My bed is wet. Not damp, but properly soaked, as though my pillow has been used as a sandbag during a flood. Looking up, I see a small stream of water dripping through the yellow stain on my bedroom ceiling: the source of my current dampness. The bedside clock tells me it's five am, which is the worst of all the ams-not early enough to guarantee getting back to sleep, but not late enough to contemplate starting your day.
Jumping out of bed, I navigate the obstacle course that is my cluttered bedroom floor and run down the corridor, out of the front door, and up the cold stone stairs to the top-floor flat.
"Mr. Finkley! Mr. Finkley! Your bathroom is leaking again," I shout while beating on the door with two fists. There's no response. He'd better not have died in the bath with the tap running, because then the whole ceiling might fall in, and I'll have his dead body to contend with on top of everything else. "Mr. Finkley!" I call again, with more urgency this time, trying to banish the mental image of my bed crushed beneath a pile of rubble and bubble bath. Finally, the door opens a crack, and Mr. Finkley peers out at me. He's in his sixties and has wispy blond hair that sticks out vertically on either side of his bald pate. His face is all angular features, and he wears brown-rimmed glasses permanently smeared with grease. Every time I see him, I need to remind myself not to call him Mr. Stinkley, which is what my flatmates and I call him in private.
"Bathwater is leaking through the ceiling again," I tell him sternly.
"I was having a bath," he says, winding a wisp of wet hair around his index finger, then removing the finger, leaving behind a hair horn.
"It's the middle of the night," I say wearily. "And remember the plumber saying you can't have baths, not until you've sealed the floor tiles properly? Any overflow comes straight down into my bedroom." My voice is measured, as though I'm explaining this to a toddler.
"I don't like showers," he replies, twiddling a symmetrical horn of hair on the other side of his scalp.
"Nor do I-especially when I'm asleep, in bed
." I stomp down the stairs, calling back as I go, "Just put some towels down, please."
There's no point trying to reason with the bath-loving lunatic. I'll have to call our landlord, Cynthia, again
. All any of us know about Cynthia is that she lives in Spain, is allergic to cat hair, and is a horribly negligent landlord. She often berates me for "vexing her with our domestic concerns," but I am vexed, Cynthia, I am extremely vexed.
Back in my bedroom, I remove my beloved books from their plastic storage box, then place the box on the bed to catch any remaining drips. Surveying the books, I feel like a mother who's failed to provide for her children. They deserve a decent bookcase; they deserve to be displayed, spine out, sorted by genre, not heaped in a pile on the floor of my damp room. One day, books, one day
. After changing my sodden bed shirt, I crawl into the dry end of my bed, desperate for a couple more hours, but it's hard to sleep when your mind is racing and your toes are damp. I must drift off, because I wake to my alarm, confused as to why I'm sleeping upside down.
My room looks completely different from this perspective. Out of the window I see the promise of another gray spring day, and the spider plant on my windowsill looks even browner and sicklier than it did yesterday. The plant was a gift from my dad, along with the now-drooping yucca in the corner. He's convinced that indoor plants help stave off depression and anxiety. Ironically, keeping them alive until his next visit has become a major source of anxiety for me. Dad assured me, "You can't kill spider plants, they thrive on neglect," but I seem to have managed it. These plants feel like canaries in a coal mine, a litmus test for inhospitable living conditions.
Wrapping a towel around myself, I head to the bathroom, which I find occupied. It is always
I tap, then call through the door, "It's Lucy. Are you going to be long?" If it's Emily or Zoya, they'll be quick, but Julian might be hours. I want to know if it's worth waiting or if I should go make myself a cup of tea.
"Just having a shave," Julian calls back. Great. That means the sink will be full of tiny bristles, and there'll be shaving foam all over the hand towel.
"The ceiling in my room is leaking again," I tell him.
"That's annoying," says Julian lightly, his tone failing to convey the true scale of quite how annoying it is, especially for the person who sleeps beneath said ceiling. As I'm standing in the corridor having a conversation with the bathroom door, a man emerges from Emily's room. He's tall, with peroxide-blond hair and a huge tattoo of an eagle in the middle of his chest.
"Hi, I'm Ezekiel," he says, giving me a sheepish wave. "Friend of Em's."
"Hi," I say, hurriedly pulling my towel up to make sure it's adequately covering my chest.
"Is the bathroom free?" he asks with a yawn, slowly stretching his long, pale arms above his head. He has the languid manner of a man who is not in a rush to be anywhere-unlike me, who has a job to get to.
"Bit of a queue, I'm afraid."
Making small talk with one of Em's random shags is not my favorite thing to do in the morning, so I head through to the kitchen, where I find Betty, Julian's on-off girlfriend, boiling three different saucepans on the stove. Whatever she's making, it smells like a horse died in a ditch, then someone brewed up the ditch water with a few herbs. I have nothing against Betty as a person, but she's always
batch cooking, and the flat is hardly big enough for four of us, let alone Betty and all her mason jars.
"Morning, Betty! What's cooking?" I ask brightly. One of my greatest qualities is that I can be polite and jovial even when I'm feeling grumpy and furious. Hiding how you really feel is an essential skill, especially when you live in a busy flat share. No one wants to live with a Moaning Mary. Before Betty can answer, I hear the bathroom door click open, and I dart back into the corridor to get in there before Em's conquest. He's still hovering outside Em's door, but I manage to launch myself into the bathroom first. "Sorry, desperate," I say, crossing my legs and giving him an apologetic eye-roll.
As predicted, the sink looks like an army of miniature hedgehogs molted in it, and there is no loo roll, again. Luckily, I have a secret tissue stash, hidden in my wash bag for just such emergen- Oh. Someone found my secret tissue stash
When I draw back the moldy shower curtain, I find the bath full of very large, very real bones and stagger back in horror, thwacking my head on the towel rail. "Ow!" What the hell?
Is someone is trying to dissolve a body in acid? As if this flat weren't sordid enough.
"You okay?" a voice calls from the corridor. Backing out of the nightmare-inducing scene of death and decay, I hurry back to the kitchen.
"Why is there a body in the bath?" I demand. "Did you two murder someone?"
"Oh, it's not a body," Betty says with a tinkling laugh. "Julian and I are doing a broth fast this week. I needed to blanch the bones for the next batch, but I didn't want to monopolize the kitchen sink. The butcher gave me a whole cow for next to nothing. Do you want to try some? Does wonders for a leaky gut." Betty holds a ladle toward me.
"No, thank you," I say, swallowing my urge to gag. While I'm glad that no one has died, I'm perturbed that my first instinct was to think my flatmates might have killed someone. It's possible I've been watching too much Poirot again. It's my go-to comfort TV, but maybe it's breeding a suspicious mindset. "How am I supposed to have a shower?" I ask Betty as calmly as possible. "I can't be late for work, not today."
"There's no hot water anyway, we used it all blanching the bones," Julian yells from his bedroom.
"I'll move them in a mo," Betty says sweetly.
Em's one-night stand has now taken ownership of the bathroom, and I'm vaguely concerned that I can hear the shower running. Is he standing in the bones to shower? Why am I the only one disturbed by this?
Emily's door is ajar, so I pop my head in to see if she's awake.
"Good night?" I ask the mop of red dreadlocks emerging from beneath her duvet.
"Oh, Lucy, can you find out his name?" she whispers at me. "I can't remember."
Before moving into the Vauxhall flat, Emily lived in a houseboat community in Shoreham. She abhors "the capitalist system" and makes a point of trying to barter for things people expect her to pay for. Impressively, she got most of her bedroom furniture by swapping it online for homegrown cacti. On principle, she insists we "share everything," which translates to her sharing my cereal, my bread, and my face wash and moisturizer. When I first met her, I thought she was a hippie loon. Now, having lived with her for two years, I've decided my assumption was entirely correct.
"It's something biblical. Jeremiah? Zebadiah?" I whisper. "Where did he come from?"
"Poetry jam in Shoreditch," she says, slapping a palm to each cheek. "Hot, isn't he?"
"He's certainly got a presence," I say tactfully. Emily and I do not have the same taste in men. I tend to gravitate toward men who prioritize wearing clean underwear every day, for instance. "My ceiling is leaking, again," I tell her.
"How tedious," she says, then pulls her nice dry pillow back over her head. Sometimes it feels like I'm the only one here who cares about my ceiling issues. As if answering my self-pitying call, music starts to pulse from Zoya's room at the far end of the corridor. Hopefully my best friend will be more sympathetic to my plight.
"Hey," I say, knocking on her doorframe. She's dancing to the new Taylor Swift album in tights and a bra.
"Morning, Lucy Lu," she says in a singsong voice. I know Zoya was out partying until three am, and yet here she is, just five hours later, looking fresh and flawless, with her mane of glossy black hair, sparkling bright eyes, and enviably svelte figure. She's the kind of person who falls out of bed wearing last night's eye makeup but it looks like an effortless "smoky eye." When that happens to me, I just look like a conjunctivitis-ridden badger.
I've known Zoya since we were twelve years old, though if I met her now, I'm not sure if we'd be friends-I'd be too intimidated. She grew up in India, then moved to England via America. When she arrived at our school, with her stylish American clothes and this glamorous East Coast accent, it felt like a movie star was walking among us. But once I got to know Zoya, I discovered that underneath it all, she was just a geek like me. We bonded over our collections of Snoopy memorabilia and a mutual love of Stephenie Meyer novels.
"Can I drag my mattress in here tonight?" I ask her, sitting down on the end of her bed. "Stinkley flooded his bathroom again. My bed is soaked."
"Of course, poor you! Do you want me to help hair-dryer your duvet?" she asks.
"No, don't worry. I'll do it later."
"What the hell is that smell?" Zoya asks, grimacing and holding her nose.
"Julian and Betty are batch cooking bone broth. There's a pile of bones in the bath." Zoya makes a suitably horrified face. "Of all the flat shares in all the towns in all the world, why did we have to walk into this one?"
"Because it was the only one within budget that had two rooms available," says Zoya.
"Emily's got another random guy here."
"Hide your cash. I'm pretty sure the last guy she had over stole a twenty from my wallet and a pair of knickers from my drawer."
"Lucky I have nothing to steal then," I say. "Unless he wants a dying spider plant."
"I don't know where she finds these sketchy men."
Zoya turns down her music and sits at her dressing table to straighten her hair. Standing behind her in the mirror, I'm reminded how terrible my own hair looks-mousey brown and asymmetrical, the result of an online tutorial on how to cut your own hair. Maybe I didn't have the right scissors. Maybe I didn't have the right hair.
"Look at this," I say, tugging at the shorter side.
"It's not that bad," says Zoya. "Come on, I'll put it up for you." She stands up and motions for me to sit down, then sets to work, pinning it into a stylish messy bun. "You've got to look smart for your first day in the new job."
"Yes," I say, touched that she's remembered today's the day. "Finally, I'm going to get to do more than print scripts and clean up after everyone."
"I'm so proud of you, Luce," she says. "My best friend, the big-shot TV researcher."
researcher," I correct her, feeling myself flush at the compliment. "And I didn't get a pay rise, just a new title, but I will have more responsibilities now. Hopefully I'll be able to pitch ideas, maybe even brief the guests."
"You've worked your little butt off," Zoya says, picking up a sparkly hair band and laying it on my head like a crown. "You'll be queen of TV in no time. Which reminds me-" Zoya reaches to pull a card out of a drawer and hands it to me. On the front is a sketch she's drawn. It's of me wearing a crown, holding a TV, surrounded by books and badgers. It says "Congratulations!" in perfect calligraphy across the top.
"This is amazing," I say, laughing. "A Zoya Khan original. This might be worth a fortune one day."
"It's to put on your desk at work, to remind yourself where you're headed."
"I love it. What's with all the books and badgers?"
"You like books and you like badgers," she says with a shrug.
I reach up to squeeze her hand and mouth "thank you", in the mirror.
Zoya has always been a stalwart supporter of my stuttering TV career. My parents were open-minded when I got my first job in production, but eighteen months later, when I was still a runner on minimum wage, they started to question what I was doing with my life. All my friends were moving up their respective career ladders, making good use of their degrees, while I was still languishing on the bottom rung, making coffee.
On the dressing table is a framed photo of our group of friends from school: me, Zoya, Faye and Roisin. The four of us talked about living together when we first moved to London, but then Faye’s parents bought her a studio flat, and Roisin, as a trainee lawyer, had a far bigger budget than Zoya and me.
"How perfect would it be if we could swap Emily and Julian for Faye and Roisin," I say quietly, meeting Zoya’s eye in the mirror.
"Roisin wouldn’t be able to handle the lack of en suites," Zoya says, laughing. "And Faye would probably make it her mission to tackle Stinkley’s antisocial behaviour with reflexology and herbal tea."
"Maybe we should set them up," I say, and we both burst out laughing.
Zoya’s room used to look like mine, posters Blu-Tacked to the walls and a clothes rail held together with duct tape. But now, looking around, I realise something has changed. Her room looks like the "after" photo in an Instagram makeover reel. She has procured several lamps, a blue velvet armchair, scatter cushions, matching bed linen, framed art on the wall, and the biggest source of my envy – a dark, wooden bookcase that’s not even Ikea. So this is what a decent salary looks like.
"You’ve made it look so nice in here," I tell her, trying not to sound jealous.
"Thanks, you can come and sit in my reading chair whenever you like."
Zoya used to be a penniless creative like me, but then a few months ago, she dropped out of art school and got herself a job as an estate agent. It seems a shame because she’s an incredible artist, but then again, that bookcase is a work of art.
Squeezing my shoulder, she says, "There, done," as she puts the final pin in my hair.
"Thank you. I don’t know how you do that."
In the corridor, I hear a door open. "Bathroom’s free," Em yells as her door closes. I dash back into the hall, only to see Betty sneaking in there before me.
"Sorry, just need to grab my bones," she yells, and I turn back to Zoya and make a murderous expression. Surprisingly she doesn’t laugh, but only says, "Luce, I need to talk to you about something. Walk to the tube with me?"
"Sure. I don’t have time to shower now anyway. Give me five minutes to get dressed."
My room feels even more depressing after being in Zoya’s. No one wants to live in the "before" photo. My parents say I’m "living like a student", but it’s actually worse than that. As a student I had furniture and a dry bed, I had access to a student loan and subsidised accommodation. Now, after tax, rent, bills, loan repayments and my travel card, I’m left with thirty-five pounds a week for everything else: food, booze, clothes, tampons, you name it. If I could only get promoted to researcher, I’d earn an extra eighty pounds a week. With that kind of money, I could eat, I could buy a nice big bookshelf, I could go back to using normal tampons rather than the two sizes too big moon cup I got free in a party bag at my cousin’s hen do. But there is no point fantasising about such heady luxuries.
Copyright © 2023 by Sophie Cousens. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.