THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN US
The real estate agent pulled at the hem of her skirt. In the shop she had thought it too short but her lack of inhibition after a couple of lunchtime drinks swayed her decision.
—I like your skirt, said the girl wanting a one-bedroom flat.
—Oh, thank you, said the agent. —I got it at Reddy Teddy. You don’t think it’s too short?
—No, not at all.
—You need to be careful in this job. You don’t want to seem too available.
—I’m sure you don’t.
—The flat isn’t far. Beaumont Avenue. Do you know it?
—No, I don’t.
—It’s very nice. Edwardian. Quiet. It leads onto Baron’s Court Road, close to West Ken tube.
The two women left the agency and walked down Fulham Broadway. The agent, Marilyn, had recently divorced after fourteen years of childless marriage. She didn’t want another relationship. Her client, Jane, had just returned from Spain where she had been teaching English, and she was looking for a place of her own as she was staying with plastic friends at the moment and her life was overcrowded.
As they walked to her car, Marilyn asked, —How long were you in Spain?
—About eight years.
—A long time. What brought you back?
—I got fed up with the job. It’s very limiting, teaching English. There’s only so far you can go, and I wanted to do something different.
—Any idea what?
—My degree is in media studies. I’d like to get into journalism.
—Difficult, I’d imagine.
—Yes, I suppose so.
As they neared her car, Marilyn turned to cross the street and bumped into Jane. Jane apologised and Marilyn said, —No, it’s my fault. I should look where I’m going. It’s just across here.
Jane had felt Marilyn’s hip against hers. A metallic hip; hard and cold. She had known a metal woman in Seville, cold and inflexible, with a clockwork heart and a computerised brain. And even though she knew deep down that not all metals were like that, the memory stirred whenever she met anyone metallic.
In the car, as she strapped herself in, she wanted to touch Marilyn’s arm, to tap it with her knuckle to see if it went donk like The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. She turned to look at the backseat and brought her arm round to tap Marilyn’s shoulder as if by accident, but as she twisted round, Marilyn moved her arm to steer out of the parking space.
—All right? asked Marilyn, wondering why her client was looking in the backseat.
—Oh, yes, said Jane, —I thought I saw someone I knew.
—You know this part of town?
—Not really, I’ve always lived in Islington. Fulham is new to me.
—It used to be very run-down, but recently it’s become quite trendy.
—And pushed the prices up.
—Which must be good for you?
Marilyn braked suddenly when an old man stepped into the road. And Jane thought she heard a clunk as Marilyn was forced forward against the seatbelt. Was it Marilyn, or the seatbelt? The old man looked at the car as if he owned the road and cars had no right to be there.
Marilyn rubbed her shoulder. —Sorry about that. Stupid old coot.
—You hurt your shoulder?
—It does that. A couple of years ago I was carrying a heavy case and when I tried to put it in the car I pulled a tendon or something. Ever since then it gives me an occasional twinge, just to remind me.
—I use homoeopathic arnica, which helps a lot, but whenever there’s a knock or a strain it hurts. Here we are.
The house was Edwardian, four-storeys in grey brick, originally red, but made grey from the grime in the city atmosphere.
As she led the way up the stairs, Marilyn was aware of Jane looking up her skirt; not looking up the stairs to see where she was going, she was definitely looking up her skirt. But instead of being affronted, as she would have been had it been a man, Marilyn was mildly excited and resisted any impulse to pull at the hem of her skirt.
Jane was an attractive girl and Marilyn had always wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl, or more.
The flat was on the top floor. It had a large living room, a smaller but adequate double bedroom with just enough room for a bed, wardrobe and a chest of drawers. In the tiny kitchen, with a tiny window overlooking a roof and a gutter, Jane deliberately bumped against Marilyn and Marilyn bumped against the counter. There was a definite metallic clunk. —Sorry about that, said Jane.
—It’s a very tiny kitchen, said Marilyn.
Could it have been a saucepan? There was nothing metal on the counter. What went clunk?
The living room had an ugly couch and an uglier cupboard and coffee table. The furniture was unpleasant, but not to the extent that it would drive Jane away. No, the reason Jane disliked the flat was not the dowdy furniture, nor the tiny kitchen, but because the bathroom had no bath. How could you call it a bathroom if it had no bath?
—I couldn’t live somewhere without a bath, said Jane.
—I know what you mean. A bath is so relaxing. A shower is never the same, is it?
—There’s another one-bed nearby, said Marilyn. —I feel certain it has a bath rather than just a shower. Would you like to go and see it? It’s very close.
As Marilyn stepped down the stairs, Jane had the mad idea of pushing her to see if, when she fell, she came apart and rattled down the stairs with rivets and aluminium limbs bouncing down.
—Careful on the stairs, said Marilyn. —They are very steep. Built before the days of building regulations.
Outside, the sun came from a blue sky and warmed the Earth and Marilyn and Jane.
They walked through a small park. Lollipop trees swayed, trying to look bigger than their worth. Children played on the swings and giggled.
—Do you have children? asked Jane.
—No, replied Marilyn, abruptly.
—Oh, I’m sorry.
—No, I’m glad. He was a monster. Clay. Hollow. Had no empathy or understanding of the desires and wishes of others.
—I know what you mean.
—That’s the house.
It overlooked the park, and had a grand façade with a portico. The flat was in a roof conversion, and Marilyn once again enjoyed the feeling that Jane was looking up her skirt as they climbed the stairs.
Jane liked the flat as soon as she stepped in. Somebody happy had been living here. The living room was not large but, as she would be living alone, more space was unnecessary, and a small room would be easier to heat in cold weather. The bathroom had a bath as all bathrooms should, and the grand kitchen could easily be home to two people, should Jane ever find herself in a relationship with someone who could cook. But it was the bedroom that decided it; she loved the sloping ceiling and the dormer window that filled the room with light. When she looked out over the garden she fell in love with the mature cherry tree and, in the garden next door, a beautiful maple. She turned to Marilyn. —I’ll take it, she said, smiling.
—It’s a lovely flat, said Marilyn. —And not too expensive for this area.
As they descended the stairs, Jane realised her desire to see Marilyn tumble and break apart had dissipated.
They left the house with Jane feeling all the worries of the past weeks melting away.
Marilyn pointed out the nearby tube and shops and, while they walked back through the park, Jane imagined herself as a teacher, sitting on a park bench on a summer’s evening, marking homework.
In the car, she asked Marilyn, —Do you live around here?
—Hammersmith. Not far.
—So what’s it like driving people around to see flats?
—If I can find something for a client, it’s satisfying, but some clients have so many stipulations about what they want; you can spend ages finding something suitable, and they’re still not happy.
Back in the office, Marilyn printed a contract and slid it across the desk for Jane to read. It was busy today and Richard, Marilyn’s co-worker, was taking a young couple to see a house. He waved as he left and she smiled.
—That seems okay, said Jane, unable to read the small print, and not really understanding much of what she’d read.
—Sign here, and here, and here, said Marilyn, putting crosses to guide her client, and she gave Jane a pen.
Then she saw Jane’s hand. —You’ve got woodworm.
—Oh, it’s old. I’ve been treated.
—We’re not allowed to rent to wood.
—The landlords don’t want it.
—Isn’t that illegal?
—Yes, but proving your material is the reason for being turned down for accommodation is almost impossible.
—It’s so unfair.
—I loved that flat.
—I know. But I know for a fact the owner of that property won’t have wooden tenants.
—He’s terrified of woodworm.
—But the furniture’s rubbish.
—It’s not the furniture. It’s the beams and floorboards. The house is very old.
—But that’s ridiculous. Jane started to cry and her tears soaked into her face and revealed a scrolly walnut grain. —I’m living with flat pack and plastic people. I need somewhere of my own. I thought this would be the answer. Why do they do this? We’re being pushed out of everywhere. Plastic is taking over.
Marilyn handed her a tissue. —I know. I’m scared myself.
Jane looked into Marilyn’s cold eyes. —Are you metal?
Marilyn nodded, returning Jane’s look. —There are so few of us left. If we’re discovered, they melt us down to make cars or computers.
Jane took Marilyn’s hand. It was hard and cold. —I’m sorry. I’m sorry I blamed you. It’s not your fault. It’s the way of the world, how it is, and where it’s heading.
—Take my advice, said Marilyn. —Go back to Spain. Where nature still has a place, where wood and metal are still accepted, and revered.
—Yes, said Jane, and she let go of Marilyn’s hand, and wiped her tears with the tissue, revealing more of her scrolly walnut grain. —I’d better go, she said, —I shouldn’t keep you from your job.
—Take care, said Marilyn, and watched her leave and cross the street without looking back.
She went into the office and checked her makeup to make sure nothing shined through. When she returned to the showroom, there were three people, a man, woman, and child.
—Hello, said the man, and all three beamed bright plastic smiles. —I’m a marketing executive and this is my wife and daughter. We’re looking for a modern three-bedroom apartment, penthouse or loft, open plan, with dimmable windows, underfloor heating, air comfort cooling, en-suite bathrooms, terrace, private garden, and in-house gym. It will be a short let–eight months–so we would like it furnished, preferably repro Biedermeier, leather, of course.
—Blue, if possible, added the wife with her perfect white teeth glinting.
—Smartphone automated, with concierge and 24/7 security.
—And elegantly decorated, said the wife. —Not white.
—And private parking.
—And close to schools.
The man looked hopeful. Marilyn tugged at the hem of her skirt.
—Of course, she said. —We have an apartment in King’s Road I think will be ideal. And she clicked a remote at a screen on the wall to show them the apartment she had in mind.
Samantha Memi is the author of the chapbook Kate Moss & Other Heroines, and the story collection All in letters bound in string. She lives in London.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #10.