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You’ve got to say this for desperation: It makes you much more open-minded.
I really can see some positives in this flat. The technicolor mold on the kitchen wall will scrub off, at least in the short term. The filthy mattress can be replaced fairly cheaply. And you could definitely make the argument that the mushrooms growing behind the toilet are introducing a fresh, outdoorsy feel to the place.
Gerty and Mo, however, are not desperate, and they are not trying to be positive. I would describe their expressions as “aghast.”
“You can’t live here.”
That’s Gerty. She’s standing with her heeled boots together and her elbows tucked in tight, as though occupying as little space as possible in protest at being here at all. Her hair is pulled back in a low bun, already pinned so she can easily slip on the barrister’s wig she wears for court. Her expression would be comical if it wasn’t my actual life we were discussing here.
“There must be somewhere else within budget, Tiff,” Mo says worriedly, bobbing up from where he was examining the boiler cupboard. He looks even more disheveled than usual, helped by the cobweb now hanging from his beard. “This is even worse than the one we viewed last night.”
I look round for the estate agent; he’s thankfully well out of earshot, smoking on the “balcony” (the sagging roof of the neighbor’s garage, definitely not designed for walking on).
“I’m not looking round another one of these hellholes,” Gerty says, glancing at her watch. It’s eight a.m.—she’ll need to be at Southwark Crown Court for nine. “There must be another option.”
“Surely we can fit her in at ours?” Mo suggests, for about the fifth time since Saturday.
“Honestly, would you stop with that?” Gerty snaps. “That is not a long-term solution. And she’d have to sleep standing up to even fit anywhere.” She gives me an exasperated look. “Couldn’t you have been shorter? We could have put you under the dining table if you were less than five nine.”
I make an apologetic face, but really I’d prefer to stay here than on the floor of the tiny, eye-wateringly expensive flat Mo and Gerty jointly invested in last month. They’ve never lived together before, even when we were at university. I’m concerned that it may well be the death of their friendship. Mo is messy, absent-minded, and has this uncanny ability to take up an enormous amount of room despite being relatively small. Gerty, on the other hand, has spent the last three years living in a preternaturally clean flat, so perfect that it looks computer-generated. I’m not sure how the two lifestyles will overlay without West London imploding.
The main problem, though, is if I’m crashing on someone’s floor I can just as easily go back to Justin’s place. And, as of eleven p.m. Thursday, I have officially decided that I cannot be allowed that option any longer. I need to move forward, and I need to commit to somewhere so I can’t go back.
Mo rubs his forehead, sinking down into the grimy leather sofa. “Tiff, I could lend you some…”
“I don’t want you to lend me any money,” I say, more sharply than I mean to. “Look, I really need to get this sorted this week. It’s this place or the flatshare.”
“The bedshare, you mean,” Gerty says. “Can I ask why it has to be now? Not that I’m not delighted. Just that last I checked you were sitting tight in that flat waiting for the next time he-who-must-not-be-named deigned to drop by.”
I wince, surprised. Not at the sentiment—Mo and Gerty never liked Justin, and I know they hate that I’m still living at his place, even though he’s hardly ever there. It’s just unusual to hear Gerty bring him up directly. After the final peace-making dinner with the four of us ended in a furious row, I gave up on trying to make everyone get along and just stopped talking to Gerty and Mo about him altogether. Old habits die hard—even post-breakup we’ve all dodged around discussing him.
“And why does it have to be so cheap?” Gerty goes on, ignoring the warning look from Mo. “I know you’re paid a pittance but, really, Tiffy, four hundred a month is impossible in London. Have you actually thought about all this? Properly?”
I swallow. I can feel Mo watching me carefully. That’s the trouble with having a counsellor as a friend: Mo is basically an accredited mind-reader, and he never seems to switch his superpowers off. “Tiff?” he says gently.
Oh, bloody hell, I’ll just have to show them. There’s nothing else for it. Quickly and all at once, that’s the best way—like pulling off a Band-Aid, or getting into cold water, or telling my mother I broke something ornamental from the living room dresser.
I reach for my phone and pull up the Facebook message.
I’m really disappointed in how you acted last night. You were completely out of line. It’s my flat, Tiffy—I can come by whenever I like, with whoever I like.
I would have expected you to be more grateful for me letting you stay. I know us breaking up has been hard on you—I know you’re not ready to leave. But if you think that means you can start trying to “lay down some rules” then it’s time you paid me for the past three months of rent. And you’re going to need to pay full rent going forward too. Patricia says you’re taking advantage of me, living in my place pretty much for free, and even though I’ve always stood up for you with her, after yesterday’s performance I can’t help thinking she might be right.
My stomach twists when I re-read that line, you’re taking advantage of me, because I never intended to do that. I just didn’t know that when he left he really meant it this time.
Mo finishes reading first. “He ‘popped in’ again on Thursday? With Patricia?”
I look away. “He has a point. He’s been really good to let me stay there this long.”
“Funny,” Gerty says darkly, “I’ve always had the distinct impression he likes keeping you there.”
She makes it sound weird, but I sort of feel the same way. When I’m still in Justin’s flat, it isn’t really over. I mean, all the other times he’s come back eventually. But … then I met Patricia on Thursday. The real-life, extremely attractive, actually quite lovely woman Justin has left me for. There’s never been another woman before.
Mo reaches for my hand; Gerty takes the other. We stay like this, ignoring the estate agent smoking outside the window, and I let myself cry for a moment, just one fat tear down each cheek.
“So, anyway,” I say brightly, withdrawing my hands to wipe my eyes, “I need to move out. Now. Even if I wanted to stay and risk him bringing Patricia back again, I can’t afford the rent, and I owe Justin a ton of money, and I really don’t want to borrow from anyone, and I’m kind of sick of not paying for things myself, to be honest, so … yes. It’s this or the flatshare.”
Mo and Gerty exchange a look. Gerty closes her eyes in pained resignation.
“Well, you clearly cannot live here.” She opens her eyes and holds out a hand. “Show me that advert again.”
I hand her my phone, flicking from Justin’s message to the Gumtree ad for the flatshare.
Double bedroom in sunny one-bed Stockwell flat, rent £350 per month including bills. Available immediately, for six months minimum.
Flat (and room/bed) is to share with twenty-seven-year-old palliative care nurse who works nights and is away weekends. Only ever in the flat 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday. All yours the rest of the time! Perfect for someone with 9 to 5 job.
To view, contact L. Twomey—details below.
“It’s not just sharing a flat, Tiff, it’s sharing a bed. Sharing a bed is odd,” Mo says worriedly.
“What if this L. Twomey is a man?” Gerty asks.
I’m prepared for this one. “It doesn’t matter,” I say calmly. “It’s not like we’d ever be in the bed at the same time—or the flat, even.”
This is uncomfortably close to what I said when justifying staying at Justin’s place last month, but never mind.
“You’d be sleeping with him, Tiffany!” Gerty says. “Everyone knows the first rule of flatsharing is don’t sleep with your flatmate.”
“I don’t think this sort of arrangement is what people are referring to,” I tell her wryly. “You see, Gerty, sometimes when people say ‘sleeping together,’ what they really mean is—”
Gerty gives me a long, level look. “Yes, thank you, Tiffany.”
Mo’s sniggering stops abruptly when Gerty turns her glare on him. “I’d say the first rule of flatsharing is to make sure you get on with the person before you move in,” he says, cannily redirecting the glare to me again. “Especially in these circumstances.”
“Obviously I’ll meet this L. Twomey person first. If we don’t get on, I won’t take it.”
After a moment Mo gives me a nod and squeezes my shoulder. We all descend into the kind of silence that comes after you’ve talked about something difficult—half grateful for it being over, half relieved to have managed it at all.
“Fine,” Gerty says. “Fine. Do what you need to do. It’s got to be better than living in this kind of squalor.” She marches out of the flat, turning at the last moment to address the estate agent as he steps through from the balcony. “And you,” she tells him loudly, “are a curse upon society.”
He blinks as she slams the front door. There is a long, awkward pause.
He stubs out his cigarette. “You interested, then?” he asks me.
Copyright © 2019 by Beth O’Leary Ltd.