Authors: Claire Douglas
‘He’s getting old now,’ she says fondly. ‘He mainly likes to snooze.’
The house is quieter than it was on Saturday, with the dripping of rain on an outside drain the only sound to be heard, and I hope that it’s only the two of us here. I didn’t notice the little white Fiat with its red-and-green stripe parked outside. Ben told me the other night that the car was his and I recall making a joke about why a tall man would want to drive such a small car.
I watch as Beatrice busily runs the taps of her deep Belfast sink to fill a vase and then plunges the flowers into it. ‘These are lovely, thanks, Abi,’ she says as she arranges the flowers. I notice some of the daisies have drooped over the side of the vase. ‘That’s kind of you to say you love this house. I think it’s quite special, but maybe that’s because of the people who live in it with me.’ She turns to me and flashes one of her amazing smiles and a lump forms in my throat when I think of my empty flat.
‘It’s a huge house,’ I say. How can an artist and someone who works in IT afford a pad as luxurious as this?
‘It is. Too big for me and Ben. So it’s nice that we’ve got the others living here too, although Jodie is moving on.’ An emotion I can’t quite read passes fleetingly over her face like a searchlight. I play with the necklace at my throat, waiting for her to elaborate. She looks as if she’s about to say something further then appears to change her mind. ‘Let me put the kettle on,’ she says instead. ‘It’s a pitiful day and it was so sunny at the weekend. Honestly, this weather.’
‘Is Ben at work?’ I ask. Her narrow back stiffens slightly at the mention of his name. I watch as she pours boiling water into two cups, pressing the teabags against the side with her spoon, her fair hair falling in her face, and I find myself longing to go over to her, to push her silky hair back behind her ear so that it’s no longer in her eyes.
‘Yes. He only works contract.’ Her voice sounds falsely jovial and it occurs to me that perhaps they’ve had a row. ‘I don’t completely understand what he does, but I do know it involves computers.’ She laughs as she hands me the mug of tea and pulls out a chair opposite me and sits down. ‘What about you, Abi? You said on Saturday you were a journalist?’ Even when sitting, Beatrice seems to ooze energy; her legs jiggle under the table, her elegant fingers tap the side of her white bone china mug. She takes an apple from the bowl of fruit in the middle of the table and indicates I do the same. I murmur my thanks and choose a dark-red juicy plum, but when I take a bite it is hard and sour.
‘I used to work for the features pages for one of the nationals, in London,’ I say through a mouthful of plum which I manage to swallow with difficulty. ‘That was before I got my dream job on a glossy magazine. But I’ve done my fair share of news too. I used to work at a press agency and spent a lot of time hanging around the houses of famous people or public figures. We call it door-stepping, although some might call it stalking.’ I laugh to show I’m joking but Beatrice smiles seraphically and I wonder what she’s thinking. She takes a bite of her apple and chews it slowly, thoughtfully. ‘But now I freelance and things are a bit slow,’ I add hurriedly, wanting her to forget the stalker comment.
‘Is money a problem?’ She looks at me with concern and my cheeks burn. Judging by her lovely expensive-looking clothes and this beautiful house, money isn’t a problem for Beatrice. I don’t want her to think that’s the reason I want to be her friend.
‘No,’ I lie. ‘My parents have said they will help out if I need it. And I can always go and live with them if I can’t afford to pay rent any more.’
‘I’ve had an excellent idea,’ she almost shouts, her eyes bright and her cheeks pink. ‘Why don’t you move in here?’
‘Here?’ I’m so shocked that I can barely form the words and almost choke on a piece of hard plum. Of course, there is nothing I’d want more than to move in with her, to be with her all the time.
‘Oh, it’s perfect,’ she says, jumping up and dropping her apple in her exhilaration. I watch as it rolls across the table, falling off the end on to the tiled floor. Beatrice ignores it and stares at me, an intensity that I haven’t seen before in her eyes. ‘I was so upset when Jodie said she wanted to move out. But it’s fate, it’s so you can move in here with us. I should have thought of it before. Durrr!’ She actually slaps her own forehead with her hand and pulls a silly face, making me giggle. Her enthusiasm is infectious and the thought of moving into this stunning house, living with people again rather than rattling around my empty flat makes me want to bounce happily around the kitchen. ‘Why don’t you come and view the room now? I think Jodie’s gone out. Oh, it will be such fun if you move in.’
‘But …’ This is all going too fast and my heart begins to race. I’m not sure if I can do this, if I can start living a normal life again rather than my current hermit existence.
‘There are no buts, Abi. We got on so well on Saturday. I was so nervous about the showing, but you made it such fun. You’ll come to love the other girls. Pam is larger than life and such a laugh, and Cass is a sweetheart …’ She holds out her hand. ‘Come on.’ She smiles. Her eyes are wide with excitement, making her look even more beautiful. I think of how great it would be, living with Beatrice and not being alone any more; it would be like having a sister again, and I can’t stop the smile spreading across my face.
‘You’re right,’ I say as I take her outstretched hand, allowing her to pull me gently to my feet. ‘It will be perfect.’ And I follow her out of the kitchen, leaving the sour plum on the table behind me.
Beatrice’s bare feet make a slapping sound on the stone steps as we climb the winding staircase and I touch one of the daisy-shaped coloured lights that have been wound around the banister, excitement building at the thought that soon this beautiful house could be my home. The heady scent of Parma violets hits me again and I’m aware it’s coming from Beatrice. It must be her perfume or the washing powder she uses for her laundry. Either way, it’s intoxicating.
When we reach the first floor I can’t resist poking my head around the door of the huge sitting room that runs the length of the house, remembering from Saturday the velvet squashy sofas, the artefacts that Beatrice has collected from her travels to places such as India, Burma and Vietnam, the French doors leading out to a large terrace overlooking the garden. I remember the frisson of exhilaration I felt, wedged between Ben and Beatrice on one of those sofas, wine glasses in hand, chatting away as though the three of us had known each other for years.
Beatrice stops halfway up the next flight of stairs and turns in my direction with a questioning rise of her finely arched eyebrow.
‘I’m only being nosey,’ I admit as she continues up the stairs. I fall in behind her. ‘And remembering Saturday night.’
She laughs her endearing tinkly laugh. ‘It was a great night – and there will be many more like it if you move in. Jodie’s room is up here, next to mine. And Ben’s room is opposite, next door to the bathroom. Then, upstairs we have two more bedrooms, the attic rooms, which Cass and Pam use. They have their own bathroom, thankfully, as usually one of them is ensconced in there, dyeing their hair. I expect you remember all this anyway, at the open studio event the other day.’
I nod, not wanting her to know how accurately I’ve memorized the layout of her house; then she really would think I was a stalker. We reach the landing, pausing outside one of the first doors we come to. It’s painted in a creamy white with a solid brass knob for a door handle. There’s no lock. Beatrice raps her knuckles gently against it. When there is no answer, she pushes the door. It opens with a lingering creak.
The room is so at odds with the rest of the house that it’s as if I’ve been teleported into a student bedsit. It smells of unwashed bedding and dirty clothes mixed with something acrid, chemical. I give a little start. Jodie is lying on the single bed that’s been pushed up against the wall to make way for two more ugly sculptures. She has huge earphones clamped on either side of her head, her eyes are closed and she’s quietly mouthing the lyrics of the song that she’s listening to. I can’t quite make it out, but it sounds slow and angsty. I survey the large room with its indigo walls blu-tacked with many posters of gothic bands from the early 1980s, the high ceilings and marble fireplace, and try to imagine it as my bedroom. Two sash windows that are nearly the height of the wall face on to the street below and the identical five-storeyed houses opposite. A silver birch in the front garden bends and stretches in the wind, its leaves casting dappled shadows on the grubby-looking carpet.
Jodie’s eyes snap open and she pulls the headphones from her ears.
‘Sorry, Jodie, I did knock,’ says Beatrice, not looking particularly contrite.
Jodie sits up and swings her legs over the side of the bed, glaring at us sullenly. She’s wearing a huge black T-shirt with a silhouette of Robert Smith on the front which makes her look about twelve. Her legs are pale, her calves adorned with so many moles they remind me of a child’s dot-to-dot drawing.
‘Do you remember Abi?’ says Beatrice. Jodie nods gruffly as I say hello, her bright blue eyes surveying me so intently it’s as though she can read my thoughts, that she knows all about me. My heart skitters and I mentally recall Janice’s words, the mantra she taught me to calm myself when I sense a panic attack coming on.
Jodie turns to Beatrice, her little face pinched into a frown. ‘I only told you I was moving out yesterday and already you’ve found a taker for my room.’ She gets up and steps into a pair of grey skinny jeans that are in a coil by her bed.
‘It wasn’t planned, Jodie. It only occurred to me a few minutes ago when I was chatting with Abi downstairs,’ says Beatrice casually, as she walks over to one of the gargoyle-esque sculptures. I might not know much about art but surely anyone can see her sculptures are hideous.
‘Is she an artist?’ she says, as if I’m not even in the room. When Beatrice shakes her head, Jodie’s frown deepens. ‘I thought you only let artists live here?’ I can sense the animosity emanating out of every pore in Jodie’s body. I stand awkwardly by the door, feeling like an intruder. Beatrice opens her mouth to reply but Jodie cuts her off with a shrug. ‘Whatever. It’s none of my business any more. I’ll leave you to it.’
As she stalks towards me I instinctively breathe in, but instead of walking past me to go out the door, she stops so that her face is inches from mine. ‘For some reason, she desperately wants you here,’ she says in a low voice. I glance to where Beatrice is standing on the other side of the room, examining the sculpture, running her hands over its beaky nose and making appreciative noises, much to my surprise. My eyes flick back to Jodie as she continues, coldly: ‘I’d watch my back if I were you.’ And then she storms off, leaving me staring after her in bewilderment.
Beatrice perches on her new antique leather sofa, watching as the hands of the reproduction 1950s clock on the mantelpiece move around to five thirty, its every tick pulsating through her fraught body. Any minute now, she thinks, he will be home. Her heart gives a flutter of anticipation when she hears the key in the lock, the slam of the front door, his boots on the stone tiles, his soft Scottish burr calling her name, and she tries to second-guess how angry he will be when he finds out what she’s done.
‘I’m in here,’ she calls back.
He pokes his head around the door and frowns when he notices that Jodie’s three-headed sculpture has been replaced by an unfamiliar leather sofa and a large mahogany desk.
‘Where’s Jodie?’ He comes into the room, dumping his laptop bag by the wall. Beatrice glares at it pointedly, concerned that the ugly black bag will mark her freshly painted lime-green walls. ‘And what have you done to this room?’
Beatrice swallows. ‘I’ve repainted it.’
‘In a day?’
She shrugs. ‘It didn’t take long.’ She decides he doesn’t need to know about the decorator she paid to help her out. Her knees jiggle and she pulls the skirt of her cotton dress over them in a bid to still them. ‘And Jodie’s gone.’
Ben shakes his head as if struggling to process what his sister is telling him. He ignores his bag and Beatrice bites back the stirrings of irritation. ‘Jodie’s gone? Gone where?’
‘Back to her parents’ house.’ Beatrice makes an effort to keep her voice even; she knows it unnerves Ben when she becomes too animated, and she can’t reveal to him how excited she is. ‘Her dad came to pick her up this morning. Thankfully, she’s taken those sculptures with her. They took up too much room. And now I can have this as my studio instead of using my bedroom.’
Ben glances around the room as if he is expecting Jodie to be hiding behind the long drapes that frame the French windows. He runs a hand over the prickly stubble that’s beginning to show on his chin. ‘I don’t understand. Why has she left so suddenly? She’s said nothing to me.’
Beatrice gives him a long, scrutinizing gaze, then says cuttingly, ‘You know why she left.’ It gives her pleasure to note the way his hand moves to loosen his striped tie, as if it’s choking him, the beads of sweat that bubble around his hairline. He pales, causing his freckles to look more prominent.