Author: Philip Ellis PM
Life and love in a tiny flat above an East End takeaway.Rated: Fiction T - English - Humor - Words: 2,077 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 04-22-07 - Status: Complete - id: 2351172
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Sirens in the distance. She's used to the sound by now – she's also used to the smell of kung po, of dim sum, of chop suey, and the sound of angry oriental man that permeates the floorboards of her tiny flat and seeps up from the takeaway below. "London," she says to herself. "Innit grand."
A short while later, when she's finally managed to tune out the din of the takeaway downstairs, she lies down and tries to sleep. And her phone rings.
"Hi," a shaky voice, "it's me."
Oh, great. Fanbloodytastic. She wonders what desperate crisis her best friend is in at the moment. Maybe she broke a nail, or fell over.
"What's wrong?" She must have sounded more impatient than she'd meant to, because her friend's response is haughty and short.
"Never mind, this is obviously a bad time." Before she can respond, the line is dead. Shrugging to nobody but herself, she opens the window and lights a cigarette. Her throat is dry and the smoke just makes it worse, but she can't be bothered to put the kettle on, and she doesn't quite trust the cleanliness of the water that comes right out of the tap.
There's a knock on the door and even before she answers it she knows who it will be; her ex-boyfriend. And as predicted, he is drunk.
"'Ello darlin'!" Shaun gives her what he must think is his most charming face, which in reality just makes him look like he should be on some sort of register. She lets him in without saying anything, foreseeing the bollocking she will get tomorrow from her landlord, Mr Tong – he's already spoken to her about having drunks hanging around the premises.
"It no good for business, missy," he usually says. She's often thought about saying that using illegal immigrants as a workforce isn't sound business practice either, but she likes having a roof over her head.
"Had a good night?" She asks, helping the man she once said she loved over to the one armchair in the room. There's no way she's letting him near the bed – he'll either get ideas or just plain piss himself.
"'Ey, gorgeous…" He looks up at her and leers. "Reckon you can scav me up some chinky?"
"I'm not nicking food for you," she tells him. "What are you even doing here? You do remember me dumping you?"
He tears up a bit, then farts.
"Yeah, I remember. But I love you, man! Can't you take me back? We had fun, didn't we?"
"Yes, we had fun. But we weren't going anywhere!"
He looks confused. She sighs and sits down on the bed. How can she explain it to him when she's not even sure how to explain it to herself? She just can't shake the nagging feeling that something better is around the corner, and she's wasting her time on blokes like this.
"Shaun, I really enjoyed our time together…" She winces at the clichés coming out of her mouth. She's never really done the dumping bit before. Well, she obviously tried it with Shaun, but this time it needs to take.
"It's alright, I know…" He rests his head on the back of the armchair and closes his eyes. "You're a les."
She's so taken aback by this that she doesn't say anything for a minute, just stares at him in shock. When he starts to snore quietly, she crosses the room (in one step) and shakes him.
"I am not a lesbian, Shaun; I just got tired of you and your bloody quest to destroy your liver. We all like a night out, we all drink a bit too much, but you just take the piss! In more ways than one." She drags him out of his seat and gestures at the door. He stares at her, confused, then grunts and leaves. She watches him go, knowing now that it will always be pointless to try and convince him that there's more to life than fags, shags and kebabs.
She thinks about her sister's life; a comfortable everyday pattern of taking little Winona to playgroup, picking up her benefits, maybe popping into town for a bit of light shoplifting… She finds aspects of it appalling, but for the most part she is envious. Her sister's man is a dolt who likes the wacky baccy a bit too much, but they love each other to pieces. Their daughter is going to grow up extremely badly, but their hearts are in the right place. They know exactly what they want, and they know who they are. Lately, she's been having a lot of trouble in that area.
There's another knock at the door, and without thinking she calls out;
"Fuck off, Shaun."
She hears a muffled 'oh…' and cussing herself rushes to the door. It's Pete.
"You're not Shaun," she says by way of explanation. He looks down at himself.
"No, it appears that I'm not."
She feels embarrassed, so invites him in. Pete's been her sort-of friend for ages – they were at school together and tended to bounce off each other because neither of them had many friends. They did lose touch, but since coming to the East End she's ran into him a handful of times – at parties, in bars. He's changed a fair bit; still quite awkward, but more of a man at the same time. She offers him a cup of tea, he politely declines. She gestures to the armchair, and he sits down. It doesn't once occur to her to ask him why he's here. They sit chatting for a few minutes, catching up, but then conversation dries up quickly. She's always hated silences of any kind, so takes a stab in the dark.
"Seen any good films lately?"
"I'm not a huge fan of modern stuff; it all seems to be special effects and overpaid, untalented movie stars. I love old Hollywood; Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind…"
Gone With The Wind? Even she's not enough of a girl to admit to liking that movie.
"I went to this old cinema a while ago," she says, "the Commodore, I think it was called, and you could take in a drink and a fag. How cool is that?"
"You know, very soon you won't be allowed to smoke in loads of places like that." She looks at him and wants to deck him.
"I'm aware of that," she says, lighting a Berkeley menthol. "Contrary to what you might believe, I'm not retarded."
"Could have fooled me on New Year's Eve," he winks. "That was quite a show."
"Oh, eff off," she says, not quite meaning it. "I had gin that night; you know what it does to people. Bloody lethal stuff, it is – they should ban that, not fags."
"I agree about the gin... Although I personally think that smoking is a particularly vile habit as well." He eyes her Berkeley with distaste.
"This is menthol," she says defensively. "They're good for you."
He nods in his silent 'agree to disagree' manner that used to infuriate her so much, but now makes him look sort of endearing. He's the kind of guy that your mother would love; nicely dressed, clever, insanely polite. Well okay, her mother would hate his niceness. And his bottomless reservoir of pointless "don't you know" titbits.
"In Austria," he says, right on cue, "these kinds of places aren't called bedsits. They're 'flatettes'."
"Really?" She feigns interest, if only to make up for the fact that she has usually told him to shut up by now. He nods, and is about to elaborate when they're interrupted by some rather overenthusiastic noises coming from the room next door.
"My neighbour's a prostitute," she deadpans. He looks at her in wide-eyed astonishment and she's unable to keep a straight face.
"I'm kidding! She's just a bit loose, that's all."
"Oh, okay. That's not quite as bad, I suppose."
They smile at each other and then it's quiet again.
"I suppose I'd best be going," he says, and stands up. "It's been great seeing you again though."
"You too, Pete." She hugs him half-heartedly and opens the door. He's in the hallway with his back to her when she blurts out;
"I like old films too." He turns back around. She carries on – "Dracula and Frankenstein, good old fashioned horror."
"They're highly inaccurate when you compare them to the original novels."
She secretly agrees, having read both texts at school. But she'll be damned if she'll admit it.
"I wouldn't know," she nudges him with a smile. "I'm not a geek."
"Neither am I," he says, knowing full well that he is. She pulls him back inside and kisses him. "Well alright," he grins, "maybe I am a bit."
"Oh shut up," she tells him for the final time.
Later, when they are both lying, panting, staring at the ceiling, she resists the urge to reach for a cigarette. Post-coital or not, she thinks now would be a brilliant time to try and give up. And there's something else on her mind:
"Just so that you know…" She continues to stare straight up at the rotting plaster tiles. "You're not cleverer than me."
"I never said that I was."
"But you've always thought it. If you and me are going to sleep together on a semi-regular basis, I want you to know that you have to stop talking down to me like I'm some kind of remedial plebe."
"And they said romance was dead…"
His attitude, as always, infuriates her. The room is quiet after that. They can hear Mr Tong barking orders downstairs, securing his reign of terror over his (immigrant) underlings with vehement requests that the spring rolls be crispier, the curry spicier, the sweet and sour sweeter… And then they turn to each other in bed and she runs her hand lightly down his arm. He smiles, leans forward to kiss her on the forehead and asks;
"Fancy a Chinese?"
"God, no – this place always reeks of the stuff."
"What'd you like then?"
She ponders this for a second, then her face lights up. She turns to him and says with delight;
"Fish and chips!"
He gets out of bed and pulls on some clothes.
"Anything my lady desires. Salt and vinegar?"
He grins and kisses her one last time before leaving. She sits up in bed, reaches across the tiny room to close the window, and the room is quieter. She briefly wonders if the sound of their lovemaking travelled to the kitchen downstairs, then decides that she doesn't care.
Tonight has been strange. She makes a mental note to call her sister in the morning, and maybe offer to look after Winona for a while. Give sis and the dolt some quality time together. Maybe after that she'll even try and find a better place to live. As bedsits go this is fine, but she'd rather live in a room where you can't touch both walls with your arms spread out. She fills the kettle with that questionable water and flicks it on – nothing washes down chippie like a good brew – and throws herself down across the armchair to wait, wearing just her undies.
Sirens in the distance. She's used to the sound by now – she's also used to the sound of a knock at midnight, of constant phone calls, of drunken slurring and angry muffled yelling. She wonders if she should get used to the sound of Pete's low voice; his nervous laugh, the breathy noise he makes when she bites his earlobe. She's enough of a grown up to know that nothing stays shiny and new for long (especially not in her room), but she can't help but think that this old friend and his offer of a takeaway might be just what she's been waiting for.