Wednesday, March 17, 2004


So when I get home, Nicola, my flatmate, is lounging around in the living room, halfway through a bottle of perfectly chilled white wine. She’s a little anal. But in a clubby way. She’s the kind of girl who would come home desperate for a drink but wait an hour for the wine to chill. So she must have got home around sixish to allow the wine to get cold to the required temperature, and the flat’s already booming to the latest bass beat from This Week’s Darling (not a real band, one I made up to signify her every changing tastes).

“Hey Nicola!” I have to shout over the music. It’s very annoying. We’ve flatshared for around a year now, and basically get on okay, but we are as different as, well, two very different people. She’s a remarkable mixture of late-night-club-babe wanting to make it as a singer – she works daytime at SmoochFM in marketing, making connections – and anal retentive cleaning fascist who gives me a hard time in my own flat.

“Can’t hear you! I love this bit…” she starts singing and swaying, wine-glass in hand. She’s so fucking thin that when she turns sideways she practically disappears, and for a moment I forget that I’m trying to have a conversation with her. I used to have a rule that I wasn’t prepared to share a living space with any women smaller than a size sixteen, but current protein-rich diet fads make that almost an impossibility. Also, it’s a little unfair to be so sizeist. Downwards. Upwards is OK. For other people.

“Nic! Turn it down a minute!”

The sudden quiet when she turns the music off is a shock, like the aftermath of a volcano. Not that you ever get real silence in zone two.

“Nic, thanks. Listen, Anya and the others are coming round for something to eat later. Wanna join us?”

“You coulda told me. I wanted to just hang before my rehearsal tomorrow”. She’s in a band, like when you’re fifteen and want to be famous.

“Sorry, just kinda a spontaneous thing. It’ll be relaxed, honest. I’ll make something you like.” Bribery often works in situations like this. Of course I have no desire to make anything Nicola likes, partly because she doesn’t have the sensuality to really enjoy food, and partly because she professes to like grilled chicken with steamed vegetables. But I am a better cook than her, so my chances are six out of ten.

“Mmmm, Maybe. OK, is there stuff in the fridge? And did you clean the fridge? You know it’s your turn.”

“OK, OK, I’ll clean, I promise.” I hate getting told off in my own flat. But that’s the price you pay for a certain degree of financial security derived from a flatmate’s rent.

“Or we could get a cleaner.” Nicola is the only person I know who doesn’t have an ethical problem with hiring people to do the jobs you don’t like doing, she just doesn’t think they’ll do it as well as her.

“Talia, you know what I think about that. Let’s not go there, OK? I need to chill.” She turns the music up, end of conversation.

Before I get a chance to try and open up lines of communication, the door buzzer goes. For a long time, I used to have those “hello who is it?” conversations, but you can hardly ever hear who it is because of the noise of the street, so now I just let people in. One of my friends said a while ago that it was dangerous, but I honestly don’t think masked murderers, or even unmasked ones, would bother buzzing. I let whoever it is in.

Anya’s at the front door, all black city suit, clutching two bottles of wine. There’s a guy with her. Now Anya’s a little secretive about her love life, and the rest of us spend a lot of time wondering about what’s going on. She’s like the lawyer in Sex and the City, but shorter and without a personal stylist.

“This is Guy.” She nods in his direction. He’s tall, skinny in a beefy way like he’s done a lot of hiking or running, and has a ruddiness of cheek that suggests a keen interest in outdoor pursuits. He’s clutching a large bag of spinach.

“Hi, Talia, nice t-t-t-to m-m-meet you.” Omigod he has a STUTTER.

“You too, Guy. Come in.” I make that silly gesture people make in bad movies indicating the rest of my flat. Do I feel nervous? I hope not. I hate feeling nervous. I hate not being in control.

lt’s already eight and I have no idea what I’m going to cook. And I wonder why Guy is umbilically attached to a bag of spinach leaves. And I wonder who he is. Maybe he’s one of those men she met on her hardcore Exodus holiday? That’s where they make you run up a mountain in the morning and build a log cabin without tools in the afternoon. My idea of a good holiday is Amex backpacking – small bag, best hotel. Not in a five star way, just in a clean bathroom good service way. Anya is a lot more prepared to rough it than I am, tougher, more motivated, better at outside stuff and just, well, better.

I offer round Nicola’s wine, make the introductions, make small talk, make nice. And I’m wishing that I had had the foresight to go shopping on my way home, but I got caught in a late brainstorming meeting that I would have look uncommitted to the job if I had tried to get out of.

Guy and Anya take a seat on the sofa. They have the unease of people who are interested in each other but haven’t slept together yet. So she’s a little careful about sitting near but not too near to him, and he looks nervous. And he’s still holding onto his spinach for dear life.

“Talia, you’ve got a n-n-nice f-flat.” The lyrics to the late seventies song N-N-Nineteen inexplicably pop into my head.

“Thanks, I built it myself.” I remember when I first bought my flat, for about six months everyone I bumped into would say to me “how’s the flat?!”. Married friends tell me that for the first six months of marriage people say to them “how’s married life?!” (but in more of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink way). Like what are you supposed to say? Fine thanks, we’re thinking of underpinning? But I shouldn’t just the guy solely on the basis of his stutter, spinach, and seemingly poor social skills.

“I hope you d-d-don’t mind, I’m being a b-bit careful about what I – I – I – “

I really wanted to help him. I mean, how frustrating. I find it hard enough getting all my words out because I think about three times as fast as I can talk, and talk about twice as fast as I should. He must be going crazy. He seems pretty calm though. I guess geeing him up is not going to help him any, so I just wait.

“- I – I – I eat.” Thank God. Though hardly earth-shattering. Aren’t most people careful about what they eat nowadays?

“I have t-t-to eat green vegetables every d-day. So I hope you d-don’t m-mind, I brought some sp-sp-spinach. It’s a sp-spinach day, see. M-m-maybe we can make a s-salad?”

“Sure, no problem. I like dinner guests to bring ingredients. Specially when I haven’t had time to shop.”

He hands me the spinach. I try hard not to catch Anya’s eye, because I know that in a parallel universe we are marking Guy down as a league four or five and are laughing at him. Maybe he has a hidden talent? Though it doesn’t look like she’s found out yet.

“So how do you guys know each other?” I just can’t bear the thought of not being privy to all information at all times.

“Oh, we met on a Himalayan trek two years ago, but Guy’s been working out in Australia and travelling, and is just passing through London on his way back to Oxfordshire.” God she’s a dark horse. I don’t even remember her talking about him.

“Uh-huh.” I don’t really know what to say now. It can occasionally be a little awkward when a random group of people come together for an evening. Nicola’s sitting on the floor stretching her calf muscles. Apparently, it helps her singing voice. Don’t ask me how.

Guy asks her what she’s doing.

“Stretching. I have a rehearsal tomorrow, and lots of musicians do ballet stretches now, it’s part of the holistic performer movement. My body is my instrument.”

“I see, b-but, you c-can do a b-better stretch on your b-back. L-look. “

He takes off the belt from his trousers, and for a brief moment I think he’s going to strip. But he lies down on the floor next to her, lifts his right leg into the air, throws the belt over the sole of his foot, grabs both ends and pulls his upper body towards his foot. It looks extremely painful to me.

“H-here, y-you try”, he says as he unfolds back to the floor, helpfully handing Nicola his belt.

She sets herself up for the stretch, and he stands next to her.

“B-breathe into the stretch. There. Good. H-hold it for thirty seconds.” He gently touches Nicola’s ankle, pulling it slightly towards her body. She grimaces. I like to see her suffer.

“Guy, how do you know this stuff?” I like to understand a person’s full CV. It’s the recruitment professional in me.

“I’m an outdoor p-pursuits instructor, but when I was travelling in India I learned yoga for a few months. It’s a g-great way to tone up.” Thank God his stutter fades when he feels a little more relaxed. I was bracing myself for a whole evening of bated breath waiting for his verbal pearls.

“So Talia, what’s for dinner?” Anya gets straight to the point. When we go on holiday together she is massively energetic, and then suddenly fades and requires food fuel. She’s like a car, it stops without petrol.

“Dunno yet. There’s ice-cream in the freezer. Pasta, I guess. Maybe with spinach?” I look over at Guy and wink. I don’t know why, I mean, I never wink, but I just thought that one day my life might get made into a movie and cultural studies students would be able to deconstruct the layers of meaning in that wink. Or maybe I have something in my contact lense.

I’m filling up wine glasses when the buzzer goes again. Nicola is just coming out of her stretch and Anya is walking over to the kitchen to look in the fridge. I buzz the new arrivals in.

“He-hey, Talia!” Tim is often effervescent and when he’s not at work, often behaves and dresses like some kind of nuevo-gangster character; Guy Ritchie meets the Sopranos. He throws his arms around me as if greeting a long lost relative just arrived from the Old Country and envelopes me in a huge hug.

“And this is Milan. Milan, my favourite candidate, meet Talia, my favourite headhunter - apart from me.”

Milan gently grasps my shoulders and kisses me on both cheeks in the European style. I feel a buzz of electricity.

“Bella bella.” In a real Italian accent. “Lovely to meet you, thank you for including me.”

My stomach lurches in the best tradition of Hollywood blockbusters. Milan looks into my eyes, smiling.

No comments: