A Desirable Residence - By Madeleine Wickham


There wasn’t much point, Liz told herself, in getting upset. It wasn’t his fault, poor man. The estate agent had finished talking, and was looking at her concernedly, expecting a response. To gain time, she glanced out of the sash window of the office, the panes bright with the sun and raindrops of a confused September’s day. There was a little courtyard garden outside, walled, with a white wrought-iron bench and tubs of flowers. It must be nice in the summer, she thought, forgetting that this still was, to all intents and purposes, the summer. Her mind always worked at least half a term ahead.

‘Mrs Chambers . . . ?’

‘Oh yes, sorry,’ said Liz, and turned back. ‘I was listening.’ She smiled at the estate agent. He didn’t smile back.

‘I did warn your husband at the time the property went on the market,’ he said, ‘that this might happen. I advised a price rather lower than your asking price.’

‘I know you did,’ agreed Liz. She wondered why he felt it necessary to remind her. Was he feeling defensive? Did he experience a need to justify himself; explain why their house had been on the market for ten months with his agency and had failed to sell? She studied his young, well-shaven face for signs of I-told-you-so; if-you’d-listened-to-me . . .

But his face was serious. Concerned. He was probably, she thought, not the sort of person who would countenance recriminations. He was simply pointing out the facts.

‘And now,’ he was saying, ‘you must make a decision. You have, as I see it, two realistic options.’ And a few unrealistic ones? Liz wanted to ask, but instead she looked intelligently at him, leaning forward slightly in her chair to show she was interested. She was beginning to feel rather hot; the sun was beating brightly through the panes of glass onto her cheeks. As usual, she had completely misjudged the early-morning weather and dressed for a brisk autumn day. She should perhaps remove a layer of clothing. But the thought of taking off her unwieldy jersey—which would necessitate first removing her spectacles and Alice band—to reveal a crumpled denim shirt, which might or might not be stained with coffee, seemed too much to contemplate. Especially in front of this smooth estate agent. She glanced surreptitiously at him. He didn’t seem to be too hot; his face was tanned but not at all flushed and his cuffs looked crisp and cool. Starched, probably, she thought, by his girlfriend. Or perhaps, bearing in mind how young he looked, his mother. The thought amused her.

‘Two options,’ she said, more agreeably than she had intended.

A flicker of something like relief passed across his face. Perhaps he had been expecting a scene. But before Liz could react to it, he was back into well-grooved, grown-up professionalism.

‘The first option,’ he said, ‘would be to put your house back on the market and drop the price considerably.’ Of course, thought Liz. Any fool could have told me that.

‘By about how much?’ she asked politely. ‘Realistically speaking,’ she added for good measure, stifling a sudden, inappropriate urge to giggle. This conversation was unreal. Next thing she’d be saying, Let’s have the cards on the table, or, Would you run that by me again . . . Pull yourself together, she told herself sternly. This is serious.

‘Fifty thousand pounds. At least.’

Liz’s head jerked up in shock. The giggle rising up inside her suddenly subsided; she felt shamefaced. No wonder this boy’s handsome face was so concerned. He was more worried about her situation than she was. And, to give him his due, it was worrying.

‘We’ve already reduced it by twenty,’ she said, noting with slight horror that her voice was shaking. ‘And that’s less than the mortgage.’

‘I know,’ he said. He looked down at the papers on his desk. ‘I’m afraid the market has dropped considerably since you bought.’

‘Not that much. It can’t have.’ Belated worry made her belligerent. Of course she had seen the headlines in the papers. But she’d always skimmed them with her eyes; assumed they had no relevance to her. She’d avoided the chat of friends, some overtly anxious, others smugly triumphant. The property market this, the property market that. For heaven’s sake. Stupid phrase, anyway. The property market . . . It made her think of rows of market stalls covered in tiny houses, each with a price label tied around the chimney.

‘We can’t sell it for so little,’ she added. She could feel her cheeks