Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Summertime Blues - Wednesday

‘Going to be hot this morning.’ Murmurs my wife, as I lie awake looking at the ceiling.

I’ve been married long enough to realise this isn’t a prediction about anything other than the weather, and besides I get screwed at work most days anyway. I know what comes next. It’s a regular battle, as soon as the capricious British weather hints at anything other than wind and rain.

‘You’ll be sweltering in a suit.’ She begins artfully, with a stifled yawn. I know that, I’ve been selling homes for longer than most people’s relationships last - some of my friends are on their third marriages - and yet she still persists in trying to convince me I’d look business-like, yet stylish, dressed like an Australian Bank Manager in a heatwave.

When I was woken by the sun rising at silly-o’clock, I realised this sartorial elegance conversation was slated to run again. We don’t get many decent days in the UK, where you can plan a barbecue or a trip to the beach, but this seemed like it might be one. One I knew I had several back-to-back appointments to attend, where I’d be sweating enough on a sole agency without sweating on the potential clients’ upholstery. 

Needless to say the overdue for replacement  company car will be like an oven, with the wheezy air-conditioning about as effective as an ice cube in a furnace. Yes, I’ve tried topping it up at the local Main Dealer but the hoses leak faster than a Government cabinet meeting.

‘I’m always sweltering in a suit.’ I answer, eventually. Rolling out of bed and feeling the first stabbing back pain of the day. My rival office colleagues will doubtless continue with that later.
‘I don’t know why you persist.’ Snipes my wife, rising in one annoyingly swift, fluid movement.

With what? I think sourly. Selling homes for ungrateful owners, letting properties for rogue landlords, flogging inappropriate financial products? No, neither do I. If it wasn’t for that over-leveraged interest-only mortgage, I thought was a good idea at the time.

‘Some of the trendier estate agents wear Polo tops now.’ States my wife woundingly.
‘They look like Wimbledon ball boys.’ I snipe, plodding to the en-suite with a limp.
‘I didn’t mean you’re not trendy.’ She replies, unconvincingly. She did.

I’ve had my fair share of fashion disasters, I recall, as I scrape at the greying bristles and wonder if I can eke this razor blade out, until the end of the week? There was the brief dalliance with a moustache in the late eighties, the paisley ties still hanging limply in the cupboard and that double-breasted suit with the turn-up trousers. It’s still at the back of the wardrobe, but barring an extended bout of bulimia I won’t be a size 32 inch waist again.

‘I’ve ironed this one for you just in case.’ Announces my wife as I hobble back from my shower, wearing just boxer pants and a faint sheen of sweat. I’ve slathered myself with roll-on anti-perspirant, like wallpaper paste, but I know as soon as I don my suit jacket the armpits will start to prickle - then leak.

I stare at the short-sleeved shirt my wife is proffering, hopefully. It’s a mistake I bought a couple of years ago. Too formal for a barbecue and too lacking in sleeves for any business, other than show business.
‘I refuse to look like a waiter at a cocktail bar.’ I tell her stiffly.
‘You’d prefer to smell like a Bull Rhino by lunchtime then?’ Counters my wife, with a false smile.
‘That’s why I’ve glued my armpits with enough coagulant to stop Niagra Falls.’ I snap.
‘You’d still be more comfortable in this.’ She says, waving the shirt like a surrender flag. I won’t be capitulating.

‘It’s just an unwritten rule.’ I grump, as I sit and pick at my dusty muesli. I’m already overheating and I’m tempted to unbutton my cuffs and roll the sleeves up a bit. But I’m nothing, if not stubborn. How else would I still be pitching for business against kids younger than my sock collection?

Hot to trot.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Plug And Pray - Friday

‘That’s a joke.’ Exclaims assistant manager T as he stomps back into the office face like thunder.
Chances are we are not about to be rib-clutching and rolling on the imitation wood laminate flooring in uncontrollable mirth, any time soon.

‘What?’ Asks loose lettings lush B, with a hint of a hiccup.
‘They’ve only gone and taken four parking spaces away up the road.’ Says T, shaking his head.
Not funny so far.

‘It’s hard enough to find a space as it is.’ Responds B with a grimace. ‘You’d think the council don’t want business to succeed in town.’ They don’t seem to. They want you to pay prohibitive business rates though.
‘If it’s for more disabled spaces you can understand.’ Says negotiator S reasonably.

I can’t understand, I want to reply. But I already have a reputation as a grumpy curmudgeon. Best not to say, swathes of empty spaces with a wheelchair stencil where I’d like to park my car, make me want to let down the tyres of any car with a Blue Badge. It doesn’t help when surprisingly sprightly looking occupants hop out with no walking sticks in sight.

‘It’s not for handicapped people - at least not physically.’ Says T with a shake of his head. ‘They’re installing those bulky battery charging points.’
‘Nobody drives an electric car.’ States mortgage man M dismissively. ‘At least nobody who lives in the real world and has to travel more than thirty miles without plugging in and waiting for hours to re-charge.’

‘It’s good for the environment.’ Counters S.
‘It’s not good for my blood pressure.’ Bats back M. ‘I’m trying to visit clients all day and I can’t park when I get back to the office, because some tree-hugging weirdo with more money than sense wants to park a Noddy car in a space I pay hundreds of pounds a year to not be able to use.’
Actually the cost comes off my office P & L account, but now is not the time to quibble.

‘Those idiots at the town hall have never had a proper job.’ Snarls M. ‘God save us from do-gooders and career politicians.’ He concludes, before waddling towards the kitchen. I’ve hidden the biscuits so his day isn’t going to get any better.

‘You have to start somewhere.’ Says S doggedly.
‘You can’t start, that’s the point.’ Replies T. ‘Not unless you have a five mile extension lead.’
‘It’s like pigging pointless Energy Performance Certificates.’ Contributes B. ‘Nobody gives a toss what band their new home is going to be in, they just want the rent to be cheaper than it is.’
‘Tell them.’ Pleads S, turning to me with a pleasing pout.

No matter how much I’d like to please S - avoiding harassment claims and industrial tribunals, obviously - I’m hard pushed to enthuse about agenda-heavy, reality-light  policies that pander to bobble-hat wearing, multiple-pierced Greens, while heavy industry in China chuckles and chokes the earth's atmosphere.

‘He knows.’ Says T with a wry smile. ‘He just won’t say it.’
‘I’m not a big fan of over-priced cars that you can’t hear coming, any more than over-priced roof panels that you can hear humming.’ I answer, secretly pleased with the poetic cadence.
‘Can you hear them hum?’ Queries trainee F, unhelpfully.
‘You can smell them humming.’ Says T with a wry laugh. ‘Particularly if you’ve been mug enough to lease your roof space for twenty-five years. Ugly as sin and you can’t sell you house. Not sure how that helps the environment.’

I’ve been sensing a mis-selling scandal on solar roof panels for years now. Unsightly, built in obsolescence and with promises of performance you’d be well advised to disbelieve. Like a fat politician, basically.

‘Talk of a waste of time, look who is coming in.’ Says T, nodding towards the window. Right on cue the Energy Performance Certificate man - a sort of cut-price chartered surveyor - comes in to the office.

‘Got a couple of reports to do.’ He says cheerily. He should write a Blog instead. Loads of effort and nobody reads the end result.



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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Seasons In The Sun - Wednesday

‘You feeling alright?’ Asks assistant manager T as he becomes the first staff member to arrive at the office - twenty minutes after me.

He doesn’t often sense moods that acutely, until I shout at him or thump the desk in frustration, but I’m guessing he’s noticed my washed out appearance. I’ve been awake, coughing and sneezing since about 4.00am. My eyes are red-raw from rubbing and crustier than a bakery floor.

‘I’m okay.’ I lie wearily.
‘Only it looks like you’ve been crying.’
Terrific. I’ve three valuations today and the sympathy sales pitch never lasts past the moment you tell them how much their home is really worth. The fee discussion is not to be sneezed at either.

‘It’s the pollen count.’ I tell T with an unpleasant sniffing sound resembling a badly blocked drain clearing.
‘Hay fever?’ Asks T with head to one side.
No, another survey the bean counter boss wants to do, I feel like saying sarcastically. Similar to a board count but with more bronchial mulch.

‘I never used to get all these allergies as bad.’ I tell T mournfully. The whole office knows about my reaction to dog and cat hair, never a good ailment when you are constantly entering homes where delusional pet owners think their house doesn’t smell and it’s okay to have felines on the kitchen work surfaces, and canines lying on the bed.

‘Maybe it’s an age thing.’ Muses T, sitting at his desk with a thump and firing up his flatscreen. No chance of making me another cuppa, I think tetchily? The half-full mug beside me has gone cold and I don’t fancy swigging the slightly bitter, grainy dregs of another tepid LemSip  I wonder if you can overdose on over-the-counter snot-busters? There must be cheaper ways.

‘You’d think you’d build up an immunity after half a lifetime of animal hair and tree pollen ingestion.’ I tell T, who doesn’t appear to be listening any more. I thought you could check your Facebook on your phone.

‘Says here the pollen forecast is very high today.’ Announces T. I’ve maligned him unnecessarily. Luckily it wasn’t out loud this time and in any case I’m beyond blushing now - coughing, sneezing and choking yes, but beyond blushing.

I walk across to glance over T’s shoulder just as fat finance fiddler M waddles in to the office, clutching another grease-flecked Greggs bag.
‘Someone died?’ Asks M stopping in front of me.
I raise a quizzical eyebrow and a tear spills down my cheek.

‘He’s got hay fever.’ Enlightens T, as I reach for my last tissue and trumpet a runny venting. Unlike my erstwhile drinking buddy, I refuse to use a linen handkerchief. He’ll happily blow his nose, then dip straight into the communal bag of crisps we’re sharing. I should widen my circle of friends but it’s not easy, being an estate agent.

‘That’s alright then.’ Says M moving away. ‘As long as it’s not one of my policyholders. Reams of paperwork if they croak and I don’t get any renewal commission.’
The property industry took a turn for worse the day insurance companies, banks and building societies started buying up estate agency firms.

‘God, you look awful.’ Says negotiator S, as she comes through the door and glances at me.
‘It’s hay fever.’ Shouts M from his office. ‘He’s not sobbing about the office sales figures.’
‘Have you tied anti-histamine tablets?’  Asks S, waking her computer and also showing no sign of making drinks.

‘I positively rattle with them.’ I tell her grumpily. ‘They are expensive and don’t really work that well.’
‘Like solar roof panels.’ Says T with a hearty chuckle.

Everyone’s a comedian. We’ll see if they’re still laughing when I arrange a leaflet drop for this afternoon. T’s right about the ugly solar slabs though. Not many people want to buy a house with those monstrosities ruining the roofline. Built in obsolescence, in a cloudy country with more rain than the forests we’re supposed to be saving. I sense another mis-selling scandal.

Back at my desk, I check my emails. 

I’m going to need another box of tissues.


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Friday, June 05, 2015

Battle Zone - Friday

I’m outside a pleasant semi-detached house in one of the nicer parts of town. I want it on my books - but so will every other estate agent locally.

Preparation is everything in a sales situation. I have a briefcase full of promotional material, agency contracts, print-outs of suitable buyers I have registered looking for similar homes to the one I’m about to value - and most importantly of all, data on comparable properties sold recently.

I glance at my watch, then double check with the car clock. I’m at least fifteen minutes early after the last appointment turned out to be the biggest pair of time wasters since….well….since the previous ones.

In the days when I used to help train new recruits, before I was deemed too dated and dowdy, I would labour the importance of never being late for a valuation appointment. The owner - at least the house proud ones - would have tidied up and been looking at the clock for at least ten minutes before the agreed time. Run behind and turn up just five minutes late and your potential client may well have been looking out the curtains fretting about your arrival, for at least quarter of an hour.

This bitch clearly hasn’t though, I realise, as I look across the road and recognise a bitter rival’s company car. It doesn’t have the tacky paint job, or the corporate logo down the side but it’s just as conspicuous to me. Damn it. I’m on a beauty parade and having pulled down the sun vizor and checked a few moments ago, I’m going to need to labour the charity work and world peace angle. Calling it a vanity mirror was painfully accurate.

My mobile chirps insistently. I really need to change that irritating ringtone, but I’ll need to wait until one of my sons is back from University. I can’t have the office thinking I’m more of an inept Luddite than they already do.

‘Yes?’ I enquire curtly, seeing it’s the office calling. I was about to turn the phone off. You don’t want it ringing when you are half way through trying to convince an intransigent owner their home really isn’t worth the £30,000 more a rival agent told them they could get.

Negotiator S comes on the line, her soothing tones a loss to the Premium Rate phone industry.
‘Could you fit in a late valuation this evening?’ She asks artfully.
I can’t afford not to, even though it could mean another charcoaled dinner when I finally get home - and my wife doesn’t do barbecues…

I jot down the details, hoping it won’t be me and several other agents this time.
‘Did you know I was going to be in a queue of oily liars in suits, on this valuation?’ I ask S. She laughs.
‘What?’ I demand.
‘Well that sort of indicates you’re a greasy bloke in a three piece.’

As it happens, I ditched the waistcoat after too much ridicule from my unsympathetic team. In truth, it was too sweaty anyway. Nothing worse then reeking of body odour when you are trying to appear fragrant and professional.

‘She didn’t say there’d be others.’ Answers S defensively. ‘But then there always is, isn’t there?’
There is. Unless it’s a probate sale. The dead are less argumentative than the living, although the squabbling beneficiaries more than make up for it.

‘Do you know who is in there?’ Quizzes S, as I look at the dashboard clock and wonder how long to give it before I cut short my opponent’s sales pitch
‘The shitester with the zero-fade haircut and loud ties.’ I tell her sourly.
‘God, you’ll not be able to breathe in there for aftershave fumes.’ Chuckles S.

More importantly, I’ll have to push my suggested sale price to stratospheric proportions. The outfit the man works for are notorious for misleading sellers to secure a sole agency, before starting to work on big price reductions.

‘We reckon you should sneak over and let his tyres down.’ Says S mischievously.
It’s tempting, but knowing my luck I’d be caught on someone’s home CCTV.

I’ll just pull his for sale board down after dark.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hell Fire And Grim Moan - Thursday

‘What the hell has happened to the system now?’ I ask angrily, fingers thumping on the keyboard like stubby jackhammers. The screen has frozen mockingly and no amount of frenzied ctrl/alt/deleting is making a blind bit of difference.

‘There’s been a software upgrade.’ Announces negotiator S soothingly. It should be a comfort, but she sounds so bloody reasonable it only serves to increase my anger. You finally get used to an operating method and some spotty, barely-pubescent oik earning three times what you do, only in the job because he spent his first fourteen years playing Dungeons and Dragons with other friendless oddballs, moves the f***ing goalposts.

‘How come a software upgrade makes everything run slower?’ I demand testily, realising even as I spout, I’m sounding increasingly like a grumpy old man. If the cap fits - although not one of those flat plaid ones, obviously…

‘It’s Version 2.0.’ Says assistant manager T, dismissively. As if that is supposed to be of any help. He looks at me, as I stretch my arms towards the walls.
‘Well, they haven’t ironed all the glitches out yet.’ He continues by way of a faulty explanation.
‘Why don’t they just ask the bloody people who have to use the wretched thing?’ I snap back.
‘Because that’s why they’ll have a 2.1 and 2.2 I guess.’

I vividly remember the old and bitter negotiator who briefly worked alongside me when I started in the industry. He struggled to work the bulky, black and white Polaroid instant camera, believing photos on property particulars were unnecessary. I soon outsold him and he was quietly moved on. What goes around comes around. 

Increasingly, I feel at odds with new technology the industry needs to embrace. Digital downloads and uploads, multiple property portals and laser tape measures I don’t trust, taunt me. Like a cantankerous elderly widow in a house too big for her, I don’t feel at home in the environment, but steadfastly refuse to move on.

‘Can we at least print out a board list?’ I ask S. The bean counter boss has been on my case again. I have to increase my penetration and need S to help me out. Not like that obviously - although it would take my mind off the percentage of owners who want to keep the fact their home is on the market, a sodding secret.

‘Who the hell is this clown?’ I ask later, as a white van man bumps up the kerb outside the office and emerges from the rear doors, clutching a long pole with a cumbersome pot on the end.
‘I think it’s the fire alarm people.’ Says S sweetly. ‘You remember they came last year and tested the smoke detectors.’

I do remember now she mentions it. I had the charge on my profit and loss account a few weeks later. Three figures for some bozo with an oversized incense burner held up to the ceiling, only to set the alarms shrilly ringing for two long minutes before anyone could figure out how to reset them. Too complicated by far. If they hadn’t banned in-office smoking I could save £145 plus VAT. by dragging lettings’ lush B from outside the kitchen door and getting her to puff Marlboro Lights towards the sensors.

‘RoSPA approved fire safety executive.’ Announces the unshaven man rather pompously. ‘I’m here to…’
‘Blow smoke up my arse?’ I interject coarsely.
S looks at me disapprovingly. It sounded funnier in my head.
‘It’s a joke.’ I say lamely.
‘Fire prevention is no joke, Sir.’ Replies the man with a frown.

‘How can he be called an executive?’ I ask, after the man has put new stickers on our unused fire extinguishers and left a faint pall of smoke clinging to the ceiling, post detector test.
‘Probably did an on-line e-learning course.’ Suggests T with a smirk.
Yes,’ I say moodily. ‘Another three-figure invoice for some confidence trickster, when all you need is a box of matches and a sense of smell.’

‘The system has frozen again.’ I say dejectedly, as my screen locks. Now I can’t respond to the bean counter’s board request.

Crashed and burned.


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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Happy Valley Court - Wednesday

Back at another sheltered retirement home development, with that growing sense of foreboding I’ve been getting ever since I valued my first one, about twenty-five years ago. In those days the minimum entry age of fifty-five seemed an age away, and about right for giving up on life and playing Whist in the communal lounge until the undertaker came. Now I’m not so sure…..

‘You can’t park there.’ Croaks an elderly woman, sitting astride one of those bulky motorised wheelchair-come-quad bike things that force you off the pavement and clip your ankles in supermarkets. I swear most occupants aren’t disabled, just too fat and lazy to walk.

‘I’m visiting number forty-two.’ I tell the nosey crone, who in fairness looks wrinkled and wobbly enough to justify her Blue Badge, allowing parking outside my office where I’m not permitted to stop.

The hag’s eyes twinkle. ‘Marjorie’s flat?’ She enquires with a gummy smile. I consult my clipboard and confirm the identity of the elderly owner, who is now in her third month blocking a hospital bed. I’m meeting the son in five minutes, so I need to shake off this old woman with all day to spare.

‘I knew she wouldn’t be back.’ Says the old girl with an unsettling chuckle, before engaging some sort of drive mechanism and whining across the car park towards an open ground floor flat door. 
I want to shout after the gloating woman, and tell her re-sales are really tricky on low-level units, but in truth it will be her beneficiaries who’ll have that problem.

‘Come on up, I’m on the fourth floor.’ Says a male voice, after I’ve buzzed the communal entrance doorbell. The door clicks and I grab it before the cut-off locks again. I’ve spent too many awkward minutes trying to re-establish contact with a hard-of-hearing occupant upstairs, when I’ve not tugged the door in time.

‘You here on business?’ Demand a disembodied voice, as I enter the gloomy foyer and get the first whiff of stewed cabbage that invariably inhabits the halls of these blocks. I see the house manager is in her little cubbyhole-come-office. There was a time when these places all had a live on-site warden to help the residents and to justify the sky-high management charges. Then the bean-counters took over.

I show the sour-faced woman my card and she begrudgingly nods acceptance, before adding curtly. ‘Don’t give them a stupid price. I know what you lot are like.’
I offer my well-practiced false smile and push the lift button. Nearly five minutes later the doors wheeze open. More bean-counter cost saving, I think, as I notice the cheap lift manufacturers logo and begin to wish I’d taken the stairs.

New build has often fetched a premium, but the prices elderly folk pay for these shrunken square footage flats has always disturbed me. During my first property crash I used to sell the second-hand, slightly soiled units, for about half what the parents had paid for them less than eighteen months before they went to the nursing home. Most of the blocks used to be called Something Court. Totally caught would have been more appropriate.

‘That you on the mantlepiece?’ I ask the late-middle aged son of Marjorie, as we try not to step on each others toes in the cramped flat. As usual, the furniture is way to big and dark for the living room/kitchen.

The man looks at the collection of faded photographs on the mock fireplace, wobbly-balanced above an electric fire. 
‘Yes.’ He answers with a self-conscious grin.
‘Mid-seventies?’ I enquire, looking at the shot of him with wrinkle-free skin and a disastrous mullet hair cut, but thinking about a suitable price for his mother’s flat.
‘Afraid so.’ He answers with a sheepish grin and a sweep across his bald pate, where time and genetics have robbed him of his locks.

‘Do you know how much Mum paid for the flat?’ I ask gingerly. Sometimes they say, sometimes they don’t. Then I hit him with the price.

Fortunately, he couldn’t tear his hair out. 


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Monday, May 11, 2015

Thick And Thin - Monday

‘Got a valuation for you this evening.’ Chirps negotiator S as I return to the office.
She should be pleased, these are the lifeblood of any estate agent. Without homes to sell you don’t survive, no matter what the market’s supposed to be doing. The only cloud on my immediate horizon, is the “evening” bit.

‘How late?’ I ask cautiously, not wanting to put a dampener on S’s success. 
‘Only 6.30.’ She replies with a winning  smile.
Yes. I think, but it’ll be 7.30pm before I’m out of there even if they are complete nutters, and there will be a pretty angry wife waiting with some incinerated supper. Still it could be worse.

‘And he’s a bit creepy.’ Adds S sheepishly.
‘How creepy?’ I ask hurriedly. Estate agents have been abducted by homicidal people before and I don’t particularly want to be the first to be dismembered and served with those African beans and an Italian red.

‘Not chop you up creepy. I don’t think.’ says S reading my mind. Fortunately, she can’t do that all the time.
‘Just desperate and gullible creepy.’ Adds B, from her lettings’ desk, with a sneer.
Gullible I don’t mind, particularly when it comes to negotiating a sole agency fee, but desperate isn’t always good - unless he’s lost his job and has to sell…

I look at S for some further information but she clams up and looks embarrassed.
‘He’s one of those fat, bald, ugly middle-aged blokes with a young Thai wife in tow.’ Enlightens B with a knowing smirk.
‘I didn’t necessarily mean that.’ Counters S defensively. She probably did.

‘You know the type.’ Continues B, hitting her stride. ‘Can’t get a British woman, because they have a mind of their own and can be picky about sweaty creeps with body odour, so they abuse some third world girl with the offer of untold riches and an ex-council flat.’
Wow. B’s goods are more damaged in transit than I thought.

‘She seemed perfectly nice.’ Counters S, with an awkward look my way.
I have a horrible feeling I might have some forms to fill in to send to Human Resources, I’ve detected sexism, possible racism and fattism, at the very least.

‘They are all nice until they get their feet under the table.’ Says obese mortgage man M, entering the fray. He’ s still smarting several years after his wife left him for a man who could see his own penis without a mirror.

‘Keep on her good side.’ Suggests assistant manager T, to M. ‘You might find she’ll be keen to load him with big portions and a bigger life policy.’ M’s podgy face lights up. Since they rumbled endowments and PPI policies he’s been looking for the next big thing.

‘They are all on the make.’ Says B. ‘Before you know it the stupid sap will be sending money back to Thailand for some made up relatives.’
‘That’s just so wrong.’ Snaps S sparkily. She’s rather splendid when riled.
‘It’s just as well nobody knows what we say.’ Says T with a chuckle. ‘The public wouldn’t like to hear what we really think of them.’
Hmm. Fortunately my team don’t show much inclination for reading, blogs or books. At best I’d guess we have a couple of men’s magazine perusers, a buyer of fantasy mags from the geekier end of the sci-fi spectrum and a closet Mills and Boon fan.

‘You can mock me.’ Continues B. ‘But I know how men work.’ That’s beyond dispute.
‘And you are all suckers for pretty girls, even ones half your age.’
‘Bit of a sweeping statement.’ I say, trying to avoid looking at S.
‘Bollocks.’ Snaps B. ‘And everyone knows the sort of oddballs that get Thai wives off the internet  wouldn’t have a hope in hell of shagging a British girl.’
‘Apart from the fat ones who will bonk for biscuits.’ Says T, unhelpfully.

The awkward silence hangs in the air like a fart in lift.
‘What?’ Asks M eventually.
‘Nothing.’ I say, thinking of the forms again.
‘I’m not fat, I’m big-boned.’ Says M huffily.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.