Art Pact 152

Among the Reverend Daniel's most persistent disciples were Arlene and Scott Pike, my neighbours-but-one at number twenty. Their house, which when I'd moved to River Cove had been painted a cheery sunshine yellow with red accents, was now the greyest and drabbest in the entire avenue, and the ornamental flower garden that had graced the south-east side of their plot was long gone, replaced with a potato plantation from which they harvested the most nutritious but least flavoursome tubers it was possible to cultivate.

"Good morning, Mister Christopher," they would greet me politely, on their morning rounds. Like all the Danielites they had begun to dress exclusively in the monochrome uniform of the church when they had joined fully: for men, grey flowing robes that extended from the neck down to just above the ankles, grey socks, and grey sandals. The women, in addition, wore grey woollen trousers so that their modesty might be protected in the unlikely event that wind blew at their robes.

Mostly I tried to avoid them, checking carefully from the bay windows of my father's house before venturing out onto the streets, but the Pikes lived too close to me to be escaped - they could knock on me at a moment's notice, and could easily leave the house in the time it took me to descend from the upper floors of my refuge, don my walking boots and overcoat, and exit the front door. I suspected also that they were stalking me in some way - perhaps watching for the tell-tale twitching of lace curtains in my windows as a sign that I was about to emerge. They were relentless - polite, but relentless, and perhaps the politeness made it worse, since it inhibited my expression of my growing anger with them. Had they been strident and rude I could easily have matched it with my own rudeness by slamming my door in their faces or brushing them off in the street with some barbed remark, but to such gracious advances I could only make feeble excuses and attempt to rid myself of them with gentle lies.

To this day I couldn't say whether the Pikes were naturally that way, or whether they had made a cynical decision to exploit the behaviour of polite society for the benefit of the cult. Perhaps both suppositions are true - when I had arrived in River Cove I had met them once or twice, and I remember them as reserved but polite at the time. But of course all but the worst humans are polite to newcomers anyway, so it may be that I never saw them as they truly were - there was simply no interval between their politeness to the distrusted prodigal son of their town's old landmark and their politeness to one of the few holdouts to their town's new religion.

One morning in late May, perhaps a year and a half after the Reverend Daniel first began to preach in the town square, they called on me directly as part of their usual proselytising round. There were, at the time, nine holdouts from the Danielites - of which I was the most well known, and therefore the most attractive as a convert. The Reverend Daniel had given up trying to call on me himself, perhaps as part of his own more cynical plan, but the Pikes were truer believers than their priest and as such were willing to expend their energy even on the most hopeless of cases - particularly when those hopeless cases were so nearby that their gaudy woodwork could be seen from the Pike's own home.

It was early in the morning - not so early that I wasn't up and about, but early enough that I didn't expect callers - so I opened the door without looking through the peephole first. I'd thought it might be the postman (who still completed his rounds without religious prejudice, although he did cut an odd figure cycling in his grey robes), and I had to clamp down on my natural reactions very hard to prevent a sigh of despair from escaping my lips when I saw Arlene and Scott on my doorstep.

"Good morning neighbour!" they chorused.

"Scott, Arlene," I said wearily. "How can I help you?"

"We'd like to talk to you about something that's very important to us all," Arlene said.

"Look, I appreciate your views-" I began.

"Property values," said Scott.

"I'm sorry.. uh, what?"

"Property values," he repeated.

"We're not here to ask you to attend Reverend Daniel's sermons," Arlene explained, "although obviously we wouldn't be neighbours if we didn't worry about your happiness in the next life, now would we?" She laughed. "We'd just be people who lived in the same road!"

"That's right," Scott agreed. "What we've come to discuss with you is the question of property values, something that affects us all."

Of course, I'm not so green as I'm cabbage-looking, and I immediately saw where this was heading. As I've said, though, I didn't feel able to just close the door in their faces, so I nodded and tried to prepare an excuse. Which would seem more plausible, I thought - something on the hob, breakfast perhaps, or an errand I had to run in town? If I went for the latter I'd have to back it up with an actual trip, if I chose the former there was always the danger that they'd somehow persuade me to invite them in for coffee.

"It's just that to be an attractive property," Scott continued, "it's not enough for a house to stand on its own. It has to be part of a general aesthetic, it has to fit in with the other houses around it. The houses on a road need to form a seamless picture, and if one house doesn't fit in, well... it damages property prices for everyone. But mostly that one house," he nodded sadly, letting his eyes wander around the electric-blue frame of my father's front door.

"I have no intention of selling," I told them.

"And we're glad of that," he said. "Aren't we glad, Arlene?"

"Ever so glad," she said.

"Well, then everyone's happy!" I declared, smiling, and in that moment a strange spasm of comfort and confidence caused me to push my door closed. I stared at it in shock - as, I imagined, did the Pikes.


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