Melissa stands in our hallway and jabs at her clipboard with a purple pen. I feel my upper lip curl into a sneer; I don’t trust anyone who uses purple ink.
“So,” she says, prodding the clipboard and tapping her high-heeled foot in a staccato rhythm. All she needs is a washboard and bells and she could be a one man band. “So. The scratches on the floors in the foyer –”
“I keep telling you, they were there when we moved in! Fergus and the kids had nothing to do with those. More likely you caused them with your stupid shoes.”
She smirks. “Prove it.”
I can’t, of course. When we moved in, it didn’t occur to us to take photographs of every floorboard, every rug, or every kitchen cupboard.
“The scratches,” she continues. “The stain on the master bedroom carpet –”
“Caused by the disrepair of the skylight, which was your responsibility.”
She waits patiently for me to finish, then says, “Replacement of locks, permanent marker on kitchen cabinet, scratched hardwoods, and stained carpets. I’ll get a quote for repairs but it won’t be less than $600. Professional cleaning, $400. Landscaping outside because you let it get overgrown…another $400 or so.”
I swear, she makes this stuff up as she goes along. The garden is no more overgrown than it ever was, but again — we don’t have photographs to prove it. And professional cleaning? Really? I’m perfectly capable of coming in myself with a vacuum cleaner and duster, and frankly, if the professional cleaner is the same one who came before Oliver and I moved in, I’ll do a better job. Just give me the fee.
After a quick calculation, I say, “That leaves $200 to come back from our security deposit, correct?”
She frowns. “Oh, and I nearly forgot — the deck needs power-washing because you let it get splashed with grease while you were barbecuing. So that will be…”
Let me guess. $200 to clean the deck.
“…another $200. Looks like you won’t be getting any of your security deposit back, Libby!”
* * *
“Where are you moving to?” she asks as she pokes through the closet in the hall; looking for something else to bill us for, I suppose. Her oily voice suggests she knows exactly where we are going to live, but I tell her anyway.
“The apartments near the mall, until we find a house we are able to buy.” I choose my words carefully. Are able to buy doesn’t mean the same as can afford.
“Have you looked at the new houses in Banbury? They’re very nice.”
Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Seeing as she’s the selling realtor and her new boyfriend built them.
“Yes,” I say, unable to keep my temper any longer. “We’ve looked at them, but frankly I’d rather live in a cardboard box in the middle of the road than line your boyfriend’s pockets by buying one of those crammed-on little hen-houses.”
An error of judgment to let my temper show. Melissa emerges from the closet and announces that there’s a cracked floor tile that needs replacing, which will cost another —
OK. That’s it. I’ve had enough of Melissa Harvey Connor and her real estate bullshit.
“Of course,” I interrupt, “we really wanted to buy that old house on Main Street. The antique. But the owner didn’t accept our offer, and we weren’t willing to offer more because it needs such a lot doing to it.”
I watch her. She’s avoiding my eye and has a fixed smile on her face, the one she always has when she’s trying to hide something.
“That’s right,” she says. ” I talked to the owner and gave him your offer, but to be honest, he was insulted. It’s priced very reasonably as it is.”
Actually, it isn’t. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done some investigating, and although the price might have been OK a year ago, if at the top end of the range, house prices in this area have taken a nose dive since then. It’s now way overpriced. All right, so our offer might have been cheekily low, but seeing as no one else had bought it, you’d think the seller would be willing to enter negotiations.
And anyway, how did she talk to the owner? Maggie has been trying to get in touch with him for two weeks with no luck.
“You’d think the seller would have made a counter offer, though,” I say to Melissa, fishing for more clues. “If you were talking to him on the phone, I’m assuming you tried to actually, you know, sell the house for him.”
She opens and shuts her mouth a couple of times, looking like a surprised trout that I’ve caught and am slowly reeling in.
“He was much too insulted,” she says eventually. “He said he’d rather burn the place to the ground than sell it to someone who offers such a stupid price.”
Lies, all lies. I know when Melissa is lying, and I’ve seen “Melissa’s patented excuse” expression before. While she might fancy herself as an actress, she’s not going to give Meryl Streep any sleepless nights.
“Seriously,” Melissa says, trying to look serious but failing, “you should look again at those houses in Banbury. They’re really cute. I don’t know what you’ve got against them, they’re ready to move into, they’re brand new, not like that dusty old barn on Main Street. Who would want to buy that old shack?
“I can think of someone.”
Melissa and I both jump, and we turn towards the voice at the front door. While we’ve been arguing, Maggie has quietly let herself in with the spare key I gave her for emergencies.
“Maybe one person who would like to buy it is the selling realtor,” she says. “The one who has done her best to keep the ‘old shack’ for herself until she can get rid of her tenants and sell the house she’s been renting out. Then she can buy the ‘old shack’ and sell it to her property developer boyfriend for a little more profit. But he still gets a good deal because he’s going to parcel up the 12 wooded acres it’s built on, apply for planning permission, and put a couple of dozen cookie-cutter houses there instead. Of course,” Maggie adds, “it would help if more people would buy his latest batch of cookie-cutters in Banbury because right now he doesn’t have the means to buy the ‘old shack’ himself, which is why Melissa here is trying to get it for a good price by feeding the seller of the house a lot of lies about how no one is interested in it.”
Melissa puts her hands on her hips. She’s put weight on recently. She has a lot more hip than hand.
“I could sue you for that,” she says. “That’s libel.”
“Only libel if it’s in writing, although you’ve given me an idea. My contact at the Woodhaven Observer might be interested in a little investigative journalism. By the way,” Maggie gestures to a tall figure stepping into the hallway, stomping his wet shoes on the doormat, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”
The man finishes wiping his feet and nods at me and Melissa.
“Who is this?” Melissa demands. “Are we having a party here or something that I didn’t know about? I came here for a professional visit, and you just barge in with your boyfriend and your spare key –”
The man turns to Maggie. “Yep. I see what you mean about her.”
“Melissa.” Maggie’s voice is soft. Dangerously so. “If we’re going to talk about professionalism, I’d be careful what I said, if I were you.”
She smiles brightly at me and Melissa. “As I was saying. This is a friend of mine. Or more accurately, the son of a dear, deceased friend of mine. I believe Melissa has corresponded with him on occasion.” She emphasises the last word. “And this,” she says to him, “is my very good friend Libby.”
The man steps forward and holds out his hand to me.
“Chuck Morande,” he says. “A pleasure to meet you, Libby. I hear you’re interested in buying my mother’s house. If I hadn’t had a phone call from Maggie here, I would never have known, so I thought a trip to my hometown was in order to take care of things properly. Woodhaven realtors today aren’t the professionals they were in my day, it seems.”
And however much I regretted not having a camera at the ready to take photos of this house two years ago, it was nothing compared to the regret I felt at being without a camera now to take a picture of Melissa’s face.
* * *
“A toast, I think.” Maggie takes a bottle from her fridge and pours out four glasses of sparkling wine for the adults, and three plastic cups of cranberry juice for the children. We decided to come back to Maggie’s house for celebrations; the air in our own was still too thick with the atmosphere of accusations and Melissa’s defeat. “To Chuck — for making the trip from Montana when a telephone call would have sufficed.”
Maggie, Oliver and I raise our glasses. “To Chuck.”
Chuck sips at his wine and looks faintly embarrassed. “It was only an airplane ticket.”
“Ah, but without that ticket, Libby here would have to live fifteen miles away near the mall, and I wouldn’t see her anymore.” Maggie smiles at me. “I’d be quite lonely without Libby in Woodhaven. As it is, she will be living in Cathy’s old house just five minutes away.”
“I wouldn’t have sold my mother’s house to that realtor anyway.” Chuck drains his glass and holds it out to Maggie, who refills it. “My own toast now — to Libby and Oliver. I hope you’ll be as happy in that house as my parents were.”
Oliver and I exchange glances. Chuck had been more than willing to accept our “insulting” low offer, and had even offered another reduction to help us with our closing costs. He was just pleased that his mother’s property was going to a family who loved it for what it was and who wouldn’t turn it into twelve acres of McMansions.
“I’m sure we will,” Oliver says, “thanks to you. In a few weeks, we’ll be in a place of our own again.”
He clinked his glass against mine.
“We’ve missed that, haven’t we, Libs?”
I nod, barely able to speak for the lump in my throat.
A place of our own. Yes.
Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #81 – Send the past packing
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