“Did you do something special with the twins on their birthday?” Willow squirts ketchup on the burger that Oliver’s handed her, then pops open a can of Bud. “On the day itself, I mean?”
Oliver catches my eye, grins, and turns away to flip more burgers while discussing cricket, or the American lack thereof, with his English friends. They, in turn, are trying to explain to Willow’s bewildered partner, Dan — Bronx native and lifelong Yankees fan — a sport where one game can take up an entire working week and which has rest breaks for tea and cucumber sandwiches.
I stick my tongue out at Oliver’s back.
“We went out for ice cream in the evening,” I say, “after I dragged them round the streets of Woodhaven with a realtor. After trailing through eight houses, though, they were ready for bed rather than for ice cream.”
Willow, I reflect, is the type of woman you can say this to. She won’t be shocked that you didn’t do something special for your little snowflakes on their first birthday, or that you are celebrating it nearly two weeks late in the form of a backyard barbecue for grownup friends. She understands that while twelve-month-old babies won’t care if you have a children’s party for them on April 23rd or an adult one on May 4th, the whole family is going to be in the soup if no one has anywhere to sleep on the night of July 15th.
The prospect of homelessness has been playing on my mind more than my children’s numerical milestones have, I admit.
“And did you have any luck finding a house?” Willow asks.
I shake my head.
“Either the work they needed would put them over budget, or they were too expensive to start with.”
Willow doesn’t say, as many people might, “I’m sure something will turn up” or “Everything will be OK”, and for this I’m grateful. There’s a fine line between spouting comforting platitudes and sounding as if you don’t give a damn.
“What are you going to do?” she says instead.
I make my way across the deck to the food table where Beth and George are strapped into their high chairs, tantalisingly out of reach of their birthday cake.
“Donna, the realtor, is taking me round some more places tomorrow. If I don’t like any of them, I suppose we will have to move back into an apartment near the mall, where we lived when we first arrived. The alternative is to look for a house outside Woodhaven.”
“Is that what you want?”
I cut two more pieces of cake and plonk them on paper plates in front of the twins, who look at each other and wave their arms around in choreographed excitement. Beth and George are already covered from forehead to chest in red velvet cake and cream cheese frosting. They look like twin Hannibal Lecters, but appear to be enjoying their belated birthday party.
Eventually, I answer Willow.
“You can’t imagine,” I say, “how much I don’t want that.
* * *
I’m surprised how upset I am at the prospect of moving to another town. I’m sure another town in Massachusetts would be just as nice, but there’s something special about this one. When I first met Maggie eighteen months ago, she summed it up by saying “Woodhaven is the kind of place that gets to you. It’s like Hotel California — you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. I’ve been trying to leave ever since 1976, but haven’t managed it yet.” After less than two years in the place, I already know what she means.
It’s scary to think that, if not for Oliver’s promotion at Christmas and subsequent extension of his contract in Massachusetts, we’d be packing our belongings into cardboard boxes ready to go back to Milton Keynes next month. Though, as Oliver’s mother is still living in our house there, perhaps it’s just as well we’re staying. I really must check up on what she’s doing to the place, but until we’re sorted out with somewhere to live, that’s a distant second place on my list of priorities.
Still. Chin up. Perhaps today is the day that Donna, our geographically-challenged realtor, will find us a house that’s a) big enough, b) cheap enough, and c) empty.
* * *
“What do you think?” Donna asks, when I’ve looked in all the bedrooms and opened all the closets.
This is the thirteenth house she’s shown me round in as many days, and she’s learning. No longer does she froth with enthusiasm over hardwood floors and granite countertops. I need three, if not four, bedrooms; two bathrooms that don’t contain 1970s-coloured suites or swimming pool-sized bathtubs that require an entire water tank to fill them; a bedroom for me and Oliver that’s on the same level as the other bedrooms; and, most of all, a laundry room that isn’t in a dark, cobwebby basement. If none of those conditions apply, the house needs to be cheap enough for us to make the necessary improvements.
“It’s better than the last one,” I say, “but still not there. The blue bathroom suite is an improvement on the chocolate brown one, I’ll give you that, and the kitchen is old enough for me to call it ‘retro’, but I am not prepared to do my laundry in a dungeon that has a mouse carcass next to the washing machine.”
“That’s not a problem,” Donna says. She’s got a squeaky little voice; she doesn’t so much speak as chirrup. “We can ask the sellers to remove the dead mice from the basement.”
“If you can make it a condition of sale that they come and remove every mouse that enters the house after we’ve bought it, I might consider it.”
“No, I don’t think we could ask them to do that. It wouldn’t be their property any more, so it would be your responsibility after you move in, you see.”
I sigh inwardly. Donna’s one of those people who always take you literally. It’s exhausting.
“How many houses left to see today?” I ask.
She shuffles her sheaf of papers around and passes me a sheet of closely typed, small fonted property details.
“Just the one. It’s a long shot, though. I doubt it’s what you’re looking for.”
I squint at the flyer for this last house, our last chance to find something today, and for the first time since we started on this house hunting lark, I feel a spark of optimism.
* * *
When you come to live in America, you realise that, your whole life, you’ve been taking something for granted in England.
There is so much of it back home. (OK, so maybe my home town of Milton Keynes isn’t the best example.) But every day, we stop in pubs and shops that were around when Columbus was getting seasick, take shortcuts through churchyards over graves that are centuries old, drive past ruined castles that were built to stop marauding invaders.
Do we appreciate it? Not really. Not until it isn’t there.
Here in Massachusetts there seems to be an all-or-nothing attitude to history. Old houses and monuments are reverently preserved, while anything younger than fifty years is, sooner or later, demolished to make way for something bigger, brighter, and brand new.
And while I like big, bright, and brand new, sometimes I miss low, beamed ceilings, and signs in pubs saying “Duck or Grouse.”
* * *
“What do you think of this house?” Donna asks for the last time.
Not for the last time today, but for the last time ever. I can feel it. She won’t have to ask me again, or show me round any more houses.
I’m in love. I’m in love like I was the first time I saw Woodhaven, with its shuttered, clapboard houses and village green, its white church spires and maple trees.
This house is Woodhaven encapsulated. It’s nearly as old as the town itself which, according to the signpost at the city limits, was incorporated in 1766.
It needs a lot of attention and TLC, of course, but I like to have a project.
“How come no one has snapped this up before?” I ask Donna. “It’s been on the market for nearly a year.”
She shuffles her feet a bit before answering. “An old lady owned it before she died. It had been in her family for years. Not everyone wants to take on a fixer-upper like this.”
In that case, other people are big wusses with a very different idea than I have of what constitutes a “fixer-upper”. According to the house details, it’s had new plumbing and electrics within the last year — presumably to hasten its sale by the old lady’s beneficiaries — and the outside also has a fresh coat of paint. The bathrooms — OK, they’re 1970s avocado and orange, and the kitchen needs to be gutted and sympathetically replaced — but this house is so cheap, we will have more than enough headroom in our budget. And, most important of all, there is plumbing for a washing machine in the little mud room next to the kitchen, with not a mouse cadaver in sight.
“I need to talk it over with Oliver, and he’ll want to see it, of course. But we need a place pretty soon, and this is a good price.”
“It’s been for sale so long that we can probably get them down even more on price.” She glances at the paper of house details. “Actually, I know the realtor it’s listed with. She’s a friend of mine, which might make things easier. I think you said you know her, too.”
I study my own copy, and when I see the name of the seller’s realtor, I shut my eyes.
Can you say “Conflict of interest”?
And now can you say “Melissa Harvey Connor”?
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