‘The flat you rented is a bit cramped.’ The landlady wove in and out of the dressers and other items on the hallway. ‘Don’t mind these. We’re having some renovations done in the other rooms.’
I lifted my bags, narrowly avoiding knocking over a pile of books. The bookcase beside it had been stocked with countless trinkets from places I have yet to explore.
‘The folks on the other side of the building are planning to leave by next month. Perhaps you can take their place. If it’s convenient for you, that is.’ She smiled.
We had stopped in front of a formidable door, and the landlady fumbled with the keys. Once opened, the door creaked a sound akin to a metal rod scraping the exterior of a brand-new Bentley. The landlady didn’t seem troubled, but I had the hairs on my arms standing, my teeth gritting. We stepped into the room and drew the curtains back.
‘Well, what do you think?’
The room was basic. A bed, table, closet. There was an open-plan kitchen, and beside it was the door to the bathroom. No paintings on the walls. Three simple track light fixtures on the ceiling.
‘This would be fine,’ I said, finally setting my bags near the lone table. There were two chairs. Who in the world would be sitting on the other one? I thought.
The landlady just looked at me as if waiting for a little more praise. I couldn’t deprive her of what she desired.
‘This is lovely, madam. It is definitely larger than my previous flat. Thank you.’
The landlady slipped the key off the key ring and handed it to me but not before reminding me of the payment due dates and some basic house rules. ‘I’m not saying I don’t allow it, nor do I have the power to prohibit you, but I do wish you wouldn’t bring in random men into your room. You’re such a lovely girl.’ She placed her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye like a parent would to a child on her first day at university. ‘Don’t fall in love in London.’ That was her advice.
She then left the room hurriedly, taking away my chance of explaining that it was the main reason I moved to this place. Does where I fall in love matter? Can anybody even avoid it?
Hamilton Gardens. The web displayed it as a peaceful residential area, ideal for people like me who had just decided to, well, reside.
I plopped on the bed and stared at the bare ceiling. My fascination of ceilings had driven me to old Victorian houses, admiring the details of each chandelier, crown moulding, and lighting, critiquing silently the various reconstructions that modern man had to impose. That’s how I met him.
‘I don’t understand why everyone is so concerned about beam ceilings being too plain or tray ceilings being too ornamental.’ He paced around the dining room, eyes squinting at the tray ceiling. ‘I mean, they’re ceilings. Less than 10 per cent of people living in houses with decorative ceilings, or any ceiling for that matter, actually pay attention to what’s over their heads.’
In his preoccupation with the impractical ceiling and his unnecessary and possibly flawed statistic of ceiling appreciators, his hip hit one of the dining chairs, which bumped the table and shook the decorative plates and sent them crashing to the floor. His panicked eyes grew wide, and I could see the plea begin to form in his head even before he gave voice to it.
But that was in another time, another life, another old Victorian house. I had transferred to the Victorian conversion to rid myself of any favours I had unknowingly owed him. This house was to be my place of redemption, my opportunity to occupy a world—my world. This room, bare ceiling and all, would have to be enough to dispel my demons.
By the time I rolled off the slightly lumpy bed, the sun had begun to set. There were people outside, walking or riding their bicycles, minding their own business. My stomach complained by making an embarrassing rumbling that would have sent me blushing had I been with him.
There you go again, I chastised myself. Stop thinking about him.
My feet dragged me to the corner store at Nugent Terrace, and my hands instinctively grabbed a fizzy drink and a club sandwich—exactly the same as what he would have gotten. The lady at the cash register smiled at me kindly.
‘Will this be all, miss?’ she asked as she started bagging the goods.
‘For now, but you don’t have to bag them. I’ll just have them here if you don’t mind.’
She conceded and accepted my payment. I then relocated myself to one of the seats conveniently placed near the window facing the laundry shop. It was amusing to watch the tenants of the shop go about their duties, carrying basketfuls of clothes from one machine to another. It was reminiscent of when we had to use the coin-operated laundry for the first time and he lost his socks in the washer.
I finished my meal and took a stroll further down the street. You know what would be really nice? I mused. A corner bookstore with lots of stuffed toys and the scent of coffee mixed with the scent of decaying books. Nostalgia filled my nostrils as I remembered exactly what those scents were. I had long accepted the idea that I could have been a great hound, if hounds were humans. But then another thought threatened to shatter the slow calm that was sweeping in like the tide: The last time I was in a bookstore was when I was with—‘Stop it!’
I bit my lip and looked around to check if anyone had heard me. A few passers-by looked my way, but most of them had earphones on, reassuring me that my reputation, as the newcomer to the area, would not be tinged with the words weird and possibly bonkers. Coincidentally, though, when I had stopped, it was in front of a bookstore that also sold toys. There was a man carrying boxes and arranging them on the shelves and a younger man, I assumed, carrying boxes from the van into the store. He saw me standing there, gaping at the ‘luck’ I seemed to be having.
‘Miss? Is everything all right?’ He lowered the box he was carrying to check on me. My body had frozen, unfortunately, and my eyes were busy taking in the bookstore entrance. He reached for my arm but was repelled by nature in the form of static electricity. The pain from the sudden spark jolted me from my immobility.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ My arm was sore, but my ego was suffering even more.
‘Hey, it’s okay. You’re just kind of electric,’ he said, shaking his hand to remove the slight numbness. ‘What have you been plugging yourself into?’
‘You say sorry a lot, don’t you?’
I opened my mouth to respond but realized I was about to say sorry again. He smiled knowing he had dissuaded me from what has become my habit.
‘Setting up shop?’ I gestured to the boxes and the shelves.
‘Well, if you call bringing in stocks without actually displaying them yet setting up, then that’s what we’re doing.’
‘David!’ the older man called. ‘Hey, where are the other goods?’ The man came out and saw me—a girl in jeans, jacket, shirt, and sneakers—stealing David’s time away from helping set up the shop. ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you had a friend in this area.’ He walked closer and adjusted his glasses. ‘I’d offer my hand in marriage, but I’ve already done that. A handshake perhaps?’
‘Pleased to meet you, sir.’ I shook his hand and bit my lip—another habit I had to break. ‘I’m not exactly friends with’, I looked at the younger man, ‘David?’
‘No, yes, I mean, Dad, I . . .’ David ran his hand through his dark brown hair. Just like he does.
‘Oh, no need to be so defensive, son. I’ll leave you two to your introductions.’ David’s dad took the box on the ground and headed back to the shop.
‘Elise,’ I said.
David smiled. ‘Would you like me to offer my hand in—’
‘I think one proposal is enough for a day, don’t you?’ I joked, then stretched my arm for a handshake. ‘It’s nice to meet you, David.’
The sun had undoubtedly gone off to the other side of the world, and the lamp posts were lit one by one. There were a few people lounging around the cafe nearby, and others were headed to the restaurants on the street further on. The voices of children in the town houses were carried in the wind while the clatter of silverware provided a musical background to the already surreal evening.
‘Do you need help setting up?’ I had offered.
‘Well, we do need some help.’ David leaned closer and whispered, ‘I don’t exactly know how to arrange these books and toys, and I scarcely trust him to do the decorating.’
‘I may be old, but I can still hear you, David.’
‘Sorry, Dad.’ He turned to his father. ‘Would you like, um . . .’ He looked confused and embarrassed as he looked at me. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t usually let this happen but . . .’
‘Elise,’ I said. His forgetfulness caused a prick in my heart to burn.
‘Right. Would you like Elise to help with setting up?’ he asked his dad.
‘All right, but I get the last word on the decorations. None of the cutesy lace frills.’ His dad placed the last of the boxes on one of the shelves. ‘Dinner?’
David took a while to answer. He seemed to be worried about something.
What am I still doing here?
‘I’ll be back tomorrow then? To set up?’
‘Yes, that would be great. Thank you, Elise. It was nice to meet you.’
David did a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ dance before simply waving goodbye and walking into the shop.
I headed towards my own flat, passing through Hill Road and Alma Square into Hamilton Gardens. The house was quiet; the construction team for the renovation had gone to their own families. The flat I rented remained untouched.
I plopped once more onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t even remember my name. Is this what I came here for? An escape? Into frustration?
The conversation of the afternoon replayed in my head, and I beat myself because of my stupidity. It’s too soon. You want to do this all over again? Isn’t this exactly what you were afraid of happening? Isn’t this what he said would happen?
‘Don’t fall in love in London,’ the landlady said. Her advice was well meaning but a bit impossible.
I listened to the gradual disappearance of sound, the lights being switched off, the doors being locked.
‘You can’t change things by running away, Elise,’ he had said. ‘You can’t run from this.’
By this, he meant love. I couldn’t run away from love. I couldn’t just change and switch to loving someone else, loving somewhere else. The ceilings could be fixed and Victorian houses could be restored, but there was nothing I could do about whom and where I would love.
Not a change in location would stop it. Not a freedom I had declared could dissipate it. It was a permanent marker on a varnished piece of furniture. It was a Victorian house that refused to be refurbished. I was stuck in a fizzy drink and club sandwich world.
‘Don’t fall in love in London,’ the landlady had said.Too late.