Story written under the combined influence of teaching Kafka and having my house valued.
It was growing dark as Mr Kaye approached Barnabas Lodge. It would be the eighth house he had surveyed that day, the eighth human dwelling-place he had wandered round with his tape-recorder in hand, mumbling ‘paintwork rather worn, signs of damp on dining-room wall, windows not double-glazed….’ And it was the one he was least looking forward to. His boss had told him : ‘There may be trouble with that one. Old West isn’t happy about his divorce settlement, and he doesn’t want his house valued. He doesn’t want to sell the place so his wife can have the money. But you’d better get in, one way or the other. Mrs West, as was, is a councillor, and she has a lot of pull round here. She wants that house valued and you’ve got to value it.’
Kaye couldn’t say anything. He had a splitting headache; he’d wanted to call in sick that morning, but he didn’t dare. He had a feeling that if he called in sick the boss would turn up on the front-door step, staring at him as if he were a cockroach. So he’d worked through the day, looking out for dry rot, woodworm, trees with their roots coming too near the house wall and all the other problems a good surveyor needs to know about.
And now for the last job of the day, Barnabas Lodge. After this he could go home and try and watch the football while his wife asked him when he was going to get his promotion. He parked the car outside the front gate and looked up at the house. Through the damp January air it looked large and imposing, almost like a whole village rather than just a big house set in its own garden. He took out his tape recorder and began to mutter in the first details – ‘stone wall, rather dilapidated in parts, seems to be a long way from the nearest shops’ – as he walked up to the front gate.
* * * * *
Mr West sat at the table in his second story room. On the table was a pile of unopened letters, each marked in the top left-hand corner ‘Goldstick & Fisher, Estate Agents and Surveyors’. The telephone rang. He didn’t life the receiver, but turned up the volume on the answering machine so that he could hear the message that was being left. It was no different from the last seventeen; a young woman from Goldstick and Fisher was telling him that his house had to be valued. Except that at the end she added ‘…and our valuer, Mr Kaye, will be arriving at about four o’clock this afternoon, so we do hope that you will be able to give him access. Thank-you very much and good afternoon.’
So this was it. This was the crunch after the guerrilla warfare of the last three months. It had been going on ever since the day that bitch Freda had dragged him into court. He had never been in court before, and he had felt it was like the last judgment. He felt like a criminal, and yet he didn’t know what he was being accused of. But at the end of the morning, despite the expensive solicitor he had engaged (one of Freda’s political friends, he must be bent) the judge had decided that the Barnabas Lodge must be valued and sold, with Freda receiving half the proceeds.
This was his house. For over twenty years he had paid the mortgage, he had paid the maintenance bills, while Freda cavorted round town with her friends from the Council. What right had anyone to value it? Value wasn’t something that could be added up in figures on a piece of paper; he knew the real value of the house: not what it would fetch on the market, but the use it had for him.
The first letters that had come had got his name wrong – CV West instead of CW West; so he had simply written ‘Nobody of this name here; return to sender’, and put them back in the post-box. Eventually they had got the name right; he could have gone on doing the same thing, but he felt that if you were playing a game you had to stick to the rules. So now he simply piled them up unopened on the table. He no longer went out of the house during the day; he had been retired early five years ago, and all his financial affairs went through the bank. His pension was paid in monthly, and all his bills went out by direct debit; his financial affairs could have gone on functioning for ever, without any need for him to be there. He had worked his way through all the food in the frig; now he crept down to the off-licence, three quarters of a mile away, to buy chocolate, crisps and muesli bars, late at night when he was pretty sure no valuer would come. But he would not give up now. He would defend his house – an Englishman’s home was his castle….
* * * * *
Kaye approached the front gate. Surprisingly, there was a push-button bell built into the stone gate-post, with a little sign reading : ALL VISITORS PLEASE RING. A bit different from the style of the terrace houses he had been valuing all day. He pressed the button and went to open the gate. Suddenly a disembodied voice spoke at him: ‘Who is there? Who is there? May you be damned! May you rot in hell for all eternity!’ The voice seemed to echo through the dark night as though it came from a tannoy.
Kaye reeled back, sweating. Where was he? Who was he? He seemed to have been cast back in time till he was a child again, a child sitting in church, listening to the preacher. (‘If I’d known he was going to go on like that I’d never have taken the child’, his mother had said afterwards. But his father had merely grunted.) The preacher had talked about the last judgment, about the sheep and the goats called up before God, and how you could be thrown into hell, not for what you had done, but for what you hadn’t done. He talked about the crime against the Holy Ghost; you couldn’t be forgiven for that, but nobody know what it was, so any of us could be guilty. And he talked about the torments of hell. The child whimpered as he remembered how he had visited his grandmother’s house, where there was still an open fire. And running in from playing in the garden, he had fallen forwards on to the fireplace, and burnt his hand. Pain like that, there would be, for ever .. and ever.. and ever. The very idea of a space and time without limits, without boundary, without end, made him feel a nausea so that he wanted to hammer on his skull, beat on the brain cells until they were deadened so that they could not think such an idea any longer….
* * * * *
West heard the sharp grating sound of the entryphone and picked up the receiver. He shouted curses down it, then hesitated and put the instrument down. Perhaps it was only children playing at the gate, as they often did. He’d heard two women talking in the off-licence, who obviously didn’t recognise him, discussing the fact that the local children were saying there was an ogre, an evil Count Dracula, in Barnabas Lodge. But perhaps it was the valuer. If so, had he broken the rules of the game. So far, he had refused to acknowledge the existence of the enemy. The letters had gone unanswered, the phone messages had received no reply. Once he had recognised that the valuer existed, how could he refuse to let him in?
But the man had no right to come in. No right at all. How often he had heard Freda going on about rights – human rights, citizens’ rights, tenants’ rights, employees’ rights. But she had never recognised his rights. But if he had any rights in this world, then he had the right to his own home. And he would defend that right, come what may.
* * * * *
Kaye pummelled his skull for a few seconds, then with a jerk pulled himself together. He noticed the speaker built into the gate-post, and with a sudden recovery of professional consciousness, he muttered ‘entryphone at front garden gate’ into his tape‑recorder. Then he opened the gate and went up the path.
It was a long path, and from the gate it seemed to be straight. But as he walked up it he found that it curved away, so that he soon realised he wasn’t walking towards the front door at all. An odd layout, he thought, but decided to reserve recorded comment until he could see the whole thing a bit better. Indeed, he might have to come back in daylight to inspect the grounds. The thought did not appeal to him.
He saw where the front door was, and turned off the path to walk across the grass, which obviously had not been tended for several months. He was rather ambivalently relieved to see there was one light on in the house, at an upper window. At least there was someone here to let him in.
A dark form appeared at the window, and the curtains were flung open so that the whole house appeared like a huge one-eyed man. A roaring voice from somewhere high above his head bellowed : ‘Keep off the grass! Can’t you bloody read, whoever you are?’
It was his father, his father whom he hadn’t seen for so many years. He remembered once, several years back – it has been his thirty-seventh birthday – he had sat down to write a letter to his father, but he had never brought himself to post it. And then news had come of his father’s death, and now he would never reach him, however long he tried.
Yet he still felt he needed to say he was sorry. He remembered that day in the park, when he had just started school, and his father had told him he should be able to read. But he hadn’t seen the sign that said ‘Keep Off The Grass’ and had run across the lawn. His father had thrashed him and bellowed at him until quite a crowd was watching. And yet a few minutes later his father had decided to get some cigarettes and had set off walking across the very same grass. Why did the rules of the game not apply to his father if they applied to him? The question turned round and round in his head until he felt dizzy and started to lurch across the lawn in the wrong direction.
* * * * *
West could stand it no longer. He had to see if someone was coming. He went to the window and there he was, walking across the lawn in front of the main door. A flood of rage seemed to rise from his belly as he opened the window, flung aside the curtains and bellowed at the man. At least he could have stayed on the path, even if it did end up in the garage.
Who was this man. Slender, handsome, well dressed; the very antithesis of what West had become in recent years, since he had begun to let himself go after his enforced retirement. That was probably the sort of man that Freda fancied. With him she had become colder and colder, always finding some excuse to push him to the other side of the bed, but he had become more and more convinced that some of the time she spent on ‘council business’ was in fact devoted to flaunting her fading talents round her local political contacts. West’s face went red as he thought of the squalid scenes she must have engaged in. That valuer; he could imagine her sitting in the pub with him, made up like a painted doll and pouring lager through herself, until just he and she were left in the darkened pub, and they made love like beasts on the floor, rolling amid the beer puddles. That bitch Freda, he would kill her if he could. This was his house….
* * * * *
Kaye lurched across the lawn for a few seconds, then regained control of himself. That must have been the irascible Mr West at the window. Well, he didn’t seem too lovable, but at least he had engaged him in some sort of dialogue; he was willing to speak to him. He’d just have to be patient, and very, very firm. He made his way to the door.
Here there was neither bell nor entryphone. Again he made a mental note to comment on this rather unusual arrangement in his report, but his first priority was to get inside. He picked up the huge knocker and banged on the door.
Within seconds the door began to open. So far, so good, he thought. But he saw that the door was on a chain, and through the narrow gap appeared a large, balding head with unshaven features. ‘Go away,’ roared the huge mouth full of misshapen teeth, ‘You’re trespassing. I’ll call the police.’
The house faded and Kaye was back in the supermarket. His wife had asked him to pick up some packets of dental floss. The boxes looked so small that he feared they would fall through the wire mesh of the basket and be lost, so he dropped them into his pocket, meaning to pull them out at the cash desk. But he had forgotten and walked through with them still nestling in his pocket. The store detective had grabbed him before he reached the outer doors, and despite his profuse, cringing apologies and offer to pay double, the police had been called. He had been taken to the station and questioned. His whole body felt like jelly, he had seriously feared he would soil his trousers. For a court conviction would mean not only public shame, but the loss of his job. Since then he had been neurotically fearsome of losing his bus ticket or of parking on a yellow line. And now he felt he was at the very door of the law itself.
* * * * *
West watched as the man lurched around. For a moment he thought he had frightened him away. But then the man turned back to face the house and walked relentlessly towards the front door. West shut the window, and as rapidly as his bulky frame would allow him, he ran downstairs. This man must be confronted. He hardly reached the door when the huge blows of the door-knocker began to echo through the hallway. The door chain was already on, so he pulled the door open and threatened the man. Yet as he did so, he realised that he might have chosen the wrong threat. Maybe this man was the police, come to demand admittance for the valuer.
Freda wanted his money, and she would use any means to get it. That was what the law was all about – money. This was his house; every stone, every piece of furniture was the solidified form of the labour he had expended over the years, working to pay the bills and the mortgage. Well, she wouldn’t have it. He crouched against the door, rather as he had done in a rugby scrum many years ago at school.
* * * * *
Kaye battered the door-knocker several more times, but there was no answer. Now his whole body was filled with anxiety. He feared God, his father and the police – but most of all he feared his boss. If this house wasn’t valued by tonight, then he might end up signing on. There was a recession on, his boss never ceased to remind him, and the firm might not need three valuers. Not if one of them couldn’t deal with a simple job like this.
But West – assuming that the voice was West – was right. A valuer had no legal right to force entry. If the terms of the divorce agreement weren’t carried out, then it would be up to West’s ex-wife to take civil action through the courts. It would be months before the bailiffs would be allowed to force their way in – and even then there were severe limits on what they were allowed to do.
And then an old motto came into his head. If at first you don’t succeed, cheat…
* * * * *
West heard the valuer’s steps as he walked away. Had he won? Had the surveyor taken fright and given up. He didn’t dare hope so. Tiredness, poor diet and the events of the last half-hour had left him so weakened and dazed that he simply remained crouching against the door, as though he had grown part of it.
He had no idea how much time had passed when he heard cars drawing up outside, and a few minutes later he heard the sound of several men assembling at his front door. Again the banging, and a loud voice asking, in the name of the police, if anyone was there. This time he resolved not to play the game; it must be as with the letters and the telephone – no recognition, no acknowledgement of the others’ existence.
After a few minutes he heard a voice say: ‘It looks as though you were right, sir. We’ll have to break the door down.’ He crouched in a ball, like a frightened rat, as he felt the policemen’s shoulders against the door. It was a sturdily built old house, and it was only at the third shove that the door gave way, scooping him into the angle between the door and the wall. He felt a sharp pain through his chest and as his consciousness faded he mumbled ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle…’
* * * * *
‘Thank-you very much, sir,’ the policeman was saying to Kaye. ‘He seems to have had a heart attack, but they may be able to do something for him at the hospital. If he’d been left in the house, he’d certainly have died. I only wish everyone was as public-spirited as you, letting us know when they think someone may have been taken ill or had an…’
But Kaye wasn’t listening. He had vanished. He was muttering into his tape-recorder: ‘Downstairs cloakroom. No window. Washbasin slightly cracked. Skirting board rather chipped….’