Owen’s room was clean and his laugh genuine and he’d roll you a smoke. He was thirty-three, and had a broken wind chime spelling LOVE hanging from his wardrobe door.
We lived in a shared house in London that was cheap because it was sinking. You couldn’t tell from the inside, but looking out of the window told a different story. The plastic flamingos staked in the garden soil were slanted, as if one of their pink legs was shorter than the other. The house had been a funeral parlour, and retained its Victorian shop-front covered in yellowing newspaper. You could read about the millennium bug in screaming black capitals; or peruse adverts for purebred puppies that had long since been put to sleep.
I was the last to move in and got the smallest room. The man-and-van man solemnly carried my life upstairs in boxes, avoiding the eyes of passing residents. I followed him in and did the same. I was twenty-six, jobless, with mildly webbed toes. I listed these ailments aloud and let them hang in the air above my single bed. At night, I listened to my neighbours shagging then arguing – make-up sexing in reverse.
I’d moved to London a year earlier, assuming I’d quickly become a successful model. I knew deep down I was too old, but I’d read in a dentist’s sticky waiting room magazine that Isabella Rossellini didn’t start her modelling career until she was twenty-eight. With two new silver fillings and a still-numb mouth, I cut and dyed my mousy hair into an orange bob and shaved my eyebrows off. I hoped my newfound edginess would hide my heart face, my five feet and seven inches.
I fucked creeps with homemade tattoos who never texted back. I bought shit coke and befriended posh girls with sore belly button rings. They never texted back. I vibrated with loneliness, which is hard in rush hour on the tube when you’re so packed in. People notice, and fearing infection through their eyes, bore them into the adverts on the walls.
When I heard a knock on my bedroom door a week after moving in, I forced a smile, opening it in time with the door. A tall man with a shaved head in gymwear and flip-flops was standing there with his arms limp at his sides. He resembled a heavyweight boxer on a beach holiday.
‘Hey, I’m Owen. I’m in the room next door.’
He must have noticed the angry shaggers in my head as he leaned in and pointed in the opposite direction of their room.
‘On that side.’
I nodded with a tight grin.
‘Let me know if you need a hand with anything.’
I didn’t see him for a week after that – he worked as a cycle courier in the day while I’d begrudgingly started evening shifts in a bar. It was a trendy place and the homemade tattoo creeps would come in on dates. If they had to speak to me, they’d order drinks with a robotic coolness while examining the fake vintage knick-knacks behind the bar. The girls with the creeps were always the same: raccoon-eyed, gurning a tad. They looked like me.
On my first Saturday night shift I sank several shots and did the splits across the bar. My colleagues whooped and clapped then put me in a black cab home. I felt I was rolling in the dark belly of a whale with my bones and speech turning to water. I tried to hold myself up and talk to the driver about the warm front coming into focus over the city.
‘You’re the friendliest Londoner I’ve ever met,’ I announced, before vomiting out of the window.
When I got home I stacked my bones against the door. Owen was on the bed, his legs spread like a frog. I blinked and yanked the knotted ends of my bob. The room was his and it was swimming.
‘Come in!’ he said, pulling the roll-up from his mouth with one hand, pushing record sleeves off the bed and onto the floor with his other.
I stepped slowly into the room looking for a chair, somewhere neutral to sit. There were hundreds of records lined up against one of the bedroom walls, all white and black sleeves like a strip of chess board.
‘Wow. You really like records’, I said, wiping the wet from my mouth.
He laughed. ‘Nah. I think they’re shite.’
I perched on the end of his bed, pulling my shorts down my thighs whenever he focused on his cigarette or the overflowing ashtray next to him. A photographer I’d met online had remarked that they were a problem area, and I’d forgotten when choosing my outfit earlier to keep them hidden. But Owen didn’t seem to notice my skin, my lack of thigh gap, my nipples alert to the ghost air swimming in through the window.
We talked about how London was great but that the urge to say hello to strangers was quickly frozen out of us. I’d come down from a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland where I’d been looking after my mum. She was depressed and drinking after my dad announced that his new wife was having a baby. Owen’s story wasn’t as baggy. He’d come from Dublin on the ferry on a one-way ticket with £800 in a rubber band.
I’m not sure why he told me this so willingly. He didn’t seem drunk like I was, but he talked and smoked with an insistency akin to a pulse. I can’t really remember his mouth without a cigarette; his fingers not rolling one or stubbing it out. He said that he couldn’t go back to Dublin, and he couldn’t leave the UK for a while. He’d been in London a couple of years and was skint. He spent all his money on records. He blew a smoke ring and watched it fade.
‘So, you can’t go on holidays?’ I blushed at my voice – child-like and too loud after the smoke ring’s silent exit.
‘Ha!’ He grinned little yellow daggers. ‘Yup, no Costa Brava for me. But when all this is sorted I’m going to travel around Asia.’
I kept perching and staring at my filthy toes – I’d left my shoes in the cab. I wondered what ‘all this’ looked like – what kind of terrain, whether it had legs. I opened my mouth to speak but decided against it. His eyes met mine and I remembered where I was. I spun around and looked at the rows of records.
‘What’s your favourite?’
I turned back. He was staring at the magnolia wall above them, as if waiting for it to change into a bolder colour. The molten tip on his roll-up was now an ash column edging closer to his fingers.
He flinched with an almost instantaneous smile, but I’d seen the blank space in between. I knew that space. It didn’t have edges and it could seep into everything if you didn’t run fast enough. I wanted to leave. I scanned the room for a clock.
I pointed. He jumped up off the bed and marched over to them. He pulled out one near the front.
He held it for a second, before turning around to show me its cover. Unlike the monochrome others, this one had cursive pink font across it. Dance Mania. Underneath was a photo of a topless young man stood behind a turntable, his hand raised above a record as if he was casting a violent spell.
‘This is the most human dance record ever made.’
Owen slid the record out of its sleeve, held it between careful palms. I smiled, half-pretending to recognise the name.
‘Listen to this.’
He bent down to the record player. A mid-tempo kick drum, clapping and a stream of hi-hats. That was it. The track was so stripped back so as not to be there. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I shifted my weight on the bed and scratched one of the stubbled gaps on my face where an eyebrow had been.
‘This sounds held together with sellotape.’
He moved the needle, smiling to himself. Everything this time was faster, the hi-hats more fiddly. A male voice soulfully instructed us to ‘shake what your mama gave ya.’ I kept still.
‘This one’s better.’
Owen turned it up, started pulsing his fist. Next door banged on the wall but he ignored it.
‘DJ Deeon. A legend. I’m giving you an education here.’
He walked over to the bed. I made myself smaller, inspected my toes again. He climbed back into his original position.
‘Come on, shuffle up’, he said, as if I was a kid hogging floor space in a school assembly.
I moved closer to him, lifting my legs onto the bed. We listened in silence to the record. It wasn’t like any of the glossy synth-pop I’d played in the bar earlier on. It was cheap and dirty and insisting on now. I felt embarrassed I’d never heard it before. I looked around the room. A small pane of glass was missing from his window. I cleared my throat.
‘Do animals ever creep in through that gap?’
Owen stared at it.
‘I’ve never thought about that. Maybe they do when I’m out. But they’d have to be birds, or else small animals that can climb up walls.’
‘It’d be cool if a red squirrel did, and you found it when you got in. They’re really cute.’
‘You’re a bit like a red squirrel’, he said, his eyes flickering onto my legs.
‘What, bordering extinction?’ I snorted and tensed my thighs together.
‘Nah, there’s loads of you in Scotland. I read about it. You just gotta be careful down here … those greys, man …‘
‘Yeah. My dad calls them tree rats. He had this air rifle when I was a kid and he’d try to shoot them in the garden. Mum would go nuts.’
I grinned as the record finished. In the silence I thought of my mum passed out in front of a shopping channel, those few peaceful hours of kitchen gizmos and sequinned blouses. Then the inevitable traipse to the off license, cans of super-strength lager in her shaking hands as she waited in the queue. I closed my mouth. I hadn’t called for weeks. I felt speaking to her was a kind of bad luck – that her pain somehow got etched on my face through those calls, making it bloated and grey, and that’s why I hadn’t got any modelling jobs. I looked at Owen leaning against the headboard, his face tilted at the low ceiling.
I moved onto my knees but kept my distance.
‘Yep. Just tired.’
I was getting a dead leg. I rubbed it while thinking of something to say.
‘In Dublin, are there really wild horses running around the estates?’
Owen propped himself up against the headboard.
‘They’re not wild … People just think they are, cos that’s what they think of the people living on the estates.’
He coughed. It was phlegmy, hacking.
‘Sorry, I didn’t think …’
‘Not you, silly … They’re well looked after. My mate Niall had two. He was a better jockey than any you see on TV. Real handsome lad too … Clare Balding would worship him.’
‘Does Niall still ride?’
‘I haven’t seen him in years.’
He tilted his face back towards the ceiling. We stayed on the bed for a while, listening to the record’s runout groove, asking each other questions about our favourite songs. I lay down next to him as night blurred into something cold and pale hovering over our bodies. We heard laughter in the hall. The angry shaggers were friends again. I groaned.
‘I’m dreading going back to my room.’
Owen turned to face me. Silvery black stubble glinted on his chin.
‘Stay here then. You warm enough? You can wear my hoodie.’
He shuffled back to his side then shortly returned with it. He’d retrieved it from the floor.
‘Go on, put it on.’
It swamped me in his smell mixed with tobacco. I cradled my chest and kept my eyes on the long crack in the ceiling, tracing its journey from one wall to the other. I edged closer to him, letting my hair cover half of my face. He turned and stared at the half that was visible. I flinched, barely. I wondered what he saw and closed my eyes.
‘Put Dance Mania on again.’
He asked about the ashy circles I had for knees but I couldn’t remember falling over. He joked that they looked like records. Then he jumped off the bed, walked over to the record player. I flopped my head sideways, focused on a heap of clothes.
For a second I assumed the crash was a red squirrel. That things I wanted could happen sometimes. I looked up at the missing window pane, then over to where Owen was holding up a shelf of snow globes that had collapsed at one end. They’d all fallen down except for one – small and egg-shaped with an obscure landmark inside that had come loose from its plastic base as if rocked by a tsunami we hadn’t seen. I blinked at it, but couldn’t tell what or where it was supposed to be.