A Glimpse Through the Mist of Time
I had never believed in the theory that something mystical called Fate would guide you through life's pathway. I was a pragmatic, sometimes hard-headed businessman who had built a solid, successful concern buying, renting and selling property. Where I was today had resulted from decisions based upon experience and the opportunity to buy at the right price and sell when circumstances offered a good profit. So why was I here? Looking over these acres of agricultural land that I had bought on little more than a whim; as I contemplated I started to berate myself for ignoring the pragmatism that had guided me up to now and my hopes wilted. Land like this was completely out of my business plan; it was doubtful that the local council would ever grant planning permission for the land; therefore no developer would approach me begging to buy this parcel for far more than I had paid. Yet I was here having bought it and now it seems that unknowingly I have re-purchased the land my family owned almost one hundred years ago!
It started when Brian Morestead came to see me in my office in Bethnal Green. I knew him from deals we had worked on together sometime as partners in a project; sometimes as me being the seller and he the buyer. This time he came as the seller hoping that I would take this land off him. "Daniel. I will be straight with you. I have over-extended and the Inland Revenue are getting heavy over last year's return. I can sort that from reserves but I need cash quite quickly for wages and rents. I have some land up in North Essex. I bought it quite cheaply as a long term project. I have hopes that eventually the land will be zoned for housing. I am happy to pledge that property as collateral if you would advance me the capital I need for running expenses. What do you say?"
"I need some more detail, Brian. Show me this land you want to use as collateral." He got out the land registry maps and the local authority maps and showed me where the parcel was. He then showed me the deeds to the property, proving that he did indeed own the land. The deeds only dated from nineteen forty-eight, which was unusual. He explained that the land had been owned by the Ministry of Defence for many years before that date and a bureaucratic muddle so typical of civil servants resulted in the original deeds being disappearing. Not lost or mislaid, civil servants never lose anything; they file documents in the wrong place or do not have them to hand at this time. They never lose them.
The small estate of one hundred and ninety acres was in essence mixed, mainly pastoral land with grazing rights and some arable which Brian told me was rented to local farmers. The land was situated about fourteen miles east of Stansted airport. Stansted's single runway is configured north-east to south-west, so the land I was looking at would not be directly under the flight path. It was also equidistant from Stansted and Colchester. Both Stansted and Colchester were within easy commuting distance from London. I had to agree with Brian. The land was ripe for development. It just needed the local authority to agree. With the pressure of Government on local authorities for more housing, that may not be too far in the future. This could be a treasure, but one which would take a few years to unveil.
I also had a problem looming with the Inland Revenue. The last year had been good and my accountant, Chad Martin had advised me to tie up some capital in a long-term investment to set against my profits. This bit of land could be just what I needed. I typed a message on my keyboard; my desk top was linked with my secretary's desk top computer. "Brian, I am sorry but I cannot lend you the money." His face fell and I let him suffer for a few moments before I said. "However, I may be able to take this land for you if we can agree on a reasonable price."
He shook his head. "No, Daniel. I couldn't let it go."
"Ok. I'm sorry I cannot help you."
"Now let's not be too quick here, Daniel. I suppose I could let it go, but I would be looking in the region of two and a quarter million." I pulled a face and waited for a moment. Sure enough my screen showed up with agricultural land values for Essex for purchase and for letting. Tina my secretary was red-hot in more ways than one and she had replied very quickly to my message. Two and a quarter was imagination gone wild. However we had established that Brian would sell. All we needed was to settle the price.
"Given that it is a very long-term investment; and there is doubt that it will ever be zoned for development I couldn't go over one and a half."
Brian spluttered. "Wh ... What?"
"Oh come on Brian. I'm doing you a favour here. I am buying what could well turn out to be a pig in a poke."
"Two, then." He offered.
"One and three quarters, and I cannot go over that."
"You're a bastard, Daniel." He reached over the desk and offered his hand. I shook it. Deal done.
"Tracey" I shouted. The intercom on my desk bleeped. I pressed the key and asked, "Yes?"
"Don't shout at me. We have the intercom; all you have to do is press the key and speak nicely. You know very well my name is Tina, not Tracey. Now what do you want?"
"I want a deed of sale drawn up. I have all the details here."
"I'm doing my nails."
"You're doing your what?"
"You heard. I am doing my nails."
"Why do I employ you?"
"Because I wear short skirts and I have big tits."
"You're a tart."
"And you are a dirty old man."
"No I'm not. I was going to come in tomorrow wearing a really short skirt and a top I can fall out of if I'm not careful. So if you fire me you'll never get to see that."
"O.k. You're not fired, you are a wonderful person the sight of whom cheers me up every day and fosters my dirty old man thoughts about you. I need this deed of sale done quickly, so could I plead for your help?"
"Oh alright. Bring me the papers and I'll do it."
Most people when buying a property will get their solicitor involved. People in this business do not. We don't like paying a solicitor the huge sum he will want; usually a percentage of the purchase price; to do something quite simple. We buy and sell so often we can do all the necessary searches ourselves. Actually Tina, (yes I do know her name, I call her Tracey to wind her up.) does all of that. She had worked as a conveyancing clerk for a solicitor before I lured her away. She is quick and accurate and she can move around the internet and the Land Registry site as easily as she moves around her own home. She would make all the searches we needed and it would be done in as little as three days, whereas a solicitor would take a month at least to convince his client that it was very difficult thereby justifying the fees he would charge. As we had signed up with the Registry we can download any documents we need. It took Tina twenty minutes to prepare the deed of sale and made two copies. Brian and I read through the agreement and signed. I gave him a cheque for the amount payable in seven days. That gave me the breathing space to get the Land Registry documents needed. Little things like their records matching the documents that Brian had shown me, and that he was actually the registered owner of the land.
I was sure that Chad Martin had mentioned that he lived somewhere in that area so I decided that a visit to his office may offer more information. I put my head around the door to Tina's office. "Tracey I am going to see Chad for a moment, so you can get on with your nails."
"Why did you get that intercom when you either shout at me, or put your head round the door?"
"I like looking at you, and if you don't come in tomorrow with the blouse you have promised, you are fired."
"So if I came in topless?"
"You would get a big rise, and I am not just referring to my nether regions."
"You are a disgusting old man!" She told me with a smile on her face.
"See you in a while, Tina."
"Hah! The thought of my tits and your memory is restored."
"Not only my memory."
"Slut." I left her to her own devices.
I realized shortly after Tina came to work for me that she enjoyed such banter. I also realized that it was just banter. If I had ever made a move on her she would leave and I would lose a very valuable employee. Tina had a nose for research; she knew where to go on the internet for information over and above that which the official sites would reveal. Our banter was a way of making our work enjoyable. I left the office and turned right to walk the couple of hundred yards to Chad's office. When we first met I was surprised that a very clever accountant, as Chad undoubtedly was, would work from this area. Bethnal Green not being the most salubrious area. When he explained that it helped with keeping a low profile and why he wanted a low profile I understood. When I started my business I couldn't afford flashy offices and even when the business became profitable I eschewed the idea of a glamorous location as others such as Brian used. It was an overhead I could do without. Whilst I was not exactly an East End boy; I had grown up in Islington; I knew by rumour the names of some of Chad's clients. He assured me that the majority of his clients were law-abiding and honest as I was. That description of my work was amusing in a way, as property speculators, as I described myself were viewed in general as mendacious and manipulative if not actually crooked. I considered myself straightforward. That I was honest and straightforward was down to my mother.
I knew my father only from hearsay. He vanished when I was four. From what I gathered he was one of those men who always had great ideas for a get rich quick scheme. To that end he would borrow money from wherever he could. Unfortunately his schemes never worked and the money he borrowed would not be repaid. When he exhausted the regular sources of funds he approached other sources. His luck didn't change and when his irregular source of funds came pressing for repayment he vanished. Years later I asked my mother if she knew where he was. She shrugged her shoulders and gave me a wry smile. "Drive round the M25." She suggested. "I am sure your dad will be performing a very important job in supporting the foundations of one of those bridges." I was old enough to work out her meaning. It appeared that mum discovered early that her husband would never offer her security. She had bought the house and with the growing knowledge of her husband's schemes she remained adamant, despite my dad's pleading, that she would never allow him to use her property as collateral for his borrowing. When dad vanished she changed her work from part-time to full time. Our next door neighbour became a sort of foster mother to me. She took me in when I came home from school and during school holidays. She was Auntie Flo to me. When I was fourteen mum let me have a key to our house so that I didn't have to bother Auntie Flo, but Auntie Flo always had a meal for me if I turned up at her door. It was as if I had two mothers. Mum died when I was nineteen. Headaches that she had believed were from eye-strain were eventually diagnosed as a brain tumour. It was too late to do anything.
It was mum's acumen that started me on my path. Her estate was the house and an insurance policy that seeded my business. I sold the house, just as Islington was becoming the nest for the chattering classes, those dilettante's who espouse socialist ideals, yet ensure that they are isolated from the effects of socialism. I didn't have any political leanings at that time, but I could smell hypocrisy as well as the next man. The house brought me far more than I believed its value to be. My idea at first was to buy cheap property for rent. I started with four inexpensive terraced houses in Stepney. The rental from those bought me another two houses in the same area.
My tenants were mainly immigrants living on Job Seekers allowance and Housing Benefit. I learned as I went. After a small explosion in one of the properties when the tenant tried to interfere with the meter, hoping to get his gas for free, I talked to the contractor who made good the damage. From that day on none of my properties would have gas for cooking or heating. The cost of the frequent examinations by a licensed installer and the regulations imposed by the local and national government would be a constant drain on my income. All gas appliances were taken out and the meter disconnected, then the supply pipe was capped. Electricity was safer with pay as you go meters. I tried to be straight with my tenants and asked them to be straight with me. Most were, but there was always the bad'un. If they didn't pay the rent, I gave them two months to catch up the arrears. If they didn't play ball, I descended on them, hopefully when they were out. Their belongings were bagged into black plastic bags and those and their furniture was left on the pavement outside. The locks were changed. Those who were getting Housing Benefit had to sign a release that enabled me to get their benefit paid directly. I could not see any reason why I should subsidize their feckless way of life.
I built my empire up to some sixty houses and the income was such that I looked for other ways to invest. That step came to me when a developer wanted to buy three of my adjacent properties. I was innocent at that time and whilst getting a healthy profit on the properties I learned later that I could have got a lot more. Without my properties his development would stall. I learned that lesson. The trick was squeezing as much out of him as possible without pushing him into adjusting his plans.
One of my investments was commercial property, I owned the building where my office was and the rent paid by the tenant of the shop below my office covered my business rates and the rates on my flat, which was the top floor of the building. I met Chad when we were in competition to buy the freehold of the building where he had his office. I withdrew from the bidding when he offered to take care of my accounts at a low rate. I got on well with him and in time we gradually became friends. I had met his wife, Lily one day when she was there. Lily was a lovely woman after you looked past her disfigured face. It turned out that she was there that day as she had an appointment with the surgeon who had operated on her face.
I pressed the button on the entry system. "Chad, its. Daniel." I called when he asked who was calling. The buzzer sounded and I pushed the door. The stairs began almost immediately and I climbed them to the first floor. Chad had already opened the door.
"It's good to see you, Daniel. Can I get you a coffee?"
"Thanks, Chad. I am here to pump you for information." I followed him into the back room where he put out mugs for coffee.
"Oh?" He filled the kettle.
"Yes. You live up in North Essex, Don't you?"
"Abbess Roding actually. What is your interest?"
"I have just bought a parcel of land up there. It's just north of Braintree and fourteen miles from Stansted. It is an estate called Chetford."
He shook his head. "I can't recall such an estate. Where exactly is it?"
"It's slightly south of Tilbury-juxta-Clare."
Chad's face cleared. "I think I know something about that. If I am right it was a training ground for the Army. When the Colchester barracks were run down the army let it go." He paused and looked at me with a question on his face. "Why have you bought it?
"I think it to be a long term investment. I hope, with good reason, that I will eventually get planning consent for the land. Then I will be able to sell to a developer for much more than I have paid."
"Well for the meantime it will give you something to set against your profits for this year, but I doubt that you will ever get planning consent. The local councils are very strict. I wanted to build a small extension. They turned down the application. A neighbour of ours wanted to erect a conservatory, same story ... application refused."
"Oh great! Cheer me up Chad." I changed the topic. "How's Lily?"
"She's fine. She will be going into hospital soon for another operation. They will never get her back to how she was though. We are hoping that they will manage to hide the burns sufficiently for make up to cover the rest."
"What happened, Chad?"
"Long story, Daniel. If Lily wants you to know she will tell you one day."
I finished my coffee and got up to leave. "Thanks for the coffee and information."
"No problem. Next time send Tina down, it's much more fun looking at her than looking at you."
"There are other Accountants, you know."
"Yeah. Try one and see how much more tax you have to pay." We both grinned and I left.