My thoughts gradually drifted away from the accusation that I was helping someone play God with artistic expression as I made a mental checklist of what, amongst the ransacked junk that was left, I needed to bring from my flat. I thought of all this as being an open-ended working holiday, while simultaneously lying low in case I wasn’t being paranoid. I initially figured it was pure coincidence that I’d been beaten up and burgled within the space of a couple of days, but certain people around me were of the opinion that bad luck comes in threes. Or, if you were a bit more pragmatic about it, there was a pattern developing and its course wasn’t a pleasant one. My companion was pretty persuasive when she wanted to be, but there was also a feeling in my gut that I hadn’t seen the last of it.
My flat wasn’t far from the office. As a matter of fact, the main reason why I chose the location was to make the journey to work as short and convenient as possible. It certainly wasn’t because the place itself was particularly pleasant (it wasn’t) or because it was in a desirable area (likewise). As the New Austerity bit in and the physical quantities of possessions people owned began to fall accordingly, it would be reasonable to assume that issues such as littering and the tipping of discarded belongings in public places would follow suit. Apparently this neighbourhood wanted to keep the traditional image of an industrial dystopia alive, despite the best efforts of various recycling and recovery organisations; the activity of those outfits ebbed and flowed around various parts of town and right now it looked like my area hadn’t been part of their rounds for several months.
Sometimes I wished the local litter-louts could be more original. A mouldy sofa, a broken TV set, even the obligatory abandoned shopping trolley…like the dentist waiting room that seems to source its newspapers from a newsagent specialising in selling nothing but the previous day’s editions, the whole street had a tired ‘can’t be bothered to try any more’ feel that even extended to meeting the expectations of old-school SF movies. Suffice to say, I wasn’t going to miss the place. Travelling to work would be more of a hassle, but who knows what, if anything, I was going to be doing there for the next few weeks?
It didn’t take long to throw the essentials such as clothes, toiletries and work-related stuff together since I had few of the first two and anything that came under the latter category was still missing, presumed stolen. By the standards of your typical burglar, this person or persons unknown had an uncanny eye for what was important and what wasn’t; amongst the standard strewn furniture and opened cupboards, there was some intelligence and purpose behind what appeared to be simple druggie desperation. It still didn’t seem quite right.
We lugged what was left of my worldly possessions – which depressingly fitted into three suitcases and a rucksack – to the nearest bus stop. She insisted on carrying the bag and one of my cases, with the only concession to my attempts at chivalry being that I carried the two heavier ones. Fortunately we didn’t have long to wait before a bus pulled up and, with travel cards in hand, we boarded.
The tandem flywheels beneath the floor switched out of idle, shifting from a medium-pitched hum to a more laboured and purposeful throb as it picked up speed and turned out of my street and onto the main road. Going via the city’s inner ring road, it skirted around the retail district we had used as a short cut that morning, and it gave more pleasant views as well. Small pockets of parkland and waste ground nestled between the grey buildings like weeds poking up through paving stones; flyovers arced gracefully between dual carriageways in a semi-haphazard fashion that must have been meticulously planned at first until the clumsy hands of planning committees forced compromise.
She was gazing out of the window at the passing cityscape with a look of concentration mixed with some emotion that was more deeply-buried and inscrutable. Every time we travelled by bus or train she’d insist on taking the window seat and would often zone out like this for minutes at a time; conversation from her during these journeys was sporadic and followed her own trains of thought. I knew better than to initiate a dialogue and waited for her to say something on her own accord instead.
“If this job really goes bad, are you going to move back home?”
“I doubt it,” I replied without hesitation. “If push came to shove then sure, but only if I had to. I’m kinda settled here. I don’t particularly want to go back, anyhow.”
“You don’t get on with your parents, is that it?”
“I don’t not get along with them; we never had a massive argument if that’s what you mean. We just…grew apart and I found I couldn’t go back to being the kid in his parents’ back bedroom anymore.”
She seemed to weigh up my situation but wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer. “Don’t you, y’know, miss being with them?”
“I dunno. Really. It felt like we just ran out of things to talk about and I outgrew the place. It really isn’t anything more complicated than that. You don’t talk to your mum much these days either, do you?”
“That’s different. I don’t approve of a lot of stuff she’s said and done so we don’t see eye to eye.” She hesitated. “I’m not saying you should go, but I was, well, curious about why you stay out here.”
“I’m not sure myself half the time. I’m helping Stu out with getting the office on track – the boss is planning a second branch somewhere nearby so expanding the thing will take time. I’m not inconveniencing you by taking the spare room, am I?”
“For the zillionth time, no. Got it? Catherine’s off doing her own thing whenever she feels like it and to be quite honest, I’d have trouble with the rent if there wasn’t someone dependable around. The latest article I’m working on is doing all right but I appreciate your being here. Okay?”
I mentally counted to three to let that raw nerve momentarily settle down. “Okay. I get it. It’s fine by me as long as you let me know if I’m out of line, or if you need anything else sorting out. You’re the one who’s doing me the favour, after all.” She swayed sideways a bit on her seat, almost hitting my shoulder, and hurriedly steadied herself, as though she’d momentarily dozed off. She mumbled something about the state of the buses and their crappy suspension, at which point it reached the stop near her place. Dragging my sorry excuses for belongings from the luggage racks, getting one or two angry glares from the other passengers in the process, we spilled out onto the pavement and made our way to the nearby block of flats.
I was given the typical welcome from the cat, in that she gave one of those cursory glances before resuming whatever it was that she was doing. This time she was meticulously cleaning herself; it never ceased to amaze me how a creature that rarely got itself dirty in any way devoted so much time to personal hygiene.
The spare room was almost as neat and spotlessly clean as the flat’s smallest occupant, although it had that tired, bereft look that most rooms have when they’ve been relieved of their contents. Apparently, no amount of dusting and vacuuming could completely remove the perceived traces left by the previous resident in my mind, so I started unpacking as quickly as I could. After my alarm clock was perched on the bedside table, my shirts hung on the clothes rail and fresh linen fitted to the bed it began to feel more ‘lived-in’ and welcoming.
The morning’s exertions with suitcases and bus rides made lunch all the more appealing, although she’d already slipped into Lone Occupant mode since there wasn’t a great deal in the fridge. Searching through the packets and jars for something that would qualify as a sandwich filling, I was insistent on staying in to eat all the same.
“Are you going to give up on it or what?” she asked as I made the third circuit around the kitchen cupboards.
“I’m not admitting defeat just yet…” I mumbled. “Think of it as settling in properly or something.”
This was true. Eating out today would only accentuate my lingering feeling of being a guest in her flat and I wanted to feel settled and comply with her request to ‘make myself at home’. A dried-out lump of cheese, a tomato that had miraculously avoided going soft and the ubiquitous bottle of soy sauce were the best candidates on offer. I still felt like I’d won a small victory. So it was me, 1: new kitchen, 0.
We ate in comfortable silence and the grilled sandwich soon gave my stomach a satisfying glow. The nagging headache still hadn’t gone away, but I was finally starting to feel a bit better overall. As we sat at adjacent corners of the small living/dining room table facing the window she mentioned that she still had unfinished business at Synapse and headed to the bathroom (“The toilets in that place are bloody awful. No way I’m hovering my rear end over the seat like last time.”)
As if on cue, her handheld rang as soon as she was out of the room. “That alert tone’s my mum. You don’t mind getting it, do you?” she shouted through the door. The unsaid inference was that she’d rather have me take her own mother’s call, and I got on well with the lady in any case, so I answered it without complaint.
“Hi there, Mrs K. Yeah, she’s getting ready now. We’re dropping by this afternoon but I think she said something about getting some work done there this evening too. Around then? Sure.”
I didn’t need to explain what was going on immediately after her mother had hung up; she put two and two together from listening in on my half of the conversation and was quietly uncomfortable about meeting her own mother while being, technically, at work.
“You don’t have to work on a weekend, you know.”
“I do know. It’s just that I want to catch the Saturday crowd this week. It ought to add the finishing touch and then I don’t need to go near the place again. Did my mum mention anything about eating out?”
I assured that her that she hadn’t. “She tries to treat me – and you – whenever she wants to meet me in town like this.” I assured her that I’d noticed. “Just saying.”
I, on the other hand, couldn’t think of anything in particular to look forward to in the forthcoming week, so was all for taking it easy this evening. Anticipating a sub-zero atmosphere when mother and daughter were in the same room, I decided it would be wise to tag along. There were worse places to be on a Saturday night than a live music venue with a sarcastic freelance journalist and a middle-aged genetics researcher when the drink started flowing. So I hoped, anyway.