Leave No Trace by Nora Thurkle

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

The landlord said that trees just grew like that. Especially old trees, the ones that had grown up with the buildings. The tree had obviously been there much longer than the squat extension kitchen with its whitewashed walls and small PVC windows. It was unusually close to the back door, close enough for spiderwebs to form between the open window and the lower branches. The landlord said it would give us a nice bit of shade in the summer. 

It looked like someone had poured concrete on top of the roots of this tree to try and hold them in place. There was a rutted, pocked mound like the caldera of a volcano, from which the tree’s belligerent trunk erupted upwards. It looked like at any moment it could pull itself upwards and take a step. 

Inside, though, it just looked like the kitchen floor was a bit uneven, which was by no means the worst I had seen during this round of flat hunting. The rent was OK and bills were included and there was a separate living room. In the bathroom, dust lined some extremely old-school wooden panelling. I could see Erica’s mind working as she ran fingertips over it, making it cosy, superimposing a row of candles over the accumulating mildew. 

She had been my flatmate through multiple generic buy-to-lets (of course – us always the let end of the deal, haven’t you heard what it’s like now?). I suppose Erica helped me to see how they could be made into homes. Letting agencies told transparent falsehoods about their properties; she imagined them into truths. Stunning. Contemporary. Beautifully presented. Sought after. Where there was a pile of broken drawers and empty cardboard boxes and purposeless cables, Erica saw a spacious area for socialising; you’d just need a clear-out and a crocheted throw on that ratty sofa. Where there was a bleak kitchen with dusty skirting boards and dried drips of tomato sauce on the lower cupboard doors, she saw smiling housemates gathered around steaming mugs of tea, smelled a banana loaf fresh from the oven. Nasty stain on the carpet? Cover it with a geometric-patterned rug in pastel shades. You get the picture. These were usually just daydreams – renting, you are expected to leave no trace, not a smear of Blu-Tack, not a water ring on the counter. You’re not allowed to put down roots of your own. 

But it was hard not to get pulled along in the slipstream of her optimism, looking for a new home. The tree obviously didn’t worry her too much. 

“We could hang fairy lights in it,” Erica said, gesturing parabolically around the branches. “And what about a bird box? Just there?”

Despite myself I saw vegetable gardens (sustainable, fulfilling), in place of the matted lawn and half-collapsed fence panelling. 

After we moved in, we realised that the back door frame was warped at the bottom and the door wouldn’t close properly. It let in a draught. In heavy winds, it would crash open, rebounding off the cupboards at an alarming volume. We rigged up a temporary closure with cable ties and some garden twine and notified the landlord.  

I took a photo of the door frame and the disrupted floor under it, which looked like a giant worm had burrowed there and left a trail. I created a new folder on my computer and dropped the photo in it. 

The tree blocked most of the light from the kitchen. I looked it up in the guide I’d borrowed from the library and discovered that it was a walnut tree. No wonder it attracted so many squirrels. Have you heard the sound a disturbed squirrel makes? Cats from the neighbouring gardens would chase them up the side of the building and they would cling to the overhang of the extension roof, making this sound between a bark and a scrape. The squirrels came for the nuts, the cats came for the squirrels, and stayed to shit on the lawn. 

The neighbours put a note through the door to say that the tree was dropping walnuts into their garden and killing their plants. We took a photo of their note and sent it to the landlord. He didn’t reply. I added this photo to my folder, which I had named after the road we were living on. (I had folders like this for most of the places I’d lived. Pictures of broken appliances, mouse droppings, videos of leaks. Once I had texted a landlord to report that there was no vacuum cleaner in the cupboard, despite it being listed on the inventory, and he had asked for a photo; I sent him a picture of the empty cupboard.) 

Around that time, we noticed that a climbing plant was growing in through the air vent and clinging to the wall. Its small, dark-green leaves restricted themselves to the overhang of the sill, while tendrils no thicker than cotton threads reached further out, merging into cracks in the paintwork. We used a paint scraper to remove it, but it was back a few days later. We reported it – more photos for the folder. The scraper lived on the kitchen counter so that we could try and keep on top of the growth. 

One morning I came into the kitchen for breakfast and found a leucistic squirrel, dead, a white shock lying there on the lino with its protuberant yellow teeth pointing to the ceiling. Soon we could hear live ones scuttling around in the ceiling, nesting. Small animals make an unreasonably loud noise when they’re sharing your space. 

The landlord said he had booked an appointment with a pest control service and we would need to wait in on Saturday and Sunday – they couldn’t be more precise with the time.

On Sunday evening, when no one had appeared and my eyes were starting to hurt from watching videos on my laptop, me and Erica put out a blanket in the garden and opened a bottle of wine. It was warm, but the shade of the tree obliterated any light that tried to reach into the garden and Erica had never got round to installing the fairy lights. There seemed to be some kind of insect nest in the tree, too; a low buzz emanated from it, the kind of sound that was impossible to tune out once you noticed it was there. We shone phone torches into the branches, but we couldn’t see anything conclusive, so we sat back down. I started to jump at every slight breeze, every moth flitting past. Before long, we went back inside. 

The next morning the neighbours got out a chainsaw and started hacking off the branches that overhung their fence. They started very early. Their voices were clear through my wine headache and my open bedroom window, mutters of, “Bloody students,” in the gaps between cuts. Although, actually, neither of us was studying any more and the landlord certainly wasn’t. I felt like I could still hear the buzzing from the tree under the louder intermittent drone of power tools. 

The wallpaper had started peeling in the living room. I nudged a finger under the curling edge; it felt damp and came away easily from the wall. Beneath it were – at first, I thought they were electrical wires, but they were thinner and fibrous, like straw or hair. They were set into a crack that ran the entire height of the wall. I called Erica in to have a look. 

“Is that a plant?” she said. We took more photos. 

I had lived in a place like this growing up, less than a mile from here. We’d had the whole house, not just the ground floor. My mum had kept a neat, cosmetic lawn surrounded by decorous flowers and blitzed the lot with weedkiller and slug pellets once a season. It was hideous, but at least it never threatened to invade the house. 

Anyway. Weeks into my first term at uni, my mum had moved in with her boyfriend across the country and sold up. Returning after graduation I found that I couldn’t afford to live here anymore. Not alone, anyway. Of course, of course I couldn’t afford it. So I started renting with Erica. We moved into one place which already had a tenant. He didn’t come out of his room for days at a time, even to use the bathroom. His emptied piss bottles piled up in the recycling bin, rebounding off each other with a jittery clatter when we took it out. 

That wasn’t even the main reason for moving on from that place. The rent was going up (going up, as if it did that itself; took a helium breath and soared, the landlord helpless to prevent it), and we were already at the upper limit of our budget. 

In the next place, the top floor had been carved up into more bedrooms than it had space for, with flimsy partition walls that were entirely permeable to noise. In one of these lived a guy who had his much younger girlfriend around all the time and had screaming fights with her at 2 a.m. Rather than hiding in his room, he occupied the bathroom for an hour every morning and evening and didn’t rinse out the sink after shaving his head, leaving abundant specklings of hair like crayon scribbles on the ceramic. The landlord lived abroad. 

At least here it was just me and Erica, the ground floor flat our haven, and while we clearly weren’t the only living things in the place, we were the only ones who required use of the bathroom. And each time we had to move again, we ripped up even those meagre roots we had, those spindly and tentative filaments that we had to imagine into being, over and over again. Even Erica was touched by the fatigue of it; I could tell by the music coming through her wall, not the bright beating rhythms she usually favoured but a lower, more sombre pulse, an underwater acoustic. 

The landlord took 26 hours to respond to the picture of the roots coming through the kitchen floor. They seemed to have erupted overnight in a damp and soily fissure, the roots themselves pale and gnarled, like potatoes reproducing themselves in a dark cupboard. They had split the lino and were starting to encroach on the lower cupboard where we kept cleaning materials. Woodlice skittered back into the dark recess when we entered the room. The creeper, reaching through the air vent, was back too. How did it grow so quickly? 

When he did email back, the landlord reminded us of our responsibilities for maintenance and reasonable standards of cleanliness. There was repeated use of the phrase ‘as per the lease’. ‘When you live somewhere that isn’t yours, you do have to accept some inconvenience,’ the email read, further down. 

The roots stretched further into the kitchen, luxuriating. I felt like if I looked at them, I would see them growing, that they only stopped because they knew I was watching. We started living off takeaways and only venturing into the kitchen to grab plates and cutlery. As well as the roots rupturing the floor, the buzzing was loudest in there, nearer to the shade-obscured trunk.

So we gave our notice and began the operation of cleaning the place. We scraped and scraped all the plant matter we could from the kitchen walls and windowsills, scraped off the soft moss that had accumulated on the lino, scraped dried squirrel droppings from the windowsill and collected them in a dustpan and brush. We paid the last Council Tax bill. 

The landlord withheld our deposit for damage and insufficient maintenance in multiple areas of the flat. ‘Tree growing into kitchen,’ said one of the bullet points in his email. I sent screenshots of all our texts and emails and copies of the photos we had taken to the deposit protection service. Our case would be reviewed in the next 6-10 weeks. I put my name down for overtime hours at work and dove into my overdraft for the deposit on a new place. This time, the garden had nothing but pot plants and a bare paved patio. That was more like it. 

On moving day, before we had even unpacked, Erica spotted a second-hand picnic table in the junk shop down the road and I helped her lug it back, along with some wood stain to zhuzh it up a bit. There was decent water pressure in the shower and a big storage cupboard with shelves that looked like they had been competently installed. There was another tenant, but she was female, she smiled at us, and the products arrayed neatly around the sink suggested that she made regular and appropriate use of the bathroom. 

A few days after we moved in, though, I spotted the black mould starting to gather in the corner of my bedroom ceiling, like a storm cloud. 

About The Author

Nora is an emerging writer from Catford, south-east London, and is currently writing her first novel. She placed second in the London Magazine Short Story Prize 2021, was shortlisted for the 2021 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize for her story ‘Inaudible Frequencies’ and has also had work featured on Lunate, Liars’ League, Dear Damsels and The Toast. She works as a primary school teacher. 

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