The Apartment – K. L. Slater

His chance to speak to her comes in Starbucks on Kensington High Street, of all places. He stands behind the queue of people who are silently debating whether to go for the vanilla latte or today’s special: a Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino, according to the poster on the back wall. When he arrived, the streets had seemed quiet, the warm air buffeting his ears, but here in the café it is busy and he finds it slightly claustrophobic. He’d spotted her from the outside. She’d been scanning the cluttered bulletin board on the wall next to the window. Perusing the small white index cards, hastily scrawled by locals with details of items for sale, babysitting services, and a separate section at the side for homes available for rent. He approaches quickly now, battling through the wall of noise rising from the packed tables. Her head, with its neat brown ponytail, is bent forward as she bites her lip and repeatedly runs a fingertip over the rental cards. The café atmosphere feels damp and cloying around him. Michael picks his way past snivelling toddlers and families jostling for seats and positions himself in front of the board, right next to her. He waits for her to look up and notice his frustrated expression. She doesn’t. Michael clears his throat. ‘Sorry, I hate to ask but .

would you mind awfully, if I just squeezed past?’ ‘What?’ She looks up, startled. Michael can see she is in no mood for chatting but that’s OK, they almost never are. He grins conspiratorially. ‘You know, coffee shops are quite a stressful experience when you think about it . all this chaos for little more than a cup of hot, frothy milk.’ Her face lights up with a brief but genuine smile. ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right.’ Michael reaches down into his overcoat pocket and plucks out the wedge of flyers. ‘I wasn’t sure whether to put these on the tables or’ – he makes a big deal of looking at the dingy bulletin board as the coffee machines continue to whoosh out their steam – ‘I could just pin one on the rentals board here. What do you think?’ ‘What’s it about?’ She glances at the flyer he’s holding up. He sees her face is pale and drawn with worry.

And no wonder. ‘Nothing exciting I’m afraid. There’s an apartment up for rent in my building. The tenant let me down, but if I can get a few flyers out today, it should be taken by the morning.’ ‘Must be a nice apartment if it’s going to be snapped up overnight,’ she says gloomily, sitting down. ‘It’s a very nice apartment,’ he agrees, thinking of the distinctly average family home she has just been forced to sell. She’ll be worrying now, of course, about where she and the girl will end up. ‘A short walk to Hyde Park, built-in wardrobes and bills included. Ideal for the right person, I’d say.’ ‘Lucky them,’ she mumbles to herself, and he almost misses the words amidst the background din.

‘Ahh, now that’s where you’d be wrong, you see. Because luck has very little to do with it.’ Michael pauses, waiting for his words to register and reel her in inch by tantalising inch. ‘The new person has to be just right. Has to fit in perfectly with the other five residents already living at Adder House.’ ‘Adder House,’ she repeats thoughtfully. ‘Sounds . interesting.’ ‘It is indeed very interesting,’ he agrees. ‘Can I take a look at one of those?’ Michael slides a flyer forward on the table and she reaches for it with fingers that are delicate but woefully neglected.

Raw, rough patches pattern the top of her hand, and her nails are bitten to the quick. A narrow band of white shrunken skin is evident on the third finger of her left hand where her wedding ring sat for twelve years. He watches as her burnished-brown eyes flick over the page, taking in the interior photographs of the apartment. She lingers on the impressive façade of Adder House itself. It always gets them in the end, even the really stubborn ones. ‘It doesn’t say how much the rent is on here.’ ‘That’s because the amount payable is dependent upon the circumstances of the successful tenant. The landlord sets the level, and it’s always a figure the person can afford.’ ‘Your landlord must have a screw loose,’ she says, a thread of impatience unravelling in her tone. ‘A place like that? Be at least a couple of grand a week, I reckon.

Probably even more.’ ‘Maybe I have got a screw loose.’ He chuckles. ‘But money isn’t my priority. Adder House is a very special place and that comes from the unique mix of residents. That’s what makes it a special place, not their bank balances.’ ‘Oh!’ She’s flustered now. ‘Sorry, I didn’t realise it was you . that you’re the landlord, I mean. I—’ ‘No offence taken.

’ He waves away her apology. ‘Do you live locally yourself?’ ‘I did. The house has just been sold after – well, let’s just say we have no choice but to move.’ But of course, he knows all about that. The whole sorry tale. ‘I’ll probably end up crashing with a friend for a short time.’ She hesitates. ‘Just until I can get something sorted. It’s not easy when you have a little one.’ ‘You have a child?’ ‘A daughter.

She’s five.’ A brief bloom lights up her face. ‘How charming,’ he says, thinking of the sweet girl he’s watched Freya collect from school most days for the last couple of weeks. ‘Sounds like you’ve got it tough at the moment. I don’t suppose—’ He laughs and shakes his head, as if embarrassed at himself. ‘Ignore me, it doesn’t matter.’ ‘What is it?’ She sits up a little straighter. ‘I don’t suppose . you were going to say what?’ ‘I was going to ask if you’d like to view the apartment at Adder House? If you were interested, that is.’ She stares at him and he bumps his forehead with the heel of his hand.

‘Of course, I understand entirely. Take no notice of me blubbering on. You must think my offer bizarre, under the circumstances.’ ‘No!’ She clears her throat. ‘No, I don’t think that at all.’ He produces his card and slides it across the table to her. His ticket of immediate trust. ‘Dr Michael Marsden,’ she reads out slowly. ‘You’re a doctor?’ ‘Not any more.’ He smiles.

1 ‘A new house?’ Skye screeches at the top of her voice, her face lighting up and then dimming just as fast. I don’t have to ask why. She’s thinking about Lewis. I turn the radio down but Skye has already stopped dancing to the music. She’s thoughtful for a moment or two, her dark-blonde eyebrows knitting together as I clear away her tea plate and mug. ‘And we’re going to the new house now, Mummy?’ ‘Yes, we’re going to view Adder House now to see if we like it. That’s if you want to come?’ I help her slide her arms into her little red jacket without waiting for her to answer. ‘I waited until I picked you up from school because I thought it would be nice for us to go together.’ ‘Hmm . ’ I can almost hear the cogs turning in her smart little head.

‘But if we do go to live somewhere new, how will Daddy know where to find us?’ And there it is in plain sight. The enormous shadow that constantly nibbles away at the edges of her happiness. I pause in my attempt to help her get her coat on and kiss the top of her head. ‘Your daddy always knows where you are, remember?’ I say softly. ‘Everywhere you go, he’s with you, poppet.’ Lewis’s death is still so raw. For both of us. It’s only natural she’s worrying. It’s hard to explain the terrible truth of what happened to Lewis to a five-year-old who simply can’t be told all the details. The school counsellor said the first and most important thing at this young age is initially for her to understand and accept that her father isn’t here any more.

I think we’re getting there at last. I see the clues peppered between her normal everyday activities. My heart squeezes in on itself every time I catch her staring into space when she’s meant to be watching her favourite TV show. When she leaves a spare seat on the floor for her daddy at one of her soft-toy tea parties, or squeezes her hands into little fists when her friends’ daddies pick them up at the end of the day. Just like Lewis would often do. The counsellor said it shows she understands he’s gone now and she’s dealing with it. In her own way. It’s more problematic for me. I’m still alternating between the extremes of emotion, caught in no-man’s-land, usually somewhere between grief and fury. I’ve read countless articles online advising how to discuss difficult matters with very young kids, but really, it all comes down to one thing.

I’m the person who knows my daughter best, and I have to find the right way to break the truth to her as gently as I can. For now, I’ve decided it’s better to fluff the detail. ‘You should see what might be your new bedroom at Adder House.’ I muster as much enthusiasm as I can. ‘It’s got a real cherry tree blossoming just outside the window.’ ‘Pink confetti!’ Skye claps her hands. ‘When Petra comes over, we can stand underneath it and pretend we’re guests at a wedding!’ Yet again, I push away the realisation that I’ll need to speak to my daughter about changing schools very soon. I’ll need to be explicit about the fact that her best friend, Petra, won’t be at the new one. All this is a very big deal when you’re just five years old. But even if Adder House falls through – which still seems a reasonably likely outcome judging by its grandeur on the flyer – we’ll not be able to afford to keep living in this area anyway.

I’ll be forced to change Skye’s school sooner or later. I look around our small but functional kitchen with its clean lines and white fitted units. The duck-egg-blue kettle, tea and coffee canisters, and the toaster tone in perfectly; I took ages choosing that colour scheme. It seems ironic now that that sort of thing ever mattered to me. It’s true I’ve got Lewis’s insurance money, but that won’t last forever. I had no savings when Lewis died, and I’ve calculated I have about six months before the insurance money will run out, so I know I need to look out for a job well before it gets to that stage. Despite my sadness in leaving our home, I thank my lucky stars every day I’ve managed to sell it; albeit for 10 per cent less than the asking price, which also removed any available equity. I sigh and button up Skye’s coat as she hums the theme tune from Frozen. Two years ago, when he’d just had his promotion at work, Lewis and I were planning to take her to Walt Disney World in Florida. Since his death, I’ve been worrying about where we’ll live and how I’ll meet London rental costs and sky-high bills, especially while I’m not working.

Skye has coped so brilliantly, but I worry that more upheaval could push her over the edge. Sadly, moving house is one major change I simply can’t avoid. I bundle my daughter out of the house and pull the door closed, just as the black cab appears. I open the door and clamber in, totally unused to the luxury. Usually we have the grand choice of taking the bus or the Underground. Travelling by cab is typically well out of my budget capacity, but before I left the café this morning, Dr Marsden insisted on sending one to collect and return us home, fully paid for. ‘It’s the least I can do, if you’re genuinely interested in the apartment,’ he’d said, and I’d felt more than grateful. The driver says he’s been given full instructions on where to go, so I settle back into the seat with Skye to try and relax and enjoy the ride. She’s a little live wire as usual, pointing out people, shops, and particularly dogs . which are currently her favourite animal.

‘Can we get a puppy at our new house, Mummy?’ She looks at me imploringly with her enormous blue eyes. ‘First things first, Skye.’ I smile, beginning to feel a little sleepy as I relax into the smooth ride. ‘It’s not actually our home yet, remember.’ ‘I’d love a puppy,’ she says dreamily. ‘I could take him for walks and I’d play with him every day and show him pictures of Daddy . ’ I close my eyes, listening a little sadly as Skye disappears off into one of her wonderfully detailed imaginary worlds where everything is always perfect and Lewis is as he always used to be, as if all the crappy stuff never happened. It’s a kind of therapy for both of us, and my heart warms to hear her happy, even if it is makebelieve. The cab turns into Hyde Park Corner, then later on to Palace Gate. It begins to slow.

‘Adder House coming up, love,’ the driver announces. ‘Wow!’ I hear Skye breathe as she sits bolt upright, taking in the white stucco buildings that line Palace Gate like sentries. The cab stops and I stare open-mouthed at what I can only describe as a mansion, nestled amongst similarly spectacular properties. Surely, the apartment can’t be located here and yet . I realise on closer inspection that this is the exact same building as featured in the photograph on Dr Marsden’s flyers. Then I spot a pristine white sign with decorative black script above the door that reads: Adder House I thank the driver and open the door, holding it wide as Skye slips out of the cab and on to the pavement. She’s still staring up at the buildings, too in awe to chatter. The diesel rumble of the cab fades behind us as we climb the short flight of stone steps that lead to the door. A few houses down, a musclebound builder emerges on to the road, his arms full of old pipe work that he deposits unceremoniously into a skip outside. He smiles in our direction and Skye gives him a little wave.

I chivvy her up the entrance steps, but before I can ring the bell, the door opens and Dr Marsden appears there, looking smart in his shirt and tie. ‘Freya! Welcome to Adder House.’ Before I can answer, he bends forward and stretches out a hand. ‘And you must be Miss Skye. I’m very pleased to meet you.’ ‘Hello,’ Skye says in the small voice she uses when she feels a little nervous, but I almost burst with pride when she, nevertheless, boldly shakes his hand. Dr Marsden nods approvingly at my daughter’s confidence and holds open the door while we walk into the foyer of Adder House. ‘I do hope you’ll find our home is to your liking. I think you could both be very happy here.’ ‘Wow, this is so cool!’ Skye gasps, staring up at the winding stair balustrade of intricate iron filigree that spirals up the centre of the building, all the way to the top floor.

Witnessing her disbelief at the grandeur is a bit of a wake-up call and it finally hits me what an utter fool I’ve been. I did try really hard to fully explain my circumstances in the coffee shop, but Dr Marsden has obviously still managed to completely underestimate my financial capabilities. I mean, what on earth are we doing here, really? People like us simply don’t live in places like this. I know I have to say something to him right now, or I’m at real risk of becoming horribly embarrassed later on. I clear my throat. ‘Dr Marsden, I’m so sorry but I think we’re at cross purposes. You see, I’m on a very tight budget.’ I drag in a breath as the corner of his mouth twitches with apparent amusement. ‘You see, I’m not actually working at the moment, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to afford the rent on a place this grand.’ ‘I can assure you there’s been no misunderstanding from my side.

’ He chuckles, dismissing my concerns with a flutter of his thick manicured fingers. ‘As I said before, I think you and Skye will be just perfect for Adder House and that is the only priority we have here. My advice is to put all such thoughts from your head and accept the fact that you have the chance – if you want it – to make a fresh start.’ I want to believe it, I really do. But I know only too well how it feels to not fit in, to feel like the outsider. And I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime.

.

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