“Do the peas come with the place?”
“Those peas there,” I say, nodding to the bowl on the countertop.
“Oh, yes,” the rental agent says.
“What if I wanted more?”
“How many more?”
“Oh,” I say, “just a few more peas.”
The rental agent thinks, her forehead creasing. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Brill! I’ve never had extras, y’know?”
“Never in my whole life. I am so ready for peas rent-free.”
“We’re happy to go the extra mile for our tenants,” she says brightly. “Consider, for instance, the ocelot.”
“I was going to ask . . .” I venture.
We watch the ocelot stretch and yank its claws on the wallpaper. “Yeah,” she says, “everyone’s always curious.” The cat’s eyes are solemn with concentration.
“It seems angry at something.”
“No, no,” she says, “just determined. How do you feel about him?”
“Like, symbolically?” The wallpaper rips, crackles. “Same as about most cats, really. Like it’s their world we’re living in.”
“That’s fair. Yep. Well, we can remove him if you’re not 100%.”
“Leave him in,” I say, watching the ocelot’s quicksilver shoulder-blades, their resemblance in fact to my dad in our yard laying shed timber and rushing us off the instructions. He would’ve killed for a place like this.
“Oh great,” she says, ticking her sheet. “Now, if we go to the landing just here . . .”
We advance to the second floor. “You’ll see we’ve gone for an art deco patchwork, chosen tastefully from local suppliers at their height of imitation. The hexagonal mirror – notice. The statement window there, torn from the Cathay – please adore it. The wallpaper, from ‘30s Detroit. Very sweeping. Whippoorwills, I think. Go ballistic at its fit with the wallpaper downstairs.”
I see what she’s talking about. “To make up for the lack of actual plant life,” I say, inspecting the branches and gold-fringed feathers. My voice echoes a little. It has grown.
“Well with space at a premium . . .” She shrugs.
I estimate the ceiling is seventy feet above me. “Uhuh,” I say. “And most animals being dead.”
“And most animals being dead,” she agrees.
“Well, I’m no expert, but I do care about the environment. Remember it? I’d like to, every day. Also, God, this is a nice throwback. Reminds me of Lego towers. Of kicking around, dreaming.”
“No kidding! I held three viewings yesterday for people who said almost exactly that. Almost, although one guy preferred Duplo. He had a larger face than yours. Simpler. Stretched.”
“And heating included?”
“I’ve always had cold hands,” I say, noticing – for the first time – that my hands are blue. The rental agent smirks. A bass note gathers to my left, overhead, everywhere. I lift an eyebrow. She suggests we sit. I settle onto a high-backed throne, the kind my friend described on peyote. “So,” she says, “the music arrives by itself. Neighbours have their own.”
Chimes now, wandering mandolin. My mother’s hair for string. “I’ve been looking for many years. I mean, fixed but . . .” My breath fights lumps. “On the lookout. Between here or there. Being mindful, and not losing hope.”
There is the cry of an anguished child.
“I understand. A step up – a family place, maybe. There’s enough room for it. And plenty more for interpretation. It’s strange, how clients talk. Like they know me too.”
She is right. What was waxen in her eyes moments ago has been repainted as amber planets. And her heels are stellar.
“At this stage,” she says, “I’m sad. A little flat. But that quickly passes. Here’s me, seeing your face, and feeling like I’ve been in the same position day in, day out, bearing harsh truths and bracing myself . . . because, remember, it’s rental only. Six months minimum. Twelve max. At a cost to renew.”
“What’s the cost?”
“You don’t want to know.”
We have barely seen the bathtub. Only a glimpse from the hall – its taloned feet, the promise of floating level at last to my standards. Maybe it’s time to bathe. To submerge and ask whatever questions make it to the top. The steam will restore me. I would like to see myself naked. “But the peas,” I say, “are extra. Free. Therefore what I think I want – and what you’re willing to throw in – is already more than advertised. So let’s chat. Let’s get real. I have references, several mentors, who can vouch for where I’ve been. Which points to where I’m going, more or less.”
Hesitant horn-rimmed glare. “There’s a limit on every tenancy.”
“Because other people are looking. Now and in at least six months.”
“For this exact thing?”
“And more,” she says evenly, annotating her pad. She writes fast. I want to see it. “Eventually,” she says, “you’ll want to move along.”
“You don’t know me!” I shout, standing and knocking a floor lamp sideways. Below, the scratching stops. The ocelot appears on the stair, ragged, mouth agape. Cavernous lamp smacks. The cat arcs its tail, slinks towards me and sniffs, circles. One of us purrs lowly. The rental agent gets up too, tucking her perfect blouse into her skirt and hair behind her ear. “Lucky that didn’t break,” she says, cheeks flaming with mischief. I am not like her other tenants.
“Okay,” I say, “it’s taken this long to get here. To be with you. To arrange this. To have the money.”
“Yeah,” she says, “there’s a price.”
“I wanted to see more, and I have other bookings, but I won’t be going to them. You just wait. You wait till I tell my friends I have extras. They’ll lose their minds.”
“Look,” she says, removing her glasses to changed eyes once more – an eddying green, whorls of black seafoam. “That’s great and fun and all, but only temporary. When will it be enough? Tomorrow? The next day? How about now? We haven’t seen the bed yet. You’ll wake up different each morning. It folds, refolds. Will you be a king or queen? I can’t promise. I won’t say, hey, boom, bonanza. You’ve got to be comfortable with the differences. Pillow piles, testing them, twisting on the mattress; then dragging your bare feet over so much floor, unsure whether the view from the tasteful architrave satisfies or destroys you. Remorse isn’t free. We don’t really sell it. I still have twenty minutes left. We haven’t gotten to the high-impact microwave. Monkey bars. Statues. The bell tower. They’re all in the tenant pack, there on the coffee table. Go on. Take it. Take it. I can’t sell. Not the best. It gets brought up at the office. The landlord thinks it’s too . . . risky.”
She tries to hold my hand and I just can’t let her. Familiar prisms glaze the wall. Patterns converge. I tell her I’ll pay the holding fee today, then we’ll talk Options. There’s a desultory pop in the alley outside; someone has fired a pistol. A mad moon rises. Drums ascend. The ocelot rubs his jaw on my knee, marking my bones.
At my former place, boxes are filled. Dust snows as I lift and clean. Time rubs mercilessly like stone on a wound. I cannot believe that I’ve been here three years, that I settled for it. The flat has shrunk and sprung the grey of under-meat, wilted and furled, the edges blackened by bottle rings. I sit alone with the TV for company in a favela of homeware. My old lamp from university nudges its head from a book stack and stares at me. “Don’t get any ideas,” I say, flicking through digital catalogues, warming with the TV. On the very last day I don’t even turn it on but sit in stubborn surrender, watching the sun die, remembering the mandolin.
The landlord calls and I can’t quite make out what they’re saying. Not really words, more a gushing ooooooooo or a shriek. I am patient.
“You’ve got a deposit,” I explain, “so let’s just be serious. I want the apartment. It is my apartment. Forever. I’m offering you total security, a windfall. You ever had one of those? They’re knockout, rare these days.”
The voice sinks and murmurs.
“That’s it. Imagine – retiring early. Bolting the door. Walking about in your pants, big ones, scratching your balls with a baguette. Telly. Dues paid. Cupboard Talisker. I bet you’ve got a fabulous place for that. I bet you’ve earned it.”
After a while, there’s a single clear: “I will not be sued.” Beep.
I am stoked. Hurriedly I order food for the ocelot to my new address. Documents are emailed and approved. The bank is so surprised, it sends me flowers. Congratulations on your commitment, the pinned note reads. We never knew you had it in you. I find this on my new doorstep, chuckling at the sheer fragrant enthusiasm.
The hallway greets me with a darkened aspect. My things are on a trolley, and I wheel them in. The wallpaper is peppered with a thousand additional holes; when I arrive, the cat barely nods at me, though as promised, there are many, many bowls of peas. Glistening shells. A stick of butter. I microwave one of them on the lowest setting and eat, spilling some from my smile.
The next thing I do is take a bath. Rings off. Dick up. Ease into the lavender water, fondling the golden taps with my toes. Sounds emerge from the rear of the room: Einaudi, bloody Einaudi. That murky idiot in D#. The music trills and thuds until I recall a girl at a piano stool from my schooldays, how she bent and vanished keyward with the splendour of a plank-dive suicide. I guess Einaudi is okay. The women who came after, none were like her. It doesn’t take long to realise baths are dangerous. I get out, colder than ever, and can’t find a towel that ties good. I slip on the tiles.
Later, dressed, under the chandelier, I cough and it gallops around the ceiling back at me. A funny little scare.
No friends visit. They’d spoil the mood. Days bleed to kernels and calluses. The bell tower is so tall, I vomit. Frowns crack the heads of statues in an airless garden, and at dawn, I patrol them, hiding their perplexity with a gowned sleeve.
Sometimes I do nothing but drop to my hands and knees tracing floorboards, the brass skirting, the beginnings of radiators. Proclaiming they are mine.
Lunatics torch the streets. Fire becomes television.
In the winter, perhaps the estate agent will return, hammering for me.
By then, the noose should hold.
About The Author
Joshua Potts is an errant fan of fiction that tends to collapse rather than go anywhere special. He wishes Janet Frame and George Saunders could’ve hooked up, had children, and invited him over for BBQs because he was waving at their house for too long across the street. Although he is a freelance writer, Josh is occasionally useful, falling down perfectly on a Muay Thai mat or inventing new times to eat a sandwich. He likes fish, Frank Ocean and alliteration. You may find him in your nearest café, wrinkling his forehead at seats less than three feet wide.
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