LWEN WAS IN Wicked Wine, buying gin. She understood from Rupert, whose shop it was, that these days wicked meant “smart” or “cool,” not “evil,” just as gay in some circles was starting to signify bad or nasty. She didn’t much care, though she wondered why a shop which sold beer and spirits and Coca-Cola and orange juice advertised itself as purveying only wine. Rupert said, “That’s the way it is,” as if this explained everything.
She bought three bottles of the cheap kind. Bombay Sapphire came expensive if you consumed as much of it as she did. Gin was her favourite, though she had no objection to vodka. Purely for variety’s sake, she had tried rum, but rum was vile if you drank it neat, and she couldn’t stomach orange juice or, God forbid, black currant.
“Can you manage,” said Rupert, “or do you want me to do you a double bag?”
“Your neighbour Stuart, is it?—don’t know his other name—was in here this morning stocking up on champers. ‘Having a party?’ I said, and he said it was a housewarming, though he’s been here for months and it’s not till February. He was inviting all the other folk in Lichfield House.”
Olwen nodded but said nothing. Outside it was snowing, and not the kind of snow that becomes a raindrop when it touches the ground. This snow settled and gradually built up. Olwen, in rubber boots, trudged through it along Kenilworth Parade. The council had cleared a passage in the roadway for cars—a passage that was rapidly whitening—but done nothing for pedestrians apart from scattering the ice-coated, slippery pavement with mustard-coloured sand. She passed the furniture shop, the pizza place, the post office, and Mr. Ali’s shop on the corner and turned up into Kenilworth Avenue. Most of the time the place was as dreary as only a London outer suburb can be, but the veiling of snow transformed it into a pretty Christmas card. Small conifers in the front gardens of the block poked their dark green spires through the snow blanket, and the melting icicles dripped water.
Olwen staggered up the steps with her bag of bottles. The automatic doors parted to receive her. In the hallway she encountered Rose Preston-Jones with her dog, McPhee. On the whole Olwen was indifferent to other people or else she disliked them, but Rose she distrusted, much as she distrusted Michael Constantine. If not herself a doctor, Rose, with her acupuncture and dabbling in herbalism, her detoxing and her aromatherapy, was the next best (or worst) thing. Such people were capable of interfering with her habit.
“Is it still snowing?” Rose asked.
Olwen had long ago discovered that this is a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including “Are you well?” and “Are you free on Saturday?” Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible. Rose looked at the carrier bag, or Olwen thought she did. Maybe she just looked down at the dog, looked up again, and said she must get on with McPhee’s walk.
The lift was waiting, its sliding door open. Olwen had just
stepped in when Michael Constantine came running through the automatic door. He had the sort of legs which, when possessed by models, are described as so lengthy as to reach up to their neck, and he was six and a half feet tall, so his stride was long. He was the politest of the residents and asked Olwen if she was well.
“Not really.” Olwen forbore to ask him how he was and, though she knew his flat was on the second floor, pressed the button for the third. A peculiarity of the lift was that once this floor had been signalled, the intermediate could not be, so Michael had to go up to the top with her.
He remembered to be a doctor, though he had only recently become one.
“Keep warm. Look after yourself.”
Olwen shrugged, her alternative response. She got out of the lift without a word just as one of the girls came out of the flat she shared with two girls of similar age. None of them had ever been seen dressed otherwise than in jeans with a T-shirt, sweater, or flouncy dress on her top half. One was rather overweight, one thin, and one in between. As well as jeans, this one had a red quilted coat over what seemed like several jumpers. Olwen had been told their names over and over, but she had contrived to forget them. She let herself into Flat 6 and put the transparent bag down on the kitchen counter.
The flat was furnished for comfort, not for beauty. There were no books, no plants, no ornaments, no curtains, and no clocks. A deep, soft, shabby, comfortable sofa occupied one wall of the living room and faced, along with a deep, soft, and comfortable armchair with a detachable footrest, the large flat-screen television set. A window blind was seldom raised or lowered from its present position of halfway up, and beneath it could be seen the solid cupolatopped tower of Sir Robert Smirke’s church and the tops of trees at Kenilworth Green. And of course the snow, now falling in large, feathery flakes. The bedroom was even more sparsely furnished,
containing only a king-size bed and, facing it, a row of hooks on the wall.
All but one of the kitchen cupboards were empty. Food, such as there was of it, lived in the fridge. The full cupboard was rather less full than it had been at the beginning of the week, but Olwen replenished her stock by putting her three new bottles on the shelf alongside a full bottle and one that was half-empty. This one she removed and poured from it about three inches of gin into a tumbler. There was no point in waiting until she was sitting down to start on it—there was no point in Olwen’s present life of ever doing anything she didn’t want to do—so she drank about half of it, refilled the glass, and took glass and bottle to the sofa. It was low down near the floor, so no need for a table. Glass and bottle joined the phone on the woodblock floor.
Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected, as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren, and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly, for various reasons, stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.
THE LIST STUART Font had made read Ms. Olwen Curtis, Flat 6; girls—don’t know names, Flat 5; Mr. and Mrs. Constantine, Flat 4; Marius something, don’t know other name, Flat 3; Ms. Rose Preston-Jones, Flat 2; me, Flat 1. This last entry he crossed out as it was unnecessary to invite himself to his own housewarming party. The flat he had moved into in October was still unfurnished but for three mirrors, a king-size bed in the bedroom, and a three-seater sofa in the living room. The place looked a bit desolate,
but Stuart had noticed a furniture store in Kenilworth Parade, its prices much reduced due to the credit crunch. Remembering to take his key with him—he had twice forgotten his key and had to hunt for and eventually find the porter or caretaker or whatever he called himself—he went out into the foyer to check on names and flat numbers on residents’ pigeonholes.
The girls at Flat 5 appeared to be called Noor Lateef, Molly Flint, and Sophie Longwich, and the man on his own at Flat 3, Marius Potter. That was everyone documented. Stuart, who hadn’t yet been outdoors that day, ventured onto the front step. The snow was still falling and had settled on pavements, patches of grass, rooftops, and parked cars. Stuart noticed that if he stood on the step, the front doors remained open, letting in a bitter draught. He hurriedly went indoors and back into his own flat, where he sat down once more, added names to his list, and wondered whether he should ask the porter (Mr. Scurlock), the Chinese (Vietnamese, Cambodian?) people opposite, the elderly chap next door to them, Rupert at Wicked Wine, his best friends, Jack and Martin—and Claudia. If he invited Claudia, wouldn’t he also have to invite her husband, Freddy, incongruous though this seemed in the circumstances?
Stuart added the names to his list, went into the kitchen, and made himself a mug of hot chocolate, a drink he was particularly fond of. He was realising, not for the first time, that though he was twenty-five, he had serious gaps in his knowledge of social usage, a deficiency due to his having lived at home with his parents all his life. Even his three years of business studies had taken place at a university easily reached by tube. The company where he had worked since taking that degree, until he resigned on coming into his inheritance, was also accessible by the same means, being no more than a hundred yards from Liverpool Street Station. The only breaks from home life had been holidays and the occasional nights he had stayed away in various girlfriends’ flats.
All this had meant that inviting people round, stocking up on
drink, buying food, gaining some understanding of domestic organisation, remembering to carry his keys with him, arranging with people his mother called tradesmen, and paying services bills were closed books to him. He couldn’t say he was learning fast, but he knew he had to. Since coming here he hadn’t done much but run around with Claudia. Making that hot chocolate without scalding himself was a small triumph. He was thinking how pleasant it would be if he could have his mother living here, but his mother changed, different, tailored as it were to his requirements: as admirable a housekeeper and cook and laundress as she was but silenced so that she spoke only the occasional monosyllable; able to remove herself without a word or a look when Claudia came round; deaf to his music, invisible to his friends, never, never criticising or even appearing to notice the areas of his behaviour of which she might disapprove. But if she became this person, she wouldn’t be his mother.
He was thinking of this, finishing his drink, when she phoned.
“How are you, darling? Have a nice weekend?”
Stuart said it was all right. In fact, it had been spectacularly good, since he had spent most of Saturday and part of Sunday afternoon in bed with Claudia, but he couldn’t even hint at that.
“I’ve been thinking.”
He hated it when his mother said that. It was a new departure for her, dating from since his own departure, and invariably led to something unpleasant.
“I’ve been thinking that don’t you think you ought to get a job? I mean, I know you said when you came into Auntie Helen’s money that you’d take a gap year, but a gap year’s what people take between school and university. I wonder if you didn’t know that.” She spoke as if she had made some earthshaking discovery. “Daddy is getting very anxious,” she said.
“Has he been thinking too?”
“Please don’t use that nasty sarcastic tone, Stuart. It’s your welfare we’re worried about.”
“I haven’t time to get a job. I’ve got to buy some furniture, and I only spent half what she left me on this place. I’ve got plenty of money.”
His mother laughed. The noise was more like a series of short gasps than laughter. “No one has plenty of money anymore, dear. Not with this economic downturn or whatever they call it, no one. Of course you would go ahead and buy yourself a flat the minute you came into your inheritance. Daddy always thought it a mistake. I don’t know how many times he’s said to me, ‘Why didn’t he wait a little while? With house prices falling so fast he’d soon get that place for half what he paid. It only calls for a little patience.’ ”
Stuart was beginning to think that there could be no circumstances in which he would want his mother here, no matter how much washing, cooking, and cleaning she might do, for he could imagine no radical change taking place in her character. He held the phone a long way from his ear, but when she had said, “Are you there, Stuart?” three times, he brought it back again, said untruthfully that his doorbell was ringing and he had to go. She had barely rung off when his mobile on the floor on the other side of the room began to play “Nessun dorma.” Claudia. She always used his mobile. It was more intimate than the landline, she said.
“Shall I come over this afternoon?”
“Yes, please,” said Stuart.
“I thought you’d say that. You’re going to give me a key, aren’t you? I’ve told Freddy I’ll be at my Russian class. Russian’s a very difficult language and it’ll take years to learn.”
“What shall we do when you get here?” Stuart asked, knowing this would provoke a long description in exciting detail. It did. He sat down on the sofa, put his feet up, and listened, enraptured. Outside, it continued to snow, coming down in big flakes like swan’s feathers.
THE CONSTANTINES LUNCHED late, the only customers at that hour in the Sun Yu Tsen Chinese restaurant, which was between the hairdresser and Wicked Wine in the parade.
“I must get some pictures before the light goes,” Katie said, producing her camera from her bag. “We could have a little walk. We never get any exercise.”
She was enchanted by the snow and skipped along, picking up handfuls of it. Michael wondered if he could write something about it for his column, something about the crystals all being of a different pattern, or maybe he should disabuse readers’ minds of the fallacy that it could get too cold for snow to fall at all. But by the time his piece appeared the wretched stuff would no doubt have disappeared.
“Can we make a snowman, Michael? When we get back, can we make a snowman in the front garden? They won’t mind, will they?”
“Who’s to mind?”
“I’ve seen pictures of snowmen. I want one of my own.”
“It will melt, you know. It will all be gone tomorrow.”
“Then I’d better get taking my photos.”
The extent of their exercise was walking round the block, up the roundabout, down Chester Grove, along the parade, and home, Katie pausing now and then to get a shot of children throwing snowballs, a dog rolling in the snow, a child with a toboggan. Back at Lichfield House she pointed out to Michael the houses opposite, their roofs all covered with snow but for the central pair.
“Isn’t that funny? I’ll just take a picture of it and then we’ll go in, shall we? It will soon start getting dark.”
In the hallway they encountered the three girls from Flat 5, plump Molly Flint and skinny Noor Lateef shivering in see-through tops and torn jeans, Sophie Longwich comfortable in a padded jacket and woolly hat.
“I’m frozen,” Molly was saying. “I think I’ve got pneumonia.”
“No, you haven’t,” said Michael, the medical man. “You don’t get
pneumonia through going out dressed like it was July. That’s an old wives’ tale.” Maybe he should write something about that too . . .
Noor had gone back to the swing doors, looking out through the glass panel. “It’s started to snow again.” She stepped back and the doors closed.
“That roof will get covered up now,” said Michael to Katie, pressing the button for the lift. While they waited, Noor and Sophie told Molly that if she put on any more weight, she would have to travel in the lift on her own. Its doors had just closed on the five of them when Claudia Livorno came through the swing doors, carrying a bottle of Verdicchio and walking gingerly because the step outside was icy and her heels were high. She rang the bell of Flat 1.
OLWEN HAD NOTHING in Flat 6 to eat except bread and jam, so she ate that and, when she woke up from her long afternoon sleep, started on a newly opened bottle of gin. She never went near a doctor, but Michael Constantine said it was his opinion she had the beginnings of scurvy. He had noticed her teeth were getting loose. They shifted about, catching on her lips when she spoke. In the flat below hers, Marius Potter was sitting in an armchair that had belonged to his grandmother reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the second time. He would finish the bit about the murder of Commodus, then go downstairs to have supper with Rose Preston-Jones. This would be his third visit, the fifth time they had met, and he was looking forward to seeing her. He had already once cast the sortes for her and would do so again if she asked him.
The first day he moved in, they had recognised each other as kindred spirits, though they had nothing much in common but their vegetarianism. Marius smiled to himself (but only to himself) at her New Age occupation and lifestyle. Rose was no intellectual, yet in his estimation she had a clear and beautiful mind, was innocent, sweet, and kindly. But something about her teased and slightly
troubled him. Taking Paradise Lost from his great-uncle’s bookcase, Marius once again thought how he was almost sure he recognised her from further back, a long way back, maybe three decades. It wasn’t her name, not even her face, but some indefinable quality of personality or movement or manner that brought back to him a past encounter. He called that quality her soul, and an inner conviction told him she would call it that too. He could have asked her, of course he could, but something stopped him, some feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment he couldn’t identify. What he hoped was that total recall would come to him.
Carrying the heavy volume of Milton, he went down the stairs to the ground floor. Rose, admitting him to Flat 2, seemed to be standing in his past, down misty aeons back to his youth, when all the world was young and all the leaves were green. But still he couldn’t place her.