By Jenny Colgan
Published by Warner Books
January 2002; ISBN: 0446690155; 304 pages
A famous Artic explorer once said that polar expeditions were the most successful form of having a bad time humans had ever devised. Of course, he'd probably never answered an ad for a flatshare with a bunch of complete strangers. Although if it hadn't been for them I would never have met Addison. Hmm. Which, when I think of it, is kind of like saying, OK, I lost all my fingers and toes to frostbite, but I met some very sweet penguins along the way . . .
Thirty-six hours after I moved in to 12a Wendle Close, Harlesden, I realized I'd made a terrible mistake. Tiptoeing around someone else's home is weird enough, particularly if it's just after a late night and you can't remember their name or where they keep the Sugar Puffs or, say, you're a cat burglar. Tiptoeing around your own is discomfiting, to say the least. But here I was, creeping into my own house and closing my bedroom door extremely quietly, heart pounding, after only my very first quick jaunt to the shops, to try and make friends with my newsagent and see what flavors of Skips he had.
If I pressed my head against the thin wood veneer of the door I could just about hear my new best friends in the nearby ghastly open-plan Formica kitchenette.
"Well, I think we need a special long-term rotation too. For cleaning the shower curtain and the drawers. And washing the baseboards."
"That's a great idea, Carol," came another voice, deep with awe. "Maybe we could do one big job every Saturday night and make an event of it. We could even get takeaway pizza!"
"And don't forget the curtains!" screeched the unfortunately named Farah, who was about two foot tall and was always being mistaken for a monkey, or Martin Amis. "I'll get my colored pencils out and start drawing it up. This is going to be such fun!"
They all mewed.
"Didn't I just hear Holly coming in?" asked Laura, who was stolid and sat down a lot. "That sounded like her bedroom door . . ."
"No!" I attempted to telepathically send to them. "It must have been the wind. That ...mysterious bedroom wind."
". . . Why don't we go and ask her what she'd like to do?"
I inhaled sharply.
"Yes, let's!" yelled Farah. And there was a pounding at my door.
"Holly? Holly, are you there?"
Carol, official leader of Scary Clean Freaks Incorporated, put her head around the door assertively. Was it only a week ago I had checked out her ankle chain and pondered whether we'd ever get on? She looked at me sneerily. I sensed that she secretly knew of the scientifically proven inverse relationship between me and housework (the more messy things were, the less inclined I was to do anything about them), even though I'd attempted to be pristine for my first few days.
"We were just wondering . . ." she hissed.
Laura sniffed, noisily, behind her. Laura sniffed all the time.I always wanted to tell her that it was OK; no one was about to make her do double PE any more. Carol shot an evil sideways glance like a viper.
"Ahem. We were just wondering, given that we're-ha-divvying up the rotation, if there was anything you particularly liked doing."
I eyed her steadily, not about to be intimidated by someone who ringed her lips with dark lipstick pencil on her skin.
"How about I take lightbulb-dusting and big spider removal?"
"Ooh, that sounds good," screeched Farah from somewhere beside my knee. Carol dispensed another one of those Robert de Niro-to-doomed gangster stares.
"We thought you might prefer loos, sinks, and floors," she said pointedly.
"Oh . . ." I said. "You mean, all of it."
"Ha." She smiled. "Don't get around to much cooking, do we?"
I realized I'd been outmaneuvered. Blast.
I counterattacked. "What are you doing to do?"
"I'm going to coordinate," she said. Laura nodded happily.
"Oh, tough one."
". . . that means I buy all the cleaning materials, arrange the schedule, organize the external cleaning contractors, e.g., the carpet shampooers I've got coming in, arrange everyone's telephone hours, and oversee everyone's painting choices. So we've all got quite enough to be getting on with, don't you think?"
I wanted to try one last stance-perhaps suggesting that Farah take the floors; after all, she was closer-but all I could say was "Telephone hours?"
"I know; I thought of it," Carol said proudly.
"It's a great idea," said Farah, standing between Carol's legs.
"Basically, it means you can only use the phone or get phone calls at your set time each night. Then, when we get the bill in, you pay for all the calls in your time, and nobody lies about the expensive numbers."
I stared at her. "Well, that's going to cut down on my sex-line income."
Laura's eyes widened with shock. Carol laughed politely, to show me that if I felt like fighting her, she was up to it.
"What's to stop me making phone calls on other people's time?"
"We're going to have a phone-lock that can only be opened by me. You come to me when you want to use the phone and I'll see if it's your hour or not. Really," she said, shaking her head, "your chores are much easier than mine, believe me."
"Oh goodness me, I think I just heard my mobile go off," I announced in a flurry.
"Excuse me," I said, when they showed no sign of backing away from my door, "I just have to, ehrm, excuse me . . ." Fortunately, the henchmen stuck next to Carol and backed away when she gave the signal, as my next move would have been to scream "Fuck off ! Fuck off ! Fuck off !" whilst shoving them out the door and pulling a hose on them.
I slammed the door behind them and sat on the bed. My mobile wasn't going off, naturally, but I took it out anyway and thanked this little machine. How could I ever have thought they were only of use to workers on buses who thought that someone not on a bus might want to know when they were on a bus? Oh-and how the f**k was I going to get out of here?
Some people pick the wrong men all the time. I pick the wrong places to live. Well, OK, I pick the wrong men too, but anyway. So it was that after finally getting totally creeped out by my last landlord, in Hackney, who smelled of piss and used to turn up at random hours of the night to "inspect" things (my knicker drawer included)-which followed the three girls in Dulwich who had all joined a beardy-weirdy religious cult and refused to allow men over the threshold, except for the cult leader, with whom they all slept whenever he wanted them to-I had ended up here, in a new house-share with three banana brains who all worked in the local hospital as phlebotomists. Apparently this meant they took blood samples from people. I assumed in Carol's case she simply bit them.
Anyway, they'd advertised in Loot for a fourth member to join a new household in tasty Harlesden, and, amazingly, I got it. Perhaps I was the only one who didn't blanch at the interview, when Laura came in and reported obediently to Carol that she had just bleached the teacups.
"And how often do you boil-wash the crockery?" Carol had asked me.
"Ehm...I find about every half-hour just about does it," I'd gone for, and noticed her put a big tick on my application form, which had been broken down into sixteen handy sections. The relief of going from the dissipated seediness of Hackney-where they wanted extra rent if you got an inside loo-to a brand-new "executive" flat in the famous industrial waste area of North West London made it seem like a good deal at the time, but had blinded me to the obvious: i.e., all these people were mad-but because they outnumbered me in the house I was beginning to think that they were right.
I began to inspect my mobile for germs, and was getting really close up when it rang in my face.
I shrieked, did a comedy clown fumble, and dropped the phone under the bed.
"Are you all right?" said Carol's voice from just outside the door. She was obviously listening to everything. I shrieked again, swallowed some air, choked, coughed, and managed to wheeze, "Fine, thank you."
"It must be pretty dusty under your bed."
"Yes, yes it is, thanks," I said, sitting upright with the phone. Then I jumped-how the hell did she know where I was? I felt a cold hand of fear.
"Hello?" I finally choked into the phone.
"Do you know, I haven't made a woman scream like that for years," drawled the well-modulated voice.
I relaxed slightly.
"Josh, you have never made a woman scream like that. In fact, have you ever made a woman?"
"Oh ho ho. Yes, of course."
"In your country of origin?"
He paused. "Not precisely."
I'd been teasing Josh about this for as long as I'd known him, which was a l-o-o-ong time. Because he was attractive and also nice to girls, most people assumed he was gay. For someone with a posh background, a good job, and a nice haircut, he did horrendously badly with the opposite sex, which I couldn't understand-not that I'd ever wanted to shag him myself; he was so nice.
Anyway, thank God he'd rung me back. Worriedly searching the ceiling for CCTV, I sat back on the bed.
"Josh, you know when you moved into Pimlico and I said I didn't want to move there because it was snooty London and you were moving in with Kate who hates me?"
"Well,you know,how's it...how's the whole flatshare thing going?"
"It's going fine."
"Right-Great! Right. How's that other guy you got in to fill the space doing?"
"Addison? He's just great ...Well,quiet and undemanding."
That didn't sound much like me. "Uh huh. So no one's moving out or anything, then?"
Josh sighed. "Don't tell me. Not another Turkish Lesbian Women's Collective?"
That had been Hoxteth, two years ago. I'd been kicked out for not liking chickpeas and buying that symbol of male forced dominance, sanitary protection.
"The cat lady?"
"Christ. No, not worse than her. But still, pretty bad."
I heard Carol's voice: "Holly! Would you like some tea? Because it's your turn to make it!"
I ignored her.
"Josh, this is absolutely desperate. Listen, you know that little boxroom you were going to turn into a study?"
"The one you described as a coffin?"
"Yup, yup, that's the one. Ehm, have you ...?"
"Turned it into a study? Not since you were last here. I've leased it out as a bedroom, though."
"You bastard! Josh, I know this is a huge favor-and please say no if you don't want to-but please, please, please can I come and live in your coffin? I mean, boxroom?"
"You've asked me this before, Holl," he said with a sigh.
"Then you always dash off and the next thing I hear from you you're on the run from a postgraduate mathematics badminton team."
"I know. I'm crazy."
"You are crazy. Why didn't you just move in when I bought the place?"
"Because you're rich and Kate makes me miserable."
"I am not rich, and Kate can't help being ...Kate. Anyway, if that's how you feel . . ."
"No, no! I'm sorry! Please. Please. Please."
There was a loud knocking at my door. "Tea, please, Holly! It's in the lease!"
"It's the Gestapo!" I whispered. "How soon can you come and get me?"
"I'll have to check with Kate and Addison."
"Josh!" I screeched, near to tears. "Please."
"OK," he relented. "I'll pick you up at about seven. Have you got much stuff?"
"Just a coffinful."
"And no diving off again, do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," I mumbled meekly.
I could have snogged Josh, I was so pleased to see him. I wanted to grab hold of his legs round the ankles and sob with gratitude and pour unguents over his feet. Or was that glue?
Carol had not taken the news well, particularly when I retrieved my deposit check from the shiny silver box to which only she had a key ( I distracted her by upending her coupons box all over the kitchen floor, then making a dive for the key when she bent over). In fact, she had advanced on me until her face was only a few inches from mine-well, her makeup was. Her face was probably about a foot away.
"Think you can just do what you like round here?" she asked menacingly.
"Yes, I do, actually. That's why I don't live with my parents anymore."
"So who's going to take your room? You've got to sort that out."
"Ah.Yes,well ...I'm afraid you're going to have to sue me for my friends and acquaintances. Here, I've written down my forwarding address on this piece of paper." I waved it reassuringly. It said: 1 Holly Lane, Hollywood, 0171 555 5555-"and don't forget to send those bills on to me!"
"We won't," said Carol grimly.
Laura opened and shut her mouth like a fish. "Well, I think it's disgraceful the way you're leaving Carol in the lurch like this," she announced, quivering. "All the trouble she's been to."
"And me!" piped up Farah from somewhere around my ankles. "I did the schedules!"
"I'm sorry," I said. "My best friend's got cancer. I'm nursing him till he dies."
Laura backed away, crestfallen.
"I'm so sorry," she muttered.
"Oh really?" said Carol. "What kind?"
I couldn't think. "Ehm, nose cancer?"
"You're sick," she said, turning to march out of the room.
"So are you!" I yelled after her.
She turned once more, her brutally permed hair a weapon. "Well, at least I'm clean and sick."
Fortunately, Josh's sporty little Spitfire had turned up, and he was honking enthusiastically. Josh did everything enthusiastically.
I tore out of the house.
"Where the hell am I going to put anything?" I wailed, after hugging him overaffectionately, then examining his twoseater.
"I'm so sorry, darling. I meant to trade Bessie in for a Volvo but, you know, I just couldn't find the time."
"Ha ha ha. Listen, would you mind sitting on my duvet?"
He looked at me.
"Well, it's not like real sex, is it?"
It took us an hour and a half to crawl back into town. Even though it was only April, Josh insisted on having the roof off, so I had to hang on to everything I owned, like an earthquake refugee.
"Freedom!" I yelled into the air. "I am never going to move into a crappy flat again."
"Except for the one you're about to move into."
"Josh, it could be a shed at the bottom of the garden, I don't care! I'm freee! "
"OK, steady on," said Josh, obviously worried I was about to start leaning dangerously far over the bonnet and singing "My Heart Will Go On."
There are two schools of thought concerning the children of parents who divorce nastily just as you're approaching puberty. One school says, Well, life is like that-chin up, and maybe the seething atmosphere at home will spur you into staying late at the library and moving on to better and brilliant things in an attempt to pull yourself out of the flotsam. Lots of famous people have divorced parents. They overachieve for attention. That wasn't exactly my school.
The other school says you should instantly become übertruculent and demanding, and put everything you do your entire life down to your bad upbringing. I tended to this school, it being rather easier and low maintenance, plus it tended to mean better Christmas presents, if dodgier exam results. It had worked reasonably well during my teens, but when your friends no longer have to see you every day in class and are too busy off doing horrid careers and stuff-well, so, now I was twenty-eight, and it was definitely becoming less fun by the day, especially when everyone I used to know had suddenly become fascinated by mortgages, for Fuck's sake. I just didn't get it. Boys and pop music-fascinating. Mortgages are what you get when you look up the dictionary definition of "not fascinating." Hence my precipitative flathopping.
To make matters even worse, I was starting to realize that my anti-establishment tendencies were beginning to marginalize me-not as a free spirit, as I'd always thought, but instead along with the old hippies and socialist workers and people who talked about smashing the state but couldn't actually get it together to wash their trousers-ever. It was extremely depressing. I mean, nobody likes washing their trousers, but I didn't want it to define my entire existence. To make matters worse, my father, who took up bringing home blonde women full time after he left my mum, had recently brought home one my age. Who also had a mortgage. And a sports car. Sigh.
Josh had a mortgage, but he was also a complete sweetie pie who could be endlessly relied upon in a crisis, as I knew and had shamefully abused in the past.
We finally pulled up in front of his dilapidated Victorian pile in Pimlico.
"I see you've still not got the builders in."
"No, I couldn't afford them," said Josh, hopping out of the car without opening the door and pulling up two bin-liners of my stuff. "Until now." He smiled sweetly in my direction.
"Ah yes, about that . . ." I followed him in, clutching my socks-and-pants bag, my cheese plant, and Frank Sinatra the bear. One of the reasons I'd wound up in Harlesden in the first place was that being a freelance florist and general underachieving free spirit didn't exactly pay very much, and Pimlico was basically posh these days.
He told me, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The going rate for coffins wasn't so bad after all.
The flat was quiet inside. It was big and tatty and comfortable, and I'd always liked it. Josh had bought right at the top of the market and paid a stupid amount of money for it-apart from being infested with dry rot and woodworm and all sorts of other nasty moving things, it needed a new roof-but it was a good homey home. The kitchen was large, with nasty old units, a rickety table and four chairs in the middle, cracked floor tiles, and a huge window at the back which opened on to a rusty excuse for a fire escape. I pottered about in my tiny new room, mostly leaning against cupboards to get them to shut and stuffing things under the bed.
"Umm, sorry about the mess," hummed Joshua as I went back into the kitchen for a cup of tea. "It's not usually ...Well,in fact, it is."
"Great!" I said.
He smiled weakly at me. I leaned across the table. "Josh, thank you. I'm sorry I forced you into this. I promise I'll be a good tenant. You'll see. I promise."
He grinned back at me. "Good. And I could do with the company, to be honest-Kate works all the time, and Addison is, well ..."
"Yikes!" I pounced immediately. "Tell me the gossip about Kate."
"Oh, she's a complete bitch, as ever," said Kate, striding into the kitchen and dumping a Marks & Spencer's bag, an enormous briefcase, a Nicole Farhi raincoat, and an expensive leather handbag onto one of the rickety chairs.
"Hello, Holly. Josh left me a message on my voicemail. Which I got about ten minutes ago. But never mind, eh? Welcome anyway."
I went to give her a hug or something, but she was already en route to the bottle opener. Josh touched her lightly on the arm.
"How was your day, Skates?"
"Great. Great. As usual. Two sexist comments, four reports to do this week, one irregular forecasting, and I have to be in Dublin for eight A.M. tomorrow morning, to give a presentation on a report I haven't even read yet. Then back in the office by noon to account for myself, two more meetings, and a four P.M. deadline for the Kinley account. Oh, and then a client dinner with a bunch of ghastly old bores who'll try and feel me up in the Met bar."
Josh nodded sagely. Kate pulled the cork with a savage pop and poured out three humongous glasses of wine.
"So, Holly, what are you up to these days?"
Kate had always intimidated me. We'd only really met because the three of us were on the same corridor of student halls. We'd both stayed friends with Josh-most people did-but never really got on with each other. She was rather more of a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-type person-she didn't actually say "lickspittle," but you could tell when she was thinking it.
She'd done business studies and got some hugely well-paid and prestigious job in the City, which hadn't helped relations between us particularly. I always felt she was just about to offer to buy a Big Issue off me.
Actually, that wasn't quite why we didn't get on. Specifically, well, you know in Orientation Week, one is often, er, tacitly encouraged to get ...Well, anyway. Originally, there were the three of us in a row on one of those grotty endless corridors that are completely not the Brideshead University model I'd always hoped for, even in Coventry. Students were still sharing showers, a good life lesson for future flatshares in how much yeuch people are actually made of, and how, just when you think you've seen everything, there's always a new variety of repulsiveness.
Josh had opened his door on the very first day and sat there crudely beaming at everyone who walked past, a technique which probably wouldn't have worked so well if he hadn't been so blond and pretty. I wandered in there by accident, already worried by how keen my dad and Blondie had been to leave me, but faintly reassured by the seemingly enormous check now burning a hole in my pocket. It worked out to a lot of chocolate bars, although, as I found out four weeks later, not that many beers and taxis.
"Hello," said Josh. "This place is nice, isn't it?"
"It's a shithole!" I said, looking around at the regulation stained walls, stained carpet, and dodgy pinboard.
"Oh yes . . ." He took in the room. "So it is. Oh well-only three years to go."
"And a week," I said.
"Of course. Hmm. What do you think the cooking facilities are like?"
"I don't know-what's a cooking facility?"
Through the paper-thin walls we could hear loud, fairly dramatic sobbing. We raised our eyebrows at each other.
"What is this, primary school?" I said, a tad callously.
"Maybe she misses her mother," said Josh.
I sniffed derisively, something I'd been practicing throughout my teens to great effect.
"Come on," he said, "let's go cheer her up."
"Ah, the beginning of my crazy university years," I said, but I followed him dutifully outside.
Next door, perched on the narrow bed, with the door open, sat Kate, thin and a little pinched-looking, and dressed head to toe in immaculately ironed Benetton separates. Even though she appeared distraught with grief, she still had been composed enough to hang up lots of perfect shirts, I noticed.
"Hello there," said Josh. "I'm sure it won't be as bad as all that. When I went to boarding school I cried for my mother for four days. Mind you, I was six years old at the time."
"My mother?" said Kate, spluttering. "I don't miss my mother! I just can't believe I didn't do better in my A-levels than to end up in this shitty place!"
"Didn't you work hard?" I asked her. That was my excuse.
"Of course I worked hard!" she said, looking up. "I had a Fucking place at Magdalene."
"Oh, I see. They only want really tall girls, don't they?" I said sympathetically.
"What the Fuck's nervous anxiety, anyway?" Kate went on, ignoring me. "I'll tell you what it is: It isn't enough to get your exam marks upgraded. I wish I'd had a Fucking full-on nervous breakdown. Then they'd have had to let me in."
"Have one now," I suggested. I knew she wasn't actually shouting at me, but she was certainly shouting in my direction.
"Don't worry," said Josh kindly, touching her on the shoulder. "Would you like to come out with me? I'm going ice skating at the Christian Union."
"You're not Christian, are you?" I said, disappointed. I'd liked him.
"No! But I sure can skaaaaaate! "
So the three of us ended up in one of those forced friendships that come together extremely quickly out of necessity in early college. Kate decided that Josh was her own personal property, which annoyed me. OK, so both of them had flat stomachs and good posture, but I didn't like the assumption that as Kate was prettier than me I should butt out, especially as I didn't even fancy Josh and in fact assumed pretty much from the start that he was gay, rather than, as I later found out, completely and utterly confused.
Kate hadn't cottoned on to this, however, and insisted on treating me as an annoying kid sister hanging around with the grown-ups, her repertoire including: "You again, Holly?" "You don't mind, do you, but I've only got two cups?" and "Sorry, Holl, but it's only a plus-one." Soon their status as moneyed and classy students at a poor and common college became clear, and I started going out with a greasy sports science student who once tried to teach me kung fu and chipped my collarbone, so I pretty much left them to it-which doesn't mean to say that she didn't really Fuck me off, Kate being the accepted sucking pig to Josh's sow and my runt. An analogy bordering on the disgusting, but that's how it was.
In time, of course, Kate realized that simply because she and Josh went to a lot of places just the two of them, it didn't actually mean they were a couple. But not before I got my revenge . . .
In a misguided attempt at collegiate unity, two socially inadequate but horrifically bouncy "ents officers"-"ents" stood for "entertainment," and of course to be involved in "ents" you were anything but-arranged a "Corridor Convulsion" early on in our first term. There was a good and complicated reason for it at the time, but what it meant in effect was an excuse to haul in lots of weepingly cheap alcohol and stuff it down the faces of naïve but nubile eighteen-year-olds in the hope that they might accidentally strip their tops off and run down the corridor. Actually, maybe that was the official reason and it just sounded all right in those days.
Josh of course would do anything of a community nature enthusiastically and Kate was still in the "gamely joining in" stage, before she realized that she could dress up as a giant antelope and it still wasn't going to make her sexually attractive to Josh, so we all trawled into the hallway to figure out what was happening.
What was happening was what happens anywhere with horribly diverse sects of shy and socially inept people away from home for the first time and unsure of their very identities: groups of twos and threes stood in small corners grunting nervously at each other and downing obscure former Communist bloc spirits as fast as they possibly could. A group of rugby- or aspirant rugby-playing lads started getting rowdy in the corner, and the ents officers gibbered around, excited yet again at the possibility of not being one of the 29 percent of students who leave Coventry certified virgins. What they didn't yet know was that 100 percent of ents officers leave 100 percent of all institutions certified virgins.
A petite, very pretty blonde girl who wore enormous fleeces and was clearly out to score with a rugby boy-Why? being the only unanswered question-became the first person, at around 10:30 P.M. and after a lot of goading, to take off her top and flee down the corridor, bouncing merrily, to massive applause. After that, about fifteen of the men immediately tried to do it with their cocks out-what is it about British men and being completely naked for no good reason? I've seen someone play the piano with his.
Sociologists would have had a field day with all this, given, truly, how few of us that year had yet seen another buck-naked human being they weren't blood related to.
Finally, and it all starts to get a bit hazy around this point, pretty much everyone had done a quick streak and been accepted into the gang. Mine would have been sexier had I not stumbled over somebody's outstretched foot and made a noise which sounded like a fart (but wasn't) on my way down. Josh skipped along his, to yells of "Faggot," but generally good-natured ones.
And at last there was only one more person to go. Kate would clearly rather have died than take part in anything so vulgar. She had that faraway look in her eyes she got whenever she dwelled on what romantic and glistening evenings she could be having at Oxford right now. I started egging her on, and pointing out to people that she was the only one who hadn't done it, just in case she got away with it.
"Shut up, Holl," Kate hissed.
"Kate hasn't gone! Kate hasn't gone!" I shouted loudly to the rugby players.
"Kate! Kate! Kate! Kate!" they started chanting.
Kate flushed redder than ever.
"Everyone else has," I said petulantly.
"Go on, Skatie," said Josh, who, due to his upbringing, was completely unable to understand why someone wouldn't want to take part in a group-enforced humiliation in the name of fun. The rugby boys' name-calling had failed to abate and formed an increasingly ferocious background.
"Oh, for Fuck's sake!" said Kate, furious.
"Kate! Kate! Kate!"
Kate pulled up her top extremely quickly and made a sprint down the corridor. Immediately, silence fell. Quite simply, Kate had the flattest chest anyone had ever seen.
Of course, nowadays, that doesn't matter. Kate Moss resembles a boy who's been stung by two bees and nobody bats an eyelid. But when you're nineteen and desperate to find yourself attractive . . .
To cut a long story short, that was never a moment when anybody needed me to inadvertently expostulate "Christ, they look like two Pop-Tarts!" loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Kate handed me one of the glasses of wine.
"Sorry, I didn't hear that . . . what did you say you were up to again?"
"Ehm, I'm ...I'm a florist."
"Still! My goodness. Is it . . . fulfilling?"
Fulfilling? I couldn't even conceive of what that might mean, and was standing with a confused expression on my face until I remembered that when Kate asked a question, she required a logical answer quickly-time being money, etc.
"Yes, it is," I said. "The pay is shit and the hours are crap and your hands are wet all day, but apart from that it's fantastic."
She smiled thinly. "Never mind, eh? You'd probably hate a career job anyway."
"This is a ..."
"Where do you work?"
"Actually, I'm freelance at the moment . . ."
Well, I couldn't commute to Hackney Flowerama any more, but I did have a chum at New Covent Garden who was going to let me help out.
"Oh, so you're like a temp florist? How funny!"
I didn't know what to say to that, so I went and helped Josh, who was chopping onions for spaghetti bolognese. I could see Kate reflected in the kitchen window. She did look fantastic-tired, but fantastic. Her dark hair was glossy and tied back in a chignon, and she was wearing an expensive fawn suit. I wiped my hands on my pinafore and sighed.
"Tell me about your mystery flatmate. Is he away?" I asked Josh.
Josh and Kate looked at each other and smiled.
"Away?" echoed Kate. "Addison doesn't do away."
"What-you mean he's in the house?"
I felt nervous suddenly. I'd been stomping about merrily for two hours, singing and making loud noises in the toilet, and all along there had been an additional presence. Spooky.
"Oh yes," said Josh. "I'll probably leave some food out for him later on. He forgets to eat until he faints, so I put it by his door."
Curiouser and curiouser.
"Can I meet him?"
They exchanged glances again.
"Ehm, best not."
"Well, I'll have to meet him sometime," I argued. "What if he just pops up in the bathroom one day? I'll scream the place down."
"You might do that anyway," said Kate.
"Addison is very . . . well, sensitive. He's a computer buff, you see."
Only Josh still used words like "buff."
"You mean, what-an anorak? A geek? Dork? Nerd?"
"Ahem." Josh gave a polite cough as a shadow flitted across the open kitchen door.
"Is that him?" I hissed. "I'm going to see."
Kate stepped in front of me and shut the door.
"What is going on?" I asked. "Is he hideously deformed, like the Elephant Man?"
Josh patted me on the shoulder. "Sorry, Holls. We're not doing this on purpose. Addison does a lot of highly technical, top-level computer work, and he hates being disturbed when he's working."
"But he's in the flat."
"He works from home."
"And for about twenty-three hours a day," muttered Kate. "It's really easy to forget a hard day's work when you've got beeps and tapping going on all night next door to you."
"Better than some things . . ." I started to say, then remembered that Josh's bedroom was next door to mine, and didn't.
"So, I mean, what's he like?" I started again. A man of mystery? Sounded good to me.
"Oh, you tell her, Josh. I'm absolutely exhausted," said Kate. She took out her Palm Pilot and started stabbing at it, making me feel like a complete idiot. Then Josh and I shared our "It's Kate" glance, and I felt a bit better.
"Well ..."started Josh, stirring the sauce. I went and leaned on the cabinet next to him. "He's quiet. Very quiet. In fact, I think he'd rather not speak at all. He was amazed when we didn't have e-mail in every room in the house so we could just communicate that way."
I raised my eyebrows. At the table, Kate let out a long "How can I be so busy and successful when there are people in my kitchen making spaghetti bolognese?" type sigh.
"Whenever he bumps into one of us in the hallway he acts like a startled rabbit, like he genuinely wasn't expecting anyone to be there. And he refuses to answer the phone or the doorbell. And he never eats."
"Hence the food drops."
"Hmm? Yes." Josh artfully splashed a measure of red wine into the sauce, crying out "Whoops!" flamboyantly when he got a bit on his professional apron. I really could understand why women had a hard time taking him seriously.
He caught me watching him. "Am I being gay again?"
I smiled at him, coloring slightly. When we were at college, I used to tease him on a semi-continual basis when he'd bring his girl stories to me, but now I was his tenant, and it felt a bit uncomfortable.
"That was a very masculine dash of wine. But I am definitely fascinated by my new invisible flatmate."
"Try taking the room next to his-it'll wear off soon enough," growled Kate from the table, where she continued to do Very Hard Sums.
"Oh, can I?" I yelped, before realizing the faux pas.
"Sorry, darling," said Josh, "but you're not-aha!-coffin up enough rent for that!"
Kate and I stared at him in disgust until he apologized.
Dinner was good. Josh liked to cook, and was good at it. He had a sinecure at his family's ancient law firm near Chancery Lane, which required him to turn up at about 10:30 looking well groomed, take long lunches, and impress foreign clients with his Englishness and handmade shoes, before retiring to the senior partners' offices at 4:30 to partake of an early gin and tonic before heading home. Which was just as well, as he wasn't the most academic of characters: you wouldn't want him defending you in a murder trial whilst simultaneously admiring the court cornicing. The only thing preventing the absolute outbreak of class war was that he didn't get paid that much for it. It just stunned me that such things still existed outside of the kind of stuff Rupert Graves does in all his films.
Kate ate about three bites, wiped her lips ostentatiously with a napkin, then declared she had mounds to do and retreated to her room with the remainder of the wine. Her good night to me was curt, to say the least.
I looked at Josh.
"What is with her?" I asked. I mean, she'd always been uptight, but this was real carrot-up-the-bum stuff.
Josh toyed with his spaghetti.
"Oh, it's that stupid job of hers," he said. "She works fourteen-hour days, then comes home like a bear."
"What, pooing in the woods?"
"Oh. Good spag bol."
"Thank you." Josh colored prettily. "So anyway, I keep saying she should change it, do something less stressful, but she just bares her teeth at me and hisses something about me being privileged and how I would never understand what it means to fight for something."
"Her dad's a GP, isn't he?"
"Hmm. But she must make an absolute fortune. Why does she live here?"
Josh looked faintly amused. "Charmingly direct as ever, darling."
"Oh, you know what I mean."
"I know. I'm not sure, really. She does make a stinking amount of money, though. Something like more in her bonus than I do in a year."
Than I will in a decade, I thought to myself mournfully.
"We moved in together when I came down," Josh went on, "and she's been here ever since, so I suppose she likes it. It's only four stops on the tube, and pretty cheap."
I remembered a rather better reason, though. Well well well, after all this time. But then, even if she didn't still fancy him, I suppose if I was feeling stressed out, I wouldn't mind coming back to a nice warm flat and spaghetti bolognese and someone nice like Josh you could be rude to. Well, she certainly wouldn't get away with being rude to me.
"Would you mind getting out of that shower!" screeched Kate, banging her Clarins bottles on the door at five o'clock one morning (I was doing nights at the market). She carried them daily in and out of the bathroom, presumably in case I stole them. "I don't know what can be keeping you in there that long. You can only smell of flowers, surely."
She banged again.
"OK, OK, I'm coming," I yelled back, frantically drying myself and wondering if I could stab her with a Q-Tip.
"I have got a plane to catch, Holly," she said. Because I have a career and you don't, she might as well have added.
"Oh no! The Euro will fall!" I opened the bathroom door disheveled, wrapped in two threadbare towels which almost but didn't quite cover all my bits.
"Will it?" she said, instantly alert, then relaxed as her brain realized the context. She gave a tight smile, said, "Excuse me," and slipped past me, unbelting her Liberty robe.
Bitch, I thought to myself-one of my litany of dreaded "thought retorts"-and headed for bed.
Over the next week or so I started to settle in. I was working part-time shifts at the New Covent Garden market, day and night, and as Kate went to work at 6:30 A.M. and returned at 9 P.M., I normally missed her, and steered well clear of the shower in the morning.
The house, though always untidy, was clean-for me, a perfect state of affairs. Kate paid someone to come in and "do" once a week, which I disagreed with in principle but thoroughly enjoyed the benefits of. It began to feel like home, despite the coffin, which was nine foot by seven. Not the kind of place you'd let a cat visit, in case its brains got bashed to bits in a nasty swinging incident.
I was used to creeping in at odd times of night, and was always amazed to hear the faint tapping of fingers on a keyboard, random beeps, and small buzzing noises from Addison's room.
I never saw him, but fantasized wildly about him. A monster? Kate and Josh's deformed lovechild, half man half robocop? Perhaps he was blind! That was why he crept around in the dark and didn't go outside. I had a brief romantic reverie of my being his life partner, caring for him, being his lover and his guide; "Holly," he would say, "you, you are my eyes." And, plus it would be a double bonus when I got forty and wouldn't have to bother about how I looked.
Then, ping, I realized that the Internet is in fact an almost purely visual medium, and apologized in my head to all the blind people in the world.
Finally, after about a fortnight, I cracked.
It was about 3 A.M., and the house was completely still. I'd been unpacking tulips from 11 P.M., but the work had thinned out and Johnny, my gaffer, had sent me home. It took about ten minutes on Josh's bicycle-in the very dead of night I would glide down hills, hands free, and have to restrain myself from shouting out loud to fill up the rare London silence.
I had crept into the house, exhilarated and pink-cheeked from the spring wind. My hair was tangled, and I didn't feel sleepy. My hours were so topsy-turvy, I didn't know when I slept. The television, however, was in the sitting room, which backed on to Kate's room-so no Channel 5 soft porn for me. I was about to head through to the chilly kitchen to make some tea when I saw the omnipresent blue glow underneath the door, heard the familiar tap tap tap.
Well, sod it, I thought to myself. Two weeks living in the same house as someone and not seeing him is simply freaky and unnatural. There could be nothing wrong with just popping in and introducing myself, for Fuck's sake. It was only . . . well, ten past three in the morning. I felt strangely excited, like playing ring-the-bell-and-run-away. If I got yelled at, I could always hide and say it was Kate.
I crept across the hall, instead of walking across it like I normally did when I came in late at night so everyone would know it was me and not a burglar; steeled myself and rapped gently on the door.
The typing noise stopped. Encouraged, I tapped again. "Hello?"
There was no response.
Feeling like an idiot, I repeated, "Hello?" leaning slightly on the door.
Clearly it wasn't locked.
Half horrified at what I was doing, I pushed open the door.
The large room was dark, but light streamed in from the moon and the streetlights. The place was also lit up with an unearthly green glow, which I realized, once my eyes adjusted, came from a huge VDU. The room was so filled with banks of electronic equipment it was like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. LEDs lit up and monitors bleeped quietly.
Sitting with his back to me was a very tall man, who resembled a normal man who'd been put up on a rack and stretched out. His black spiky hair stuck up straight from his head, and I couldn't see his face.
He didn't turn around, although he must have heard me, because his back stiffened.
"Hello?" I whispered. "Sorry to disturb you, but I saw you were still working and, well, I moved in here a couple of weeks ago and my name's Holly and I thought that, you know, since we lived together, we should perhaps lay eyes on one another."
I swallowed. My voice seemed to echo in the empty room, and I felt like a complete dork. Then, when he didn't reply, I started to get annoyed. It wasn't like I was demanding anything unreasonable. This was only basic human contact, for Fuck's sake! The way Kate and Josh tiptoed around him was ridiculous. He needed shaking up, if you asked me. He still hadn't even bothered turning around! That was bloody rude.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't realize you were so rude. I won't bother you again. Excuse me."
I turned to go. Slowly, I heard the revolving chair creep around behind me. I looked back.
A huge pair of dark brown eyes, blinking rapidly, regarded me with a mixture of curiosity and fear. I almost gasped aloud. He was . . . well, just spectacularly beautiful. Just, like, Oh my GAWD! Not in a pretty, boyband poofy kind of way, but that chiseled, sensitive look that cries out, "I may have been staring at this computer screen for fifteen hours, but as my physiognomy suggests, I have the soul of a poet. And not one of those ones with hair in their noses that you see in the Sunday supplements." Even from behind his glasses you could see that his eyelashes cast long shadows on his ludicrously high cheekbones and a frown seemed to pass over his exquisitely high forehead.
I managed to quell my first urge, which was to lie at his feet and present my stomach to him to be tickled, when I noticed he was wearing a Star Trek T-shirt. How original of someone who played with computers all day long to like Star Trek, I thought.
"Excuse me," he said. His voice was quiet and soft, with no discernible accent-not like mine. I got very London, selling flowers every day.
He looked at his hands. His fingers were incredibly long-practically prehensile. I actually sighed.
"I was a bit caught up in what I was doing."
He sounded apologetic, and I was in one of those brain-twisting moods whereby if you meet someone who is clearly your soul mate you feel an overwhelming urge to be rude to him.
"So you don't listen to people when they come to say hello? What were you doing?"
He stared at his hands again and didn't say anything. I thought for a bit.
"OK, shall we start again?" I announced. "I'm Holly Livingstone, and you're Mr. Addison, I presume."
"Not mister, just Addison," he said quietly.
"Ooh, what a great name!" I said, reaching out to shake his hand. He didn't take mine, and regarded it with some alarm. "Addison Madison?"
What? What magic potion had I just taken to turn me into the Moron of the Western World? I cringed.
He blinked. His eyelashes practically bounced off his sweetly pouted lips. "Ehm, no ...Addison Farthing."
"Farthing, Farthing-right, of course, how silly of me," I gushed, like I was interviewing him on a breakfast show. "Of course."
I was backing away and backing down big time. "So, anyway, I thought, you know, time to say hello, pop in, have a chat . . ."
Addison continued to regard me impassively.
"So, here we are, having a chat . . . and it's been lovely chatting to you. Really. We must do it again sometime."
He continued staring at me as I backed out of the room.
"Great! Nice to meet you! Nice Starship Enterprise, by the way!" I said as I got to the door, but he was already turning back to his enormous screen and had clearly forgotten my very existence. Huge cables twisted around the table legs, heading off God knows where. The tapping started up again and I closed the door gently. Outside in the hall I leaned on the wall and let my jaw drop in wonder. Oh my God. No wonder Kate liked him locked away.
"I spoke to Addison last night," I announced to Josh the next day. He was eating dinner and I was eating breakfast and trying to avoid his dinner-the smell of pork chops half an hour after I'd woken up made me feel a bit sick, I had discovered.
Josh looked up at me from an article he was reading in Homes & Gardens. I'd suggested Loaded as a slightly more useful manual for pulling, but it didn't quite suit him, somehow.
"And? And? Excuse me, but as landlord of this establishment, I do believe it is your duty to let me know when you're hoarding Johnny Depp in geek form on your property!"
"You never asked."
"Why did I never think to ask?" I asked, slapping myself on the forehead. "So many gorgeous computer geeks in the world, so little time. Josh! If it hadn't been for my extreme bravery last night I might never have met my future life partner! Ooh"-a thought occurred to me-"and our kids get to be brainy, too!"
"He is very pretty, I suppose," said Josh, a tad dreamily. I narrowed my eyes at him.
"Only in an objectively aesthetic way! Not in a romantic way! Not that there would be anything wrong with that! But I don't! Not that it's bad!"
"Stop, stop! You've got caught in the Richard Gere cycle of eternal justification. The only way to break free is to remove that plate of pork chops from my vicinity before I vomit on it."
"Thank goodness for your magic spell-breaking powers," said Josh, picking up his plate and moving over to the sink.
"You know, I must have him," I went on. "He will be mine."
"But he doesn't talk."
"That's OK. I can talk to you, or my mother. Addison is for kissing and worshipping."
"So, like, there's no difference between me and your mother?" asked Josh gloomily, rinsing his plate off.
"Well, you haven't ordered me to help with the washing-up yet, so, perhaps there is."
"Don't you have work to go to?" he asked, a tad crossly.
"Ah, that's more like it."
"Fine. See you later. I'll just continue here on my lifelong mission of female identification."
I popped my head back around the door.
"You know, if you meant that sarcastically, you should really take that pinny off."
He gave me the finger.
"Bye, Addison!" I called out cheerily as I passed his door. There was a small break in tapping in response. I took it as a good sign.Copyright © 2001 by Jenny Colgan
Reprinted with permission.
Twenty-eight-year-old Holly Livingstone is a free spirited freelance florist with no mortgage, no boyfriend... and no place to live when she walks out on the houseshare from hell. In desperation, she moves in with Josh and Kate, two old friends from college, and their mysterious roommate Addison, whose existence is confirmed only by the blips and whirring of his computer. Yet from the moment Holly ignores girl-guy protocol and enters his room uninvited, she's in love. Or is she? Does it count as a promising relationship if he never leaves the houselet alone his computerhas never put the moves on you, and can only interface with a fat fellow agoraphobe he met on the Internet who lives 4,000 miles away?
Determined to solve these and other angst-ridden dilemmas of modern life, Holly, together with the sexually flummoxed Josh and the man-eater Kate, throw a party where everyone gets to bring along a single friend. Then with the help of a motley crew of characters (including her rock star wannabe co-worker and a mathematician named Finn who could bring a romantic bloom to the life of a budding florist), Holly, Josh, Kate, and even Addison finally begin to connectwith giddy, uproarious, unexpectedly poignant results.
In TALKING TO ADDISON, Jenny Colgan once again gives us her sublimely droll, eye-opening perspective on contemporary mores, manias, and men not to mention the reality, virtual and otherwise, of finding your soul mate in today's wired world.
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Jenny Colgan, a former journalist, used her stint as a stand-up comedian to perfect her material for her books.