Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The House Mate’ by Nina Manning.
The House Mate
I piled four coins on top of one another on the mantlepiece in my bedroom, turning each one a fraction so the tiny indentations on the side of each coin were in perfect alignment. Then I took two steps to the left and turned my attention to the locks on the window. I pulled each latch back and forth six times until it was back on lock again. I headed to the bedroom door, let myself out and shut it behind me. Once on the other side, I locked and unlocked the bedroom door six times, then I left it locked and put the key in my back pocket. I walked down the stairs, silently counting each step as I descended. An even ten every time. I arrived in the hallway and stole a brief look at myself in the oval mirror on the wall.
Once upon a time I would have relished showing off my taut cheekbones, delighted in the looks of intrigue people would give when they saw the greenness of my eyes against my pale skin and thank the hairdressers who would reliably inform me my shoulder-length black hair was the sleekest they had ever styled. I used to take time over my appearance, but these days I simply slipped my purple fabric tie-dye scarf around my neck and pulled on my boho slouch hat with a peak so I could shade my eyes and hide my face from the world. I pulled on my denim jacket over my slight frame, aware that I no longer worried about dieting; any excess weight had fallen off years ago and had made no attempt to creep back on.
I slid into my black Doc Martens and hit the concrete outside. I refrained from opening and reopening the front door due to the imposition on my house mates, even though it pained me not to do so; instead I closed it with one click. The act brought little satisfaction. So I compensated by walking only inside the lines of the pavement stones for a gratifying ten steps.
Today was one of my worst days. Usually I could get away with performing only one or two compulsions, but today I carried out my full repertoire of compulsions to ease the fear. To balance out the scales so nothing bad would happen.
These compulsions, behaviours, are a force that come on quickly and sometimes from nowhere. It’s a monster I must feed. I don’t consider myself ill. It doesn’t bring any inconvenience to my life. So long as I can just do some or all these small acts each day, everything will be okay. Nothing bad will happen. At least not again.
This morning I had woken with a weight on my chest I couldn’t shift. Today was the anniversary. Three years had passed. Yet still here I was, a mere shell of the woman I once was.
I looked back at the five-bed, three-storey Victorian house I had been living in with three strangers for the last few weeks and looked up at a cloudless blue sky and the tall imposing buildings that cocooned me, protected me. People say they are drawn to the ocean to heal; the gentle lap of the waves are melodic and can repair your soul. But moving to a town like Richmond was the only option. Here, there were no spaces wide enough to expose my true fears. When I heard the roar of an ocean wave, I would always hear the screams carried by the wind. Here, all I needed to do was close my eyes and remind myself that I was safe and that everything was going to be okay.
The sounds of the streets can be imposing; sometimes I feel as though they are about to crush my skull. I have learned how to block things out. I choose to focus on one sound at a time, and hear only that until it is no more, then my mind weaves itself around another sound, and so it continues until I reach my destination. Of course blocking out everything but one sound can often be mistaken for rudeness, nonchalant. Snidey even.
But sometimes you have no choice. When you have been screamed at enough times, are forced to hear it, that’s when it’s the hardest; when I am reminded of the past.
Some sounds are supposed to be so beautiful, like the gentle tone of a child’s voice, innocent and pure. Yet they can fill my every fibre with terror.
Walking is a sort of therapy. ‘Anxiety struggles to hit a moving object,’ I was told during one of my Steps2Wellbeing seminars; just one of the forms of therapy I have had over the years so I can carry on existing in the world. But is it worth it when it’s only yourself you have to keep alive? We aren’t meant to be solitary creatures despite my desire to keep hiding away from the world, and the person I can no longer bring myself to think about.
I now share a house with three other girls, all students like me, but over a decade younger. I have to do as much as I can each day to keep face; to show my house mates that all is well in the mind of Regina Kelly. Referring to myself as a student feels strange. It’s been a long time since I last studied. This short introductory course will see me through to the end of the summer term, then I begin my degree in September.
I know my house mates watch me, that they see me repeat basic actions. A simple chore becomes a maddening act, repeated over and over until my mind is temporarily satisfied. But they stay quiet. Offer me a cup of tea as though everything is exactly as it should be and there isn’t a thirty-five-year-old woman standing in our shared kitchen turning the oven knob on and off an even amount of times.
I am thankful for their ignorance, for turning a blind eye, especially on the harder days when the images fly through my mind like a freight train and I feel the impenetrable dark clouds gather around me, as though I’m walking through a black fog.
I had developed a routine already in just a few weeks since I moved to Richmond upon Thames and had quickly embraced the leafy borough with its parks and wide tree-lined avenues. I was so confined for so long, it was a relief to be able to walk to the local mews.
I entered the café and was hit by tantalising caramel and nutty aromas. Each day there was a slightly different scent in the air but always the same member of staff was waiting for me and that made me feel as though the world wasn’t about to implode. The door made a loud sucking noise as it opened.
My eyes scanned the room. It was busier than usual. I tried to spot Heather, the confident young girl who had been serving me the last few weeks, when someone pushed past me quite abruptly.
I froze. Terror spiked through me.
In the time I had been away I had forgotten that I had to share walkways with others, that the small spaces I inhabited were not for my sole purpose only. When I realised I was safe and no one was trying to grab me, I looked up and saw a young man with a beard and a black Puffa jacket, holding a huge camera over his arm. I caught his eye, then quickly looked away.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. I knew he wanted to touch me, to emphasise his apology, but thankfully his hands were full; my arm still buzzed from the collision. I forced my gaze upon my destination and hurried towards the counter.
Finally, I could see Heather and my tense body slackened momentarily. Another piece of the day’s jigsaw slotted into place. Heather smiled at me, but it was tainted with stress.
‘It’s busy in here today,’ I said in her direction, hoping but knowing she would serve me. She nodded at me with wide eyes as she pulled cardboard disposable cups from a sheath of plastic wrapping.
‘Can I help?’ A barista I had never seen before spoke at me in a monotone voice, and I quickly averted my eyes towards Heather.
‘I’ve got it, Tom,’ Heather called and winked at me as she finished wrestling with the cups and headed over to the counter. Tom shrugged and headed out onto the café floor and started clearing tables.
‘They’ve been shooting a TV commercial out there this morning. They were here at five! They just stopped for a tea break, hence the chaos. And the mess,’ Heather said as she pointed out towards the café floor.
I glanced backwards, but the disarray made me quickly turn away and think happier, cleaner thoughts.
‘Usual?’ she asked, heading to the coffee machine. She began making my preferred coffee; one and a half shots of decaf coffee, half oat milk, half soya heated to just before boiling with a shot of caramel. I smiled as I felt a flutter of satisfaction that I had already earned my status as a regular.
As Heather worked on my coffee, I glanced back over my shoulder out into the mews through the window. The low-hanging trees were aesthetically pleasing and framed the quadrangle like a picture, dappling the concrete with light and making it the perfect location for shooting scenes. There were cosy, well-presented shops, two cafés and a deli where rich middle-class families hung out with other rich middle-class families at the weekend, all tending to their rainbow-colour-cladded toddlers and young children in Boden boots. At the weekends I would have to jerk my legs aside as I heard the sound of a scooting child arriving precariously close to my shins followed by low, unthreatening calls of ‘Jet!’ or ‘Milo!’ from a full-bearded father, wearing his baby in front of him like this year’s latest accessory. I’d never purposefully avoid the mews on the weekend, but I found it a lot harder when there were more children around. Today was a Thursday and it was pretty quiet, although I didn’t need to be in a heavily populated area to hear the lingering echoes of children playing. It had been playing on loop in my mind for three years.
Heather presented me with my coffee in a takeaway cup. I paid and thanked her and headed to the door just as the TV crew and cast were beginning to spill back out into the mews. I pulled my cap down over my eyes and walked outside. In the street, the mews was buzzing with bodies. Some of the pavement had been cordoned off, and people were flocking to grab a glimpse of what they were shooting today.
I jolted aside as a young lad on a scooter sped past me. The wheel of his scooter clipped my heel. Suddenly my heart was drumming against my chest. I breathed in for three and out for six; just a short, sharp reset as my therapist had taught me, as I leant into the wall, hoping I could morph into it and that no one could see how small, seemingly inconsequential incidents could throw me off track.
I pushed myself off the wall and went to walk on, but, from the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a dark jacket and a black baseball cap partially covering a face I thought I recognised. There was a shift in the atmosphere around me, like a surge of an electric current that was urging me to run. I felt my blood run cold and my hands became clammy. The short, breathless episode a moment ago was a mere prelude to the terror that began to tear through my body.
I began to walk at a pace. Three smartly dressed women blocked my way on the corner, their synchronised laughs sounded demonic in my ear as I skimmed past them. Their words morphed into the words I had heard him say so often: you can’t run away.
I looked across the road again, but the man was nowhere to be seen. His words were evaporating and becoming the breeze around me once more.
I slipped into the grocery shop where I could take a moment to breathe and shake the image of the man out of my head. It couldn’t have been him. I was safe here.
I slowly sipped my coffee whilst I perused the neatly stacked aisles. A jar of pickles was slightly out of line so I nudged it back in with its suitors; the order restored a small amount of calm within me.
I found my way to the next lane; non-perishables, toilet rolls, sanitary products and the likes. I was just nudging some wet wipes back in line on the shelf when the sound of a raspy, raised voice alerted my attention to the till. I walked to the end of the aisle and saw a woman dressed in a dark overcoat, with her back to me.
‘You don’t understand – I will return later, but I need this now.’
‘I’m sorry. If I did this for you, then I would have to do it for all my customers. Please come back later when you have enough money.’ The cashier, a man in his twenties with a disproportionately long neck, was leaning forward and speaking quietly to the woman.
I edged my way closer to the till, my hand already in my pocket, ready to be of assistance. I moved closer still so that I was right behind the woman, her clipped Eastern European accent was punctuating through the cashier’s protests.
‘I’m really sorry.’ The cashier said again. I was so close behind the woman I could smell her perfume, it smelt like Parma violets. Tufts of peroxide-blonde hair were poking from under her black bobble hat.
The cashier’s eyes met mine. The woman, who sensed his attention, wavered and turned abruptly. Her green eyes bore into me, urgent and accusing. She scowled, then turned and headed for the door, rushing through it and back out into the street.
I approached the counter and saw what she had been trying to buy. It was a bottle of liquid paracetamol, the stuff you usually bought for kids. Just looking at it brought back a tsunami of memories of little hot heads and feverish nightmares, small bodies tossing and turning between the covers in the dead of night. Bodies that no longer existed in my world, yet I would never be free of their memories.
I shook the images from my head and looked at the cashier.
As I stepped out of the shop, I scanned the area, desperately trying to see the woman. I spotted her, her head hunched, hands in her pockets, heading away from the mews. I increased my pace to a light jog, weaving in and out of people who seemed to be coming at me in waves, until I was next to her.
‘Excuse me,’ I said as I arrived at her side.
She jumped as though I had given her an electric shock, then she turned to me with that same scowl. I handed her the bottle of paracetamol.
‘Please, take it – it’s on me.’
She went to walk away and I touched her arm, instantly regretting the sort of action that would make me recoil. She stopped in her tracks. I edged my way back to her side and pushed the paracetamol bottle into the large pocket of her coat. She watched me, briefly looked up at my face, mumbled something in her native language and hurried on down the street. I stood amongst the sea of people and watched her as she disappeared around the corner.
* * *
I didn’t stop thinking about the woman all the way home. I played the scenario over in my mind. I imagined the child or children who were waiting for the medicine, what their ages were and if they were boys or girls. I had wanted to follow her to see where she lived, to see why a woman who was shopping in an affluent area couldn’t afford a bottle of paracetamol. The walk that was supposed to alleviate my racing mind had achieved the opposite. I counted the lamp posts on the way home to calm my cluttered thoughts, tightening my grip on my shoulder bag until I reached the steps that lead up to the house that I was just coming round to the idea of calling home.
I had become accustomed to a solitary existence, so being greeted when I arrived home was a real novelty. Yet again I was surprised that one of my three house mates was just reaching the bottom of the stairs as I came through the front door.
‘Oh, hey,’ Mini said as I closed the door behind me and began to unwind the scarf from around my neck. She eyed me in that way I was becoming familiar with. Being assessed was not unusual to me and Mini always looked slightly alarmed by my presence, as though she wasn’t entirely sure what to do with me. I imagined she thought I was always on the edge and might do something crazy at any moment, my strange routines adding an almost nervousness to the house. Mini, as her name suggested, was the youngest house member at just twenty. At fifteen years her senior, I had yet to shake the notion that she saw me as a slightly crazy distant auntie or cousin rather than a house mate she could confide in.
I took my cap off and hung it on the coat stand by the front door. Ignoring the mirror, which in the past would have encouraged me to check my hair for post-hat frizz.
‘I was just going to get some lunch.’ Mini began walking into the kitchen.
‘Okay.’ I followed her because I constantly felt the need to compensate for my inability to be that house mate; the one who sat up until dawn, chatting and giggling, offering to paint nails, plait hair and listen to endless stories of near misses with ‘the one’.
I tried to ignore the chaos of the kitchen and sat down at the huge table that could seat at least eight. I was still getting used to eating with others again after spending so much time taking my meals alone.
I was still struggling with the size and openness of the house: five bedrooms, a huge kitchen, two reception rooms and three bathrooms between four of us.
One lonely room had cocooned me for the last year where sounds would arrive uninvited, an echo of an infant yelping or screaming, but always, I heard the cries. They say you never stop hearing them. I was forever alert; ready to run to the slightest whimper.
Even in a house this size, there was nowhere I could hide that would drown out the sounds that ran through my mind on a loop.
Mini’s uncle owned the property and let it out for a price that would choke a Yorkshire man, but made London renters nod with enthusiasm whilst daring to utter the word bargain. I looked around at the kitchen with its large surfaces and random scattered items: bleach, washing-up liquid and an array of utensils were out on the surface next to the sink, which was deep, white ceramic and stained with tea. The Aga was greasy and a pan left over from breakfast was still perched on top of the insulating lid; the fat congealed to a sticky, yellow mass. The huge wooden kitchen table had a general tacky feel to it that didn’t seem to lift no matter how many times it was wiped.
Up until now I had managed to not let the mess get to me, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I could leave it. The lack of order in here brought everything to the surface. Even now in the kitchen with Mini, I began to look around for something I could open and shut an even amount of times to satisfy the monster who I knew would not rest.
Perhaps if I offered to clean the kitchen? I imagined this as a way I could bring a little bit of me to the house; up until now I hadn’t felt confident enough to take the initiative and show the girls some level of basic domesticity. I had little else to offer in the way of sparkly wit or entertaining anecdotes about my day. I looked around and thought perhaps I could assert my role as the older and wiser house mate and draw up a cleaning rota. Perhaps I would be the one who would instil some basic home skills into these girls, something they would look back upon in later life, remember me and be thankful for.
Mini pulled open the fridge, and I caught a glimpse of the salad tray with its dying leaves stuck to the clear shelf and a mass of jars that had left rings that could be seen through the glass underneath. I averted my eyes; I didn’t need to see it to know it was there. In the last few years, cleaning had become a compulsion; something I needed to do and do well. Looking around, I felt something new growing inside me: an uncontrollable need to cleanse the house from top to bottom.
Mini opened a tub of prawns in Marie Rose sauce and emptied the contents over half an avocado. She left the remnants on the side and sat down opposite me on the kitchen table, giving me one of her half-smiles, showing off her perfectly pinched pink cheeks and petite lips. I could see why her parents named her Mini; with her sleek black hair, she was like a perfect china doll.
‘How are you finding it all, are you feeling settled?’ she asked before she took a mouthful of her salad. A little sauce spilled from her lips and she emitted a squeak like a small animal, then dabbed her mouth with a piece of kitchen roll.
Settled. I pondered over the word, which had so many connotations. I didn’t think I would ever feel settled, in fact, I was forever teetering on the edge of uncertainty. But I imagined Mini was curious to know if the bed was comfy enough and had I found enough bathroom space to keep my toiletries.
‘I am now, yes. You know what it’s like, it takes a while.’
‘And your course? Textiles, isn’t it? Has it started yet?’ Mini reached over and edged yesterday’s newspaper closer to her; it was open on the crossword where someone had abandoned it halfway through.
‘Erm, yes. Next week, after the Easter holidays,’ I said, trying to sound keen, but I felt burdened with guilt at being able to start again, learning a new skill, which I hardly felt I deserved. But I needed the distraction. I also needed something to spend my money on. The money that was fairly mine. An even split down the middle. It was what I was entitled to, so I took it. There hadn’t and wouldn’t be any lavish expenditures, I would simply exist with it. I had reached a point where I was functioning, and that was all I needed to do.
I watched in awe as Mini rapidly filled in the blank spaces of the crossword with only a moment’s pause after reading each clue.
‘Have you always loved art?’ she asked.
I thought back to my late teens, when most girls my age were out experiencing everything they could. By the time I was twenty, I had already become a mother.
I reached for a stray paper napkin and folded it over six times until it was a neat, tight square wad.
‘I loved design at school,’ I said, pressing the napkin square down until my finger turned a deep shade of pink.
I noticed Mini staring at my finger and I quickly pushed the napkin away. I knew she saw what most did; a woman with a bunch of obsessive compulsions.
What she didn’t know was what I did to become her.
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