There’s an old guy called Alf living across the road from us who owns what must be one of the largest blocks of undeveloped land in the Bay area. It’s massive, well over an acre, but it hides so discretely behind several high fences that you have to peer right over them (or, get up on your roof with a camera), to see that there’s nothing there except chooks, dilapidated fruit trees, ancient sheds and the original house, in the middle of the block, dating from, I’d say, about 1880. It looks a lot bigger than this picture shows, going all the way to the grey brick wall in the background, and extending beyond the left edge of the photograph a considerable way. It’s a developer’s dream, and a neighbor’s impending nightmare.
As long as we’ve been living there we’ve seen this old guy Alf – and I mean a really old guy, he’s nearly ninety – coming and going (very slowly) past the disused shop-front (known to old locals as “the push and shove shop” due to the size inside), and wondered vaguely what was going to happen when he sold up and moved on, or when his elderly children sold their inheritance. How about four brand new townhouses, jammed in together with all the grace and charm of Kevin Foley on a big night out? It was always on the cards, and for a while it looked like it was happening.
When we moved back from the Solomons, the FOR SALE sign was already up, and our neighbour Herb informed us it had actually been up since August. By March we were starting to think that no-one would ever buy it and we’d be spared. But that was false hope. Sooner or later, we knew, someone was going to get the cash together, whack up the SOLD sign and get out the bulldozer.
Then, an idea occurred to me. I would enter (and subsequently win) the lottery, and use part of the proceeeds to buy the block and turn it into an organic vegetable garden. The ancient fruit trees and house would remain, retaining something of the rustic character of the suburb. The Mums from the school could come over and sip lattes while their children scampered about picking beans and learning the arcane ways of the past.
I’d call it…Lenny’s (after St Leonard’s, the original name of the suburb, still retained by the Primary school next door.) Or better yet, Alf’s. (My sister later suggested Milf’s, which might have attracted a slightly different kind of clientèle, but the point is, we would have figured something out).
But unfortunately, I did not win the lottery. Do not be unduly surprised at this: it turns out that the chances of winning are actually quite low, even when the cause is a worthy one, and when God is invoked, as was the case here. Yes, I asked God to allow me to win the lottery, promising that if I won, I would buy the land, prevent the development and create a natural green haven in a suburb that is otherwise being overrun with two-story charcoal grey faux-British mansionettes of such repulsiveness as to warrant that the owners be charged extra tax for making everyone else look at them.
So, after such selfless zealotry, I was quite miffed when I did not win, but as it turned out God must have known that it was already under contract, so if I had won the lottery, it would have been in vain. On my way to work one day I spotted two Mediterranean types having a snoop round, and asked them if it had been sold.
“Yeah, it’ s under contract,” said the main guy.
“Oh, damn,” said I.
“Why?” he said.
“Well, we’ve just been so worried that whoever buys it is going to build four townhouses on it,” I said.
“Yeah, I am,” he said.
“Oh, damn,” I said. (When I was younger I used to be able to literally put my foot in my mouth but age has taken its toll on my flexibility and I am now reduced to the metaphorical.)
So, the SOLD sign duly went up and for a few weeks after that, we thought our days of rustic grace were over, and that a noisy building site would await in on our return from Germany. I was grizzling about this to our neighbor Herb (who works as a mining engineer, incidentally), and he made the following, completely unsolicited comment:
I’d love to own that place, Steve. I wanted to turn it into an organic garden. All the yummy mummies could come and drink coffee and the school-kids could come and pick their own. Think of the lifestyle. It would be a dream.
Exactly the same fantasy as mine! What’s more, Kim, another neighbor and a policemen, has commented that if he had enough money, he’d buy it, plant a few more trees and just leave it there. Clearly, something about the place is calling out to the Utopian dreamer in many of us – even cops, miners and other hardened sorts not generally prone to romantic idylling. It just shouldn’t be turned into townhouses.
The whole saga has taken a new turn in the last few days, after I went over to farewell Alf before we go to Germany (he won’t be here when we get back) and it emerged in conversation that the family who have bought it intend only on extending out the back slightly, but do not plan on demolishing it and running a major development on the site.
So, there must have been several offers in on the place, or, someone has changed their mind about the townhouses. We are to be spared. Hooray~oh!
Perhaps God does not work in mysterious ways after all. I did not win the lottery (which would have been a rather extreme outcome, I admit). Instead, he’s taken a far more logical course: the block is being purchased by an ordinary family, rather than developers, and our little bit of old St Leonard’s heritage might last another few years yet.