Soap, packets of pasta, flip-flops, pirated DVDs, odd socks, faded French popstar posters, out-of-date ibuprofen, bottles of coloured spirits, mouldy lamp shades, punctured bean bags, packets of dried almonds. All of these litter my flat like artefacts in a museum. Carefully curated to remind me that even though she doesn’t live here anymore, her possessions do.
It’s been that way since I moved here in September. I sleep in her spare room. I pay the rent. She gets to live in Paris. Everybody’s happy. Until…
YOU HAVE AN EMAIL FROM ANNIE RUZITSKI:
‘Hi. Hope the flat is OK. Just to let you know I’ll be coming back with the baby for a week on 26th November. Looking forward to meeting you. Annie.’
I didn’t think much of it at first. It was a mild inconvenience yes. But as I’d got away with having the flat to myself for nearly three months, I wasn’t particularly put out. ‘A change is as good as a rest’. Or so it goes.
It was only as I was brushing my teeth that morning that the word ‘baby’ shot into my mind like an arrow fired into my head from half a yard. Baby baby baby ricocheted around my brain triggering all the usual symptoms I get when faced with a seemingly impossible situation: hyperventilation, panic attacks, the craving for alcohol, the need to live in another way. Standard for most men I’ve met in their late thirties who can’t handle any type of pressure. Even a balloon scares them.
With half a tube of pink Euthymol toothpaste dribbling down my mouth, I pelted it back to my computer in the lounge.
‘…just to let you know that I’ll be coming back with the baby for a week on 26th November….
BABY. WHAT BABY!
I read over each word a hundred times, dissecting each triplicate clause to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted it. Perhaps she meant baby cat or Baby Bel, or Babel? Or she’s coming back with Bobby, or Barney. Even bubbly. But it was no use. However many times I read through it, twisting the words, it was impossible to cook up an alternative other than the terrifying truth in front of me.
And then I remembered. That’s why she had gone to Paris. To have a baby. Why. I wasn’t sure. I sat down and tried to think of what it would be like living with a baby in this tiny flat. Communication would be limited. I couldn’t imagine a six month old being much of a conversationalist. A gurgle and burp would be the most I could hope for.
But lack of conversation is nothing compared to lack of sleep and I knew the paper-thin walls would be no match for a six month old’s powerful lungs. And as a man whose second job is sleeping and whose first is teaching at eight o’clock most mornings, the potential for distress was already making me extremely nervous.
I had three options:
1. Live in a hotel for a week.
2. Knock myself out with whisky every evening.
3. Fill my ears with glue and go deaf for the rest of my life.
The first was out due to cost. The second out because of my job. And the third, while tempting, was too extreme. Luckily the ear plugs I’d bought in Poland twelve years ago did the trick. Twelve years of thick earwax soaking into the spongy foam had created the perfect sound-proofing agent: I slept like a baby. And despite the smells, the mess left behind by mothers who have no time, the constant whirr of the washing machine, the baskets of soiled nappies (which I incidentally carted out to the dustbins each morning), the week passed remarkably trouble-free.
And now she’s gone, the place feels eerily quiet. I remember the strange sense of grief that pervaded the dormitory at school after the school bully Asquith was expelled for breaking a kid’s leg. Reading fairytales every evening couldn’t replace the thrill of watching someone else getting beaten up, glad it wasn’t you for once. We needed something to fear. Not just dragons and goblins in stupid books.
But at least I can now dispense with the earplugs. For the time being anyway. I remember her words as she left: ‘See you soon.’ Which meant two things: Bye for now, but I’ll be back.
As if I could forget. Skidding on a small plastic action figurine as I walked back to the lounge and landing on the floor with a broken back next to a half eaten stale baguette.