Ilona and Keith fell in love with this house at first sight. Truth be told, it didn’t have the amenities Keith was looking for, namely an outside shed to put his bikes in and another one to store his machines for polishing and cutting stones, but these shortages paled into insignificance when they saw it. The most important of those was its fairy-tale quality, no doubt having something to do with the fact that it was very old. It was erected in 1739, as stated on its plaque, which also contained some initials, possibly of its first owner and a square of gold in the middle. After the partly ruined castle behind it, it was the oldest house in the village. It had three bedrooms on two floors, one for the couple, one for the guests and one which they could use as a study, a large lounge which until the 1970s served as a bookshop and a magnificent view of the sea from one side, and of the main street from the other. Moreover, the village of S., where this house adorned its high street, was picturesque and buzzing with life. The latter characteristic was in stark contrast to another place in Scotland where they used to rent a holiday apartment, which, although also located on the coast, had a lingering smell of neglect, even when they stayed indoors. The house was a bit expensive for them, but they decided that they could afford it, even if it meant making some sacrifices over the next few years.
However, Ilona and Keith did not want to show their enthusiasm too conspicuously, therefore they asked the owner some probing questions, such as ‘Why do you want to sell it?’ The woman, who was in her mid-thirties replied that this was because neither she nor her brother who inherited the house from their mother, ever lived there. She had been working and living abroad, recently in Morocco; her brother lived in a one-room apartment in Dundee and needed more money to buy something larger. This explanation satisfied Ilona and Keith and they put an offer on it the next day. It was immediately accepted.
Completing all the formalities took several months and then they were able to move in. It was great fun to go to charity shops and look on Gumtree for old furniture and rugs, in part because they couldn’t afford new stuff for all the rooms and in part because they felt a house like this required old things, not necessary proper antiques, as they would be too expensive and might look pretentious, but things which already belonged to somebody else. After a week they bought all the necessary furnishings and decided not to hunt any more, as they exhausted themselves and wanted to spend the rest of their two weeks-holiday relaxing, enjoying their house and the village. It was indeed bustling with life. When they went for lunch to a café three houses from their abode, they were the last to get a table, and whilst eating they noticed some Japanese and Italian tourists. Ilona, who liked chatting to strangers, even asked them why they’d come to S. and they replied that they had it in their programme as the model ‘Scottish village’. Ilona agreed mentioning S.’ successes in the competition ‘Scotland in Bloom’ and being named the most beautiful small railway station in the country. The tourists were very impressed which added to Ilona’s pride in having a house in S. She couldn’t resist boasting that they had just bought the oldest house in the village.
Then they went for a walk through the park, full of multi-coloured l leaves and along the coast to the nearby village. They returned home in an excellent mood and to prolong it, Keith opened a bottle of wine. Just as he was pouring it into their glasses, there was a knock at the door. They gave each other a questioning look and then Keith went downstairs to open it, followed by Ilona. There were three people standing on the doorstep: two men and one woman, all in their fifties or sixties, judging by their faces and general demeanour. Ilona assumed that they were Jehovah witnesses, as they typically do their rounds in twos and threes, but they didn’t have the humility on their faces, characteristic of followers of this religion.
‘Good afternoon,’ they said,
‘Good afternoon,’ replied Keith and Ilona. ‘How can we help you?’
‘We know you are the new owners of this house and we represent the residents of S. We try to meet every new resident, so that they feel that they belong to our community and we feel that they contribute to the village’s wellbeing.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ said Keith.
‘Nice to meet you too. Can we come in?’
‘By all means, please do,’ said Ilona. ‘Would you like a cup of tea or a glass of wine?’
‘A cup of tea will be nice.’
As Ilona went upstairs to put the kettle on, the visitors introduced themselves as Gordon, Alfred and Morag, and then Gordon asked Keith: ‘Where are you from?’
‘Me? I am from nearby, the village of B.’
‘Are you really? But you don’t sound Scottish,’ replied Gordon, who came across as the leader of the group. Ilona thought that he might be an ex-policeman, as he had a judgmental look on his face and seemed to be used to telling others what to do.
‘Well, my father didn’t have a Scottish accent, and I went to a public school in Edinburgh, where I shed the little of the Scottish accent I gained at primary school.’
‘What about you?’ they turned to Ilona, who was just descending.
‘I’m Polish, but I have been living in Britain for over twenty years.’
‘All over the country: Banffshire, Devon, Yorkshire, Lancashire, wherever Keith was working.’
‘I see,’ said Gordon and then he turned to Keith again, clearly indicating that he regarded him as the head of the family: ‘Are you now permanent residents of our village?’
‘No, not yet,’ replied Keith. ‘We bought this house to use as a holiday place.’
‘You see,’ continued Gordon. ‘We don’t like residents who are not permanent. They aren’t good for the cohesiveness of the community and for the local businesses. Bakers, butchers and fish-mongers will go out of business if people only use them in summer.’
Ilona was about to say that even if they were to live in S. permanently, the butcher, the fish-monger and the baker would have little business from them, because they were vegetarians and only ate dark, German-style bread, but Keith forestalled her by saying: ‘We will keep coming more often than in summer, probably five-six times per year and when I retire, which is not far from now, I plan to move here semi-permanently.’
‘Well, this is not good for us, as by the time you move here permanently, your neighbour the baker might go out of business,’ added Alfred, who to Ilona looked like a little rodent, with sticking out teeth and a light-coloured, almost transparent moustache. Like a cartoon rat, he also smiled apologetically when saying unpleasant things.
‘He might go out of business anyway,’ said Ilona, ‘given that these days most people do their shopping in supermarkets’.
‘Not here. Here everybody shops locally.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Ilona. ‘Are you checking people’s receipts?’
‘We don’t do it personally, the local businesses do,’ said Morag. ‘They keep track of their customers and then we, the residents’ committee, check how much each inhabitant spent per month locally. If this amount falls below a certain level, she or he has to make up for the deficit in cash.’
‘What about the people on benefits or rough sleepers?’ asked Keith.
‘We don’t have any of them here,’ said Morag. She reminded Ilona of some older Polish women from the province, the type described as ‘mohair berets’: the pillars of Catholic conservatism. She even wore an equivalent of a mohair beret: a small dark-green hat, which she didn’t take off during the visit.
‘What is thus your solution to people like us? How much are we supposed to pay?’ asked Ilona with a whiff of sarcasm, which, however, was ignored by everybody in the room except for Keith, who preferred if his wife remained polite, as the last thing they needed was to get into conflict with the people among whom they were meant to live.
‘120 GBP per month’.
‘Wow! That’s a lot of money for us,’ said Ilona. ‘We stretched ourselves to buy this house and we had to pay so much extra because it is our second property: double the stamp duty and a second council tax. We really cannot afford to pay more simply because we want to have a holiday home. Can we opt out?’
‘You can, but it is not worth doing. Those who opted out, don’t live in S. any more.’, said Alfred with his ratty smile. ‘It is best to arrange the payment through a standing order. In this envelope you find the number of our account together with the report of how we, as a community of villagers, spend this extra cash. You will see there is value for your money.’
‘We better go,’ said Morag. ‘Thanks for the tea. You have a lovely house. The most beautiful on this street and probably in the entire village. You were very lucky to get it.’
‘Goodbye,’ said the two remaining guests.
Once they left, Ilona kicked the door, through which they just passed.
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ she shouted. ‘I never thought that we’d find ourselves in such a situation. It was better not to buy this house. Maybe we should try to sell it straight away.’
‘We cannot sell the house straight after we bought it. In this way we’d lose twenty thousand if not more,’ replied Keith. ‘Plus we like it here. The situation is temporary. Once we retire, we can live here, open a café or bookshop downstairs and take advantage of this fund, as it means that nobody goes bankrupt here, no matter how bad their business.’
‘I don’t want to open anything. I’d rather return to my country than to live among such horrible and greedy people. If they lived in Poland, they would try to tax the storks, because they only stay there for half a year,’ replied Ilona.
‘Be reasonable. Contrary to what we said, we can afford the extra hundred pounds. And they are right that people like us, who buy second houses, are destroying local communities.’
‘Okay, do as you wish, but remember that I was against it.’
Keith poured himself a beer, as the wine suddenly tasted sour and then went to bed. Ilona followed him, as there was nothing which she wanted to do, plus she always followed Keith to bed, because she couldn’t fall asleep when he was messing about at home. But she couldn’t sleep, thinking how insincere, patronising and threatening the visitors had been. Poles are never like that – true, they are prepared to stab their enemies, but not with a smirk. Scots shouldn’t be like that either, according to Keith. It was Albion which was meant to be perfidious, not Caledonia, but the three were worse than any English people she’d ever encountered. After a couple of hours Ilona got up, got dressed and went for a walk. It was shortly after midnight and in most houses the lights were switched off. After a while she realised that the remaining ones constituted a pattern – there was light in every sixth house, and she had a feeling that people were observing the street from behind the curtains. But when she looked at the window where there was a light it went out, as if the people in S. didn’t want her to know that they took part in this night patrol. She had an urge to get a stone and threw it at one of the spying windows, but she didn’t do it, knowing that if she did, she would have against her not only the local residents, but also the police. She caught a chill and returned home. She spent an hour or so sitting in the dining room and looking at the street from the window. It was the first time in her life that she’d had such a view, as before she always had a view of her own back garden or a private road. It occurred to her that such a position encourages spying and judging, so she closed the curtains and went to bed.
The next day was Sunday and they returned to their home in a village north of Preston and the following day they were back at work. Ilona had been planning to tell her colleagues about their new house, but in the end she didn’t say anything as she didn’t want to mention the visit of the residents’ committee and it was now the only thing she could think about, when thinking about their house.
Keith also didn’t want to talk to Ilona about the house, but she knew he kept thinking about it. The clearest sign of that was that when they sat down in the evening to watch their usual episode of a Netflix series, he wasn’t drinking beer, only sparkling water. She knew that he did so to punish himself for being a weakling by not standing up to the visitors, , and to save money for the monthly ransom. However, the lack of alcohol made him irritable and he couldn’t sleep at night. So after a week of this self-inflicted austerity Ilona bought him a crate of beer from his favourite micro-brewery and he drank two bottles while they were watching two episodes of ‘Bloodline’. Afterwards they made love – the first time since they’d returned home from S.
In the morning Keith said: ‘We will pay, but otherwise carry on as before, we won’t allow the “permanent residents” to spoil our pleasure of not being permanent.’
Ilona smiled. She had a different view. As they showed in ‘Bloodline’, once you give into blackmail, you never stop, unless you are prepared to kill or be killed by your enemies. However, she didn’t want to contradict Keith, not because she was submissive, but because it would make him miserable.
The weeks were passing quickly and Christmas was fast approaching. They decided months before that this year they wouldn’t buy each other Christmas present because the house in S. was the greatest present they could give each other. Three weeks before Christmas Keith started to talk how nice it would be to go there and in the New Year see the fireworks in Edinburgh, which probably looked better from S. than from Edinburgh. They might go to the pub or drink mulled wine at home and stay in bed long into the morning. But ten days before Christmas, as she was walking to her office Ilona tripped on the icy pavement and broke her leg. The fracture was complicated and it was expected that Ilona would spend a lot of time in plaster.
Keith took two weeks of holiday to be with his wife, even though she didn’t need so much attention. In fact, she preferred if Keith went to work, as she was in a lot of pain and wanted to deal with it on her own, but she didn’t want to reject his offer. So they were staying at home, burning wood in an open fire, binge-watching Netflix series and drinking mulled wine, beer and champagne, sometimes all of them in one day, as the more alcohol was in the mixture, the easier it was for her to fall asleep. There was no more talk about saving in order to afford the extra expenses connected with their holiday house.
On Boxing Day, however, Keith decided to go to S., to check if their house was ‘still in one place’, as he put it. Ilona didn’t go, because with her leg in plaster she wasn’t fit for travel. She prepared for Keith a box with food, as she expected that the shops in S. would be empty by this point and, anyway, they wouldn’t have the things they liked to eat over the Christmas period, such as dumplings with sourkraut and wild mushrooms and their own Christmas pudding.
Keith left early in the morning to avoid traffic. Luckily the roads were deserted and it took him a little over four hours to reach their house. As he was about to open the door, someone pulled on his sleeve. It was their neighbour, the baker:
‘Hi. At last. We expected you and your wife to come for Christmas. Merry Christmas, if I can still say so.’
‘Thanks. Merry Christmas to you too,’ said Keith, eager to be on his own. ‘We couldn’t come as my wife broke her leg, so I came just for one night to check if the heating is still working and to bring some stuff from home.’
‘Oh! I’m sorry to hear it. This is a pity as tomorrow we will have a village festival and an open meeting for all residents. You have to stay. We don’t take “no” for an answer. I’m sure your wife will survive. She cannot be that horny,’ he said and finished with a laugh.
This made Keith uneasy, but he joined in with a weak, fake laugh and said: ‘Okay, I will stay an extra day.’
Then, when he was thinking that he was free, the baker said: ‘Wait,’ and he brought him a cardboard box with cakes.
‘Thanks,’ said Keith. ‘How much do I owe you?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ said the baker. ‘This is a special Christmas present. It is a custom here that neighbours give each other presents for Christmas.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’
‘You will know the next time,’ he said with this ratty smile, which according to Ilona, was a common characteristic amongst the inhabitants.
The house was very cold, but everything was there as they’d left it. Keith put the heating on and made himself a cup of tea. Then he phoned Ilona and told her that he decided to stay an extra day, to attend some village meeting, which might be an opportunity to renegotiate the deal with the ‘village elders’.
‘By no means, stay,’ said Ilona. ‘I will manage on my own or even begin catching up with work.’
Keith went to their bedroom and went to bed with a book, but couldn’t concentrate. He returned to the kitchen, opened a bottle of beer and reheated the dumplings he made with Ilona before Christmas, while looking through the window. Despite the cold weather, there were a fair number of cyclists passing by. He also planned to bring their bikes here, but had no energy and motivation to pack them, as he didn’t like to cycle on his own.
He’d looked out at this spot on the street on their previous visit, but then he had the feeling that he was observing those passing by – now he felt like that they were all looking at him. Instinctively he checked if his face or his jumper were dirty, but they looked okay.
The beer made him tired and he went to sleep. When he woke up, it was seven p.m. He decided to go to the pub, just to kill time, even though there were many jobs he could do in the house, such as unpacking boxes and measuring the walls to put up bookshelves.
The pub was quite full, but not excessively. Keith bought himself a drink, sat in the corner and started to watch the football on the TV. Usually though, he didn’t like watching football or any sport, believing that this actually kept people from doing sports. After a while two guys joined him, and they started to talk. It turned out that one was from Edinburgh and the other from a nearby village. When he told them that he’d bought a house in S., they started to giggle.
‘Didn’t you know that this is the nastiest Scottish village this side of Edinburgh?’ asked one of them, named Pete.
‘I didn’t know it, but I’ve started to realise,’ replied Keith with an uneasy laugh.
‘The prettier the place is on the outside, the uglier it is on the inside,’ continued Pete. ‘If you want to enjoy your holiday house, avoid places which have ever won competitions for the prettiest village or go straight to Majorca or Costa del Sol.’
‘My wife and I don’t like Spain. Besides, I’m from around here, so I wanted to return to my roots, when I retire.’
‘Forget the roots,’ said the other guy, Mark. ‘People are not trees. They should be moving.’
‘Now I see what you mean. Pity I didn’t meet you some months earlier,’ said Keith.
Back at home he couldn’t sleep, most likely because he slept too much during the day. He wanted to talk to Ilona, but didn’t want to disturb her sleep, knowing how difficult it was for het to fall asleep having her leg in plaster, so he ended up watching films on his mobile, which was something which he normally kept in contempt.
The next morning Keith took a train to Edinburgh, as being in the village made him depressed and he wanted to kill time before the evening meeting. He went to the Scottish Portrait Gallery, which he used to visit often when he was a teenager. Seeing the people from earlier epochs in their wigs and silly attire always had a soothing effect on him, although he didn’t know why. Now he realised that this was because they represented time’s power of erasure of both good and bad things. He needed to know that time will help him to deal with his problems, as he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to deal with them by himself. Age didn’t make him stronger and wiser; it made him weaker and less self-assured, He felt tears filling his eyes and he had nothing to wipe them with so he went to the toilet. But after that he felt better and even went to the exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec, which wasn’t exactly jolly, but took him, again, to a different reality.
He had a meal in Edinburgh, phoned Ilona and when he returned to S., it was almost time to go to the residents’ meeting. It was in a village hall, next to the church. When he arrived there, there were already quite a lot of people, maybe two hundred. Gordon, Alfred and Morag were there as well, talking to one man and one woman. Although there were so many people, they had immediately noticed Keith and gave him a sign to approach them. He did so and when he reached them, Gordon introduced Keith to the two people, who were also on the residents’ committee and asked him to wait after the end of the meeting.
The meeting was about what the village had achieved in the last year and its plans for the next. There was much talk about the competition for the most beautiful village and small railway station. The station railway master was plucked from the crowd and for half an hour or so he listed what he did to get the award. He talked about his collaboration with the castle gardeners and setting up a small greenhouse behind the station from where some of the most beautiful flowers came to adorn the station. He also mentioned zero tolerance for drug and alcohol offences and vandalism. There were no vandals, drug addicts or drunkards seen anywhere near the station in the last decade, not least because photos of people who were last caught partaking in unsocialable behaviour were still hanging in the display window in the village square. ‘Naming and shaming is the best policy to keep our station beautiful,’ he said to a round of hearty applause. Then there was a discussion about how to improve the results in the competition for the most beautiful village, in which S. slipped from being at the very top to being number 3. One reason mentioned by several people was the lack of flower pots in some houses as well as the poor state of some private buildings. The addresses of them were duly listed by Alfred. Luckily these buildings weren’t in the centre of the village, but still the committee awarding the prizes had picked up on them. Gordon asked with his strong voice whether any people living under the said addresses were present at the meeting, but no one replied.
‘We, the permanent residents, will deal with this problem,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye.
There was also a shorter piece regarding the attendance of church services and various village ceremonies, such as the ‘boat festival’, the summer parade and the ‘S.’ carnival’. The following year the village would also have its first ‘eco repair café’ – the first in a place of this size, to cut down on waste and pollution. On the whole, the participation in the events was satisfactory, but there was an issue of some older people not attending due to poor health, as well the perennial problem of residents who were not permanent.
Morag then went on to present the committee’s plan for preventing such people from buying properties in S. She summarised her meetings with the local estate agents, whom she tried to persuade not to advertise the properties nationally, only locally. Unfortunately, this suggestion was met with great resistance. Another proposal was to hold meetings with potential buyers before they made offers on properties. This already happened on couple of occasions, but then the estate agents prevented further meetings due to the fact that these buyers withdrew.
‘In fact, they even wrote to the council to object on our practice on the grounds that it jeopardises their income and they threaten us with the court action,’ finished Morag with indignation in her voice.
The thought that there was somebody in the region who had the strength to stand up to these people made Keith smile slightly. But it didn’t improve his mood substantially. With every minute passing he felt worse and worse. He was sweating everywhere and his lips were dry. He wanted to drink something cold, ideally a can of beer straight from the fridge, but there was nothing like that on offer. Tea with milk, home-made scones and ham rolls ruled at such meetings.
At some point he became like the heroine from Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’, who from the stream of dialogue was only able to discern one word ‘knife’. For him it was just a different word – ‘residents’.
Eventually the meeting was over and although Keith wanted to go home, he waited for the crowd to disperse to face his oppressors. He mustered the courage to be able to say that he wouldn’t pay them more money, but they didn’t mention money.
‘I hope you enjoyed our humble parish meeting. As you could see and hear, we have great ambition for our little S.,’ said Alfred with his ratty smile. ‘We want it to be the most thriving and beautiful village in Scotland and by the same token, in the entire world, as it is now official that Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world.’
‘I think it is a matter of personal taste,’ said Keith.
‘Well, here we believe this is an objective fact. But we didn’t want to talk to you about our place in the hierarchies of beauty, but about something else,’ said Gordon.
‘What is it?’ asked Keith.
‘As you just heard, soon spring will come and we want all residents, and especially on this street, to have flowers in the windows and we understand that you and your wife might not be available to do it yourselves. Hence, we suggest that you give your spare key to us and we’ll do it ourselves.’
For a moment Keith was thinking about telling them that he had no spare key on him, but he knew that it would only prolong the situation, as they would harass him by telephone and e-mail. So they walked together to his house and he gave them the key and then went to a Spar shop, to buy a couple of cans of beer. He asked the shopping assistant, a lad who couldn’t be older than eighteen, if he knew who he was and whether he checks the identity of every customer, but the lad only shrugged his arms and looked at Keith as if he was mad, so Keith promptly paid and left.
At home he poured his beer into a glass and phoned Ilona to give her a report from the meeting, but didn’t mention that he passed the key to the residents’ committee. Instead he said that the meeting went well and there were no further attempts at extortion or assaults on their freedoms.
The next day he got up early to avoid traffic jams and because he yearned to be at home. All the way he was thinking whether he should tell Ilona that he gave the key to the residents’ committee. He used to tell her everything, not because he had a special respect for truth, but because in this way he felt more secure: every problem was shared and halved when Ilona knew about it. He wondered why it wasn’t the case anymore. Maybe he was worried that she would disagree with him or saw him as cowardly and defenseless. Probably she knew it anyway, as it’s what he told her when they met, but it was a different thing to know in abstract and different to experience.
In the end he decided not to tell her and Ilona didn’t ask. They practically didn’t talk about the house throughout the remainder of their holiday and the following months. The only reference they did make to it when they talked about a robin which had started to visit their garden when Keith was in S. They called the little bird, whom they fed with seeds and dry fruit, ‘our non-permanent resident’.
When the plaster was taken off from Ilona’s leg, Keith and Ilona started to do more walking, discovering places in Lancashire which they never visited before and in March started to cycle, at weekends doing fifty-sixty miles a day. It was after one such trip that Keith told Ilona: ‘I want to sell the house. I realised that this place is not for us. I’m so sorry I dragged you into it.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked Ilona.
‘Yes, I am. It’s not that I hate these “permanent residents”; it’s just Scotland does not matter to me as it used to. I don’t feel like I have my roots there; my roots must have moved and they are now in Lancashire.’
‘Fine then. We have to approach the estate agent.’
‘I will do it tomorrow.’
The estate agent was optimistic. He told them that houses like theirs sell quickly, because for folk from London they are still very cheap and if they weren’t in a tremendous hurry, they could fetch a good price.
They replied that they weren’t in a tremendous hurry and they could wait for somebody willing to pay them more than they paid themselves so that they wouldn’t sell it at a loss. Over the next two months the agent showed it to six potential buyers. Eventually a family from London arrived whom Ilona and Keith met in person. They said that they wanted to buy it for their daughter who was about to start her studies in Edinburgh. For some reason, she didn’t want to live in Edinburgh, though. The mother said:
‘It is a lovely house, with so much character. When we saw it, we immediately thought that it would be a perfect place for her. And the village is so picturesque, with so many flowers. It is like heaven.’
‘Yes, it is lovely,’ said Ilona.
‘May I ask you why you decided to sell it?’ asked the father.
‘We simply realised that it would be too expensive for us to keep two properties and we are not going to retire as early as we thought.’
‘We understand,’ said the couple.
Two days later the Londoners put in an offer, which Ilona and Keith accepted. In the end, they didn’t lose any money. They even earned five thousand pounds, which they decided to spend on a trip to India.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over twenty of them in The Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef and Mystery Tribune, among others. Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.