by Ceci Mazzarella
She watched over his shoulder as he flicked through flattering photos on his phone, exposure high to create the required illusions of size, style and, of course, value. Each apartment was reduced to the surface of a home, presented for buyers like themselves to project their aspirational life onto the image. This bedroom, this kitchen, this garden; spaces which allowed the truest manifestations of their potential, them as they had always hoped and known themselves to be, a lifetime of failed New Year’s resolutions, it all existed in the latent possibilities of those photos, ideals somehow unattainable from their current rented accommodation.
She sighed. ‘It’s out of our budget.’ She rolled away from the screen and buried her head under the covers. ‘I turned off the light for a reason,’ she said. ‘I want to sleep now.’
‘Top end of the budget, but still feasible. Very feasible.’ He was speaking to himself or perhaps to the pictures saved in his favourites list on the property app, little gold stars of approval. Like school. The thought made her queasy.
‘I just want a place of our own.’ He said it like an apology.
She reached back and squeezed his hand. ‘Anywhere we both are is home.’ She peered from the covers, disturbed by the continued rhythmic flashes as he whipped through photos with his free thumb.
‘It’s just one more viewing,’ he said into the screen. ‘You might fall in love with it.’
She grabbed the phone and chucked on the floor. The blue light glowed beneath the slats of the bed, pulsing softly. He tried to reach for it, but she held his arm and forced him to wait in silence until the light timed out. She said, ‘Now go to sleep.’
🌬She resisted checking the banking app in the morning. She knew the total of her savings, but paranoia stripped the digits from her mental balance with every sharp inhale. Breathe in, lose one hundred. Breath out, lose another two hundred. In, one hundred. Out, two hundred. Her fingers grasped at air, as if she could capture the intangibility of the numbers.
Minus fifty, fifty, fifty. And breathe.
He popped his head through the kitchen doorway, beanie pulled over his ears, Norwich football scarf wound tight.
The yellow distracted her from her panic. ‘You’re not wearing that?’
‘I haven’t got anything else,’ he said. ‘It’s bloody freezing outside.’
She returned an approximation of his smile, a tiny burst of relief from the security of his presence. He could be cheerful about anything. The emotion matched the contours of his face, lifting the weight of his professorial beard and softening the lines around his eyes, a hint at the childlike glee inside. He had lucked out to live in this era which so suited him, with the second-hand corduroys, square glasses, and distressed trainers. His facial hair might have been fashionable, had it not been a distraction from his scalp, shaved close to maintain the pretence of choice. He blamed his recent hair loss on the stress of working from home, but she knew it was more likely a mix of genetics and natural ageing. She had caught him several times googling bald celebrities, comparing his bone structure to the faces of Bruce Willis and Patrick Stewart, apparently torn between the desire to appear macho and/or intellectual.
‘Two secs.’ She grabbed her own coat and scarf, both charity shop reclamations from a life of practiced moderation, and an olive beret he had given her one Christmas. Despite the blunt military tone, the hat had come into its own since she had started dying her hair red, initially as a hobby but now her dark roots served to measure time.
‘Come on, they’ll be waiting.’ He needed to be back in the virtual office within the hour, preferably forty-five minutes. Corporate IT wouldn’t resolve itself. He spied the laptop on the table in front of her. ‘Are you crushing dreams?’
She closed the computer.
He laughed, humouring a joke she wasn’t sure she had made. ‘Glad I’m not one of your students. Come on, mellow.’ His nickname for her more melancholic moods, another joke in which she wasn’t sure she was participating. He grinned and handed her a face mask. ‘Let’s go find a home.’
The apartment for sale was a brisk walk up the main road from their rented flat in Stepney Green, an area of London neither had known before they moved there but which suited the compromise of their work commutes, however redundant the choice now seemed. Over two streets, the houses shifted from a mix of ex-council and run-down period properties to a rise of polished new-builds, each more inorganic than the last. Harry liked a modern finish, having tired of their current flat with its temperamental heating and plumbing.
‘A fresh start is what we want,’ he said, muffled through a combination of beard and face mask, his glasses steaming. ‘None of that history nonsense.’
She shot him a look. ‘Are you trying to wind me up today?’
‘Fight back,’ he said, laughing. ‘Tell me why I’m wrong. Come on, mellow, debate me.’
‘I’m not justifying my career to you. I don’t have the energy.’
He became quiet. ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘I know.’ She did know. ‘Sorry.’
He brightened, determined to keep the mood in his orbit. ‘You’ll like this place. I promise. I’m talking wooden floors, balcony, room for an office. And you can have all the bookcases you can imagine.’
She wrapped an arm around his waist. ‘Sounds perfect.’
Her proportion of the deposit was so small, she didn’t feel she had earned the right to disagree. She had been grappling with her contract at the university, amid highly strung colleagues, a system which took her for granted, and exhausted students pissed off at being little more than afterthoughts in an educational mess. She was right there beside them, another afterthought in someone else’s list of priorities, invisible by virtue of coping. Her work had become a means to an end: save up, buy a house. They had already foregone the expensive wedding, neither of them liked animals, and they had agreed to no children. What else was there to do.
‘This is it.’ His joy was palpable. ‘Look, there’s the guy. Hello!’
‘Why do estate agent’s always dress like that?’
The shoulders of the agent’s shiny blue suit puffed up as he hauled open the door to the apartment block. He waved off the previous couple who could have been herself and Harry in a parallel universe, cut from a template: female with a fitted coat and beret, male with a lumberjack shirt and beard.
The agent hustled them into the gated development. The walls rose high in unblemished yellow brick and darkened glass, shadowed by the neighbouring tower block. Railings separated the private communal gardens from a group of kids kicking a ball across concrete. One of the kids stopped the ball with his foot and stared at her through the fence. She felt his gaze long after they had passed into the development. The agent released the front door and it swung closed, containing them in a long corridor, the air thickened with central heating and the snug, insulating scent of hot plastic. Her boots fell silent on the carpeted floor as they approached the lift.
The agent was talking. ‘We’re on the seventh floor for this one. The lease is over nine hundred years, and there’s a parking space in the basement. We’re expecting a lot of interest.’
‘Yeah, I bet.’ She was grateful for Harry’s ability to subsume the small talk.
The seventh floor was styled identically to the entrance and she had deja vu of the institutional buildings which had defined so much of her life – college, student halls, a brief stint as a school teacher, an even briefer stint in social work, now the university which paid her salary – structures designed from a checklist of human need, each apartment a functional box built to contain a person or two for a lifetime.
Harry went straight to business. ‘So, what’s the history? I saw the listing had been reduced twice already.’
The agent offered an awkward chuckle. ‘Times we’re living in, isn’t it? The owner struggled to find a new tenant, so he’s selling.’
‘What happened to the last tenant?’ she asked.
They were both startled at her voice, the agent apparently having forgotten she was there. Harry’s brow furrowed.
The agent paused and pinched the bridge of his nose, exposed where the ill-fitting mask had drooped. ‘Oh, you know how it is,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of that going round at the moment. People getting out of London.’
They arrived at the door to 717, announced by the wrangling of keys from the agent’s slim-fit trousers.
‘Must be tough,’ she said. Off Harry’s deepened frown, she added, ‘For the owner, if they’re relying on the income.’ They both knew that wasn’t what she had meant.
‘So, the property is chain free?’ Harry asked, his expression lifting with the comfortable boom of his own voice.
The agent shifted aside and let them in. ‘Yes, well, yeah. I’ll wait outside while you get acquainted.’
‘That didn’t sound like a yes. What do you think happened to the tenant?’ she said to Harry when they were inside and out of earshot.
His eyes lit up at the space before them and he was lost to her. ‘Look at it,’ he said. ‘It’s got everything.’
She followed him slowly as he dashed between rooms snapping photos on his phone. He had already moved from the bathroom and was clicking his flash in a store cupboard, before she had taken in the square of the first bedroom. Blank walls, polished wood, more of the same. It was a similar size and orientation to their current bedroom, and she found herself pacing towards the area where their bed would be. She lay on the floor, imagining herself in their current flat, surrounded by their furniture, the wonky lamp and unread books on her beside. She mimed reaching over to turn off the light and closed her eyes. The floor rippled with Harry’s steps in the next room. She lost track of him, the noise veiled by a faraway banging, perhaps one of the downstairs neighbours locked out. Hands folded on her chest, she breathed in the scent of the empty room, but there was a new, salty undertone in the air. Bodily, like sweat in winter frost.
‘Harry?’ she asked, thinking his beanie must be too tight for the heating. No wonder she could smell perspiration.
She felt a cold palm cover her hands.
‘I’m just imagining,’ she said. She squeezed the hand back.
Harry’s voice called from the other room, ‘What are you saying to me?’
Her eyes snapped open, and she rolled away across the floor. She leaned against the wall, frantic as she scanned the room. There was no one there. She was alone with the dust which coiled in matted snakes around her jeans.
Harry appeared in the doorway. ‘What did you say?’ He saw her legs. ‘Ugh, dirty in here. There’s some superficial wear-and-tear. A hint of the second-hand.’
She looked at him. ‘Yes, I got that impression.’
He touched her shoulder. ‘You okay?’ He left without waiting for the implicit ‘fine’ to manifest and returned to the agent in the hallway.
Unable to turn her back on the bedroom, she edged out and stood stranded in the open plan kitchen/living area. The balcony ran the length of the room, and she opened the door to step outside, away from Harry’s excited chatter in the hallway, no doubt buttering up the agent for buying insights. The relief of the cold air was immediate, like a faceful of fresh water upon waking. She blinked, delirious, as if she really had been asleep. Far below, the greenery of the communal gardens did battle with the train tracks and the concrete. She breathed deep and counted two trains passing before she was ready to leave.
Harry wanted to make an offer as soon as his workday was over. They worked in opposite corners of the living room, knees almost touching in the narrow space. She watched him distract himself all afternoon, muttering dimensions and running sums on post-its.
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘It’s a competitive market.’ They’d had this conversation many times. ‘Everyone’s looking to buy with all they saved last year.’
‘Not everyone.’ She thought of the statistics she trawled through every morning in the news. She thought of the redundancies in her department, shots fired at the start, before the word furlough had assimilated into common parlance.
‘You know what I mean,’ he said, without meeting her gaze. He was busy clicking through tabs. ‘People like us.’
Three little words. Two-thirds of her immediate family were out of work, her brother in retail, her mother an administrator at the local primary school. It was only her father, a retired nurse, who was busier than ever, having returned to the frontline against all medical advice regarding his own wellbeing. Meanwhile, she and Harry were kept cosy by a swollen bank account and dreams of permanence.
‘You do like it, don’t you? I can see us there. It just had this feeling, like we could make it a real home, you know.’
She avoided his gaze, pretending to focus on her marking. ‘It’s a blank canvas. It could be anything.’
‘Exactly,’ he said, misunderstanding. ‘What do you think? I want you to be happy.’
She didn’t know how to articulate her refusal. Not of him – he grounded her anxious electricity, deflected the brewing discomfort of everyday living; she would always love Harry, wouldn’t she – but a refusal of this cost beyond comprehension. Whatever decision she made, it would be reduced to a calculated risk and she felt so risky as to almost not exist, as if the invisible value above her head were trickling down, each future interest payment exchanged for another fraction of herself, until there was nothing left. Chalk it up to wear-and-tear, a hint of the second-hand. It wasn’t even her money. She said, ‘I’m happy if you’re happy.’
He worked late in their bedroom, calls with the US office running long, laptop perched awkwardly on a bookshelf opposite where he sat at the end of the bed. She ate dinner alone in the kitchen, an embellished piece of toast which she would lie about, if asked. Easier than stomaching the that’s-not-a-proper-meal conversation. She was nestled at the end of the sofa, bubbled in the warmth of a small lamp and thumbing crumbs from her plate, when the doorbell rang.
No response. She thought she could hear someone breathing. She hung up only for it to ring again, longer this time. The bedroom door opened, and Harry waved at her to answer. She gestured to the receiver, indicating she didn’t need to be told.
He retreated to the corporate language of his call. ‘Yes, we’re on track for this quarter.’
‘Hello, hello, who’s there?’ She didn’t bother to conceal the irritation in her voice.
Still no reply. A hesitation of breath grazed the opposing speaker.
‘I can’t hear you,’ she said and then, considering, ‘Text us.’ She wouldn’t be provoked into opening the door to a stranger.
She was about to hang up when she heard the roll of iron hinges. Someone had opened the gate to their development. She glanced at their front door, groping blindly to fit the receiver home. Perhaps it was a neighbour’s delivery. Perhaps the caller had hit the wrong flat number or had tried all the buttons in desperation for an answer. She waited, ear bent towards the echo of footsteps up the interior stairwell. Closer, closer. Silently, she crept towards the door and braced herself against the approaching footfall, eye levelled at the peephole.
The bedroom door opened behind her. ‘Why is the light off?’
Harry’s voice cut her concentration and when she shushed him the footsteps were gone. He flipped the light switch, stark white in the hallway.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked in a stage whisper, joining her by the door and pretending to listen.
‘I don’t think it was for us,’ she said, unwilling to move away from the door just yet.
‘Okay, weirdo.’ He kissed her forehead, turned off the hallway light again, and disappeared through to the kitchen. He called back, ‘Is there any of that takeaway left? I’m starving.’
She remained by the door, unable to take her hands away from the flaking paint. ‘In the fridge.’
‘There’s mould in the chutney.’
‘Just scrape it off.’ She heard the distinct clatter of the pedal bin as he ignored her.
A shadow covered the peephole. She drew away, instinctive, as if whoever was in the corridor could see in as clearly as she could see out. She was aware of someone outside, listening. The door nudged towards her touch, as if pressed by an opposing force. She pushed back and with her free hand slid the safety chain into place. Slowly, she backed away.
She returned to the living room to find Harry reclining on the sofa. A folded tea towel protected his knees from the heat of microwaved leftovers.
He said, ‘What do you want to watch? We should start a new series before we run out of things to talk about.’ He moved his legs to make space for her. ‘What’s wrong, mellow? You’re shaking.’
‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I just don’t like strangers at the door.’
He put aside his food and wrapped his arms around her. ‘Don’t be silly. It’s just some stroppy Deliveroo driver who got sick of waiting.’
She glanced at the window, but the curtains were already drawn to fend off the premature darkness. ‘They said it’s going to snow tonight.’
‘There you go then,’ he said, resuming his dinner. ‘That would put anyone in a bad mood.’ He pointed a remote control past her and browsed their streaming options, flicking through trailers and intros.
‘It freaks me out,’ she said. ‘I don’t like strangers at the door.’
The TV blared a brief dialogue between two German teenagers, before he vetoed the show, and the teenagers were replaced with squabbling Americans on a fishing trawler.
‘Come on. You’re not that superstitious, are you?’
‘It’s not that.’ She wasn’t sure how to explain herself. ‘It’s people. Real people. Like bailiffs.’
He was distracted by the latest trailer, a possible contender. He said, ‘We don’t have to worry about that stuff.’
‘You mean people like us.’
‘Right.’ He clicked play.
The show began and her eyes glazed over. She turned inwards to the memories of another front door, fists banging outside, always at an ‘unholy hour of the night’ as her mother would say, her five-year-old self promising never to open the door to strangers, promising to stay quiet and small and wait until it passed, the bang, bang, banging. She didn’t remember how her parents managed to keep the house in the end. She suspected it had something to do with her grandfather’s death, her father retraining and her mother’s general absence, while her older brother had made the meals and got her to school on time. The memories were like a foreign country, a place she could visit from the security of a home in a different place, so very far removed.
When Harry clicked play on the next episode, she pretended to be falling asleep, and slipped away to an early bed. She tussled in the covers, restless with active dreaming. She was drifting in and out of wakefulness, long after Harry had brushed his teeth and was snoring beside her. She thought she was asleep when the banging started.
It was abrupt. A sudden hammering which shook the flat. Cold sweat cloaked her body, and she stared at the bedroom door, propped ajar. A shaft of moonlight sliced the hallway and glinted off the safety chain looped to the wall. Harry grumbled in his sleep and pulled the duvet closer, undisturbed by the phantom noise. She checked the clock: 3.15am. An unholy hour of the night. It came again, the bang, bang, banging.
She slid deeper beneath the covers and pulled them close over her ears. It wasn’t real. She knew it couldn’t be real. She nestled into the curve of Harry’s back, hair tickling her nose and tried to will away the presence outside the door. It hammered harder, rocking the walls, the floor, the bedframe, and soon she couldn’t distinguish the noise from the violent gasps which burst rapid from her throat.
‘We’re not here,’ she said between staccato breaths.
A cool presence settled at her back, the same clammy touch which had grazed her at the flat viewing. With it came the realisation that it had been behind her all day, on the edge of her vision, crouching in shadows, waiting, waiting. It had followed her, slipped free from the bang, bang, banging in its own home and fled for sanctuary, but it, too, had been followed. Now, she thought it held her against the noise and she hugged herself, reaching back for it in comfort. Tight in its embrace, she wasn’t sure who was anchoring whom.
‘Go away.’ She whispered again to the unrest outside, ‘We’re not here.’
She and the presence clung to each other and waited. Gradually, the banging relented. The flat returned to silence. The presence remained wrapped around her and it stretched to gently pressure her chest. She found she could breathe easily again. Lulled, she heard Harry’s voice in the gloom.
‘Let’s do it,’ he said. ‘That flat is going to be our home.’ He barked a snore and sleep reclaimed him.
She felt the presence tense at her back. She didn’t dare turn around. In a low voice, she asked, ‘Where will you go?’
The presence didn’t reply, only tightened its grip once more. She settled to sleep in its arms.