First impressions

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Magda’s uncle George told us that if the lights by a rail crossing are white, the line is all clear. If two red lights are showing, it means a train is coming. If a single red light is showing, it means one of the bulbs is broken.

The exterior brickwork of the house was crumbling like corned beef, and roof tiles were piled and tossed around the porchway like an abandoned game of Stone Age poker. An open pit of stagnant water, the septic tank, ticked all the boxes for ‘death trap’, bile green and skunk-hearted in the hot June afternoon. It looked like the kind of place where naughty frogs spend the afterlife.

Magda loved it.

The estate agent was Czech, of course. He hadn’t been dragged through customer service seminars and courses in false bonhomie. He was angry. We had phoned him five minutes before the scheduled 10.30 meeting to say we would be half an hour late, so his anger was justified. We’d stopped for ice cream, and then taken a wrong turn. You know how it is.

Inside the house, the angry agent, settling into a sullen monotone, led us soullessly through the rooms. A musty scatter of dead furniture, pictures of ‘80s-haired Czech pop stars, and a very tumbledown example of a traditional Czech bread oven, its blue tiles cracked and cobwebbed, its ugly metal pipe exiting through the wall like an escaping special effect in a monster movie, clad in a worrying jacket of tired asbestos. The main room of the house was large, the kind of dimensions that would pass for the entire groundfloor of an average English house. The other rooms spoke of decay and promise, in that order. The attic was enormous, with hummocks of brickwork like an old ploughed field, running across pirate-approved rickety planks.

Above the attic was another attic, accessed via a worm-softened ladder, and hot as a greenhouse. There were two old swallow’s nests up here, and low crossbeams upon which you could crack your heat-and-dark-addled skull with ease. On the wall was a makeshift poster of a leggy cat with breasts, advertising erotic massage. Coupled with a list of drink prices and car garage services, it suggested a diverse and enterprising past. The mental image of a greasy-limbed mechanic pulling a pint before settling in for a spot of oo-er massage was a depressing one. The upper attic’s current atmosphere conjured séances and last rites rather than the pleasures of the flesh.

It also caused the troubling question to reassert: what did people do here in the past to make ends meet, and what did they do now in the second decade of the 21st century? How did our half-baked plans – so half-baked that we hadn’t even bought all the ingredients yet, or indeed the oven – fit into an ex-garage-cum-brothel?

There was no bathroom, and the toilet was of the dry earth variety, lurking in a shack in the wilderness of the garden. At two acres, it was quite a garden. The path we took through the waist-high foliage, all cranesbill and nettle, disturbed a thousand moths and grasshoppers of various sizes. Big, marble-pale snails frothed angrily as the sun stole into their damp caves of grass.

But were we up to the challenge of doing something with tis place? I wasn’t convinced. The cat with breasts in the attic was going to haunt my dreams for some time, and had thrown a dark shadow across what was, otherwise, a perfectly acceptable unmendable ruin in the middle of nowhere.

We walked back to our parked car, the estate agent shrugging and mumbling in the kind of resigned tone that suggested his family had been showing this property to naïve would-be buyers for the last four generations, with no whiff of a sale. We paused by a large mound of pallets at the roadside, the ones at the bottom already composting. Magda’s love had waned. We informed the estate agent that his four-generation vigil was not yet over.

It was an eye-opening beginning. I was feeling optimistic and full of energy. We had other hovels to check out, and an icecream sugar-rush to climb down from.

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