Lilian was in her 80s when I first met her. A reserved widow; small, stooped, and shy. She was my next door neighbour. I called her Mrs Smith out of deference to her age.
I found her in my garden one day, pale and shaking. Whatever had occurred, she felt unable to speak of at that moment. Instinctively, I put my arm around her, though I would not normally be so bold. ‘Come and have a cup of tea, Mrs Smith’, I said, the English panacea for all troubles. ‘Please, would you call me Lilian’, saith she, ‘there’s no one left who calls me Lillian’.
Revived with tea, she told me what had happened. She had been dozing that afternoon, in front of her gas fire, when she was rudely prodded awake. Two large gentlemen of African appearance stood over her. In her front room. They were holding a knife.
‘Open the drug box’ they said. Lilian, half awake, was bemused. ‘Drug box?’ She fumbled for her plastic box of daily medicines on the side table. It was rudely thrown aside. More shouting, more swearing – though she dare not repeat the words they said – and eventually, in frustration they had picked up one of the pair of intricately carved dinning chairs by the table in the window and smashed it against the wall. After that, they had rampaged through the building and left empty handed.
On Lilian’s front gate was a tarnished brass plaque. ‘Donald Smith, Dental Surgeon’ it proudly proclaimed. Indeed, he had been, 40 years before. I had realised that she was widowed, but never knew the circumstances until that afternoon.
Her parents had owned the cafe, still in existence, on the ‘green’ a few yards down the hill. Next door to us was the Dental School. 60 years before that, young Donald, trainee dental surgeon, had been in the habit of taking his evening meal in the cafe, and they would talk. Eventually they married, and bought the house on the hill for the terrifying sum of £350. They had never had children, and now she was alone. Donald had taken his own life, bowed down by troubles she couldn’t bear to relate in detail, so I know not what.
I had called a couple of largish male friends, always useful in this sort of situation, and all together, we walked back to Lilian’s house, armed with a crowbar, to ensure that it was empty. My friends went off to buy new door locks; and one suggested, for it was the nature of his business, that he donate an alarm which could be rigged up to ring in my house should Lilian ever find herself in this position again. It was long before personal alarms had been thought of. Thus secured, we set about picking up the pieces of broken furniture.
Those carved dinning chairs were beautiful, some of the finest I had ever seen. Fruit and flowers cascaded across the back and down the legs. It was heartbreaking to think that someone could have destroyed one in mere thwarted anger. Lilian moved over to the desk in the front room, and took out a bunch of keys. She selected one and handed it to me. Would I unlock the next room and fetch her another chair for her table?
I opened the door, and gasped. I was in the waiting room of Donald’s surgery. There were ten more identical chairs and a pair of matching armchairs! Even 40 years ago, I was looking at a couple of thousand pounds worth of furniture. Not minutes before Lilian had told me that she couldn’t possibly afford to have such a delicate chair repaired, she only had her pension – Donald had left her nothing but debts. ‘Lilian’, I said, ‘these chairs are worth an awful lot of money, don’t throw away the broken one, I can find you someone who will buy them’. ‘I couldn’t sell them’, she replied, ‘when Donald first started in business my Father gave them to him, they’d been given to him to start the cafe with, I’ve lived with them all my life’.
Fair enough; the older you get, happy memories are worth more than money. The chairs are not the point of this story though, just my usual digression. The point of the story is what had happened around Lilian in the intervening years.
It had become fashionable to live in unfashionable areas. The fine Georgian houses in that part of South London had become deeply desirable. Some houses had the mortar in between the bricks carefully picked out in brilliant white paint – they were the province of the Jamaican community. Some houses were meticulously restored with ‘fading’ green paint, the brick work sandblasted – they were the province of the nouveau riche who desired street credibility. Neither Lilian nor I had the money or the desire to do either to our homes, but the effect on the area of those who did have the money to do so was that our houses became more valuable. Had Lilian lived longer, or had I remained in my house next door, we would both have become ‘millionaires’; triple millionaires as it happens. Not through our own doing, nor through our ability to buy a multi-million pound house, but simply through the aspirations and desires to follow fashion of those who became our neighbours.
We would both still have been pensioners living on our basic state pension – but according to the idealistic student politics world of the Lib-dems, it would be ‘obscene’ for us to have free bus passes, or TV licenses, and we should both have been forced to pay a ‘mansion tax’ based on the value of our homes. Or move out, sell up, leave our memories behind. Evil ‘rich bastards’ living in million pound houses, who should bear a greater proportion of the national debt than others, like students, with their entire
voting working life ahead of them.
In France, they have a much simpler system than the one proposed by the ‘politics of envy’ Lib-dems. We have a ‘wealth tax’ here – but it is voluntary, for a while. You can elect to pay it whilst you are alive, if you wish. If not, when you die, if the value of your estate exceeds the wealth tax barrier, then it is deducted from your beneficiary’s inheritance. Surely fairer than expecting people to fund a tax out of their pension when, through no fault of their own, indeed, through the actions of their neighbours, the value of their home exceeds a certain level?
No, I have no idea where the chairs ended up – probably in some Banker’s boardroom, being sat on by the great and the good, discussing the pain others must go through on their behalf; the mirror she left me still hangs in my bathroom, I comb my hair in it every morning and think of her. What would I say if someone suggested I sell it to pay a new tax? I wouldn’t dare tell you; Lilian might be listening – she didn’t approve of bad language.