by Sheena Billett
gin and tonic with ice and lemon
Ian’s commitment to Jerry was total, or so he had thought, the day they walked down the aisle together. The plan was to pool their resources and start up a property development business. As Jerry was a builder and Ian a finance advisor, they felt that they couldn’t go wrong.
Ian’s sister, Diane, had her doubts, however, and had voiced them to Ian several times: ‘You’ve only known Jerry a few months – and I know you can’t resist all that muscle and those abs, but seriously, what are you doing, Ian? You can’t just chuck your career in on a whim!’
‘I’m not! I don’t want to spend my life working for someone else, I want my own business.’
‘But it won’t be yours, will it? Only half of it. And you’re putting in nearly all the money.’
The conversation had been rushed and in low voices while Jerry was getting drinks at the bar. As he returned with their beers, Ian was all smiles and threw Diane a sideways don’t-you-dare-say-anything glance.
A few days after their legal union, Ian and Jerry were at a property auction, eyeing up a dilapidated, terraced house in a run-down part of town. There had been a heated discussion about whether they shouldn’t have invested in a better area, but Jerry had won out and Ian hoped he knew what he was doing.
Once the house was theirs, Jerry wasted no time in wielding the sledge hammer. ‘Everyone wants open-plan these days – you know – for entertaining.’
‘I’m not sure that people in this part of town go in for ‘entertaining’ as such,’ said Ian making quote marks with his fingers.
‘You’ll see, this area’ll become up-market in no time,’ shouted Jerry above the noise of falling bricks.
Within a few weeks the innards of the house had been hollowed out, leaving a two-storey shell. Ian had been busy with the architect drawing up plans for the internal lay-out and a small extension. ‘We’ll call it a conservatory and then we won’t need to worry about planning,’ said Jerry as Ian measured out the footprint. Ian thought that he would check this out on the quiet with a friend of his in the planning department – just to be sure. All the materials that they needed to restore the house had been ordered and paid for, but Ian found it difficult to feel Jerry’s excitement and enthusiasm.
‘You need to get a more positive attitude. You’re such a worry-ass, Ian. How about you get on with promoting the house online so that we’re ready for a quick sale in a few months?’
They arrived on Monday morning to receive the delivery from the builder’s merchant and to ceremonially lay the first brick, but as they drew up in Jerry’s van they were aware that a small crowd had gathered at the front of the house and that people were looking up at something. Ian felt a tingle of fear as he followed Jerry’s ‘What the fuck?’ out of the van.
As they approached, a young woman with spiky purple hair detached herself from the group and strode towards them. ‘Are you the owners of this shit-storm?’
‘What’re you talking about? This is going to be the start of a new up-market trend for this area,’ replied Jerry, hands on hips. ‘I’m doing you all a favour,’ he added smugly.
‘Right! Okay, well then, well what d’you think is going on up there?’
Jerry followed the woman’s pointing finger to see what Ian had already noticed. A large crack had appeared across the front of the house.
Two months, much abuse from the inhabitants of the adjoining properties, and thousands of pounds later, Ian had got to know his husband. He knew, for instance, that Jerry had no idea about managing budgets, and very little grasp of the property market. He knew that while he was lying awake at night, worried sick about the money the house was gobbling up, Jerry could sleep without a care in the world. No such worries kept him awake. But Ian also knew that he loved watching Jerry wield a sledgehammer, loved his firm, muscled body – Jerry wasn’t afraid of hard work. In fact he got quite antsy if he had to sit around for too long.
Granted, the house had been shored up, and eventually fitted out with a stylish open-plan kitchen complete with bi-folding doors onto a paved back yard. ‘The kind of people that buy this aren’t going to want to spend their weekends gardening,’ Jerry had said with a confidence that sent shivers of worry down Ian’s spine.
As Jerry had promised, there was some initial interest from outside the area, but when buyers had visited and noted the overflowing bins, rusting bikes, old settees, and discarded fridges that were the features of their new neighbours’ front gardens, interest evaporated rapidly.
Even when they lowered the price to barely break-even levels, viewings were few and far between. ‘Who’s going to want live in a house like this round here?’ one viewer commented. ‘You’d be a bloody target for all the local dodgy types, thinking you had stuff worth nicking. And where’s the grass? Our Tina likes a barbecue in the summer, and you can’t have a barbecue without grass.’
Blissfully unaware of looming financial meltdown, Jerry was already planning their next project. ‘We’ll do another one round here, and gradually the word’ll get round that this is an up and coming area.’
‘It doesn’t work like that, Jerry. We can’t change the demographic of a whole area on our own! It takes years and lots of investment. And anyway, we can’t start another project until this has sold.’
‘Oh come on, Ian. With your contacts you can sort us a loan...surely.’
Another thing Ian had always known about Jerry was that he was very persuasive.
To Ian’s relief the house did indeed sell a few weeks later. He had stood firm about not starting another project until the sale had completed and with much grumbling about Ian being a wet blanket, Jerry passed the time labouring for his builder mates.
Ian had a much-postponed drink with his sister. If he was honest, he’d not been able to face her I- told-you-so face when things had been on a precipice, but now, with a sale almost completed he felt he could face Diane with some restored pride.
‘So, you’ve got a sale then.’ Diane scrutinised him over the rim of her wine glass.
‘Yup, it’s almost completed. Then we’ll do another,’ said Ian trying to sound more upbeat than he felt.
Diane put her glass down and leant across the table. ‘Are you mad? You want to put yourself through this again? The worry, the panic, the sleepless nights?’
‘How do you—?’
‘Come on, Ian, I’ve followed the sale, and I know you. I can see it in your face – you’ve been through hell.’
Ian put his head in his hands. ‘But what choice do I have?’
‘There are always choices, Ian,’ Diane said sternly. ‘And as it happens, I’ve made it easy for you. I bought the house.’ She leant back in her chair, smiling smugly.
Ian felt the ground shifting under his feet as if reality had been suspended.
You did what? But the estate agent said it was a Mr Beresford.’
‘Yup, Tom Beresford, my business partner, remember? Once the sale has been completed, ownership will transfer to me.’
Anger and humiliation bubbled. ‘You had no right to interfere!’
‘I can buy whichever property I like, and anyway, I couldn’t let Jerry ruin you. After all, I’ve got your nieces’ inheritance to protect.’ She leant over and gave Ian a playful punch on the shoulder
Anger and humiliation was now laced with a smattering of relief, and Ian was speechless.
After a few rapid mouthfuls of wine, he looked suspiciously at Diane. ‘Okay, so what are you going to do with it?’
‘I’m guessing you don’t want to live there as my tenant.’ She smirked as Ian shuddered at the thought. ‘So I’ll get it remodelled into something that will make the house an attractive investment for the lettings market, and then resell.
Ian and Jerry’s business partnership was dissolved within a few weeks, and their marriage followed suit a few months later. The ever laid-back Jerry wasted no time in mourning what they’d had, and cheerfully moved on, almost as if the whole thing had never happened.
Ian’s previous employer had taken him back, apparently seeing his temporary absence as some kind of aberration, and Ian had never been so grateful for a guaranteed monthly salary.
A year or so later, Ian saw on Facebook that a house had collapsed in the same area as their ill-fated project. Fortunately, no one had been at home, and it later became apparent that faulty building work had been the cause. Jerry had breezed through the court case seemingly unaware that he had endangered lives, accepting the hefty fine with his usual nonchalance.
On the TV news, Ian had spotted himself reflected in the haunted face of Jerry’s current ‘partner’, and thanked his lucky stars for Diane.
How long would it be before there was death on Jerry’s hands, and would he still walk away with that nonchalant grin?