Buyer Beware by Fiona Anderson

After the surge of nicotine, she heard the waking birds more sharply.  She hated this time of morning, she should have waited. It reminded her of student days, coming home, coming down. Or lonely early feeds with the babies. Or the alarm sounding for the cheap Christmas flight to the folks’, that seasonal excitement, wrapped in caffeine fuelled dread.

When she felt the wave of nausea wriggle then rush to her throat, she darted inside. All the blood, puke and shite she had mopped up raising the kids, never left her queasy like a 5am bursting with cheery birdsong; the chaffinch were the worst. On the living room rug, by the redundant fireplace, she fought the vomit, in a star shape she fell asleep.

A knocking woke her at nine thirty. Peering from the front window, she remembered the estate agent sign.  With little luck, the sign guy attempted to bang the post into the stony driveway. She thought she might offer to help, tell him where it had been secured before, warn him about the flimsy fence but luckily it was too late. He nailed it to the crumbling panels and when it appeared to stand straight, he hopped back into his van. Within seconds of him racing onto the Grove, the breeze had blown it sideways and the thick, red lettered – ‘For Sale’ – was looking straight at her.

From the window she squared up to it, but she knew she couldn’t drive back the kettle of au-pair-sharing-vultures on their way; couples ready to ‘knock through’ and ‘extend out’, probing about good schools, researching cycle repair shops and sustainable sourdough deliveries, deal breakers apparently.

They had been ‘open plan’ assholes too, once navigating the thirty- something self-important fog of baby-slinged, Swedish furniture outings to find the perfect kitchen island and the perfect corner sofa that pointed at the perfect surround sound media unit.  This prompted the nausea to wriggle again. She took a long breath, steaming up the centre of the filthy bay window as she exhaled; with her little finger she-carefully wrote ‘γɒwA oӘ’ on the condensation.

 She doubted the asking price was achievable given the state of the place. There were boxes stacked high in every corner and the children’s bedrooms needed a lick of paint to cover the Tiramisu of adolescent grime and self expressive decorating. The heavily debated Year 10 mural of Kurt Cobain looked like Bjorn Borg in a hostage situation and they never got to the bottom of why the ceiling in the girls’ ‘floor-drobe’ was still sticky after ten years.

In the kitchen she scoffed at the skirtings along the back wall running up to the patio door. They were scuffed, with tufts of cat hair and pieces of breakfast cereal welded to the paintwork.  The Saturday afternoons joyfully spent tackling them with bleach and a cotton bud were no longer, and it was clear established house proud routines had been abandoned, like the decaying bagel squatting behind the toaster, if only she could get at it. 

When at last the morning traffic had drowned out her chirpy foes, outside she enjoyed the reassuring chug of the trains heading to the coast past the bottom of the garden. Ciggie in hand, she paced the mossy path down and round and up and down and round until she had smoked it to the butt.  She was delighted she could still enjoy a puff.

She could see the edges of the flower beds had been darkened by the frost and gathered mulch and she tried to recall what might grow come the better weather; the rising brambles meant it was tricky to see what was stifled. She thought she spied the dead heads of her lilac hydrangea, perhaps a wilted Lady’s Mantel, she’d forgotten what bloomed. The winter had been vicious and for a second, she felt guilty for ignoring the sound of branches splintering and falling in the storms.

She stepped back onto the patchy lawn, sorry for her jilted garden. She wished she could reappear with her wheelbarrow and secateurs and lovingly tend it, like it deserved. Apologising to the flowerbeds, she flicked her ciggie butt towards the base of the suffocating honeysuckle, where a hundred other butts lay, pretending to decompose.  

Linda from the estate agency arrived the next morning with the first viewers, a matching fleeced couple from Edinburgh with twin girls and a Dachshund called Mervyn. By the end of the half hour tour, she and Linda were well informed about the family fertility journey including Mervyn’s; apparently, he only had one ball but fathered a litter last Spring. They hadn’t opened a cupboard or looked for a sign of damp and there wasn’t a mention of the garden. Mervyn barked at her for longer than the fleecy pair could fathom. Everyone knew they wouldn’t be back.

The afternoon duo brought their own expertise; thoughtfully walking backwards, head bobbing and sideways inspecting empty rooms. The tall one had a measuring tape, the small one took the end of it each time they debated whether a piece of their vintage mid-century furniture would ‘fit into this tricky space.’ 

While Linda took a call on the doorstep, she followed these two into the garden.  Smoking on the rotting sun lounger, she watched them plan an assault of her beloved beds; ideas about Indian sandstone paving and ‘simple grasses’ dotted around artificial lawn. She blew smoke in their faces more than once and they marched back through the patio doors demanding Linda explain the foul smell at the rear of the property. Linda assured them there had been no odour problem flagged at survey, explaining, ‘it must be wafting from the road.’ Everyone knew they wouldn’t be back.

Within a fortnight Linda’s head was spinning. She had opened the house to 16 couples, 5 landlords, two polyamorous relationships, a Baptist minister planting a new church and a film location coordinator looking for a ‘an empty classic Edwardian’ for a new drama streaming in the autumn. ‘Obvs we don’t wanna buy the gaff, we’d just need it for a month, tops.  The cornicing is a-maze-ing! But it does smell a bit weird.’  Not one offer could be squeezed from any of them.

Lying on the cushion-less sofa she watched Linda, head in hand, make the call. ‘Hi yes, great. Well, nothing yet. No nibbles sadly. Feedback? Yeah, feedback has been, I mean, everyone loves the location and all the classic features, what’s not to love? Em, … yes there’s still plenty of interest but unfortunately, we’ve had a few comments about noises and smells at the property. Yes, I know, very odd. What kind? Em…well, snuffling and snoring near the fireplace in the living room and at various spots in the house and garden there have been complaints about a strong, stale, nicotine odour. Yes, I know there was never any smoking in the house and I have tried my very best to reassure any potential buyers but to be honest, after almost thirty viewings it’s becoming more difficult. No, I’m sure you don’t want to drop the price. Perhaps you can come and see, I mean, hear, and smell for yourself. Okay, yes, that suits well.  Many thanks. See you soon.’

From the front door she watched Linda almost stagger with exhaustion down the driveway, straightening the wonky ‘For Sale’ sign as she turned onto the Grove. She felt guilty for not feeling guilty. Linda had no radar for vultures or the horticulture-less. When clocks jumped in March, the dog walkers and marathon masochists were more visible from the porch, her evening spot. Occasionally she saw them stop at the gate, check what street they were on and scroll for the property info on their phones. Vulture like, they would throw themselves into loft conversion fantasies, pointing at the attic space guessing what value it might add but none stepped into the driveway for a closer look. She remained undisturbed. 

On Easter Sunday the Grove was quiet. With the weather unusually hot, the locals had escaped to the beach. The garden was dry and crippled, struggling to flower.  She longed for her watering can. Her Azalea was ready to take centre stage in the bed opposite the greenhouse, its crimson blossom straining to be seen amongst the tangle of bushy chickweed and ivy. Curled amongst the dandelion she lay in the decimated veg patch and let a tear drop onto the drooping yellow stem of a veteran scallion.

As the light faded, she had her bedtime puff. She could hear neighbours return from their day trips. There was laughter but grumbling as parents shouted requests for help with the bags and for the picnic things to be stacked in the dishwasher. It reminded her of the sunburnt family chaos of bank holidays on the coast; the kids filled with sugar and memories.

A giggle seemed to grow nearer and without warning a head popped over the side gate into the garden.

‘I can see it! It’s so beautiful, a little neglected but someone has loved it in the past, I can tell by the planting. I wonder if they’ve had any offers, the price is good. Oh look, a ruby red Azeala.’

Flinging her ciggie butt at the honeysuckle ashtray, she ran through the house and into the driveway. The owner of the head was wriggling on a pair of shoulders struggling to hold her up.

‘That compost heap looks great. Inheriting natural fertilizer like that could be a deal maker.’

She laughed above his shaking head.

‘Only you could get excited about compost.’

She thought about the years of clippings and grass cuttings and all the times she had drunkenly peed on that heap to keep it perfect for the soil, for her beloved plants. She was always excited about compost.

The shoulders slipped, and the head came tumbling down on top of him. They rolled and giggled until they steadied themselves against the wall, sitting crossed legged on the stony driveway. The head lifted her phone from her pocket, soil visibly thick under her fingernails.

‘Let’s take our first ever selfie at our new house.’

‘Don’t get carried away green fingers, we don’t know if we can afford it.’

‘Of course we can, we must. That garden needs me.’

With the phone at his arm’s length, they stood tall and grinning below the bay window as he snapped. It was only then she could see their t-shirts, hers Bjorn Borg, his Kurt Cobain.

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