This story is an extract from My Europe, edited by Anna Johnson and Anna Vaught, Manningtree, Patrician Press, 2018, pp. 13-22.
Sell Your Past and Buy Yourself a Future!
I had been thinking of selling my house for a while. Since I retired I had cherished the idea of relocating and starting a new life. Far from the northern city where I had slaved my existence away. Far from the long hours of commuting. Far from greasy tables and lonely dinners. Far from it all.
Where should I go? A small town in Devon? Or perhaps Cornwall? Or should I opt for the sunnier beaches and milder winters of southern Spain? And what about Sicily? I had not made up my mind yet, but the idea of selling appealed to me precisely because it marked a new beginning. Selling was a promise of happiness, a way to cancel, at a single stroke, the monotony of an endless routine, the greyness of middle age, all that made my life heavy and dull and simply not worth living.
This is how it all began. There was a new estate agent in the high street close to the road where I lived, called BestSellers & Co. The guy who welcomed me with a big smile was outgoing and smart. Perfectly dressed in a grey suit, pink shirt and a rainbow-hued tie that was hard to miss.
The place was spotlessly tidy. Big posters of smiling people shaking hands. A slogan – SELL YOUR PAST AND BUY YOURSELF A FUTURE! – was printed in red letters on a mirror that covered the wall behind the desk. I could not help seeing those words as meant for me.
“I’m bent on selling. It’s not a big house, but sunny, good spaces. Two bedrooms.”
“You did well to come to us,” was the reply. “We have plenty of clients who are looking for a house exactly like yours. Of course, we can also help you choose a new one, if you are interested. There is a wide range on offer,” he said, pointing to the slimmest and largest of computer screens.
I was asked to sign a form. To clarify that I was entrusting them with the exclusive sale and no other agent would be given authority to sell at the same time. That was fine by me. I was not in a hurry to get rid of my house, although I felt this urge to change my life. Moving would be a new beginning, an upgrade. The word Romance flashed like a neon light in my mind. Everything would be possible.
The following day they came to see the house. I mean, Nigel – the nice guy I had been talking to – and an associate called Boris. Blond hair. Very much the artist type. Great fun. Together they toured the place. A whirlwind of jokes and witty remarks.
“Just think of all the money you’re going to save by selling,” said Nigel, while Boris nodded approvingly.
“It’s calculated that a two-bedroom house like yours costs 350 quid a month in terms of sheer maintenance,” continued Nigel, “excluding all the rest – insurance, taxes, bills, whatever. Running a house is ruinous these days.”
“You’ll do well to sell, Mr Britten. Leaving is the right choice! The world is large. Buy yourself a place in a warm climate. Do away with heating bills. I envy you. I do. Unfortunately I have to remain because of my business. Otherwise I would follow in your footsteps. To leave or not to leave, that is the question,” he quipped with a laugh.
“One vote in favour of Mr Britten’s leaving,” added Nigel, genially displaying his crown of very white teeth.
“Another vote!” echoed Boris, raising his right hand to the ceiling, his left hand promptly following, as if he found it hard to resist Nigel’s enthusiasm.
After a brief consultation, the two came up with a price of £ 199,999.
“A small signature to confirm that you agree on the price, and the formalities are over,” said Nigel while handing me a form.
“A nice pile of money, Mr Britten,” said Boris. “Especially if you move to an area where life is cheaper.”
“Property is just a burden, I’m afraid,” sympathised Nigel. “A burden,” chimed in his colleague.
“So I’ll have to start looking for a new place, after all,” I replied, feeling both excited and tired, “but there is time. Houses often take a long time to sell.”
“You are in the hands of BestSellers… Nothing to worry about.”
They asked me for the keys, so that they might show the place to potential customers. Their schedule was busy and this was the usual procedure.
After seeing them to the door, where Boris cracked a parting joke (“The die is cast, as Caesar said after ordering his salad! Ha ha!”), I came back to the sitting room. The smell of Nigel’s cigar was still in the air. I did not know why, but I suddenly felt that the future looked hazy.
The first purchaser materialised ten days later. It was actually a couple. Very young. Cash buyers. I wondered how they had managed to put together so much cash in the space of such a short life… Rich parents? Winning the lottery? Money laundering? They looked at room after room with expressionless faces. No glance exchanged. No goodbye said. Nice people.
Other visitors followed, more than I actually met, since a couple of times I found one of the sticky notes that I kept on the hall table with something scribbled. Just Hello there! Or Many thanks! Or Buyers impressed!
One Monday morning, I was confronted with a new member of the Nigel gang.
Bell ringing. Door opening. “My name is Nicola,” said a young lady, extending her right hand, while an old lady with thick lenses was leaning on her left arm. Nicola had a slight Scottish accent. Nice figure. Engaging ways. I immediately took to her, for she was sweet, and yet she was definitely an independent woman.
After showing the house to the old lady, who found it difficult to climb the stairs and concluded a flat would be more suitable, Nicola turned to me, suddenly conspiratorial.
“Between ourselves, Mr Britten, I intend to set up an estate agency of my own. Working for BestSellers has been an interesting experience, but it’s over. There’s not much they can teach me there. Need to be on me own.” She positively winked at me and I’m afraid I actually reddened.
“This is my private number. Should you need any help in the future, buying or selling, contact me directly.”
I could not help smiling at her sense of initiative. Somebody who would leave no stone unturned – not even the stone of Scone! – to reach her goal. A born leader.
“I’ll have my own business by then,” she went on in a matter of fact tone, as if she had read this in her crystal ball. “I already have a name for it: Selling No Problem. SNP for those who are in the know. It’s an acronym, you know. People love cyphers.” Another wink. “Cheerio.”
Two months later I received a phone call. It was a woman’s voice. “Is that Mr Britten speaking?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
“I’m calling from BestSellers. My name is Theresa.” Her confident voice was not devoid of sex-appeal. I pictured a brunette. “We’re proud to tell you that your house has been sold.”
I was taken aback. I was flabbergasted. I was… After a second, I regained control.
“Wait a minute. You’re telling me that you’ve found a buyer, a potential buyer, which I am happy to hear, but I’ve not decided yet. There’s plenty of things to consider.”
“Well, actually, I’m telling you that your house has been sold. I meant precisely what I said.”
“Is this a bad joke? May I talk to your colleague, Nigel? He’s such a nice person. I’m sure there must be a misunderstanding. Perhaps you’re thinking of a different house.”
“Well, Nigel no longer works here.” “What do you mean?”
“He’s reached the target he had set for himself. Selling 400 houses in 400 days. He’s now moved on to something else. He said he needs new challenges.”
“How can he have sold 400 houses in 400 days? Come on… That’s hard to believe!”
“I can assure you.”
“Anyway, he’s not sold MY house! There’s plenty of papers to be signed to sell a house, and I will sell only if I want to.”
“I regret to inform you that you’ve already made your decision.” “What?”
“There’s your signature on this form, which clearly states that you give us authority to sell your house to any buyer at any time at a price to be agreed. You agreed on the price, so there’s no backing away from this.”
“Wait a minute! I’ve never heard of anything like that. I’m sure it’s illegal.
It’s absurd! Ridiculous!”
“You’ve made your intentions clear. You triggered a process that cannot be stopped. It’s you who have chosen this. It’s you who wanted to sell. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got other calls to make.” The voice was now distant, impersonal. “Whenever possible, come to see us or contact us. We need the details of your bank account. As agreed, we’ll deduct our percentage and deposit the rest. I wish you a good day, Mr Britten.”
I sat in silence, staring out of the bedroom window, my mobile still in my hand, my head not even turning, just immobile, as if this was a dream.
“Are they all crazy?” I found myself uttering.
I looked at my house, all around me, which was no longer mine. My bed, my desk, my walls. My slippers under the bedside table. Every single item was just part of a whole. I had taken all this for granted, but now…
What about the new life I wanted to start? Was I simply losing my old one? I had not asked for this. You need to see clearly before taking a definitive step.
Actually, I still liked my house. I would go to the agency and demand to talk to Nigel. It was he, after all, who had made me sign the form. I threw myself face down on the quilt and fell asleep, my head strangely pulsing.
“This contract is legally binding. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m sorry.” Such was the opinion of the solicitors’ firm I consulted – Supreme & Court, the highest experts in this field, as I had been assured by a neighbour who had taken interest in my case, or pity on me.
“You should have read what you signed more carefully,” was their verdict. “But you know how it is these days. Any time you visit a bank or any office they just ask you to sign plenty of paper. All you can do is trust them.”
“Well, you’re a grown-up man, Mr. Britten.”
I dejectedly left the neo-Gothic building where Supreme & Court had their premises. No shred of hope remained.
I had two months to get out of my house. Only, I did not want to. Oh, Trenton-upon-Tyne was not the best place to live perhaps, but I had grown used to it.
A sudden impulse brought me out into the open air, with no direction in mind. In about an hour I found myself at Heddon, where Hadrian’s wall still rose. I walked along the wall, which spoke to my imagination. A line crossing the land, cutting it into two. Before and after. Here and there.
I found myself standing on what remained of the wall, like a child, suddenly happy.
The Romans and the Picts. The wall was meant to keep others away, but it could be crossed so easily these days. I thought of the many tourists who came to visit the spot from all over the world. I liked mixing with this assortment of people. Being in a crowd made me feel less lonely. No space was left for sadness.
While I was walking home along a street that was bustling with life in the late afternoon, I thought I saw Nigel sitting at a café on the opposite side of a busy street. Buses and cars were speeding both ways. I ran to the nearest zebra crossing. When I reached the café he was no longer there. Perhaps he had never been…
What about the owners of the other 399 houses he had recently sold? I might still reach them. We might at least work it through together. But then they were probably happier than me.
And if I took a plane and rushed off to Sicily or the Costa del Sol? Sea and sun. An endless summer. I was no longer young. I looked at my face in a shop window. Not a single hair standing on my head. Gold-rimmed glasses. I felt so vulnerable, old age gaining on me.
I just want to stay here. This is my place. This is the town where I grew up, where my friends – ok, maybe acquaintances – live, where the baker says Hello in the morning and I can have a pint of beer at the same pub I frequented with my workmates when I left the office. This is my place!
A day went by. Two days went by. A week went by without my doing anything about relocating to a distant place. My plan had lost its meaning. Only now did I realise that I was still attached to my old life. Sicily is good for a holiday.
The only thing I could do was put all my things in a container. The empty house looked like a shell that had once contained my life. I could not imagine another container. Or better, I could have. I had certainly entertained the idea, but not this way. Not this way.
I drove to Newcastle and spent the first night sitting in the station, pretending to wait for my train. A white haired bearded guy addressed me with a friendly tone. “Are you a homeless yourself?”
Honestly, he looked as if he had not taken a good bath in ages, but he inspired me with trust. “Actually I am,” I found myself admitting. It was technically true.
“There’s not enough social housing in this country,” was his reply. “I’m just Jeremy, who spends his nights sleeping in a cardboard box, but if I was a politician things would change. Only, people like us never get to sit in those big Houses in London. We just sit here… Sit and wait.”
“If you were a politician I’d probably vote for you,” I said, not knowing why. Was I just being kind?
In the morning I drove back and took a room. I showered and shaved and walked out to a café.
I was walking slowly, face downward, when I happened to lift my eyes. Nigel was beaming at me from the other side of a glass pane. Above him a big bold slogan: RENT YOUR HAPPINESS, NOW!
“I can’t believe it,” were the words that formed on my lips. I felt my fist clenching, my blood rising.
“Mr Britten!” The guy was on the threshold of the shop, offering his hand to me, a full-blown smile on his smooth face. “I never forget a name. It’s my job. Is there anything I can do for you?”
I let myself be led into the shop, where a gallery of cosy interiors was on display.
“Do you wish to rent a place, Mr Britten? I’ve moved to a new branch. It seems many people wish to get rid of all the nuisances and risks property- owning entails. Renting is so simple. Just the best way to live. Letting other people take care of it all.”
My eyes fell on a nice little sitting room. It looked so beautifully familiar. “But that… That is my window!”
“Your window? I doubt it, Mr Britten, but it can become so. What wonderful insight you have! What a keen eye! Yes, this is precisely the house you sold. I still remember the couple who came to see it, also because they popped in just a couple of days ago. They’ve realised they don’t really need the house. So they are renting it. Is there any chance you might be interested? The price’s dirt cheap.”
After signing a contract, which I read over and over again, I obtained the keys to my house. I was suddenly happy. It took me less than a week to bring all my furniture back and to be comfortably installed in my own house.
A few weeks later I met Nigel once again. As elegant as ever. Life looking like a merry-go-round before him.
“Mr Britten. What a nice surprise! Good to see you walking so straight. You look much better than the last time I saw you.” His happily mobile face made you feel that this was the best of possible worlds.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while,” he added. “I’ve been thinking of your smart move. What a clever sod you are! Let me congratulate you. Back in your house and when there’s a problem it’s somebody else who deals with it. The good life, Mr. Britten. You’ve opted for the good life.”
I did not have time to reply, for his mobile rang and he was already walking away, deeply engaged in conversation with a customer. I turned and saw his back against the setting sun. What an energetic person, I could not help thinking, despite everything. We really need people like him to keep the world on the move. Then I headed home.
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