“Morning, I’m calling about the room you’ve got advertised.”
“Sorry, it’s already taken.”
“Okay, thank you.” I drew a line through the phone number on my piece of paper. Another one gone. Surely, I wouldn’t end up homeless on my first day at university.
My family weren’t interested in helping. “What are you wasting your money on that for? You should be finding yourself a rich man to take care of you.” That’s the reaction I received from my dad when I told him about my offer from Exeter. He had no interest in encouraging me, with my ‘highfalutin ideas’ and I had to make my way here this morning by myself, on the National Express coach. The Student Union gave me a list of potential accommodation, but they all proved unsuccessful.
All, that is, except one. It would take two bus journeys to get there but had a sea-view. Without any alternatives, I went to see it.
The three-story house stood alone at the end of a sandy dirt-track. The landlady, Mrs Johnston, looked to be in her forties, dark, deep-set eyes, auburn hair gathered at the back and secured at the top of her head with a butterfly clip. She wore expensive looking clothes over her full figure. A widow who didn’t hide the fact that she needed a lodger. She greeted me warmly and spoke of the house’s many conveniences: the AGA oven, the washing machine I could use whenever required, cost of electricity and gas included. The only potential issue might be the size of the bedroom. Upon inspection, it became apparent I would have to look elsewhere. A single bed took up the majority of floor space and there wasn’t even room for a desk.
Mrs Johnston told me of a room downstairs that a man kept all year round for a discounted rate, and mainly used during the summer. “He might offer it up during the academic months. It’s a very good size.”
I thanked her for her enthusiasm in finding a solution but told her I would try elsewhere.
Sitting in the university canteen, concerned about where I was going to stay that night, I received a phone call from Mrs Johnston. The man who rented the downstairs room had agreed to give it up during term time. “I knew it would be no bother. He’s very kind. He’s currently in London and won’t need the room until June, should you want it.”
I moved in that evening.
A wooden door opened up into a huge space with high-reaching ceilings and white painted walls. Wooden floorboards stretched the expanse of the area leading to tall patio doors, where the back garden was faintly visible through muslin curtains. Picture frames hung on the walls with prints by Edward Hopper and Magritte. Amongst various pieces of oak furniture, a king-sized brass bed took up one corner and in another stood a shelving unit holding dozens of books. Despite the owner’s personality stamped everywhere, it matched my taste. I moved in without changing a thing. Even the pictures were to my liking.
A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts and Mrs Johnston peered in. “He’s a poet.”
“You’re studying literature aren’t you?”
“Well, Kafka, the gentleman whose room you’ve got, is a published poet. Been renting here for five years. Lovely fellow. He’d do anything for anybody.”
“His parents named him after Franz Kafka.”
“Kafka?” I paused. “I’m familiar with him.” The previous summer, I had had a poem published in a magazine. It was printed at the bottom of a page in small writing, and above it was one of his. His name stood out. The editor had commented on how both poems expressed similar emotions, which lead him to place them together.
Mrs Johnston raised her eyebrows. “Well, there you go. He’s a little dreamy.” She smiled. “But that’s poets for you.”
“Like I said, artists are funny folk. I saw him wandering round the garden one night. Must have been about three in the morning, lost in thought. Anyway, I’ll leave you be.”
Intrigued by the enigmatic character who’s room I inhabited, I browsed the books lining his shelves. Near the bottom I spied his name on a spine and lifted out a short collection of his poems. With special attentiveness, I read his verse:
“As winter howls with driving rain,
I roam the lonely hills again.
In secret pleasure, secret tears,
My vision of you disappears.”
I read on through beautiful, lonely prose. Words that I would have loved to have written myself, and being here by the coastal hills, they felt particularly poignant.
Despite the long distance to the university, I enjoyed my time in the house. My landlady often cooked me meals: Homemade soups, beef casseroles, sometimes washed down with a glass or two of red wine. I also appreciated the chance to wander up on the heath or along the beach when the fancy took me.
I loved studying the Romantics and immersed myself in Blake and Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. Mrs Johnston shared my interest in literature and we often discussed them over dinner, but for both of us, none of them held quite the same fascination as the man whose room I inhabited. Every now and then I would see one of his poems in a magazine, and Mrs Johnston would speak of him: “He would often wander in here and hand me one of his new poems, written on the back of an envelope or something similar. I’m sure you’d find him interesting. He’s very shy though. Spends most of his time reading or writing and doesn’t see many people. Such a lovely young man too. You don’t meet many like him.”
“I’ve read his work but I’ve never seen him. What does he look like?”
“Some might call him attractive. Some might not. There’s a photo of him in the wooden frame on the dresser in your bedroom.”
I paused in thought. “That’s a Man Ray picture.”
“Yes, but he’s behind it. When he agreed to let out his room, he told me to cover it up. ‘I don’t want anyone looking at me and I’m sure she wouldn’t want me staring at her.’ So, I put the Man Ray over the top. If you take it out you’ll see him underneath.”
When I got back to my room, I re-read one of his poems. One that captured his vulnerability and intensity:
“My heart longs for a touch divine,
And for another soul to find
Me here, beside the wild sea,
To cherish and to comfort me.”
I picked up the picture-frame, removed the back, and set it on the dresser. It was a striking image. Dark hair, combed back but slightly thinning, sideburns down to the collar of a leather jacket that covered the bottom of his chin. Hazel eyes, looked out without giving anything away, like a character from an Edward Hopper painting. Here was the man who expressed thoughts and feelings that I identified with, in ways nobody else seemed able to.
I read his whole volume of work and learned some of his poems by heart. I tried to emulate his style in my own writing, but no matter how hard I tried, couldn’t get close. The more I read, the more my fascination grew, intensified by living in his environment, and topped off with information from our mutual landlady.
One evening, a tapping sound alerted me to Mrs Johnston by the door. “Sorry to bother you.” She held a long, dark overcoat in her hands. “It belongs to Kafka. Would you mind keeping it in the wardrobe for me?”
“No, not at all.” She placed it into my arms, and left me to put it away.
I held it close and breathed in the musky aftershave scent. When I put it in the wardrobe, something fell to the floor. A small notebook, patterned in black and red roses. It contained scribblings and doodles, ideas and reflections. Sitting on the bed, I read through them. Half-finished verses spoke of solitude and loneliness and a need for deep connection. I wondered if I’d ever meet Kafka.
At the end of the first term of university, some friends on my course told me of a room going in their house. One of their friends had dropped out and left a vacant place. When I mentioned this to Mrs Johnston she let out a small gasp and put her hand over her chest. She composed herself. “Do what feels right for you.”
That evening, I noticed some faint writing on the wall by the side of my bed. When Mrs Johnston called at my room to ask if I wanted any food, I pointed it out to her. “Here. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it before.”
She stepped into the room and climbed onto the bed to get a closer look. “It looks like the beginnings of a poem. He probably woke one night and wrote his ideas down before he forgot them.”
“I think you’re right.”
Mrs Johnston started to read them out:
“My darling pain, both day and night,
You are my intimate delight.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. After glancing at the scribblings again, I got out of bed. A silvery light shone through the ghost-like curtains, and I walked over to the door. I pulled back the drapes and looked into the garden. The bright moon gave the world a strange grey hue. I turned the key slowly so as not to wake anyone, and stepped outside. The clear air was perfectly still. I stepped onto the lawn, and with the dewy grass clinging to my feet, made my way towards the shadowed woodland at the end of the garden.
Such a beautiful night.
A small creature scuttled over the grass in front of me and disappeared into the undergrowth. Leaves stirred on the bushes, and I turned to look back at the house. Part of me wanted to leave and be with my friends in the hive of student activity, but another part felt an immense connection with the poet and this building. I stood a while and was about to go back when I noticed a dark figure move through the trees and disappear into the blackness.
Kafka? He wouldn’t be here, surely. He was in London.
There again, further on, a man walked towards the beach. I could hear the gentle roll of waves, and watched him sit down on the sand, facing the sea. His hands supported his body as he leaned back. Who was he? What was he doing out at this time? I stood for a while, watching.
The tide came in on a strong current and washed under him but he stayed where he sat. Taking a deep breathe, he tilted his head back into the night sky. A cloud covered the moon and he glanced around. My heart raced, I pulled back into the shadows, and headed back to my room.
I decided to stay at the house. My friends couldn’t understand why, but I told them I enjoyed the beach and the home-cooked meals too much. Deep down, I always knew I wouldn’t leave.
Blood Ink magazine published one of my poems, along with three other previously unpublished writers, and to my surprise and delight, Kafka, being a regular contributor to the magazine, reviewed them. He wrote that mine was sensitive and moving and showed promise of more to come. The magazine printed another of his pieces alongside mine and my longing to meet him overpowered any other ambition.
I took advantage of the email address printed next to his name and wrote to him. I thanked him for his review, expressed my admiration for his work, and informed him that by strange coincidence, I temporarily resided in his room.
When I told Mrs Johnston this, she showed palpable excitement. “You’ve got a real soft spot for him haven’t you?” She smiled. “Let me know if you hear back from him.”
That night, I placed Kafka’s picture on my bedside cabinet and scanned the scribblings on the wall. While I reclined on my bed, I spoke out my favourite lines from his poetry, warm and sweet as they brushed my lips.
“With a tender heart, I swore
To give my spirit to adore
You, ever present, phantom being,
My slave, my poet, and my queen.”
Now I lay where he had, my face on the pillow where he had slept, immersed in his presence.
An email from him the following day elated me. Kafka expressed a genuine enthusiasm for my poem, delight that I had been the person who took on his room, and a promise to look out for more of my contributions in the future. Mrs Johnston advised me to continue with the correspondence and showed a real interest in my feelings for him. “You know, you’d make a lovely couple.”
The emails continued between myself and Kafka daily, and one Friday, he informed me that he would be calling in at the house to collect some books. He wrote that he looked forward to catching up with Mrs Johnston and meeting me in person.
That morning, I chose my clothes carefully. A pale pink top and jeans that fit particularly well.
The curtains moved gently with the morning breeze, the waves audible in the distance. Mid-morning, a knock at the front-door informed me of a visitor. I waited a few minutes and then, unable to stay in my room any longer, stepped into the hallway.
Mrs Johnston closed the front-door and turned towards me. “Oh, you’re going to be so disappointed. Kafka changed his mind. I’m sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to meeting him.”
“He changed his mind?”
“He called, but decided against coming in. Headed into town instead at the last minute. He’s not been doing great to be honest with you. His last collection of poetry got slated in a review recently and he really took it to heart. Too raw and passionate is how the poems were criticized. It really got to him. The problem is he spends so long by himself that he has the time to dwell on that kind of thing.”
“He was here?”
“He was. He’s just not up to socializing at the moment.”
I rushed forward and opened the door. I descended the steps and looked down the street but there was no sign of him. I had come so close. Would I get the opportunity again?
“He’s gone.” I told Mrs Johnston.
“I’m sorry.” She held my arm, and our eyes connected. She would be ready to console me should I need her.
I returned to my room and immersed myself in Kafka’s words. Surely our paths would cross eventually.
Racing thoughts prevented me from sleeping that night.
“And reason mocks my muddled thoughts,
That deaden me to real cares.”
Two days later, sitting at the kitchen table, I glanced over at the paper:
“SUICIDE WITH EXETER CONNECTION.”
I puller the paper closer:
“The body of up and coming poet, Kafka, was discovered yesterday afternoon. He had begun to recieve international recognition for his sensitive and moving poetry, but was found dead in his London apartment. Next to his body was found a collection of unpublished works. His latest collection, ‘To An Unknown Woman’, had just been released.
Andy Martin is a Philosophy teacher from England. He has a number of short stories published in online magazines as well as in Adelaide LitMag.