One day I was running early for an appointment, and with 15 minutes to spare I spontaneously walked into a house that was open for inspection. It looked unassuming from the street but inside it was spectacular. Each room was generously portioned and flooded with light. Just being in the house seemed to elevate my mood, and make me feel clear and calm. But the most amazing thing was the outlook. It was on the harbour, with views that went right out to Manly. And not only that – it had two swimming pools, one that sat invitingly just outside the patio, decked with expensive furniture, while the second was at the garden’s edge – a harbour pool.
A real estate agent materialised by my side as I marvelled at an en suite bigger than my flat. His name was Tom and his hushed tone was that of a confidant, a consigliere: “Isn’t it incredible?”
I felt trapped and self-conscious, like an intruder – a class intruder – and I did something dumb. I pretended that the house was of no interest to me because it was too small. Affecting my best Melbourne private school accent (that is, I spoke entirely through my nose, without opening my mouth at all) I replied: “I was after something bigger, but well done, yes, well done on the interiors.”
I sounded like a whale in distress. My cheeks were getting red from trying to direct the words out my nose. Ugh!! I had to get out!! I turned on my heels and left with what I hoped was a convincing hauteur. On the street I burst out laughing. Rich people are absurd, I thought. Two swimming pools!
I assumed that would be the end of it, but having given my phone number for contact tracing purposes, the agent called me regularly over the next two weeks.
Sometimes it took a while for the penny to drop and I’d be speaking normally, through my mouth, my mind whirling – Tom? Tom? That is until he started talking about other properties I might like – ones with six bedrooms, a boathouse, a private jetty, a tennis court, two tennis courts! Homes bigger than the tiny box I had seen at the open for inspection. Homes that were $10m, $11m, $12m. My heart would sink as I honked through my nose, “Oh Tom, sounds fabulous but …” I was travelling, my husband was away, I was indisposed, and then there was Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid. All the while Tom was lovely, just wanting me to be happy, to find a truly enormous, gigantic luxury house to call my own. I sat there feeling miserable. I wanted to correct him, but it just felt so awkward. I had left it too late! I was trapped in a lie.
Part of my reluctance to expose my true self stemmed from a humiliating encounter on the 35th floor of a big Melbourne bank, about a decade ago.
I was a broke freelancer doing a story for a financial services magazine about private bankers. Who were they? And who were their clients? I was ushered into an inner sanctum where everything was not just marginally better than the public banking spaces – but phenomenally better, like a boutique five-star hotel. There were even butlers!
After the interview concluded, the banker indicated that I should see myself out. On the way to the lift I saw about a dozen people milling around. Cake! A seminar or talk had just finished and people were standing around in pairs or alone eating petit fours.
I was hungry. I seized my chance. I took a cake. A butler asked me if I wanted coffee. This was living!
My reverie was interrupted by an older gentleman, impeccably dressed – a light grey suit with a faint pinstripe, tie in a Windsor knot. We engaged in small talk, but the feeling coming from him was absolute attention, a sort of rapt engagement in my observations on the weather, the paintings, the cake. I was loving it! We skated lightly from one topic to the next, as he manoeuvred me towards a comfortable chair. Seated, he leaned even closer and gazed at me as if I was the most fascinating person on Earth. I drank it in. At one point, seeing that my plate was empty, he motioned for the butler to bring me another coffee, another plate of cakes.
Maybe 20 minutes passed this way until I asked him what he was doing here. He worked here. He was one of the private bankers. Then something slipped, his impeccable benevolent mask. What was I doing here? He asked. Relaxed in his company I told him I was a freelance journalist, doing a story on private banking and … I stopped. We both stopped. A mutual moment of cognitive reorganisation. A sort of horror passed quickly across his face, an expression strong enough to curdle the coffee in my stomach.
He didn’t have to say it but I knew. He had thought I was a high net worth individual. A client of the bank. Rich. He said journalist the way other people said murderer.
With a different voice now, he told me I should leave – that this was for clients only. My cheeks burned as I walked to the elevator.
Remember that famous scene in Pretty Woman where the shop assistant thought Julia Roberts was poor and treated her dismissively?
Well here, the banker and the real estate agent thought I was rich and were treating me like a princess. I was a reverse Pretty Woman. I was Ugly Woman! (or in a true reverse, Ugly Man … ??)
Now every time the phone rang I started feeling ill. I tensed up whenever I saw a real estate sandwich board on the street, advertising an open house.
Then the calls stopped for almost a year. But just last week Tom rang again. And again it took me a while to place him. He asked if I’d found anywhere suitable to live. “I like where I am,” I said, looking around my rented two-and-a-half room apartment, before realising it was him, Tom. He wanted to sell me another harbourside mansion. This one I would love. He could show me through tomorrow, a private viewing. I could get first dibs.
I closed my eyes for a moment and felt the tug of fate. Surely it would be the easiest thing just to drift along into the natural conclusion of this misunderstanding – go to the house, say through my nose, “Oh Tom, it’s perfect, it’s just darling” and then agree to buy the house (a steal at $15m!) and somehow end up in an even more absurd situation than the one I was already in. I would buy the mansion in order not to make us feel awkward, in order to be polite.
And that of course, ironically, was my class giveaway. Only a middle-class person would go to such lengths to avoid embarrassment.