The Good Neighbours | Peter Larsen

 


The Good Neighbours

Peter Larsen

The Hate and Coat Award


 

“Do you remember when we first moved in?”

Dawn lovingly squeezed Albert’s hand. “Of course I do…fifty years ago last April.”

“Mind you, the neighbourhood was different then. Young families, the sound of children playing in the street”. He had a distant expression, as if his words were transporting him back to the world of his memories. “We knew our neighbours in those days, not like today. That’s why Dawn and I are so happy that you have moved in next door”.

Sometimes I really don’t like myself.

That’s not exactly true. More like “sometimes I don’t like what I do”.  Don’t get me wrong. I don’t harbour self-doubt. People who know me would say I am a high achiever, super confident, charming even. People who like me- unfortunately fewer in number- would add that I am a good person to know, to hang out and have fun with. And generally I am likeable, but in my job I can’t afford too many friends.

Before I go much further I’d better explain a few things. Firstly, I work in corporate real estate. Big apartment developments, high rise, that sort of thing. But I am not employed directly- that would make things too easy to trace back to The Company. They are too smart for that. I work for a dummy corporation, five or six times removed from The Company, so if ever the shit does hit the fan, nothing can be traced back to them. The dummy firm would declare itself bankrupt, I’d do a runner and in a month or two we would start over- new business name, new identity for me.

You see, I’m paid to do The Company’s dirty work. Very well paid. But that’s only fair, considering the risks involved.

My job? Oh yes, the “dirty work” I mentioned before. Well, sometimes we experience “hold outs” who block The Company’s plans. Occasionally it is a bureaucrat or some crusading backbencher, and I am called in to help change their mind- amazing how persuasive compromising photographs or a weekend away, followed by the threat of going to the media about their “conflict of interest”, can be. But situations like this are the exception, because generally The Company has the government in its pocket- information I would never divulge…unless it was expedient.

No, the biggest problems come from individuals who refuse to sell even when everyone else comes to the party. You see, the best deals happen when whole streets or blocks decide to sell- they believe that there is much more money to be made that way. They are right about that- much more money- for The Company. Oh sure, we manage to convince them that they are getting a great deal, but in reality it’s us who make the killing. Instead of a pissy stand of six apartments on a single block, we can build a high rise complex of thirty or forty condominiums, each with a multi-million-dollar price tag. And this is why I was brought in, to persuade a “hold out” to join every other person in the street to sell out for the benefit of The Company.

We had bought up an entire street of houses for a song. Most of the residents saw only dollar signs. Everything was ready to go- the design, government “approval”, the construction company- everyone. Except for one elderly couple. I was given one week to persuade them. Failure was not an option.

Threats, bricks through windows, intimidation…these don’t work well with old people. Too easy for it to backfire and attract bad publicity. So this was the “softly, softly” approach…move in next door, gain their confidence, then hit them when they least suspect. That’s why I am sitting here now- fake smile, fake wife and baby…hers of course. All part of the ruse- surprising what a single mother will do for a few dollars. There will even be some fringe benefits for me…after all we have to make it convincing. At least that’s what I tell her.

“So what made you move in to this street when everyone else is moving out?” Albert asked.

I hope they didn’t notice my “wife” squirm uncomfortably in her seat. “Well, I have some contacts in the planning department and they tell me the development won’t be going ahead. It wasn’t viable without your property, so they are giving up. So we got in first and picked up a bargain”.

The joy and relief on their faces was palpable. It seemed like the weight of the world had been lifted. “Let’s have a cuppa to celebrate Dawny..and some of your famous sponge”. Soon the afternoon meandered towards stories of their younger days. Emma looked increasingly uncomfortable, so I sat closer to add credibility. The baby slept.

“Tell Chris and Emma how we met Albert…the jacket.”

Oh God, I don’t need to hear this but I do need them onside. I feigned interest.

Albert took over the story. “Dawn was a cloak-room attendant at The Princess theatre. I had accidentally left my jacket…”

Dawn cut in. “Accidentally?”

Albert’s eyes sparkled at the memory of his subterfuge. “Possibly it was deliberate…gave me an excuse to see her again.”

“And ask me out.” Their tightly clasped hands, gnarled with age, spoke eloquently of the loving relationship that had developed over the past 50 years.

And so our own relationship developed- the elderly couple and the young neighbours they began to adopt over endless cups of tea, stories and memories. And each day the clock ticked towards that deadline…until it was time to strike.

“Dawn and Albert, could you witness the final sales contract for our house? Just sign where I’ve marked”.

It was that easy. So trusting, they didn’t even bother to read it. I still wonder what they said when they found out it was the sales contract on their house, all legal, signed and witnessed by Emma and me.

But I never did find out. It was time to move on.