‘But I don’t want to move. I like it here.’
‘No you don’t.’
‘I do. I always have.’
‘But it’s damp, George. The central heating is dodgy. And the whole area is really going downhill.’
‘But Claire, I like it here. What about all our neighbours and friends?’
‘Neighbours and friends? I don’t think Doris from the corner shop is much of a friend. She calls you a fool when she shortchanges you when you buy your cigarettes. And she’s one of the ones who actually like you.’
‘What about her husband Gerry? He likes me.’
‘Whatever you say, George,’ said Claire. ‘Anyway, the petition was just the final straw. We need to move. This place is cramped and uncomfortable. Even for the two of us.’
‘Yes, Claire,’ said George as he plumped himself down on his usual armchair, picked up his tobacco tin and began to roll a cigarette.
Claire perched on the edge of his armchair.
‘George…’ she wheedled. ‘It’s just that there’s not enough room here. For us and for our new resident.’
‘What? You haven’t gone and got in a lodger? Oh, Claire, I told you not to.’
He lit his match with a little more aggression than was strictly necessary, and inhaled on his newly lit cigarette as if it were an action specially designed to punish her.
‘It’s not that, George. It’s just that we’ll soon be hearing the sound of tiny little feet.’
‘A new dog? But Snuffles died a long time ago and we said we wouldn’t get…’
‘A baby, George. We’re having a baby.’
‘Ah,’ said George.
‘And the house isn’t big enough,’ said Claire.
‘Well, we can’t afford a baby and we can’t afford a bigger house.’
It was fair to say that Claire had not expected a joyful reaction from her glass-half-empty husband. It was also fair to say that she didn’t expect him to agree to her request to move house.
But she knew that it was the only solution. They’d need to move before the baby needed its own room. A one bed flat was no kind of a home for a growing family.
George dragged deeply on his roll up. ‘Well, I don’t want us to move. And that’s that.’
Claire knew he’d had his last say on the matter. She stopped stroking his shoulder and hoping he’d respond, and moved to her own small, orange chair. Well, that was it. She would have to do what her mother always did. She’d go to the village wise woman for advice.
The wise woman’s name was Hazel. She lived just a few streets away. Claire’s mum had been to see her about such diverse subjects as how to keep the front step clean and white without working, how to get mice out of the kitchen, and how to make her husband fall in love with her. Before he was her husband. That was how long Hazel had been the village’s wise woman. She must have been older than time.
The following day, Claire arrived at Hazel’s house. It didn’t take long for her situation to be explained, and for her to return home. With a cat.
‘Hold on a minute,’ moaned George. ‘Are you trying to get me used to cleaning up shit? I told you, I don’t want a baby.’
Neither did Claire, at that moment. She was struggling to eat, struggling to sleep, and couldn’t go anywhere near her mum’s log burner as the smell made her heave immediately.
‘Believe me,’ said Claire, ‘I went to the wise woman for advice. She told me to do this. Today.’
‘Wise woman. For God’s sake.’
It continued. First Claire brought a cat. The next day, a small dog. When she brought a goat into the living room the day after, George went absolutely crazy. There was more than a bit of swearing from him, and more than a bit of cold sweating and vomiting from Claire. The noises, chaos and miscellaneous aromas emanating from those three animals was enough to ensure Claire stayed in bed.
The following day Claire sent George on her mission. He brought home a cow and, in utter astonishment, put the poor creature into the back yard.
There was more swearing. George was a very unhappy man.
But there was no way that anyone ever disobeyed the wise woman. Nobody ever had since the 1950s when a young mother refused to accept her advice and was found naked and dead within the hour.
‘I’m going to see this mad woman myself,’ he said. And he did.
He returned home that evening with a bale of hay. And a horse.
Claire, pale green in colour and floppy in consistency, was in bed.
‘I wish you’d never gone to see that blasted woman in the first place.’
Me too, but still Claire pretended to be asleep.
The following morning she was well enough (after a single bout of vomiting) to leave the house and make her way to Hazel’s house.
She returned home and, as ordered by the wise woman, removed the horse and its hay from the house. The next day George returned the cow. Next to go were the goat and the dog and the cat.
Eleven days after Claire had first been to see the wise woman, things were just as they’d been before, apart from the manure-stained and wrecked carpets, the squashed and eaten furniture and the ripped curtains.
Claire wasn’t stupid. She understood why the wise woman advised what she had. She knew that the fabled intention ran like this: 1) house feels too small 2) house gets overfilled 3) house gets emptied, and 4) couple realise that house was big enough all along.
George knew it too. That’s why they had both put up with it – partly because they were scared to go against Hazel’s orders, and partly because they knew the animals wouldn’t be staying for long.
But the wise woman wasn’t so wise after all.
George couldn’t live in the squalor, and refused to replaster, decorate, and buy new furniture. Within a week of the removal of the final animal, the decision was made (by him) to move house. He didn’t love the place any more.
‘That wise woman’s not so wise after all. Her silly scheme backfired.’
By the time Claire was six months pregnant they had moved to a bigger house in a better area, and Claire was busy preparing the house for their new arrival. George was loving the extra space – the shed, the garden, and the wonderfully large kitchen.
There was, however, a secret that Claire had never told George, and never would.
It was something that only the wise woman’s customers knew. Her suggestion to bring the animals into the house was, like all her other suggestions, made for only one reason.
To get the customer what they want.
And Claire, the customer who’d paid her money to Hazel in very, very good faith, had really, REALLY wanted a new house.