THE FLAT ABOVE
by Sue Brennan
Belinda had always wanted to live above a shop and there was no real explaining why. Maybe it was the idea of people moving around underneath, the idea of two different kinds of lives going on simultaneously—bustling retail on the bottom, domesticity above.
As a child she went into town on Saturday mornings, a forty minute drive, with her mother to do the shopping. There were no malls back then; they went from one shop to another. She trailed after her mother, looking across the street at the flats above the shops. She assumed that the people who owned the shops also lived above them. She also assumed that they were poor, or poorer than her own family. At least they had a farm.
She was transfixed by a partly opened curtain revealing the top of a kitchen cupboard, or a ceramic cat, or an empty vase trapped between a window and a closed venetian blind. Between some of the shops were narrow alleys. If a door was opened, she stood square in front of it looking for clues: metal letter boxes with keyholes; a paper bag full of copies of the Jo Ho’s Lighthouse magazine; a handwritten sign on a page torn from an exercise book similar to the ones she used at school—Saxophone lessons, professional, $15 an hour. Paul #202.
Her mum would turn and tell her to come on.
She was close to her father, having grown closer as she passed puberty and became more distant from her mother. There was probably some mathematical equation to explain that, or evolutionary principal. Her father was warm, gentle and enigmatic. Her mother, on the other hand, was bossy and pragmatic—when Belinda had her first heartbreak at the age of fifteen, her mother had patted her on the shoulder and said, good to get that first one out of the way. Her father had gestured to her to follow him out onto the back porch where he sliced a watermelon into slabs. He smiled as she buried her mouth into the pink sweetness, and told her about the first time he saw her mother at a country dance.
She tried to be the good daughter—she was a good daughter, damn it—and when she got the job with Australia Post and moved down to Sydney, she called every Sunday evening and came back to visit on long weekends. Six hour train trips. During those weekly phone calls, she and her mother spoke briefly, ascertaining that the other was safe and well and nothing terrible had happened in the last seven days. The phone was passed over to her father and they chuckled awkwardly.
– You alright?
– Yeah, pet. How’s city life?
– Good, pretty good…
On a Monday night after work and a cheap meal at a Chinese restaurant that Theodore paid for, she followed him— his real name was Anthony, but he said he felt Theodore suited him better and hated it when, later, she shortened it to Thee—around the back of some shops and up a rickety staircase. She was filled with anticipation: a childhood fantasy, or part of it, was about to come true. She kept herself in check, wanting to appear cool. He unlocked the door and switched on a light that illuminated the long, narrow corridor and stepped aside to let her through. She saw that at the end he had rigged up an open black umbrella to act as a lampshade over the bare bulb. It hung from the ceiling like debris from a cyclone.
She’d met Theodore at the housewarming party thrown in the flat she shared with Theresa, with whom she’d done her postal service officer training. He’d arrived, with Robert Smith hair and a long black coat, with one of their colleagues from the post office. He stood apart from the loud and drunken gaggle of posties who’d arrived with six-packs of beer. He skirted the edges of the large living room, studying the posters blue-tacked to the walls, and the books, mostly hers, on the one narrow bookshelf. Much later, when she thought back to her first impression of him, it was as a large Kafka-esque cockroach.
She was playing the good hostess—or the nearest that she could get to it at the age of twenty, fresh from rural New South Wales—and asked him if he wanted a beer because they had heaps and it didn’t matter if he didn’t bring any himself; no one would know if he nicked one from the bathtub full of ice. She was dribbling on, she knew it, but he looked at her, amused. He said he didn’t trust her judgement in the matter if these were her novels—looking scathingly down at the bookshelf—and that she should accompany him to the bathroom.
The bathtub was filled with ice and various cans and bottles, Tooheys mostly, but some Victoria Bitter as well. With the clumps of ice melting at varying rates, it was like a weird kind of polar exhibition. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and crossed his legs. She leaned against the sink, acutely aware of all the female toiletries displayed across the bench behind her. He questioned her about her job, where she went to school, what books, movies and TV shows she liked, never giving any indication as to whether he shared a similar interest. Next to his exotic appearance—surely he kept himself awake at night in order to cultivate that pasty complexion and the dark circles under his eyes— she felt plain and immature.
Midway through the second can of beer (but actually her fourth drink, because she and Theresa had had a couple of Southern Comfort and Cokes before everyone arrived), she gathered up a bit of courage and, feeling flirty, said, “Hey, now it’s your turn to be interrogated.”
He raised an eyebrow and gestured to her to go ahead. She knew that he was expecting her to replicate his line of questioning. He sat there smirking.
Two of the guys she worked with, postmen, burst into the bathroom. One of them murmured something about interrupting something. They excavated some beers from the tub and closed the door laughing.
Theodore looked at her expectantly.
“How many people have you hurt?” she asked.
His smile faded; clearly he’d been expecting something inane, such as his favourite colour, or national holiday. His gaze drifted from her face to her chest, to the door with the still-damp green towel hanging from a hook, down to his drink and then back up at her, with an adjusted smile. She lifted her chin slightly and held the soft flesh inside her left cheek between her teeth.
Out in the flat, Theresa’s regime had obviously been usurped as the music went from Cyndi Lauper to Cold Chisel with a victorious round of yeah’s!
His flat was above the bookshop where he worked, a small independent bookshop. He made certain she understood the significance of this—an independent bookshop, not one of the big chain ones. She said she was pretty sure she understood. As she followed him down the long corridor, she looked to her left in each of the rooms, the first one being tiny and full of boxes and cardboard expandable files.
“Stuff from the bookstore,” he explained.
The next one along seemed quite large and was currently, he said, being used as his studio, though from what she glimpsed—an easel with no canvas, two electric guitars propped against the wall, a mandolin sawn in half and fixed to the wall, a hunk of wood on a torn, floral bed sheet with a tiny hacksaw lying nearby—his creative focus was unclear. The room after that was a bathroom tiled in lurid-green which looked disturbingly like something from a turn-of-the-century lunatic asylum. After that was the bedroom: an air mattress on the floor; a chest of drawers with a TV on top; clothing hanging from a portable hanger with wheels, the likes of which she’d only seen in dry-cleaning stores.
They passed under the umbrella and entered a room that functioned as a kitchen and dining room. He gestured to a chair, but she went over to the window and looked down onto the highway instead. Being a weekday evening around 9pm, it wasn’t particularly busy. If she followed it all the way to its end for about 600km, she’d be almost home.
I’m standing in a flat above a shop, she thought with delight and saw his reflection in the window as he came up behind her.
– How’d your party go?
– Good. I met a guy.
– Oh yeah?
– Would I like him?
– You like everyone, Dad.
– Would your mum like him?
– She doesn’t like anyone from the city.
– Got a job, has he?
– Works in a bookstore. Lives above it, too.
– That so?
– Going to meet him on Monday after work.
– Take care, hear?
She ended up spending most of her time at his place, meeting his friends, reading the books that he told her to read (he started her off with Tales of Ordinary Madness, by Charles Bukowski, incredulous that she’d never heard of it. “But you work in a fucking post office!”), and listening to the music that he liked (horrible, tuneless stuff that she never listened to without him around).
The flat she shared with Theresa was pretty much empty, as Therese had reunited with her ex-boyfriend. When the lease was up at six months, they agreed to let it go and she hauled her bags up the dangerous stairs behind the shops and dumped them in the room that had once been his studio. In the past few months of getting to know him, though he talked constantly of art and music and films and books, she never once saw him produce anything.
For a while, in the evenings after dinner, he sat at the table editing a friend’s poetry and it seemed to cause him a great deal of frustration. She cleaned the dishes and wiped down the benches as he dug his hands into his hair and hunched over the papers. He would suddenly get up and lunge at the wall of books, searching for something, scanning one after the other rapidly before dropping them in a pile on the floor.
“So fucking derivative,” he said, sitting back at the table and writing something across the paper in black biro.
After doing the dishes she lay on the air mattress watching TV, coming out periodically to sit at the table and have a cigarette. He sometimes looked up from his work then, and smoked with her and asked her to tell him about whatever ridiculous programme she was watching so that he could ‘mentally disengage’ for a while. At that time, she was following and enjoying Mad About You, an American sitcom following the lives of a young, white, professional, childless, married couple. They had a solid relationship, so it seemed, and she imagined herself and Thee as similarly cool and witty. When, years later, the series ended with them divorcing, she was quietly devastated. But when she told him about it, she spoke as if she, too, found it absolute drivel.
Together they watched and discussed at length The X-Files and Twin Peaks. These two programmes formed a huge part of the conversation, not only of her friends and co-workers at the pub after work, but also of the small circle of his friends that she was gradually being absorbed into. They went weekly to the house of a couple he knew—Scotty, who asked people to call him that and not Scott—and Elroy, who’s name was actually Laura Roy. It took a while for her to figure it out. Neither of them had job titles that could be encapsulated in a single noun and they kissed everyone on the cheek when they said hello. Where she came from, you really only did that with people you knew, and only on special occasions.
-You going to bring him up at Christmas?
-I don’t know. He doesn’t like to travel.
-Yeah, anyway, I’ll be up on the 23rd.
-Will be good to see you, love.
-Your mum misses you.
-Uh-huh. I have to be back on the 30th you know.
-Do you now? Busy girl.
She walked into the flat the day before New Year’s Eve and dropped her bag at the door, flicking on the light.
The umbrella was gone.
“Thee?” she yelled down to the far end.
She’d called beforehand from the petrol station where she’d filled up, telling him her estimated time of arrival back in Sydney. She ran back down to the car and pulled the box of plums from the back seat and hauled them up the stairs. They were from her parents’ orchard and there was no way that the two of them were ever going to be able to finish them alone. She’d be handing them out to everyone at work, that was for sure.
As she passed the studio, she saw that—apart from her clothing hanging on the portable hanger—the room was empty. She passed under the umbrella-less bulb into the kitchen and deposited the heavy box onto the table…which was now dark grey. As were the cupboards above the bench. And the bookshelves. And window-sills. Not only had the room been transformed into this mono-tone blandness, all pictures and knick-knacks had disappeared. It was striking in its utility.
Actually, it was gun-metal blue she found out later when he came up from the bookstore. He’d been flat out tidying up after the Boxing Day sales, he said, and what did she think of what he’d done?
“Why’d you do it?” she asked, looking around, but he didn’t answer.
Instead, he urged her over to the cupboards and opened the doors. Inside were four metal boxes, the kind that tradesmen might use to carry their tools about. He took out the top one and lifted the lid.
“Condiments,” he said, and indeed, inside were all the condiments. The other box contained all the dried goods like flour, rice and pasta, with each packet opened and folded down, kept in place with a bulldog clip.
“Where’s all your stuff?” she asked as he put the box back up into the cupboard. “The pictures, the umbrella…” she walked over to the doorway and looked up at the bulb, “…your guitar? Where’s it all gone?”
“I’d just had enough of the lot of it. It’s just stuff. We need to get down to the essentials, you know?”
“Do we? Why?”
“What if there’s a fire, hm? Ever thought of that?”
She had actually—the first night she’d spent here with him, she’d lain on that air mattress while he slept and pictured them crawling out the front windows onto the landing, shimmying down the telegraph poles onto the street
“We need to be able to get out of here quickly,” he explained, walking past her down the hall into what was once his studio.
She followed him.
“Do you really need all this stuff?” he asked, gesturing to what was really just her clothing, a few novels and two pot plants.
She studied him and realised that his hair was shorter. She hadn’t noticed it at first. He noticed her inspecting him and stomped up the corridor saying, “I just can’t stand the excess anymore.”
“That doesn’t explain the paint,” she called after him.
– Good drive back, love?
– Not bad.
– Good. Thee liked the fruit, did he?
– Yeah well, he’s an apple and oranges kind of guy actually.
– That so?
– Yeah. Hey, you should see what he did to the flat.
– What’s that love?
– Chucked everything out almost. And painted everything grey.
– What’d he do that for?
– He’s a funny one, isn’t he?
By comparison with Theodore’s state-of-alarm interior aesthetic, Scotty and Elroy’s three bedroom house seemed decadent and over-furnished beyond decency. In fact, her first time there she’d thought, what’s with all the books and stuff? But she’d gotten used to it. As they’d drawn her into their way of thinking, doing, behaving, she’d seen this way of living as something to aspire to and had tried to emulate it by the procurement of CDs and videos and knick knack’s with a hint of retro.
Now, the Sunday after New Year’s Day, she and Thee walked round the overgrown path to the back entrance—the front door being blocked by an emerald velvet chaise longue, a cast iron claw foot standing ashtray, a record player and accompanying stack of 45s, all of which Elroy referred to as her corner of self-indulgence—and stood in the open doorway listening to the sounds of some vigorous love-making reaching its conclusion.
“Should we knock?” she asked, because they usually just called out we’re here as they came in.
Thee scowled at her and peered through the screen.
“Let’s just go back to the car,” she suggested.
“God, you’re so provincial sometimes,” he said, opening the screen door and taking a step inside.
“We’re here!” she called loudly from the porch.
Whereas he usually meandered his way leisurely through the house, crouching to inspect the lower shelves of books, or flipping through a stack of albums in the hallway, today he went directly left and into the kitchen. She scuttled in after him as a loud yell came from the bedroom that was either, Come in or Coming, she couldn’t tell. Thee turned the kettle on and they sat at the long table with its gigantic candelabra and waited. By the time the kettle had boiled and she stood to make them both a cup of tea, Elroy wandered in pulling a pale blue kimono across her naked body.
“Can you pour me one, sweetie?” she asked and sat herself down next to Thee who was thumbing through the pile of National Geographic magazines on the table.
“Why do you have all these? You don’t subscribe, do you?” he asked.
“My dear departed and slightly dotty uncle bequeathed them to me. I haven’t the heart to throw them out.”
They heard music coming from somewhere in the house, something classical, and then Scotty entered the room.
“One for me too, thanks,” he said, aiming to kiss her on the cheek, but she was turning to say hello and ended up receiving it on the mouth. He chuckled and raised an eyebrow .
“Mm, Belle. That works, too.”
They had immediately shortened her name when they met her and told her it was spelt B-E-L-L-E; she liked it, though Thee continued to call her Belinda.
They killed an hour or so hanging out in the kitchen making plans for dinner later on, talking about the best place to go for a coffee within walking distance, exploring the deeper meanings of Star Trek-The Next Generation. Scotty disappeared at one point, as he often did, saying that he had some work to do. Elroy yawned and stretched, writhing in the chair with her kimono gaping open to expose one large brown nipple, and declared that she was going to have a bubble bath. Thee went into the living room and tinkered around with the VCR that Scottie said had been doing weird shit whenever he tried to record something. Belinda made another cup of tea, picked up one of the National Geographic magazines and sat on the back step smoking.
It was just another Sunday really.
She rolled over, a Saturday, and looked at his sleeping face in the gloomy March morning. It had been raining all week. There were no curtains on the window, but they weren’t really needed as the building next-door was in touching distance. The sunshine, when it was there, didn’t find its way into this space. When he was asleep, his expression relaxed and seemed kind rather than suspicious, amused rather than sarcastic. He’d wake up soon—the alarm was set for 8:10 am—so that he would have time to dress, drink a cup of coffee and smoke two cigarettes before heading downstairs to open the shop at 8:45.
The previous night, they’d been eating their dinner in the spartan kitchen / dining area and she’d looked around at the blank walls and empty benches and asked, “So what the hell is really going on, Thee?”
He’d continued eating, shovelling the pasta that she’d made into his mouth, and she wasn’t even sure he’d heard her. He finished the meal and sat back, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and finally said, “Don’t you find our lives excessive?”
She looked around, shrugged her shoulders and said, “No. You keep saying that.”
He rolled his eyes and, even though he’d done it many times before, it angered her now.
“What?” she said. “What did I say that was so, so stupid?”
For a moment he seemed contrite and chewed on the edge of his thumb. Then he straightened up and said, “Look, I know things…I…me…I’m moving very quickly here. But I want you to understand. I’m doing this for both of us. For what is good for both of us.”
“What? Putting everything in boxes? Painting everything grey? Getting rid of everything that made you…” she faltered, sensing she’d stepped into dangerous territory.
“Made me what?” he pushed.
“I don’t know.”
“Made me interesting?”
She looked down at her shoes.
“Oh my God.” He got up from the table and paced around the room. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You honestly don’t know me, do you?”
“No, I don’t think I do,” she replied, tremulous, rising from the table and taking the dishes to the sink.
He’d gone out then and retuned around midnight as she lay on the air mattress, wide awake.
She watched the digital display edging its way towards his awakening. His disturbance of this stark and silent space. The only things occupying this room now were their bodies on the air mattress, the digital clock on a simple construction of four planks of wood glued to form an empty square, his clothing on the wheeled hanger, now reduced to five pairs of black pants and five white shirts.
She kept her focus trained on his face as the time approached for the day with him in it to begin. Two more minutes and there would be a series of ugly beeps. She watched his nose twitch and listened to the deep, slow breathing.
“One more minute until your strange and cruel tyranny resumes,” she whispered.
“What?” He woke suddenly, startled and startling her.
He looked over at the clock and back at her, unable to fathom what had woken him.
“Did you say something?” he asked, rubbing one eye.
The alarm went off and he held it in front of his face, fumbling for the button at the back and then holding it on his chest with his eyes closed.
“Well? What did you say?”
“Do you really want to know?” she asked.
He sighed, got up from the mattress and went into the bathroom.
- Easter soon.
- Yeah, I know.
- You coming up?
- On your own?
- Yeah, can’t see Thee suddenly wanting to come up.
- We ever going to get to see him?
- I showed you his photo when I was back.
- Meet him, I mean.
- Yeah, I know. Sorry.
- S’alright, pet.
After their ‘fight’, two weeks passed. Two weeks without speaking to each other. Two Sundays without him hanging out at Scotty and Elroy’s place.
The first Sunday, she went on her own in defiance, but also terrified that they, too, would find her dull and not particularly cool. Surprisingly, or maybe not, it was only after she’d been there a couple of hours that Elroy asked what Theodore was up to. Not, is he coming around? Not, why are you here and he isn’t?
“I’ve no idea,” Belinda replied.
Elroy looked at her kindly for a second or two and then asked for her help in sorting out some stuff they’d been collecting in the garage with the intention of setting up a stall at the markets sometime.
The following Sunday, Belinda had entered their home with a little more confidence, but was still anxious about long silences, or being alone with one of them, or not being able to uphold her end of the conversation about the rights of indigenous people or the merits of jingly-jangly indie music. Elroy asked where Theodore was, received a shrug, and suggested they all go to see a movie, or just them, the girls. As it was, Scotty was keen to accompany them.
They sat and watched Pulp Fiction in a packed theatre, enthralled, nudging each other and whispering all the way through. Walking back to the car afterwards, Scottie and Elroy did a slow grinding twist on the sidewalk, trying to replicate the vibe of that particular scene and almost succeeding.
“You, my dear Belle, have to get your hair bobbed immediately,” Elroy said as she got out of the car and flipped the passenger seat forward.
“Yeah,” Scotty agreed, unfolding his long limbs from the back and getting out awkwardly. “Don’t come into our house next week unless you do.”
“And red, red lips. Thanks for the lift, Belle baby,” Elroy said, and Belinda tooted the horn as she drove home.
Thee was sitting, legs crossed and smoking, in the dining room / kitchen. She showered and went to bed, falling asleep easily, unaware of when he joined her.
When she arrived at Scotty and Elroy’s place the third Sunday, they introduced her to Tomas. She suspected his name was probably Thomas. He worked as an animator for a computer games company. He, too, was a ‘country boy’, but from rural Victoria. They walked from Coogee along the coast, past the pretty little cove of Clovelly, and onto Bondi. This particular outing had been pre-arranged, with phone calls back and forth throughout the week weighing up the benefits of going from south to north, or north to south. She’d persuaded them to do south to north, purely on the basis that it would be a shorter distance home by bus at the end of it. She and Tomas compared childhoods as they walked. When they arrived at Bondi in the late afternoon, they found a beachside bar and ordered a bottle of wine.
When she returned home, late, she walked directly into the end room intending to have a cup of camomile tea and iron her uniform for the next day. Sparse as the room had already become, it seemed even more so. Some of his novels had gone, but not all of them. A tiny frame that had hung on the wall, with a snippet of lace from his mother’s wedding dress—a sweet thing that she’d found endearing when he’d shown it to her, and hopeful when it wasn’t removed or painted gun-metal blue in the first blitz—was gone. She went from room to room, noting the absence of his clothing, toiletries, concertina folders that contained tax returns and paperwork, arriving back at the front door suspicious and unsure of what to do, if, as it seemed, he had left her.
Was she expected to move out?
She wandered back up to the end of the flat intending to call Elroy and ask for some advice, but it was almost 10 pm, so she decided to deal with it in the morning.
The air mattress was in need of air, but she couldn’t be bothered with it. The camomile tea helped take the edge off her concerns. If worst came to worst, and it wasn’t a bad idea, she could move in with Scotty and Elroy. They’d hinted at it that afternoon anyway, saying they had a room there that was going to waste. She smiled remembering how Tomas had gently mocked their urban, pampered childhoods, looking to her for agreement.
Horns beeped and in the distance a siren wailed. The traffic on the highway outside wasn’t too bad by this time of night. For a farm girl, she’d gotten pretty used to the noise of the city. She began to drift off, the weight that had been crushing her the last few weeks had lightened. Tomas had a funny way of saying his r’s that sounded like w’s. A car alarm rang from what sounded like the car park across the street. Thee would’ve teased Tomas about sounding like Elmer Fudd, that’s for sure. There was a car chase out on the highway. Probably someone speeding. Maybe Scotty and Elroy would like to come up to the farm at Easter. The siren got louder. Tomorrow at work she had to show a trainee how to do the payroll.
About the Author:
Sue Brennan is an Australian writer. She was shortlisted for the Wollongong Short Story Award (2018), the Alan Marshall Short Story Award (2016, 2018) and the Polestar Literary Award (2016). She has had poetry included in the Poetry D’Amour Anthology (2016, 2017, 2018) and short stories published in ACE – Contemporary Stories by Emerging Writers, Meniscus, Lite Lit One!, and Adelaide No. 20.