For April Fool's Day (although it is not an April fool), here is a very silly short story I wrote a long time ago and recently found.
The Cost of Modern Living & The Pissy Dead Smell
All she needed was a place to live, a roof over her head. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing fancy. Just a room, somewhere to sleep, somewhere to keep her things. Her standards weren’t high. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask. It wasn’t as easy as that. There was the cost of modern living, and other people, to think about.
The cost of modern living meant that she would probably have to share a kitchen, maybe a bathroom. She thought of strangers picking at her food at night, of wearing flip-flops in the shower, and of other people’s hair in the plughole. Her own dirt was fine.
She had high hopes of this one, not only because it was the only place left on her list. The others had been first hopefully circled, then tentatively question-marked, and eventually crossed out in decisive liquid red. This was a bedsit, but with a raised sleeping area – a mezzanine, they called it, the very lap of luxury. The tiny hob and counter-top grill were there in the room, no shared strip-light kitchen. It would be almost like camping, with a gas stove. Perhaps only marginally less fun. The bathroom was shared, but there was a sink in the room itself. She didn’t mind pissing in the sink if she had to; it was better than slinking down dark corridors at night. Best of all, she could almost afford it.
The viewing was at six o’clock. She had rung the agency to confirm the appointment. She arrived five minutes early and found the street deserted. The street was OK; there was a pub at one end and a borderline-seedy hotel across the road. She would be able to watch clandestine goings-on and illicit meetings late at night and begin to spot the regulars and who rented a room by the hour from a mile off, all from her own window, maybe.
She could see one already, a prime suspect. A thickset man in his forties, shaved head, heavy with man jewellery and up to no good. She leaned against the lamppost and looked casual, like she was hanging around for a reason – which, of course, she was. It wasn’t long before his partner in crime turned up, a bleached blonde in pale jeans and matching jacket.
‘Alright, babe?’ he said as he kissed her.
She had expected them to go straight into the hotel, making sure nobody had spotted them as they went inside. Instead, they were hanging around just like she was.
‘Excuse me, love,’ the woman was looking at her. ‘Are you here for the flat viewing?’
She felt panicky, wondered how this woman knew what she was doing, felt as though she had been caught in the act. They misread her expression.
‘Criminal, really, isn’t it?’ said the man. ‘Herding us all in their at once to squabble over it amongst ourselves. There just aren’t enough flats to go round, they’ve got us over a barrel.’
She finally understood. It wasn’t her appointment at all. She smiled and they all looked sympathetic at each other.
As they milled about in the street, more people seemed to appear from nowhere. There was an Italian student in a leather jacket, despite the warm day, smiling and looking confident. She found herself sizing up the competition. The other girl alone was none; she looked too much like herself, polite and diffident and not nearly pushy enough. The couple who turned up last were less so again – all glasses and cardigans and even more desperate than she was. They held hands and looked anxious, more unsettled by the idea of a group flat viewing than anyone.
Last of all, of course, was the estate agent. He turned up at the last minute so as not to have to endure conversation with the waiting crowd. He turned up ten minutes late to make sure of it.
‘Hello, everyone,’ he announced, standing outside the relevant front door and half-heartedly raising both hands. ‘I’m Dan, from the agency. You’ve probably all gathered by now, if you didn’t know already, that our policy is block viewings as soon as a new property comes up on our books. It’s to make sure you all get a fair chance to see it first.’
They all looked at each other, warily.
‘So, then – this is number twenty-seven, basement flat. This area is on the up – you’ll be pleased to know, ha ha – becoming gentrified, if you will.’
There was a stony silence. She imagined Dan lived in a modern block, not a rundown converted terrace like this one – all grey and glass, estate agents and web designers.
‘So, then – anyway. If you’ll all follow me. One at a time, orderly queue and all that.’
She shuffled into place, behind the original hotel-assignation couple but in front of everyone else. The bald man had one hand in his girlfriend’s back pocket as they all filed inside. The other fist he used to knock manfully on each wall as they passed. The walls shook every time.
The door was flimsy and opened awkwardly as Dan struggled with it and a forced smile. He was sweating more under his suit than the Italian boy comfortable in his leather jacket. Eventually it gave and they all trooped in behind him.
It was like walking into a smoker’s lung. Water-marked walls and fudge swirl carpet; brown and dark and oddly arranged, the only window looked up to the buildings behind. There were bars on it, preventing it from being opened. The walls were almost palpably sticky with tar; the room had never been touched by fresh air, it would have been impossible. The single bed was on a high raised area, accessed by ladder. The bathroom was on the ground floor, up a narrow flight of stairs behind a bolted door. The kitchen area was sectioned off with a floral curtain, apparently not supplied with the property. The current tenants had vacated, but would be back to collect a few things before their lease expired – the curtain, a chest of drawers, some cutlery.
She wanted to laugh every time Dan used the word ‘property’. It seemed to imply country houses with fields and stables. Not this.
‘Not being funny, Dan,’ the shaven-headed man said conversationally, his hand still in the girl’s pocket, ‘but you’ve got to admit – it’s a shithole, innit?’
She turned around, too embarrassed to look at the two of them squaring up to each other, pigeons in the small space. She noticed that around half of the people who had been in the queue behind her seemed to have drifted off somewhere on the way in. When she looked back again, the man’s girlfriend looked positively beside herself with excitement.
‘It’s got a dead smell – hasn’t it Dan?’ he said, sniffing the air and making a face to prove it. ‘A pissy dead smell.’
Dan sniffed at the air ineffectually and blustered. The man winked at his girlfriend.
‘Well, it’s all a matter of price bracket – isn’t it, sir?’
They were all poor or they wouldn’t have been there. That was the point.
‘Got us over a barrel,’ the man muttered.
He didn’t look too distressed by the prospect. In fact, he looked as though he was having a fine time. He was the kind of man who enjoyed thumping walls and raising his voice. None of them could be choosers; to be proved right was enough.He resumed the wall-thumping, and started running his finger over every available surface, shaking his head and looking pleased each time his finger came away black.
She had to admit, there was a strange smell. And he wasn’t entirely wrong – it did have something of both piss and death in it. But it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, either. It wasn’t just death and piss, it was farms and soft unwashed sheets and dirty hair. It was sticking a finger in an unwashed navel and sniffing it. It was comforting.
She could live in a basement, watching the shoes going by. She could risk the narrow, high-up sleeping area by imagining she was on a boat. She could pin her own pictures to the walls and maybe even paint over the worst of the stains.
As the argument continued, and the numbers dwindled, she began to feel at home. She wandered around as aimlessly as the small space would allow, following the smell. She looked around quickly and ducked under the kitchen curtain. The kitchenette was tiny, and as grubby as could have been expected, but perfect. She could have done everything she needed without ever moving.
Half-hidden by the curtain, was another door. All of the rooms had already been accounted for – there was only one, with a door to the upstairs bathroom. She opened it quietly and the smell intensified. It was dark and quiet and welcoming.
Piss and death, it wasn’t that bad. She climbed into the tiny little cupboard, and closed the door behind her.