Authors: Phil Hogan
Do you remember Mr Heming? It was he who showed you round your comfortable home, suggested a sustainable financial package, negotiated a price with the owner and called you with the good news. The less good news is that, all these years later, he still has the key.
That’s absurd, you laugh. Of all the many hundreds of houses he has sold, why would he still have the key to mine?
The answer to that is he has the keys to them all.
William Heming’s every pleasure is in his leafy community. He loves and knows every inch of it, feels nurtured by it, and would defend it – perhaps not with his own life but, if it came to it, with yours.
F YOU WERE TO
put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit. But then, you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others? All I can say is that the habitual is what I love most and am made for; that the best I can do is hang on, have faith, and hope what has lately blown through our unremarkable but well-ordered town will be forgotten and all will be calm again. Right now I feel lucky to hear myself breathe. The air is dangerously thin. It seems to rush in my ears. And yet the scene is peaceful here in the half-lit, slumbering pre-dawn: a white coverlet glowing in the room, a discarded necklace of beads, a shelf of books, one face down, splayed on the bedside-table, as though it – like the whole town at this hushed time – is dead to the world. I cannot make out the title but the sight of this book with its familiar cover image (the shape of a man in raised gilt) returns me to that day, not too long ago, when the wind changed and the sky blackened and ordinary life – startled by the sudden thunderclap of the unusual – reared, kicked over the lantern and turned the barn into a raging inferno whose
leaping, thrilling flames could be seen from a hundred miles away.
It was a day that started as quietly as this one. Another dawn – a dawn suffused with love, I am not afraid to say – though if I pause to mention the girl at the heart of things (or at least her habits) it is only to illustrate the contrast of events, how beauty and ugliness can live so surprisingly cheek by jowl, the one unseen by the other. How one moment you can be lying in the warm, ticking dark, awaiting the return of your special one (and here she was, arriving back from her early run, the rattle of her key in the lock, the sound of water thudding into a fragrant tub), and the next contemplating horror, drama and scandal.
This is the route my memory instantly takes to capture that day, though the truth is I didn’t hear the news until she had pedalled off into the crisp, bright morning, and I had walked to my office. The rest of our leafy, prosperous community will recall it in their own way. The point is that this was the day the Cooksons of Eastfield Lane returned from their annual spring break in the Seychelles to find a week-old dead body ruining the visual flow of their well-stocked garden with its established fruit trees, landscaped lawns and hand-cut limestone patio.
Every estate agent has a client like the Cooksons, so don’t judge me too harshly when I say I had to suppress a smile when my third in command, Zoe, her eyes wide with excitement and alarm, broke the news. We’d had the Cooksons’ house – a handsome character property at the very edge of town, surrounded by fields and woods and yet only a ten-minute walk from the tennis and cricket club – on our books for eighteen months or more. In a falling market, my senior consultant Katya, an extremely efficient Lithuanian, had sold the place twice – to buyers desperate to own it but who
had pulled out in acrimony and tears to take their depreciating financial packages elsewhere, reduced to an emotional frazzle by the Cooksons’ failure over weeks and months to find a new ideal home for themselves, by their refusal to consider going into temporary rented accommodation to rescue these deals, and not least by their general destructive haggling over trifles. I’d lost count of the properties the Cooksons themselves had walked away from at the eleventh hour – upscale dwellings that ticked every box on an evolving wish list that had taken the three of us out to look at converted windmills and maltings, a superior Georgian townhouse on the square, a riverside apartment with long views and finished in oak and granite, a wool merchant’s cottage with sizeable vegetable garden out towards Wodestringham. The paths of the couple’s individual whims – hers, at any moment, for a circle of yews, his for an authentic chef’s kitchen with wine cellar – rarely crossed. If one light went on, another went off. You saw them bickering quietly in their car. Once I heard Mrs Cookson refer to me as ‘that fucking creep, Heming’, which seemed a little severe, though in the circumstances – I was lurking in a recess on the landing directly below them as they stood disagreeing about the aesthetic merits of porthole-style windows – I suppose she was right.
‘Do you think the Cooksons actually want to move house?’ Katya said frequently. They probably do now, I thought.
But who could tell? They’d been in the place sixteen years. Their children had flown. He was a dentist, she owned four pharmacies. Now in their mid-forties, and better off than ever, they seemed to me stranded between possible bad choices: not just between grandstanding and downsizing, but between staying in this marriage for the rest of their lives or breaking free of it. In their terse exchanges about décor or room size you saw
a larger sense of purpose draining away. They were looking for something, but a new home together wasn’t it. Rather, they seemed engaged in a passive war of attrition, with house-hunting as their chosen weapon.
I didn’t like the Cooksons one bit, but they did fascinate me. The last time I had seen them – or, in fact, failed to see them – was some months before their trip to the sun. I’d arranged to show them a new architect-built concrete jewel of a place with a gym and pool. I arrived a little early, checked the rooms, the automatic blinds and lighting. I ran through the blurb Katya had put together. Then I waited, pacing the rooms, pacing the drive. After twenty minutes I called Mr Cookson. He was playing golf. ‘Are you sure it was today?’ he said. I told him that, yes, today was the day, and paused to allow him to apologize. He didn’t. ‘To tell you the truth, I think my wife may have lost interest,’ he said.
Normally I wouldn’t have minded too much being stood up. In other circumstances I would have used the time to snoop around the house while the vendors were out. But here there were no vendors, or at least none with real lives to look into. Just the usual developers in the habit of dressing their high-spec rooms in modish finery – a leather-and-chrome Corbusier
, a shagpile rug, deluxe drapery and linens. Nothing to suggest living, breathing occupancy or personal taste; no stamp of a human form shaping its nest.
I locked up and walked. The wind was cold but it was dry. When time and weather permit, I walk. From our office – and Heming’s is bang in the middle of the town map, on the north side of the old square – there’s nowhere you can’t get to on foot within half an hour. And what better way to sharpen the focus of everyday blur into readable information? My habit is to take arbitrary diversions. I move like a window-shopper. My antennae
are alert to unusual sales clusters, incursions from rival agents. I take the trouble to read the fluttering notices pinned to fences and telegraph poles warning of private building projects or public works. I note what scaffolding is going up, contractors’ vehicles, the contents of skips. The smell of fresh paint puts a spring in my step. I can spot the red dot of a newly installed alarm from a good distance. Occasionally I make use of my opera glasses (an indispensable tool of the equipped agent). But, as I make my rounds, I ask myself: who fits where? In seventeen years in the business, I have sold properties on every street in town, very often more than once. I might forget a face but, I have to tell you, I never forget a house.
So, as I approached town, cutting down Boselle Avenue – broad and well-to-do, its pavements blown with leaves and horse-chestnut flowers at this time of year – it was only natural that my eye would register a figure, some fifty yards ahead, emerging from number 4, one of a pair of thirties suburban villas set back from the road. I had handled both these houses in years past. Number 4 had been extended by way of an office-study-cum-box room over the garage. I knew the house. But I didn’t recall the man. Or did I? He was walking a little dog, or, rather, yanking it along. Even at a distance, I sensed his impatience. He was a tall man, which made the poor dog – a terrier of some kind with white tufted hair – look even smaller than it was. He was wearing walking boots and hooded rainwear and his thinning hair was long and swept back. The dog was trying to sniff at gates and fences, and it yapped in protest as he tugged it away. He had the air of a man easily annoyed by life’s fleeting trifles. As if compelled by the stiff wind, I found myself following him and the dog, across the main road, down the hill at the crossroads, then just past the archway and courtyard that my own modest
flat overlooked, in a low-rise, honey-bricked development. And it was here, ahead of the entrance to the green, sparkling Common on the right, that he stopped to let the dog defecate in the middle of the path.
of the path. He barely gave me a glance as I approached. The dog crouched, watchful in mid-strain, then shook its bearded jowls and yawned. I expected the man to produce a bag to scoop up the mess, but he simply waited for the dog to finish, then pulled on the leash and started to walk on.
‘Hello?’ I heard myself call out to him. ‘Excuse me …’
The man – perhaps he
familiar – turned with a vexed look that seemed to call for the counter-balance of a civic smile and a jocular observation. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘but I think your dog dropped something?’