Oh, all right then. I’ll tell you what she said:
So, if you remember, we’d finally battled our way to renting a cute one bed Victorian conversion with its own garden and cellar in Brockley and, feeling rather pleased with life in general, when I turned up at her Maida Vale flat. It was a warm evening and I’d just finished draining a glass of water when she placed her hands on my biceps, looked into my eyes and said: ‘I need to talk to you. So, you know how we’ve found a flat? Well something’s coming up.’
In that moment disaster scenarios flew through my mind, but I needn’t have worried. Or at least not in that way.
‘I had an email from my neighbour earlier. She thinks she might need to leave London for a year and wondered if we wanted to rent her flat.’
Oh great, I thought. Now we have two.
‘How much for?’ I asked presuming that this would rule it out immediately. We’d already established that we could just about afford a tiny attic one-bed in Maida Vale. I guessed that we wouldn’t be able to afford a three bedroom mansion block lost to time.
‘Whatever we were planning on paying. Apparently.’
‘Wow. She could get double or even triple that for it.’
‘That’s what I said. I also explained that we’d just found somewhere so it was pretty unlikely, but that I’d mention it to you.’
I stood out on the balcony and looked at all the red brick prettiness as it lazily cascaded down into the trees, whispering amongst the city bustle.
‘You seem to be considering it,’ she said.
‘Mmm. It is lovely around here.’
‘I thought you’d want to stick with what we’ve already got.’
‘What do you want to do?’ I asked to divert the issue away from myself.
‘I don’t know,’ she smiled with indecision.
‘Can we have a look?’ I came back inside.
‘Ah. She’s house sitting in Wales.’
‘The things is, we need to decide this weekend else we’ll be into reference fees and all that.’
‘I know,’ she said as though to point out I was stating the obvious – which, of course, I was, but then it does help the audience to keep up.
‘And if we stall,’ I continued my useful exposition, ‘we’ll probably lose the Brockley flat.’
‘What to do, what to do.’
‘It’s very pretty,’ she reassured. ‘And, well, it’s kind of the same as this one.’
It was quite a quandary. Essentially, the two sides – south east and west – were evenly matched. Any deposit we’d already paid would be balanced out by not paying reference fees. Any disadvantage would be countered by a positive: I’d need to buy a parking permit for Westminster, but could cycle to work easily. Or even walk. Every angle we analysed at had an equal reaction.
It was stale mate.
I decided to try and take a look for myself anyway. Moments later I hung off the edge of the back balcony, three storeys up, and peered into the bedroom, but I couldn’t really see beyond the sun’s reflection in the glass. After which it was a scuttle through the flat to scramble across the front balcony and check out the lounge. That was more satisfactory, I could see the extent of the room. Leering through the letterbox to see what the hall gave me a peculiar limited rectangular view.
‘Looks nice,’ I said almost disappointed that there hadn’t been some hideously vile piece of furniture that we’d be forced to life with. A flesh toned leatherette sofa, for example, or some amateur art etched into the walls depicting a faux Picasso nude at sunset. Her neighbour had taste, not exactly my taste, but nothing too gut wrenching. I could live with it.
Which was the whole point really. I would have to live with it for a whole year.
‘Unless she decides she doesn’t want to come back to London,’ a friend suggested, muddling the situation further, but let’s stick to what we knew.
It would only be for a year. We would have to live amongst her stuff. I would have to sell – or more likely freecycle - my own crappy furniture. That was no real great loss, but I’ve had some of it a long time. I’m kind of attached to it. In Brockley we’d be able to start settling down, getting on with our lives together, whilst Maida Vale felt a little like a postponement of that. It felt like putting off something that would be a pleasure. As though we were maybe a little nervous of ourselves.
And besides we’d have to do flats one through thirteen again.
And yet, and yet.
Maida Vale is cute. It’s central. It’s close to all the fun of London; it feels like you’re amongst it all, trapped in a Hugh Grant film, or, if you squinted and ignored the affluence, on the edge of a seventies punk record, or as though you might bump into ol’ Keith Talent from London Fields down the pub.
‘It’s kind of like living a fantasy,’ my girlfriend said as we wandered around Portobello market the next morning. ‘I’ve always known I’d never be able to live around here forever.’
‘But you grew up here,’ I pointed out. ‘Or down the road anyway.’
‘Yeah, but it was never like this. Now it’s all bankers and the filthy rich and Tories. Bah! It’s not people like you and me.’ She turned and smiled as the sunlight caught the reflection of her shades and turned the feathers in her hair fleetingly golden. ‘I think we’d be very happy in Brockley.’
She could just be saying that, my brain said. Why would she do that, I asked myself. Because she thinks it’s what you want and you’re just not saying it. Because she’s never missed the last train on a Tuesday and had to endure the slow meander of the nightbus through Elephant and Castle and Walworth and Camberwell and Peckham when it stops every ninety seconds as another pissed up idiot just like you gets on or off.
‘Of course,’ she continued, ‘another year of fantasy would be fantastic.’
And so it went, back and forth as we rushed around the city from conveniently central Maida Vale doing typical weekend things whilst trying to both think and talk about a decision and that we also partly wanted ignore and enjoy those moments that bring normality.
‘I think,’ I said ‘it’s so close that it just needs one of us to make a decision.’ I tried to pass the painful indecision onto her. I was tense with anxiety to the extent that in the middle of Saturday night I awoke screaming. I’d dreamt that someone was torturing me, slicing stripes of skin from my belly with a cheese knife.
‘Your eyes were wide with terror,’ she said the next day. ‘Yet you were still asleep. Or somewhere in-between. I didn’t know if you realised it was me.’
This was a thing. I have restless nights. My dreams are either vivid refuse to come at all; no sleep takes me away and after a while I give up and get up. I used to wander around the house, appearing spectre like over my parents, or so my Mum says. I don’t think she’d experienced that before. I felt as though we know everything about each other, and yet we don’t really. That’s all still to come.
That’s the fun part.
Sunday morning was sultry. The heat hung heavy over the city, our heads felt heavy after the night’s interruptions. We’d spent all weekend together and yet I felt as though I’d spent it with two flats. Later, we were supposed to be meeting a friend back to Hyde Park for another afternoon of music.
‘You go,’ she said, ‘I’ve a headache. I’ll come down later.’
I didn’t like to leave her, but perhaps the space between us would make it easier to think without trying to second guess the other. I sat on the grass outside the entrance to the festival site, waiting for my friend who was late as usual, and thought about texting our dilemma to people, or posting it on Facebook. Maybe a popular vote would make my choice for me.
‘Nah,’ I decided. It was too complicated to explain via text message because, essentially, it was about being confident in what we wanted. It was a choice we had to come to together else it would be the wrong one. I’d been wrong. One of us couldn’t tell the other what to do. That’s not how it was going to work.
Later still, when we’d met up again, we sat down in amongst the dusty crush and the paper cups of cider and the surrounding forests of legs feigned some privacy. I rested my head on her shoulder and murmured: ‘I’ve been thinking.’
‘So have I,’ she replied.
We both smiled and that was that was needed. There was no need to say it. We just knew.