Bourbon Penn 16

She Would Walk Them

by Daisy Johnson


It involved more driving than she’d wanted from a job. Putting on deodorant in service station toilets; M&S and Gregg’s sandwiches, those tiny toothbrushes that come from vending machines. Sometimes she got to the house late and the viewers were reversing out of the drive as fast as they could, plowing through flowerbeds, not even pausing when she waved and shouted for them. She got her money anyway. It wasn’t her fault if they didn’t stay. She got paid for turning up.


The worst would kill her. The three bungalows had been bad, though not the worst. Black water kept coming up through the floors. The couples she showed around were mostly old and nearly blind, though they all noticed the mirrors turned to face the walls and asked her about them. To keep them clean, she’d said. How did a person get so proficient at lying? She did good deals for all three and was out of there by eight o’clock. Rule number 4: don’t stick around. By nine the money was in her account and she was in the first place she came to: a rundown sports bar with a gas-stink and a squirrel stuck under the undercarriage of a Ford Transit parked outside. In the bathroom she took off the tweed skirt and silk blouse and put on jeans, a T-shirt. There was a lingering smell to the clothes the way there often was. She stuffed them in the bin. There were enough spares in the boot of her car to get her through a couple of months. By ten she was well on her way to a long night and a bad hangover. A man with an unsubtle combover swung into her booth and planted his cider and black like a stop sign on the wet table.

“So. What do you do?” he said. She could smell the nachos he’d just eaten at the bar.

“I’m an estate agent,” she said.


There was a house on a Sheffield hill that she spent so little time in she thought daily about selling up, being one of those baseless, suitcase-living wanderers, Airbnb and bed and breakfast, maybe even use the cash to buy a camper. Knowing really she never would. The house her mother had been born in; the house she and her brother had grown up in, the marks of all their battles on the walls, the Sheffield Wednesday posters, the attic so full with junk she worried some windy nights the ceilings would fall in. And there was always the possibility, wasn’t there, of going back. Settling down. Weeding the small, stony garden on the weekends. Buying in enough booze to last the rainy seasons. She liked Sheffield. The hills, that expansive graveyard on the outskirts where her mother was buried, the botanical gardens where she’d walked once or twice when she was growing up. A steady job selling new builds on the outskirts to just-marrieds and singles come up to work in the science parks that were sprouting like fungus on the hills. Houses so new not even the mice had time to die in them.

Any problems? The prospective buyers would say and she wouldn’t even have to lie.

Not a thing. Not a single thing wrong with this baby.


For a while she’d had a boyfriend named Bartholomew. This was a long time ago. An estate agent from Cambridgeshire who left long phone messages in the middle of the night and would somehow turn up without her remembering telling him where she’d be. A smoker, an online solitaire player. She once found his toothbrush in her overnight bag. Like a message he was leaving her. She did not know what it meant. This, he’d tell her in every phone message, is how to sell a house no one wants to buy. Bartholomew didn’t believe in haunted houses, but he went to church at Christmas and Easter. She barely noticed when they stopped seeing one another.


The calls come late at night or in the very early mornings. They’ve heard of her from someone who had a similar problem with selling a property in the Lakes or Devon or they’ve managed to find her online, follow the small breadcrumb trail she’d allowed to build up. They are nervous, don’t want to need to speak to her, are taciturn. They are telling her they cannot do their job. They give her the address, ask how long before she can get there. She washes her face in a sink with someone else’s shaving trimmings staining the bowl; takes three paracetamol and puts on tights from a pack bought the day before. Sends her bank account details over. They are never waiting when she gets there. She doesn’t need to go to the office. They’ve left the key under the flowerpot or hanging from the doorhandle. Three hours is mostly more than enough time to get rid of the smells, the small piles of dirt on the floors, shift carpets to cover stains, wedge doors closed to stop them swinging open without warning, put on music to cover the weird sounds that come and go intermittently, put up the pictures she keeps in the back of the car over the holes in the walls. Rule number 3: move fast, don’t think too much. She had one of those tiny iPods that clipped to the collar of her shirt and that she put on as soon as she got inside. She had one of those heavy belts roofers used and which was full of cleaning products, spray that smelled like cookies just out the oven, the keys to the house. It was no good having a box or bag and putting it down somewhere only to find it gone when you went back to find it. There was no good, either, in doing a once over and then waiting in the car for the prospective to arrive. These weren’t houses, they were coastlines, and things shifted and changed easily.

At some point the prospectives arrived and it was a different sort of job. She’s charming, yes, but also firm. This is the house you want, there is no other that will do. Like a card trick or palm reader. She knows what they want even before they do. Mostly, also, it’s a job of misdirection, distraction. She knows what to look out for, those small signs of unease, like air bubbles or red skies before storms. Wrinkles in the wallpaper, the floor getting warm underfoot. Let’s move into the bedroom. Lots of wardrobe space.


Rule number 1: never mind. Leave it all behind when you go. That’s not to say they didn’t haunt her. Their careful faces as they looked around the houses; the cars they drove, the child seats in the back, the phone calls they took when she was in the room. I love you, they said, the house looks good, I think you’ll like it. What worked was turning their voices into a blur of static, like tuning in to the wrong station or hearing a language you didn’t know. The problem was it wasn’t always easy to turn this off. Stood in busy service stations with bodies smudging and rushing around her and not being able to make out a single word anyone was saying. Turning on the television in hotel rooms and finding herself unable to follow the plots of shows, the meaning of adverts. She was tuned in wrong. She was tuned into the frequency of hauntings and what-shouldn’t-be-there and noises in the night. She was as bad as one of those sad old houses, rotted through with bad memories and poor communication. They wouldn’t have been able to sell her, either.


The house in Essex had been bad, though not the worst. The autumn of 2016. Not a good time to be an estate agent, though she was busy. Barely pausing for breath. Stumbling late into grimy Travelodge rooms, feasting on vending machine food, running out early in the mornings with her sunglasses on and killer headaches already getting a roll on. The addresses texted to her phone, plugged into her satnav, radio on, heating turned up high. A converted barn with more glass than walls and things skidding around on the top floor when she looked at it out the corner of her eye. That night in the bathroom of a pub, she’d found bruises the size and shape of thumbprints on her wrists and her waist and her ankles. And she couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched her.


Not prepared for the dreams when they start to come, sometime at the end of an October. Boring to begin with; just her wandering around an unidentifiable house with her headphones in and her workbelt on, cleaning away with the strong bleach and the scrubbing brush. Dreams that felt like days. That was the problem. Sometimes she couldn’t tell when the dreams ended and everything else began. Cleaning the grave dirt from the floor of a house when she’d look up and see herself, perhaps a little younger, her hair cut in a way she’d never had it, standing in the doorway to the sitting room or the bathroom. And her younger self was cleaning too, cleaning away with her headphones in and whatever she was listening too loud enough that when you shouted — when you raised your hands and fucking shouted — she didn’t hear you.


In a pub — open late, country lane, quiz going on — a man, drunk though not as much as she, told her he recognised her. Leola, he said. I know it’s you, Leola. She told him he was wrong. He sat back. You must just have one of those faces, he said and swung away. Yes, she thought, that was it. That was why she was so good at it. She had one of those faces, like wallpaper in hotels, trustworthy in its unremarkableness.


Sometimes in the house she was in now she’d try and leave marks in breath on the windows and mirrors and find she couldn’t do it. There was someone else there with her. They moved the cups in and out of the cupboards, left scum marks in the toilet and around the edge of the bath; kept — however many times she turned it off — switching the television on. How long had she been there? It was quieter at night. She pressed her hands to the walls and the doors and watched the plaster contract around them, allowing her in.


Younger, in that Sheffield house, she’d seen and heard what other children didn’t. Slips, mistakes, holes, mirages, tears. Her mother had been an estate agent. The sort who actually baked cookies and kept in contact with everyone she sold a house to. She’d spent more time in other people’s houses than she had her own. She used to help her mother dust. She could remember her own birth. She was certain. The flurry of activity, the crease of awful light, the way she had vacated her mother’s body. Even then she had known what would become of her, though she did not have the words to tell anyone. And if she had? What would she have said? Speaking up into the shocked faces of the nurses and doctors, her own mother. This is what will happen. This is what will come.


The worst would kill her and the Welsh house had been the worst. She’d trashed the car getting it up the hill. A small, grubby cottage rimmed with sheep fields, villages, the gray seam of ugly sea. She hadn’t been home for nearly six months. The estate agent on the phone had been aggressive, raging. I have, he’d said, a broken arm, and then hung up the phone. Near the house there was a noise — familiar to her — of rising static. She plugged in her headphones. The stink of bleach in her nostrils. Thinking of the pub she’d pegged as a good one for later. Thinking of her brother who’d called a couple of times over the last few weeks but left — when she ignored the calls — no messages. The key left on the doorstep for anyone to find. When she looked up at the village above there were faces in some of the windows, watching her. Rule number 3, she thought, and then could not remember what it was. There was motion behind her. She was tired. She was tired through to the core of her. Movement behind her. The prospectives turned up early, perhaps, or someone from the village come down to stare. This will be the last; she thought out of nowhere. This will be the last house I sell. And she dreamt — as she scrubbed on hands and knees and re-hung the curtains — of that house in Sheffield with its safe walls and the shelves she would fill, slowly, with charity shop books, the kitchen she would cook in, the bed she would sleep long, nightmareless nights in. There were hills in Sheffield; she would walk them.

Daisy Johnson was born in 1990. Her debut short story collection, Fen, was the winner of the Edge Hill Prize. Her debut novel, Everything Under, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was the winner of the AM Heath Prize and the Harper’s Bazaar short story prize. She has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Prize and the New Angle Prize. Daisy currently lives in Oxford, UK.