The cottage of my dreams (or possibly worst nightmares) proved rather difficult to purchase, not least because the agent selling it did not want to sell it.
You may remember he showed me round by plodding dolefully between the cramped rooms in his long dark overcoat like an undertaker, shaking his head at the water-damaged walls and lack of central heating.
When I asked about sanitation, he brightened up momentarily: ‘It’s on a CESS!’ Usually these people finesse it with some tasteful euphemism about tanks, but he was determined to make the place sound as hideous as he could.
When I said it was just what I was looking for, he recoiled, as if I had actually opened the ‘CESS!’ We stood in the garden amid smashed-up polytunnels, dilapidated sheds, and the ‘approaching an acre’ of scrubland that a small Shetland was nibbling, which I proposed to make a turn-out paddock for Grace and Darcy.
‘Sandy soil, you see?’ I said, pushing my toe into the bone-dry earth. ‘I’d rather have an acre of well draining sandy soil than eight acres on London clay.’
He shrugged his shoulders, gazing enigmatically into the middle distance. ‘Well, make them an offer, I suppose,’ he said, wearily, to no one in particular.
The next day, I rang him and tried to ask a few supplementary questions about maintenance of the track, rights of way, and what the total square footage was. But he did not seem at all keen for me to see a floor plan.
‘We did have a floor plan,’ he said, ‘but we lost it. On the computer system.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘can you possibly get it back again because I really do need to see it before I make an offer?’
‘Righto,’ he said, in a tone of voice signifying that righto was precisely the thing it was not.
I waited a week and when no floor plan came I rang back. Another agent answered this time and told me the same story about the computer losing it.
‘Can I assume the square footage is so small you are embarrassed to reveal it, given the asking price?’
‘I have no idea how big it is,’ he said. ‘The file’s corrupted.’
Something’s corrupted, I thought. And then, perhaps to fill the awkward silence, he said an even stranger thing: ‘We’ve got the floor plan to next door, if that would help.’ ‘Not really,’ I said, ‘because I don’t want to buy the house next door.’
I forgot about it for a few days and viewed some other houses, all of which suffered the reverse problem of dilapidation, which is to say they were done up to within an inch of their lives, with oak laminate floors, Jack and Jill sinks, and bifold blooming doors.
And then I thought, this is ridiculous. I rang the undertaker. ‘Now look here. I want to buy a house you are advertising. Either it is for sale or it isn’t. Please may I know the square footage?’ He sighed and said he would see if he could measure up again.
A few days later, a floor plan plopped grudgingly into my inbox. It revealed that the house was so tiny they were charging £1,000 per square foot.
Still, they would surely take an offer. For a place with no central heating, no mains sewage, a leaking water tank, and barely more than four rooms, they were surely only fishing when they asked top dollar for it? Guide price, is what it said on the listing.
I scoured the particulars over and over again. It was a semi, joined to a much larger house next door. I went on Google Earth and had a look at it from the air. The house next door looked as though it had been extended several times to its very limit, perhaps to accommodate a growing family. It had a swimming- pool and stable block. Whoever lived there looked prosperous.
I rang the undertaker. ‘Are you, by any chance, pricing this for the marriage value with the house next door? And are you conducting viewings and inviting overblown offers by not admitting how small it is to get other potential buyers to bid them up?’
‘There are other interested parties behind the scenes,’ he said, in a tone laced with sarcasm.
So much for my hitting it off with the sweet old lady huddled next to a Calor heater. So much for she and I having a chat about horse racing, with me admiring the picture on her wall of Nijinsky, great-grandfather to Darcy. So much for me thinking one might buy a tiny cottage with an acre of land in the Home Counties for less than £700,000, and live out one’s days in a simple rural idyll subsisting contentedly with just enough of everything to survive.