face to balance out his own expression, which is grumpier by the second.

It’s his first visit to see the house I found for us and, so far, things are not going well. Although the house boasts new electric wiring and plumbing, as our realtor Donna proudly pointed out last week, it does not boast a new furnace, a new roof, solid floorboards, or any air conditioning.

Or even wooden wall panels that stay intact when you kick them.

But you know what? I don’t care. I want this house. It’s old, it has character, it is full of quirky little corners and unexpected alcoves. I want it. Don’t ask me why.

I just know I want it.

“But it’s so cheap!” I say to Oliver, who is now looking critically at the door frame between living room and dining room. The builder of that part of the house apparently was not familiar with set squares or right angles two centuries ago, because the door shape is an interesting variation on a trapezoid.

“It would need to be,” he says. “Even if it’s free, it’s too much.”

Donna watches us, her eyes swivelling left, right, and back again. She doesn’t like the way this conversation is going, I think. She can see her commission flying out of the dusty windows.

I have an ally.

“An antique house is an investment,” she squeaks in her Minnie Mouse voice. “People like the knowledge that no one is going to build an identical house on the next lot. They like the original features. They like not living in a cookie cutter. They like owning a piece of history.”

“And they like repaying a very, very large home improvement loan and spending all their Saturdays in Home Depot,” Oliver says. “Because if you didn’t like those two things, you’d need to be bloody barking mad before you bought a crumbling money pit like this.”

He turns to me.

“Nope, I’m sorry, Libs. No can do. We’ll keep on looking until we find something more our style and less work. I’m sure Donna can show us some new construction in another town, can’t you?”

I stare at Donna, silently pleading with her to say “Absolutely not. The state has issued a moratorium on the building of new houses. If you don’t buy this house, you’ll be homeless in two months.”

But she doesn’t, of course. Instead, she takes an exaggerated breath, closes her eyes, and breathes out again. As if she thought of saying something but then thought better of it.

“Of course I can,” she says, “if you really want me to. But — could I just say something?”

Oliver looks up at the ceiling, as if asking a deity to give him strength. A dead spider is dangling from the light fitting just above his head, and he steps to one side.

“Be my guest,” he says.

“Woodhaven is a desirable town. We have an excellent school system, yet disproportionately low taxes. If you go to one of the neighbouring towns, you could end up spending on school fees and property taxes what you save on buying a house. Woodhaven is a little oasis of value-for-money town taxes. You might find what you’re looking for in Banbury, two towns away, but believe me, the twenty thousand you save on a house purchase there will be spent in eighteen months in extra taxes and school fees. I wouldn’t put my own children in Banbury schools,” she adds. “Their standardised test results last year were appalling.”

“Huh.” Oliver is scornful. “Jack’s a bright child. He’ll do fine wherever he goes to school.”

“And believe me, I admire that attitude,” Donna says, leaning towards him and patting his arm.

Actually, I don’t believe her. Nor, I can tell, does Oliver. He doesn’t like being patted by realtors with high-pitched voices, either.

“The problem is,” she continues, “most homebuyers don’t have that attitude, and you’ll find that out when you come to sell. You could be stuck with a new house that’s exactly like every other house for sale, in a school district that’s less than stellar. Whereas this house–” she makes a sweeping gesture around the living room, her arm cutting through a swathe of dust motes “– with a little love and attention from you beforehand, it would be snapped up in an instant. Like that,” she adds, snapping her fingers in case we hadn’t understood.

Her cell phone chirps. She pulls it out of her pocket, looks at the screen, and frowns.

“Excuse me.”

She trots out into the hallway where we can hear her murmuring a few seconds later.

I turn to Oliver and open my eyes very wide.

“Please?” I say. “Pretty please? With sugar on the top?”

“No.” He folds his arms, tapping one foot.

“We won’t have anywhere to live if we don’t buy it.” I stick my lower lip out. “And then we’ll have to live in the apartments near the mall again, next to that crazy man who likes using the azaleas for target practice. Remember him?”

Oliver stops tapping his foot and winces. He remembers our old neighbour, all right. The one with the pickup truck with the NRA sticker on the bumper. Oliver was convinced the man was harmless until we ran into him at a Fourth of July celebration, when he rambled on about how he hated all effing Limey effers, and we had to pretend for the next three weeks that we were Australian. Oliver avoided him as much as possible after that. One day he was late home from work, and it turned out he’d been sitting in the car for over an hour, waiting for the crazy man to finish playing poker on the front porch with his equally crazy friends, before he dared to venture into our own apartment.

Considering how he’d told me off for being silly and paranoid, you’d think he would have been less of a wuss.

Donna returns from the hallway, cell phone in hand.

“Another couple is on the way to see this house, so we should leave very soon,” she says. “The office tells me it’s the second time they’ve viewed it. That tells me they’re keen. If I were in your shoes, I’d be making an offer this afternoon. But if you’re sure you want to look at some new houses in Banbury…”

She shrugs. It’s your funeral.

I look up at Oliver, pouting a little again, and make puppy-whimper noises. “I really don’t want to live next door to that man with the BB gun again.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Oliver snatches the sheet of property details from me. “Offer them a hundred and forty, and not a cent more.”

Donna beams, and I try not to do a happy dance.

“You’ve got a really good chance of getting it at that price after so long on the market,” Donna says. “I don’t want to raise your hopes or anything, but if I were the seller, I’d jump at that offer. Let’s head back to my office and complete the paperwork.”

She walks back into the kitchen to collect her briefcase.

I hug Oliver, and after a split second while he tries to pretend he’s not in the least excited about buying a two-hundred-year-old American house, he hugs me back.

* * *

Four hours later, our mood is very different.

“I don’t understand it,” Donna says. She’s come round to our house to give us the bad news in person. “If it had been me, I’d have accepted that offer. I know the seller doesn’t live round here, but surely they must realise that in this economic climate you sometimes have to take what you’re offered, especially with the house needing so much renovation. I am just so sorry.”

I can’t speak. I am, as they say back home, absolutely gutted.

“They didn’t make a counter offer?” Oliver asks.

Donna shakes her head.

“Is it the other couple who saw it today? Did they make a higher offer?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Who was their realtor?” I ask. “Could you find out?”

“It was the seller’s realtor. Melissa Harvey Connor. If they want to buy it, she will probably pass them onto another realtor so there isn’t a conflict of interest.”

I manage to turn a splutter of disbelief into a cough. Conflicts of interest have never bothered Melissa in the past.

“Do you want to make a higher offer?” Donna asks.

I look at Oliver and we both shake our heads. If we pay anything more, I’ll never hear the last of it from him.

“I’m sure I can find you something nice in another town. It might mean moving away, and Oliver having a longer commute, but don’t worry. We’ll find something.”  Donna gathers up her briefcase and jacket, and leaves.

Oliver and I sit on the sofa in silence.

“The idea of making that house a project was starting to grow on me,” he says. “I’m kind of surprised at how disappointed I am now.”

We sit some more, considering our options.

“So,” Oliver says at last. “We’ve got Melissa Harvey Connor representing the seller and a potential buyer, and she just happens to be our landlady. Is it just me,” he asks, “or can you also smell a rat?”

I’m so glad I’m not the only one with paranoia.

“Oh yes,” I say. “A big rat.”

A great, big, fat rat called Melissa.”

The thing is — how on earth do we prove it?

© 2013 Kate Allison

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