White city blue, p.1
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       White City Blue, p.1

           Tim Lott
 
White City Blue


  PENGUIN BOOKS

  WHITE CITY BLUE

  ‘Shrewdly explores the rules of rivalry and lust that bind men together’ Guardian

  ‘Lott gives an affecting and rounded picture of a world without either sentimentalizing it or condemning it… describes a cast of complex, intriguing characters’ The Times Literary Supplement

  ‘The set pieces of gang life… are convincingly laddish, and the emotional undertows of male friendship movingly rendered’ Time Out

  ‘Moving, hilarious, complex… a sharp investigation of power relationships’ Scotland on Sunday

  ‘A mordantly funny book… Observations are vivid, the dialogue crisp and, crucially, the characters are sympathetic’ Tatler

  ‘Acute in catching moods and feelings’ Sunday Times

  ‘A perceptive, honest, and very funny book’ Harpers & Queen

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Tim Lott was born in Southall, Middlesex in 1956. He attended Greenford Grammar School and Harlow Technical College, after which he joined the local newspaper. He subsequently worked as a pop music journalist, a publisher and an entrepreneur. In 1983 he attended the London School of Economics as a mature student and achieved a degree in history and politics, after which he worked as a magazine editor and a TV producer before turning to writing. He is author of The Scent of Dried Roses, which was awarded the 1996 J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, White City Blue, winner of the 1999 Whitbread First Novel Award, and a second novel, Rumours of a Hurricane, shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award 2002, all of which are published by Penguin. He is divorced, has three daughters and lives in north-west London.

  White City Blue

  Tim Lott

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

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  Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  www.penguin.com

  First published by Viking 1999

  Published in Penguin Books 2000

  16

  Copyright © Tim Lott, 1999

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  ISBN: 978-0-14-194975-8

  Chapter One: Flakes, Mincers and Vronky Tree

  The one and only thing you could have predicted about my meeting the woman who changed my life was that it would happen while I was trying to sell her something. It’s how I get to know all my women. It’s one of the many perks of the job.

  It must have been all of six months ago now, yet somehow I remember it well. Two beds, en suite bathroom to second bed, small roof terrace, gch, kitchen/diner, nr all amenities of King Street, Hammersmith. It was badly overpriced, a fleece job. Yet she’d have gone for it, if I hadn’t stopped her. She’d have signed the papers just like that.

  Selling is what I do for a living. I unload houses, bijou apartments, charming maisonettes, large garden flats in need of some redecoration. In short, and truth to tell, I’m an estate agent.

  It wasn’t a great ambition of mine to be an agent. I say that not by way of apology – I don’t feel ashamed of what I do. It isn’t all inbred Ruperts and pearl-eyed Amandas with Alice bands. In fact, I have a degree in Politics and Philosophy from the University of West Middlesex, or if you prefer its original nomenclature – my friend Nodge always insists on it – Staines Technical College.

  You might well ask what an estate agent was doing at university. It’s not as if they do courses in it. ‘Meaning and Semantics in Finagling, Advanced Huckstering and Partial Reality – An Introductory Module’. No. You can’t learn what I know. It’s more in the nature of an art. Like doing a symphony or something.

  Anyway. I was never much committed to studying. I’ve never really committed myself to anything, I suppose. I do what I can get away with for as long as I can get away with it. No. I expect I went to university for all the conventional reasons. A wish to put off work for three more years after school – and I’d heard that this course, despite its fancy title, was a soft option. The offer of a place had been made and, since I found my A-levels simple (I’m smart, certainly smart enough to conceal the fact that I’m smart), I assumed a degree would be more of the same process of textbook upchuck and good exam technique. Also, my girlfriend at the time lived close by and we were going to be together for ever. Also, I thought if I had a degree, I wouldn’t feel so much that I was an ignorant nobody from Shepherd’s Bush. And also, I thought it would help get me a decent job.

  Some of the more common illusions, then, of childhood. Me and my girlfriend split up and I was left on a diet of hand-gallops for the next six months. The degree wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it was going to be – on quite a few occasions my head hurt from so much thinking. It’s a funny business thinking, I can tell you. All those invisible clouds floating above your head. All that stuff to think about.

  I still felt like an ignorant nobody from Shepherd’s Bush, but now I felt like one with pretensions. A degree from Staines Tech – especially a 2:2 – doesn’t exactly buy you a ticket into any of the professions, and what’s more it directly excludes you from many of the skilled and semi-skilled manual trades. Bricklayers, plumbers, electricians and so forth can smell education like so much gone-off aftershave. And they hate it. (Unless it’s for their children. It’s great for children, essenshul. They just hate it in adults.)

  So I spent six months after university unemployed, getting less and less capable of supporting myself both materially and psychologically, until a distant uncle of mine told me how a friend of his was looking for someone to help out in a local estate agent.

  Farley, Ratchett & Gwynne were a small agency with big ambitions. They were prepared to cut corners in order to get commissions and so was I. This was the mid- to late 1980s and the property market was in the last days of going ballistic. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I thought I’d give it a go. Since then I haven’t looked back. I can’t get outside of it enough to look back. It’s a habit I’ve fallen into. I know now that life is habit, more or less. You do something, then you do it again, then again, and before you know it, that’s what you are, and that’s who you are, and you can’t imagine being anything or anyone else.

  Habit, or choice, or something in between, it’s been good to me, the property business. Although sometimes it seems a little – well, empty. Unsatisfying.

  From one perspective, I suppose there’s something obscene about it. Crawling around on the inside of other people’s lives. Showing off their personal, interior space like it was watches on a stall in Oxford Street, flogging off their walls, their air, their sense of decoration. It’s like you’re an intruder all the time, never in your own place. You’re always the misfit, although you have to come across as the opposite – confide
nt, unflinching, positive. But it pays well. I’ve done all right. Compared with Nodge anyway.

  Not that it’s a competition. How could it be, when it’s all a matter of habit, habit and luck? Your life. The way things turn out.

  Yet at the same time, there’s a part of me for which it seems to make a kind of sense. I have come to see that now that I am thirty, now that I have ended up so firmly, and confirmed and completely, as an estate agent, a seller of space, of emptiness, of reinvention. Sometimes perhaps there is a hidden pattern to these things, as Veronica always claims. Like Nodge ending up as a taxi driver when what he wanted to do all through school was travel the world, and like Tony ending up a hairdresser when his chief interest in life is examining himself in mirrors, and Colin spending his life in front of a computer screen interacting with machinery, the non-living.

  Me, I wanted another, bigger, wider, shinier life. That’s probably the deeper reason – if such things exist – why I went to university. Like I could give a shit for Politics or Philosophy. No. A bigger, shinier life. It’s almost certainly why I ended up an estate agent – all those windows into other people’s worlds, that limitless menu of apparent possibilities, day after day after day. It’s research – research for passing myself off as somebody else, and then, eventually, becoming them. Just by habit.

  Something else, too. I’ve always wanted to be liked. Everyone does, I suppose. I’m just prepared to admit it. It’s kind of more of a naked need than a desire with me. I hate it if someone doesn’t like me. And so a job which seemed to turn so much on making people like you, on making them trust you, appealed to me. And you don’t have all the effort afterwards of maintaining a friendship. If you sell their flat at a good price, or find them a nice one, they love you. I get kissed, hugged, praised, thanked. It’s terrific for self-esteem. Then it’s goodbye, and on to the next person to woo.

  After a while, of course – the 1980s being the 1980s – I managed to make enough money for some kind of new, fresh version of my Shepherd’s Bush self. Like the Bush itself, I was tarted up, I was an up-and-coming area. But it became apparent to me that it wasn’t enough. The cash was good – you could get the suits, the cars, the gear, the little mews house in W6, well on the ladder to W11 and then, finally, W8. But they still always found me out somehow, those people I wanted to be, with their secret codes, and pampered voices and hidden assumptions, and knowledge of wine and opera, and the people they knew. It became clear to me that if I really wanted to get out of Shepherd’s Bush, I needed more than a big bank balance. After all, now the 1990s have come and nearly gone, along with my twenties, I needed someone to teach me escapology, fast. And I needed a symbol to show that I wasn’t who people kept insisting I was.

  I didn’t know when I first saw Veronica that she was my ticket out of there. That is to say, that I was going to fall in love with her. At first I thought she was just another mark, another sucker punter.

  We’d arranged to meet at the flat, which was in a large mansion block in West Kensington – exorbitant service charges and a truly old-style rapacious freeholder I had to keep off the agenda somehow. I was all Prada’d up on my last month’s commission, plus a full-on tan that I’d got from two weeks in Koh Samui, and I had the Beemer outside. I could actually feel the money on me like the touch of some strange, fragrant oil. I felt like I could get exactly what I wanted, what money demanded. Because money isn’t paper and metal and plastic and bank statements. It’s a feeling, like everything else.

  The buzzer buzzed and I let her into the flat, which was small and grubby and badly overpriced. This was not something only I could see; I knew she would see it too. David Blunkett would be able to see it, on a dark night. That’s the point. She’s not meant to buy this one – this is part of the psychological softening up that one has to undergo, as a punter. It’s about lowering expectations. So that when we finally show anything half or even quarter decent, it’ll look like the bargain of a lifetime. On such matters as the psychology of need and diminishment of self, we could advise Mossad.

  She was class, I could see that from the moment she walked in the room. Manolo Blahnik shoes, a little black and white Bardot dress which I would guess was Agnès B, short-cut Peter Pan hair, shocking red. Five five, slightly shorter than me, not bad-looking but more Zoe Ball than Eva Herzigova. A kind of stretched face, as if the bones were trying to get out, with soft cottony skin. I liked her nose particularly, kind of fleshy, as if God had thrown a lump of dough at the centre of her face instead of designing one just for a bit of a giggle, or perhaps because he was bored. A fat nose then, but cute. The eyes were slightly mismatched – one larger than the other – but they had those lazy, heavy eyelids that always hinted at a powerful libido. Very slim too, with long, terrific legs. Flat-chested, but I’m very liberated about such matters. Looked her age, but not older than. She was certainly in her late twenties, possibly early thirties.

  Posh, but not too much so – maybe two rungs above me, but not three. Three is too many to jump. I’m realistic about these things. I’m an estate agent – you learn to be realistic. You learn the value of things, you learn about people with an inflated idea of themselves. They come in the office every day, flakes we call them, or mincers, asking to look at places they can’t afford, salivating over fixtures and fittings that cost more than their entire credit rating, drooling at the prospect of something somewhere in the future that will make them feel like they’re in a television ad or a copy of Vogue Decor. It’s not realistic. There’s a ceiling.

  Now Veronica was right there, at the ceiling. Touchable if you balanced on tiptoe. She spoke well, but not cut-glass or anything. You definitely can’t jump too far in terms of class. You get young and old together, black and white, ugly and handsome, rich and poor. But it’s still practically unheard of, in England, for the classes to cross the great divide – at least in my experience. Me and Veronica were definitely pushing the limits, but it was just about on the cards.

  So. She was attractive, not beautiful. On the turn, a bit of a retread, probably just broken up a long-term relationship and getting very slightly worried about her prospects. I checked her watch: Raymond Weil, mid-range, too new to be inherited.

  From the flat she was looking at, I could infer that she was well heeled, but not stinking rich. I guessed she was educated from the book she was carrying with her when she came in – something by Virginia Woolf. I could also tell from the fact that it was dog-eared in three places in the first ten pages that she was reading it out of a sense of duty rather than enjoyment, which was fine with me. That meant she was a woman who understood that appearances matter.

  I did the obvious – asked whether it was for her and her boyfriend (no, they’d just split up), whether she’d be living alone (yes, but no archness in the reply, no flirt). She told me her name was Vronky, which I thought I had misheard, until she explained it was short for Veronica, Veronica Tree.

  We’re distantly related to the Beerbohm Trees, don’t you know? she murmured, saying the last three words mock-posh, ultra-posh, as if it was a joke, but underneath I could tell she was proud of it. And although I didn’t have the faintest idea who the Bare Bumtrees were, I was impressed.

  She hummed and hawed her way round the flat, and I could tell she wasn’t keen, which established a ground-floor intelligence. But then, Vinnie Jones with a head injury…

  I told her what she already knew, that she didn’t want this flat, that we get a lot better than this for the same price, that the freeholder was an old villain and that she shouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. Again, part of the softening-up process. Get them to trust you. Get them to like you. If they’re a woman, get them into bed if possible, but only after you’ve closed the deal. I’m a closer, me. I always close.

  She seemed grateful, but duly surprised, that I should have filled her in on the true status of the drum. She even flicked her eyebrows a bit, flared that tubby nose and wondered why I’d been so honest, to which I said, of cour
se, that she was too classy for a place like this and that, anyway, I liked her. Then I looked very slowly at my Rolex, so that she could see I was money, and I said I had to be somewhere now and would she like a lift?

  She said yes, and so she got a look at the Beemer, which was also important. I was on form that day, made her laugh once or twice about Dirty Bob, who ran the block that I so astutely turned her away from – how he used to regularly come in to break the main services so that he could charge the lease-holders to get them repaired. I didn’t mention, of course, that Dirty Bob was one of our very best customers and that if my boss knew that I was disrespecting him, I would get the tin-tack there and then.

  She hesitated when I stopped to let her off at Kensington High Street, as if waiting for something, but it was too soon to make a play. I told her I’d call her if anything more suitable came on. You have to take it slow, selling flats, selling yourself. Above all, don’t let them see need. Buyers and sellers both understand this, but for sellers it’s more of a live issue.

  There was one more softener – a slightly better, but still pretty dreadful drum around the back of Olympia that I again apologized for, told her my boss had insisted on it. Again, there was never any intention of selling it. It was just the stage for the play. Shitheaps first. As the F, R&G motto goes.

  This was the following Thursday, five days after the first meeting, just enough to make her feel that finding a flat wasn’t going to be easy, not so long as to make her think I wasn’t trying. I could tell that she trusted me now, even liked me. And I felt I had her number too – a television researcher, on the cusp of becoming an assistant producer, but who wanted to be a director. But who never would be. Salary, about 25–30K, but trust fund there somewhere. One dead grandmother, another on hold. Five to ten years before maturity, i.e. demise of said granny. All in all, a good prospect for, minimum, a bunk-up, maximum a short ‘relationship’, i.e. one to five bunk-ups. (More than five confers girlfriend status. I try to make a point of stopping at four.)

 
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