It was like gala day. Three hundred people turned up to the open home of a house for sale in my street. If I’d had the foresight I could have done a roaring trade in coffee and BBQ sausages. From the air it must have looked like a happy throng but close up the tense faces and pushing exposed it for what it was – a dog fight.
Of course I went along, out of nosiness. It was an ordinary fifties house, plaster over brick, of a size that used to be considered adequate for a family of five until cavernous hard-to-heat spaces and vast expanses of empty carpet became the new norm. It was no dream home – water stained paper peeled off the walls like old skin and the floor ran downhill into one corner in a way that made you feel light in the head. Threadbare rugs puffed out a doggy smell, doggy, and… something else.
But no spongy window frames or asbestos-backed linoleum was going to put these buyers off. The market was on fire, prices soared, supply was tight – all those terms beloved of estate agents, their eyes alive with greed in their dead-as-paper faces. Overlords of the open home, a matching pair of them stood either side of the threshold like hearth dogs, over-shiny, poised.
It was shoulder-to-shoulder inside, girls with defeated expressions and snotty infants trailed after their partners as they banged open cupboard doors and peered into dim recesses. Fathers buying for their grown offspring stalked around, hands in pockets, and muttered about rot. I watched tailored women, clutching their BMW keys, assess the kitchen with shrewd landlady-eyes, mouths pursed at the smell. A family of three talking in Cantonese momentarily blocked the hallway with their own stepladder to inspect the loft before being swept aside by the mob, which bunched outside the horrible pokey bathroom then formed a plug in the doorway of the equally horrible laundry, there to view a stone sink that Charles Dickens would have recognized.
Only half an hour for the open home and as time ran out an air of hysteria seeped into the crowd so that when a near-mummified toe still bristling with black hairs was found rolling in a kitchen drawer the cry of horror was taken up like the Olympic flame and swept aloft through the house, it ignited a stampede for the doors. People were trampled underfoot.
A momentary hiatus before it occurred to the shrewdest that the presence of a severed appendage might bring the price down and suddenly the agents were surrounded by people shouting like traders on the stock market floor, and the loudest voice I heard before making my escape was that of a man in a muddy farm coat who had an agent by the sleeve:
“I’ll give you $400,000 cash, right now!”
There was a densely packed gym bag at his feet, and it would not have surprised me at all if it were indeed stuffed with banknotes as muddy as his coat.
Afterwards the house sold for $700,950, more than double its valuation. I saw in the paper that the publicity surrounding the discovery of a semi-dried toe brought the old place to the attention of even greater numbers, attracting many more buyers than expected.
Whose toe was it? I never read or heard another word about it. And my new neighbours? They don’t look comfortable. I think they know they paid too much; the woman’s face is bitter like one blackmailed. And there’s something shifty about the bloke, I see him limping to his letterbox all furtive. Limping.