Things are different in the suburb of Money
I paid Money a visit this week. I went to Auckland. I stayed in the suburb that is synonymous in the public mind with wealth. Every city has such a suburb, though it may not be where the richest people live.
On the road in from the airport, I passed places that were the opposite of Money, but they were fenced off from the motorway by landscaping or billboards. To visit them I would have had to go out of my way and it was easier to stay in the cab, the meter purring. Money was paying.
As I drew near to Money the world got cleaner. One of the first vehicles I saw there was a huge beast kerb-crawling. Driven by a man in overalls who didn't come from Money, it sprayed the kerb with water to loosen any crud. Then a stout rotating brush drove the crud up a suction tube and into the beast's capacious belly, leaving only a spoor of neat and clean and damp. And at the end of the day the beast would take the crud away to wherever it is that crud is taken away to. Money neither knows nor cares where that is.
I arrived mid-afternoon. A private school was disgorging little boys in caps and blazers. A fleet of four-wheel-drives swung by to pick them up, each with a mother at the wheel, her hair neat and blondish, her clothes not cheap. The 4WDs were not for four-wheel driving, of course, but neither, I think, were they for ostentation. In Money, the 4WD is popular for its sturdiness and in its height. You sit above the ruck of common vehicles, gaining a sense of security. And with your genetic future on board, you cannot be too secure. Lose that and you come to the end of the road, even in Money.
One 4WD collected its little uniform, drove perhaps 300 yards down Money Road, then swung into a private drive and stopped while an electronic gate slid open. Because money breeds worry.
In a novel by the lovely Tibor Fischer, a stupendously rich man lives in terror because he cannot think where to put his money. Thieves abound. Buildings burn down. Sharemarkets crash. Banks go bust. Nothing is safe. So he buys a mountain. Mountains endure, he thinks to himself. But then he lives in terror of earthquakes.
In Money's main: three travel agencies, an old-fashioned butcher with very modern prices, a shop of kitchen gadgets, a salon for fingernails, several boutiques of women's clothing all opening at 10 in the morning, an oyster bar, and half a dozen places selling real estate, their windows full of houses but not prices, perhaps because there wasn't room for all the zeroes.
Everyone I met was nicely spoken and polite. Money sees itself as, and maybe is, the natural home of courtesy and civilised behaviour. But when it feels threatened, nothing, but nothing, bares its teeth as swiftly and ferociously as Money. Understandably, since Money has more to lose than Not Money.
I had to work, but by nine in the evening I was free and strolled into Money to finish my day. In the oyster bar I paid more for half a glass of red than I usually pay for a bottle. But I did catch sight of a famous netballer.
In the next bar up, I asked for a snack. They offered duck liver pate. "Okay," I said, fearing a tiny portion at a hefty price. But I got a hefty portion at a reasonable price, three ice cream scoops of pate, a blob of dark red jelly, and half a loaf of good baguette.
I sat outside to eat and drink, the weather northern balmy. A woman nodded at my pate and said "that looks nice". I asked her if she'd like some and, good on her, she came over and sat down. She handed me her card. She sold real estate.
Originally from a mining town on the West Coast, she'd come north and made good. She worked in the agency next door to the bar and wore heels that could puncture a lung.
"Tell me," I said, "why are there no prices in the window?"
Prices were rising too fast, she said. And besides you never knew what someone might be willing to offer. It had all gone crazy.
"How much, then," I said, "would I have to pay for a villa, just a solid old-fashioned villa near the centre of Money. A million?"
She laid a hand on my arm with kindly condescension. "Two," she said gently, as if talking to a child.
"Two," she repeated when she saw my eyebrows rise. "It's the new 'one'."