The Celebrity Next Door tells the story of what happens when professional footballer Dave Barnshaw, a former prodigy who has failed to fulfil his youthful promise, arrives on loan at provincial Whitebridge United. The tale is told entirely in the words of his employers and teammates, his family, and his new neighbours in Lavender Close, Newheath, where his arrival causes quite a stir.

… Newheath, with its highly-rated schools, plentiful open spaces and good transport connections to the centre of Whitebridge, continues to prove popular with buyers. Its profile will be raised by the latest arrival, a well-known professional footballer. I had the pleasure of personally showing him round his new home just last week, and I’m pleased to report that he was delighted with the amenities the area has to offer…

From ‘Goldsmith’s Gossip’, published in ‘New Beginnings’, the magazine of Goldsmith & Green, estate agents

Julie Barnshaw (homemaker):
It was a nice enough house, I suppose – for a rental, anyway. It reminded me of some of the places we’d lived in when we first got married, when Dave was just starting out. But now we had a place of our own, I couldn’t go back to renting. I like having my own stuff around me – all my furniture and knick-knacks.

I said as much to Dave when he came home from training and told me they were sending him out on loan. “You go if you like, but me and the girls are stopping here,” I said. “I’m not about to make them change schools again if you’re going to be back up here in the summer. If Whitebridge want to sign you properly, we’ll talk about it then.”

Well, he knew I was talking sense, so he didn’t argue. I could tell he was upset at the thought of living on his own for six months, though. I’d miss him too, of course, but I was used to him being away from home. Me and the girls, we’d cope. Just as long as he carried on paying the mortgage, we’d be all right.

Laurence Goldsmith (partner in Goldsmith & Green, estate agents): We get a fair bit of business from United. It’s only natural, since Goldsmith & Green is Whitebridge’s premier estate agency. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that I know the chairman, Dominic Gladwin. We met through the golf club, actually, and he’s proved to be a very useful contact.

Mind you, it had been a while since they’d put any trade our way. In the old days, footballers used to live near the club they played for, but nowadays half of them don’t bother moving house when they’re transferred. You wouldn’t think driving a hundred miles every day was the best way to keep in shape, would you, but what do I know? I’m just an estate agent.

So when Dominic’s secretary rang to tell me this new guy was joining them for a few months and needed a place to rent, I made a point of dealing with it myself. He was never going to get a mansion, not for the amount of money the club was prepared to shell out, but I found him a nice little semi in Newheath. Fully furnished, naturally.

The day he came down with his wife to look round the house, I met them outside. He looked pretty much as I’d expected; lean and muscular, dressed in expensive casual clothes – designer jeans and sweater, a good-quality leather jacket. Her clothes were expensive too, but not so casual. As I was showing them round, I kept changing my mind about whether her fur coat was real or not. My late father would have been able to tell. He was in the trade, you see – spent his whole life with furs.

At first I thought it was rather sweet that she’d come to see where he was going to be living, but I soon decided that ‘sweet’ wasn’t quite the right word for her, if you catch my drift. And I’ll tell you something else: I reckon they’d had an argument. In fact, I got the impression that if I hadn’t been around they’d have been at each other’s throats. Not that it was any of my business, of course.

Julie Barnshaw: We had a row on the way down. I could tell something was bothering him from the way he kept changing the channel on the radio every few minutes. In the end I said: “Why don’t we listen to the Daniel Bedingfield CD? I like that one.”

“I don’t want to listen to Daniel fucking Bedingfield,” he snapped, and then I knew for sure that he was in a mood, ’cause he doesn’t usually use the ‘f’ word. And he likes Daniel Bedingfield, too. In fact, it was him who bought the CD.

“What’s wrong, Dave?” I asked in my most sympathetic voice.

There was a long pause and I thought he wasn’t going to answer. He doesn’t really like talking about personal stuff, my Dave. But at last he said: “Julie, you do know I’m doing this for you and the girls, don’t you? I wouldn’t be leaving you on your own if I didn’t think it was the best thing for all of us.”

So I said of course I knew that, and we’d be fine, really we would. He looked at me like he wasn’t convinced, but he let it drop for a few minutes. Only then he started going on about how he knew he’d let us down, it wasn’t meant to be this way, he blamed himself… If I’d heard it once I’d heard it a thousand times, and I never liked it when he talked that way. Self-pity isn’t an attractive quality in a man. And besides, it wasn’t his fault he got injured like that, and just as he was about to be named in the England squad too. As for the other stuff – well, I’d forgiven him for it, so why couldn’t he forgive himself? That’s what I didn’t understand.

Laurence Goldsmith: Most footballers aren’t particularly interested in their home, in my experience. As long as there’s a fridge to keep the beer in, a widescreen TV to watch sport on and a comfy sofa to lie on while they’re watching it, they’re happy enough. It’s the wives who worry about the details. Sure enough, Dave Barnshaw followed me quietly round the house while I showed him where everything was, explained how the central heating worked – the usual stuff. He barely said a word, just nodded from time to time.

His wife was a different kettle of fish, though. She wasn’t even going to be living there, but she still went round turning taps on and off, running her fingers along surfaces to check for dust, opening and closing doors to see if they squeaked. It was as if she was deliberately looking for faults, and since I knew there weren’t any to speak off, I let her get on with it.

When I’d finished the tour I took them out to the patio so they could see the garden – a long strip of scrubby lawn with a flowerbed halfway down. Not one of the property’s most impressive features, if I’m honest. It was a chilly day and I didn’t want to spend any more time out there than I had to, so I got straight to the point. “What do you think, Mr Barnshaw?” I asked. “Is everything satisfactory? The house is available straight away, but I can’t hold it back for very long. This is a highly sought-after area, and it’s not often a rental property of this quality comes on the market.”

It was his wife who answered. “It’ll do, I suppose,” she sniffed. “Isn’t that right, Dave?”

He gave a start – he’d been scanning the garden, goodness knows why. He didn’t strike me as the gardening type. “Oh aye, it’s grand,” he said, though he didn’t sound all that bothered. “I’ll be back down on Friday. Is it all right if I pick up the keys then?”

So we made the arrangements, and a couple of minutes later I was waving them off as they headed back up north.

Alan Ashmole (local resident): I knew it was that estate agent chappie as soon as the car pulled up. Well, you can’t exactly miss it; a bright red Porsche with his firm’s logo on the side. Then another car arrived – one of those Japanese 4×4 jobs, a huge great black thing with smoked windows – and I guessed that number 1 must be getting a new occupant at last. About time, too; it was getting on for a month since the Whites had moved out, and I don’t like to see houses standing empty. The last thing we want round here is squatters moving in. When I was with the force I heard stories about squatters and what they did to people’s property that would make your hair curl.

They weren’t in there all that long – seventeen minutes by my watch – and after the other car had pulled away, the estate agent stood there gazing after them. I had some rubbish to put out, so I took the opportunity to grab a few words. We were acquainted, after all. It was Laurence Goldsmith who sold me my house, as a matter of fact.

Laurence Goldsmith: I was about to head back to the office when I saw that nosey parker from number 4 coming over. He made a great show of stuffing a black sack into his bin and then pretending to notice me, but I wasn’t fooled. He’d probably been watching from behind his net curtains ever since we arrived.

Still, I smiled and said hello. You have to humour the Alan Ashmoles of this world. Besides, they have their uses. People like him are usually the first to know when their neighbours are thinking of selling up. The trick is to let them talk; sooner or later they’ll tell you something that gives you a chance to get a jump on the opposition. It’s this sort of lateral thinking that’s made Goldsmith & Green a force to be reckoned with in the local business community – and, I might add, the third-biggest estate agency in the county.

Alan Ashmole: After we’d dispensed with the pleasantries I said: “So, are we getting new neighbours, then?”

“Just the one,” he replied, and for a moment I thought he was going to clam up. But he obviously decided there was no harm in telling me, because he went on: “Quite an interesting chap, actually. He’s a professional footballer – just signed for United. That’ll liven up the Close, eh, Mr Ashmole?”

Laurence Goldsmith: He looked petrified when I said that. I might as well have announced that Osama Bin Laden was moving in.

“Has he, er, got a bad reputation, then?” he asked nervously.

“No, no – well, not that I know of, anyway,” I said, but in such a way as to leave him wondering if I was holding something back. Then I made my excuses and left. Looking back as I turned the corner at the end of the Close, I was pleased to see him still standing there, looking worried.

I wasn’t holding anything back, by the way. I don’t follow football, and I’d never heard of Dave Barnshaw until that week.

Alan Ashmole: After Mr Goldsmith had left, I pulled myself together. There would be plenty of time to worry about our new arrival later, but I had more pressing business to attend to: the Neighbourhood Watch meeting that evening.

Penny Wallington (local resident): The Neighbourhood Watch had been going for a couple of years. The police helped us set it up after a couple of houses in Laburnum Drive got burgled, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But somehow it turned into a personal power trip for Alan Ashmole.

Well, of course he had to be the Chairman, didn’t he, what with him having been ‘with the Force’, as he likes to put it. Honestly, to hear him talk, you’d think he’d been Chief Constable. The truth is, he wasn’t even a proper policeman, just one of the civilian staff – a pen-pusher, basically, writing up crime reports for the courts and so on. Oh, I’m sure it’s an important job, but he does go on so. And now that he’s retired and has time on his hands, he spends a sizable portion of it keeping the rest of us organised. I sometimes wonder if he’s actually managed to convince himself that he has some real authority over his neighbours.

Mind you, we were partly to blame for letting him getting away with it. When you’ve got a family to look after, you don’t want to be bothering with all that palaver – printing leaflets, organising meetings. I know I didn’t, anyway. So we left him to get on with it, and dutifully turned up at his house once a month for a meeting.

Alan Ashmole: I do think it’s important to nurture a sense of community, particularly in these turbulent times. I like to think of myself as a facilitator, bringing people together for the greater good of the neighbourhood: that is, Lavender Close, Magnolia Crescent and numbers 1 to 24 Laburnum Drive. (The far end of the Drive is outside my jurisdiction, unfortunately.) And I believe they appreciate the effort I put into it. I know they think I’m a bit eccentric sometimes, but you’ve got to do things properly if you’re going to do them at all. That’s one of my maxims.

Penny Wallington: After dinner I left Philip looking after Luke and walked across the Close to number 4. We used to take it in turns to attend Neighbourhood Watch meetings, but Philip got so exasperated by Alan’s megalomania (his word, not mine) that he stopped going. I’d like to think he takes the opportunity to spend some quality time with Luke, but I suspect he just parks him in front of the TV and gets on with the work he’s always bringing home from the office.

By the time the clock in Alan’s dining room chimed eight there were just seven of us there, including Alan himself. It was bitterly cold outside, which always keeps the numbers down, and I think there was a wedding or something on EastEnders that night. Alan had moved the dining table against the wall and set out four rows of plastic chairs as usual, and there was a slight delay while he cajoled us all into sitting in the front two rows. We’d have been more comfortable moving to the sitting room, frankly, but we all knew better than to suggest anything of the sort.

The agenda – oh yes, there was always a printed agenda – was much the same as usual: an update on when the Council was going to send someone to fix the broken streetlight on the corner; a homily on the importance of keeping our front gardens tidy (though I couldn’t see how that was going to avert crime); and concerns about kids in hoodies hanging around the parade of shops at the end of Laburnum Drive. I think Alan would have sent them all straight to juvenile detention centres, no questions asked, if it had been up to him.

Finally we got to Any Other Business, which was a good thing, because I was sitting nearest the radiator and I was starting to nod off. None of us could think of anything to raise, as usual, but Alan looked unusually animated. This could only mean one thing: he had some gossip.

Alan Ashmole: Most people think the Neighbourhood Watch is all about keeping a lookout for criminals, and maybe in some areas it is. But not in Lavender Close. One thing I learned in my years with the Force is the importance of thinking ahead. Forewarned is forearmed. That’s another of my maxims.

So I decided it was pertinent to inform the meeting of the imminent arrival of a celebrity in our midst. It wasn’t a situation we’d ever had to deal with before, and I thought it might be useful to discuss strategies for coping with potential problems.

Unfortunately, my neighbours seemed to miss the point.

“A footballer? Is it David Beckham?” asked Mrs Wright (7 Laburnum Drive), rather hopefully I thought.

“I don’t know his name,” I replied, “but I don’t think so somehow. The footballer in question is signing for Whitebridge United, and I don’t believe they’re good enough for Mr Beckham to play for them.”

“What’s that? David Beckham’s moving here?” This was old Mr Mummery (9 Magnolia Crescent), who’s rather hard of hearing and tends to get the wrong end of the stick. I think he only comes to the meetings for the cup of tea at the end. “I hope that wife of his won’t be expecting us to entertain her. Thin as a whippet and about as attractive, if you ask me. My Edna won’t want her in the house, I can tell you that now. Though if she wants to borrow a cup of sugar, I suppose –”

I cut him off as firmly as I could. “The Beckhams aren’t moving into Lavender Close, Mr Mummery, so you and Mrs Mummery don’t need to worry on that score. But whoever our mystery footballer turns out to be, there is a chance that he will attract the attention of the newspapers…”

“You mean we should keep a lookout for hacks hiding in our hydrangeas?” interjected Mr Marshall (3 Lavender Close), who likes to think of himself as something of a comedian.

“Paparazzi peering through the privet?” suggested his wife, giggling. She’s just as bad.

“Reporters rifling through the rubbish?” chortled Mr Marshall.

“Yes, yes.” I held up my hands to signal that we’d had enough of the Marshalls’ witticisms. “You may laugh about it, but it is possible that the peace and quiet we all prize so highly will be disturbed by members of the press. So I suggest that you all stay vigilant and report any trespassers to me immediately.”

“And what will you do then?” asked Mr Marshall, with a rather impertinent smile on his face.

“I will take whatever steps I deem necessary.”

Penny Wallington: There was silence after that – I think Alan’s pomposity had finally ground everyone down. He picked up his gavel, ready to announce the end of the meeting, but then I suddenly thought of something. I put my hand up.

“Yes, Mrs Wallington?” he said. (I don’t know why he couldn’t call me Penny. We’d been neighbours for over four years, for goodness’ sake.)

“I was just wondering: is this footballer moving in alone, or is he bringing a family with him?”

“I am given to understand that he will occupying number 1 on his own.”

“Well then, the poor chap might be a bit lonely. Maybe we could organise a welcome party for him or something?”

Alan looked at me as if I’d suggested holding an orgy. “You may do whatever you feel is right and proper, Mrs Wallington, but I don’t believe such matters come under the remit of the Neighbourhood Watch. Now, if there’s nothing else…”

And without giving anyone the chance to say another word, he banged his gavel and headed for the kitchen to put the kettle on, leaving the rest of us to speculate on the identity of our mysterious new neighbour.

Luke Wallington (local resident, aged six): I made Daddy let me stay up until Mummy came home so she could put me to bed. I don’t like it when Daddy puts me to bed because he doesn’t read me stories. Mummy read me a whole chapter of Harry Potter AND she told me something exciting. The new person who’s coming to live in the house next door is a football player!!! I asked is it David Beckham? and she laughed for a long time. I don’t know why. Then she said no, it’s not him, but whoever it is, it will be interesting having a celebrity living next door, won’t it?

Will he teach me to play football? I said. Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we, she said. But if you’re very good, we can always ask.