By the time we went downstairs again I’d been silent for so long that Hayley’s sales pitch was beginning to splutter and stall. I knew I should rescue her—my life crisis was not her fault—but I was feeling a little overwhelmed. We went out into the garden and stared back toward the house. It was on enough of a slope that there were only a few steps down to ground level from the kitchen door. Maybe that meant that the space under the front porch was only large enough for rabid raccoons and not for deinonychus. I looked at the cellar doors I wasn’t supposed to leave open. I looked up at the tower (still no visible madwoman at the windows. Oh, wait, maybe that was going to be me).
I glanced at Hayley. She looked like a woman trying not to wring her hands. She was also, in her four-inch heels, limited to walking on the (overgrown) stepping stones. These only went a little way down the garden and petered out in a paved circle that was probably supposed to have a table on it for artistic al fresco dining. I looked away from the house, toward Yggdrasil: it could wait, like the wardrobe in the room upstairs. “I’m afraid the garden has been let go rather badly,” said Hayley. “If—if you take the house, Homeric Homes would of course have someone in to do some clearing up.”
I made an effort. “That’s all right. I’m sort of looking forward to having the epic confrontation with the garden myself. And I’ve already heard of a teenage boy who wants to do the mowing.” I looked at Hayley. She was staring at me as if I’d turned into a deinonychus. Or a rabid raccoon. “I’ll take it,” I said, although my voice broke on the second word. “Er—that’s what you want me to say, isn’t it?”
She shut her ever-so-slightly-dangling jaw with a snap. “Yes—yes, of course, I’m delighted. I—I just —” She suddenly looked like the teenager she’d been not all that long ago, wearing her older, businesswoman sister’s clothes. “I haven’t been out here myself in two or three months. It—it didn’t look quite so—so —”
“Shabby?” I said. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell your boss.”
She drooped. “Yes. Shabby. Not ‘in need of some modernisation’ but—shabby. It looked better with three feet of snow on the ground.”
I looked up at the house again. They didn’t look anything like Ford’s rose-bushes, but I thought those might be rose-bushes under the windows. “I don’t mind taking baths. I like taking baths. As long as the hot water works.”
“The hot water works. Or it will be made to work. Ron is a bit of a magician really. Sally, my boss, keeps trying to convince him to work in New Iceland—and he’d make better money there. But while he’ll come occasionally if the job sounds interesting, he stays in Cold Valley.” She looked at me again, still puzzled. “But the house is huge. I know you want a dog, but—oh!” She blushed again. “I’m so sorry. Of course you —”
“No,” I said, smiling. I was beginning to think Hayley was in the wrong line of work. Weren’t realtors supposed to be made of stainless steel and granite, interested only in getting your name on the dotted line? “It’s just me.”
“If it didn’t have to be Cold Valley,” Hayley said, “there are other, smaller, better maintained houses in this area that allow pets. The details for one came in just yesterday—I thought of you. We don’t have the info sheet printed yet, but it’s not very far out of our way back to New Iceland. We could swing past and if it interests you we could go back to the office and pick up the keys.”
I looked at this house once more. But this time I was pretty sure it was looking back at me. Maybe it was the rose-bushes. Since that last glass of fizz in the penthouse garden I’d been feeling a little sensitive on the subject of rose-bushes. Or maybe it was fellow feeling for something old and shabby and no longer desirable. “No,” I said slowly. “No, I think it’s this house.”
“It will be desperately hard to heat in the winter,” argued Hayley.
I laughed. “You are the most extraordinary real estate agent,” I said. “You’re supposed to be whipping out the contract the moment I show weakness, and saying, ‘just sign here, here and here, in blood please, what are you waiting for?, it’s only five hundred years, here’s a lancet for your finger’.”
Hayley’s blush was so vivid her hands turned red too. She was clutching her handbag again, as if it contained the lease for the Taj Mahal. She slipped the strap off her shoulder, and unzipped the bag. Well, well, I thought. She’s a realtor after all—she does have the contract ready and waiting. And I was embarrassed to feel a little disappointed.
But it wasn’t anything like a normal sort of contract that she pulled out of the depths of her bag and wordlessly held out toward me. It looked like a paperback book. An old, extremely beat-up paperback book. The pages were coming out, a corner of the cover had either been torn off or had disintegrated, and there was a big blotchy stain across most of the rest of it that might have been tea or coffee. And the pages were wavy, as if it had been read in a steaming-hot bath two or twenty-two times.
I hadn’t seen one in a long time. It took me a moment to recognise it.
It was a first edition of Flowerhair One. FLOWERHAIR THE INVINCIBLE.
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