From the street, the place had looked modest. The paint was stained and blistered by damp. A tree pressed ominously and expensively against the ageing plaster. In retrospect, it was an easy mistake to make.
Even when I knocked on the front door, next to the “On Show” board, there was no hint of what I was about to walk into.
But then the door opened, and I saw the estate agent’s teeth, and I realised I was in terrible, terrible trouble.
They weren’t just teeth. They were…lord, how to describe that moment when her lips pulled back to reveal the vast steppes of her immaculate dentistry? Imagine a keyboard, without the black notes. Of a church organ. In Saint Peter’s. Just row upon row, hundreds, possibly thousands, of perfectly even, blindingly white incisors.
“Welcome!” she said, and the teeth caught the light, flayed it, and nailed its corpse to the wall.
There’s that moment in the spy movie where a desperate man finds himself in a bar in Berlin at midnight, anxiously sucking on a cigarette, waiting for his contact to show. The only other person in the place is the barkeep, drying a glass. And then the desperate man notices that the glass has been dry for the last 10 minutes, and the barkeep is avoiding eye contact…
Right there, he understands that he’d been betrayed; that he needs to get out right now; but which way? Make a lunge for the back door or dive out of the window?
Those were my options, too, but I was wearing my good jersey, so diving through glass was out of the question, and the back door was blocked by a couple of house-hunters, cooing over the potential for installing a ball pond.
How had it all gone so wrong so quickly? I had wanted to spend a few minutes wandering around a small, shabby-genteel house, politely skirting shabby-genteel voyeurs who also had no intention of putting in an offer, before giving a fake name to a bored and demoralised agent and wandering out.
But I had been deceived. The sad exterior had told me I was on safe, familiar territory, but the teeth showed me that I was hopelessly out of my depth.
they wanted nine billion million and seventy hundred thousand
“They’re looking for cash,” the agent said to me. I wanted to reply, “Aren’t we all?” but just then I lost the ability to speak because she was handing me a brochure, the whole front of which was covered with zeroes: they wanted nine billion million and seventy hundred thousand for the house.
At least, that’s what it looked like out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t looking directly at the brochure, because I had realised the only way I was going to survive this was to pretend to be very, very rich. And the rich never look at the price. Sometimes they have it brought to them on a small velvet cushion. Sometimes it is whispered to them in Italian by a beautifully groomed manservant. But they do not look.
“Very good,” I murmured, and clicked my heels together in the manner of a Prussian war criminal knocking the mud off his polo boots.
“It’s obviously beautifully restored,” she said.
“Obviously,” I replied, poking at a floorboard with my foot. “Yes. Good. The floorboards are…on the floor. Yes.”
Her smile became wider and brighter, as if she’d just unsheathed an extra 50 teeth out of her jaw.
She’d seen through me.
I felt the blood drain from my face (although, to be honest, going even whiter probably counted in my favour just then). It was now or never. I had one last chance to trick her into believing I was loaded before the smile turned cold and she ordered me and my Standard Bank PlusPlan to get the hell out.
How would a trust-fund baby respond? What was it like to have – I glanced at the brochure – six million, in cash, to hand over for a rather threadbare little house? Also, was my jersey betraying me? It was lovely, very red and warm, but do the rich even wear wool? Don’t they prefer alpaca, or felt made of the pubic hair of CEOs of the corporations they’ve bought and stripped?
The rich also tend not to have books in their homes. Should I complement her on the way in which the solitary bookshelf was being used to store some Carrol Boyes ladles and an Audi cap? Perhaps I should –
“Okay!” she said brightly, and opened the door for me.
I’d forgotten the most important trait of the rich.
They don’t hesitate.
I’d revealed a nanosecond of introspection, and I was done.
“I’ll let you know if something else comes along,” she said. But she never took my details. Not even the fake ones.
First published in The Times