JOHNNY LAI CC
Sitting cross-legged in front of a muted television set, in a stranger’s capacious flat, trespassing (not burglarising), I can only think about how space comes at a premium in London - especially if you want to be central and in the thick of things like my wife and I do.
Yes, we’d love a large family (and it’s been a rough road trying to conceive) but we also want to live, drink red wine and smoke cigarettes deep into the night. We want to laugh with our friends until our throats are hoarse and feel the rush of meeting strangers in random city streets, like football supporters outside stadiums and jazz guitarists in Chinatown.
The flat my wife and I have invaded is empty, but so we don’t alert the neighbours we speak in hushed tones and tiptoe around. As I dip my hand into a box of chocolates I found by the couch, my wife, who sits on the far side of the room, puts an index finger to her lips.
We use the space to its full potential by stretching our limbs like athletes and then reaching our hands up to the light fittings. We have already eaten a meal in the expansive kitchen - black pudding and eggs - me sitting on a stool at the counter and my wife at the dining room table. We eat well, and I take a short nap in the master bedroom while my wife sleeps in the spare room. When I wake, I knock morse code gently on the wall but my wife doesn’t reply. I don’t know how to interpret this. I go and find her because I think being in this perfect apartment is getting her down. I want to suggest we check out the garden and watch the sky as dawn breaks.
Back home, there’s a gloomy atmosphere as my wife and I shovel cereal into our mouths. We stand in the kitchen that looks out onto a brick wall. There’s no room to sit and the living room is covered in plastic sheeting ready to be painted.
We are planning a new, more adventurous, place to trespass tonight because we’ve realised that we’ll never afford our dream home, never be able to shelter the five kids that we probably can’t have, and it’s sending us slightly mad. We’re fighting all the time and receiving the silent treatment in such a small area is agonising. We’re sick of squeezing past each other in the hall and banging our heads on the medicine cabinet. There’s never enough storage space and stowing clothes away is as complex as a Kubrick movie.
I’m a bricklayer and my wife is a cleaner - humble jobs worthy of respect, but they will never bring us the riches we desire. At least they help us locate properties to intrude upon.
Tonight, we hit the suburbs, to visit one of the homes my wife cleans. It’s in north London where foxes roam free and a traffic jam is as common as a UFO landing. My wife has the keys and the code to the front gate and we’re giddy with excitement. We park outside and the porch lights snap on, illuminating the building which is truly regal. Two marble pillars stand either side of the main entrance and there’s a driveway with two Bentleys and two SUVs. Towering hedges surround the property with a winding gravel path as neat as a Japanese rock garden, and topiary on the lawn.
My wife has assured me that the occupants are on holiday so I take several relaxing breaths - I can almost taste the scent of lilacs blossoming in the flower beds, mixed with the gasoline from our idling car.
Once we’re inside the house our natural instincts take over. I explore the first floor - the bedrooms and the en-suite bathrooms, whereas my wife takes in the Dali and Picasso prints hanging in the lounge. She moves the coffee table from the centre of the room and performs a cartwheel. She then lies face down on the carpet.
In the bathroom a damp washcloth hangs over the rim of the sink, looking defeated. I pick it up with my thumb and forefinger and bring it close to my face.
“Don’t be so sad,” I say, “it could be worse. At least you have your health and a happy home.”
I meet my wife in the kitchen and I help myself to some food from the fridge. I pour us some mango juice and then I sink my teeth into a slice of Black Forest gateau. I wipe my mouth clean with the back of my hand.
My wife takes a sip and then pushes her glass aside.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she begins, but she is interrupted by the noise of someone yawning. We freeze then slowly turn towards the sound. There is a little girl by the door wearing SpongeBob pyjamas, holding a toy elephant under her armpit and rubbing her eyes with a free hand.
“You Jeanie’s friends, yeah?” she says.
My wife and I stand there, mouths hanging wide open.
“I just want a drink,” the girl says, casually brushing past me and filling a Minnie Mouse mug with tap water. She swallows in one long gulp and then gasps for air.
“Well, goodbye,” she says, happily, without looking at us, padding out of the kitchen. As we hear her tiny feet climb the stairs, my wife frantically mouths the words, “Let’s go.”
It’s the weekend and we’re wearing paint-splattered dungarees and bandanas while decorating the living room in salmon pink. Visiting the suburban house the other night seems like a strange forgotten dream and now, for reasons I don’t understand, my wife and I aren’t talking again.
I perch myself against the ladder and break the silence by saying, “Honey, the other night you were about to say something.”
“What? Oh, that’s nothing, forget about it.”
“Obviously, it is something. Tell me. Please.”
“Things have got to change, that’s all.”
And then more silence.
Later that night she reveals she’s pregnant. I kiss her and hug her tight. She cries but is expressionless. This is supposed to be one of the happiest days of our lives but all I can think of is how our child will be trapped in this flat. It’ll be crushed in our bed because there’s no room for a cot. When it grows its body will be bruised from tight doorways and it’ll walk with a stoop. Other kids at school will thrive in unconfined environments but ours will be sickly and suffer panic attacks.
As another coat of paint is applied to the living room, I feel the room close in that much further. It’s late and I feel the need to escape so I envisage my body floating out of the room, soaring high above the buildings that are nestled together like clusters of grapes across the city. Ripples of artificial light sting my eyes and from my point of view I pick out deluxe properties and sweeping gardens. These buildings will never be ours but at least they can be seen and experienced. At least they exist and surely that is hope?
One day I will show my child and it will know what it is to be free, just like others do.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over sixty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn, Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and The Fiction Pool. His work was nominated for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2020, and he's the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.
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