Jenn Ashworth

My New House Hates Me

(Dedicated to Rob Jones – This story was written for Rob Jones, who bought it as part of the Essentials For Life Project. He paid with instant pancake mix and a mug with a map of the world on it. The project is still going: you can order your story here.)

Moving house is not a situation, but an event. It is unpleasant most of the time, but once the keys have been collected and the boxes unloaded from the van, it is over. It is not something that persists. You don’t move house for weeks or years or months on end. Even if you move house a lot, you move one day, then it’s over. You’ve moved. The rest is opening boxes and connecting electricity, which might be unpleasant too, but it is something different. It is not moving house.

So moving house is not like having the flu, or cancer. It is not like having an affair or being married to a man who hits you. Or doesn’t hit you (which in some ways would be better) but doesn’t look at you that much either. Those are situations, not events. They don’t have start dates, deadlines, or resolutions. They have duration, and once the time for them to endure has passed, you can never be sure if you’re actually out of it, or just in remission.

Once the boxes are unpacked, the screwed up newspaper smoothed and stacked for recycling, the books shelved and the flat-pack furniture assembled, Gemma walks through the new house looking for places to hide her secret things.

She knows tucking the flesh-coloured tube of a dildo behind the spare rolls of toilet paper is unnecessary. She could leave it on the dish drainer, shiny and innocent between plates and spoons. She could tuck it into the salad drawer. Or go crazy, abandon all hopes of getting her damage deposit back, and screw it into the wall at waist-height. It could be a coat-hook, a mug-stand, an exhibit in a glass case. She puts it with the toilet rolls anyway.

Her other secret things are predictable – even clichéd. She knows that. Some six year old love letters, a few dog-eared diaries with brass coloured metal clasps, a tube of K Y Jelly, sanitary towels, three Black Lace novels and a slim photograph album with gold and burgundy embossed covers.

It doesn’t take long. She is only, she acknowledges with a cold bolt of panic, hiding these things from herself. The house breathes indifferently around her. She thinks of herself tucked between its wood-chipped walls and sighs. The last tenants have left no traces of themselves. No forgotten tea-spoons, broken garden tools or kitchen appliances. No mug-rings on the counter tops, no footprints in talc on the bathroom floor. They have been good tenants. They did not screw flesh coloured dildos into the wall at waist height. They will have, she assumes, got all their damage deposit back. It is as if the mortar itself had inhaled the very memory of them and swallowed it.

 Her empty cardboard boxes are stacked in the living room and the hallway. They say things like ‘crisps’ and ‘bread’ and ‘apples’ on the outside in different coloured letters. She reads the writing every time she walks past them until, after a few hours, she is irritable with their noise.

I could leave all these empty cardboard boxes just where they are. I could use them like bricks and build an envelope coloured igloo inside this house. I could disconnect the gas and electricity and warm tins of beans over a candle. I could sleep in my clothes on the floor and leave my dirty knickers on the landing.

Gemma pushes these thoughts away, looks at the clock and gives herself twenty minutes. I can do anything for twenty minutes, she thinks, and takes a Stanley knife to the tape on the first box.

 Later, she places three scatter cushions on her sofa. The curtains are open; it is dark outside and the window has diminished to a black rectangle, a mirror which reflects her jabbing elbows and startles her. The sofa is facing the window and she sits on it and looks at herself. It is disconcerting. It is like watching television. She grimaces, and rubs the scale from her teeth onto the ribbed cuff of her cardigan.

Two of the scatter cushions are green: a waving, swirling green that reminded her of the sea on the day she bought them. The other is checked: black and white. She gets up and rearranges them: the checked one should not sit in the middle like that. She doesn’t approve of symmetrical things, of paired objects. She likes things to be uneven, to jar against the eye and draw attention. So the sloping floors and bowed walls of this terrace on the hill please her. Her kitchen table will always rock slightly. The doors of her bookcase drift open in response to traffic on the stairs.

She catches sight of herself in the window again, rearranging the cushions, plumping them gently against her chest like fat, windy babies. She wonders if she was talking to herself. Or if she should start. She tries her voice in the unfamiliarly scented air. Hello? It is a question. She smiles suddenly at the doorway. It might look, she decides, if someone outside was walking past and happened to look in at her standing alone under the brightness of the bare bulb, it might look like she was preparing for a guest.

She isn’t talking to a guest. Her mother advised her to get a kitten or a puppy, but for now it is just her and so she decides she was talking to the house. That makes more sense, is friendly and eccentric and not mad like talking to imaginary guests with arms full of polyester babies is mad. She says, ‘hello house, tentatively. The magnolia walls and scuffed carpets absorb her voice and remain stonily unmoved. She doesn’t dare cough.

At work, Gemma takes the trip upwards in the staff lift to the administration offices. She stands in front of someone’s desk and waits patiently for a telephone conversation to finish.

‘I’ve moved,’ she says. She holds her breath, listening for the voice of the house to chime in and mock her. Nothing but the pecking of key-boards and the radioactive hum of the computers.

‘You want us to update your personnel records then?’ The woman says, as if Gemma has done something wrong. Gemma has had to pack, and load, and unload, and carry, and lift, and unpack, and dust, and hide her secret things, and flatten seventeen boxes with writing on the side. I have done all those things without taking one day off work, she wants to say, and now you need to type my new address into the field in my staff record so my wage slips will reach me at my new address. You are paid for this extra work, Gemma wants to say. She bites the inside of her bottom lip and sways. The collar of her green work blazer rasps against her neck. I was not paid for moving house. There was no financial remuneration. There was no remuneration. I did not take time in lieu.

Her minds snags on that last phrase and rebounds, slipping over the sheer surface of her panic. Time in lieu. Instead of. I have taken two years and four months instead of something else. I have lost time. I have not been remunerated. My new house hates me.

‘Take a seat then, love – there’s a form, isn’t there always? Let me get you a pen.’

Gemma writes her address and telephone number and her new emergency contact details inside the boxes on the piece of paper. She prints the words clearly, struggling to shirk her naturally sprawling handwriting so she won’t overflow the dotted lines. She gives the piece of paper to the administrator, who looks it over and immediately begins to type the information into her computer.

‘Is that near the train station?’ she says, nodding at the screen as if Gemma can see what is typed there.

Gemma nods back, remembering the new sound of trains rattling the windows, jolting the open sash closed with a bang like a shotgun. She dreamed of amputations last night.

‘Handy for the shops, the nightlife?’

Gemma nods again, thinking of the drift of burger boxes and chip wrappers that collect around her doorstep. She suddenly wants to tell the woman about the kebab wrapper that blew through her door and right into the hallway that first morning. It brushed against her shoes smelling of onion and mayonnaise and when she picked it up the transparent grease stains made a picture of a foetus, curled around its own blind unblinking eye.

There was nothing stopping her from keeping it. Pinning it to her bathroom wall. No-one to complain about hygiene. As she picked it up the wind caught the door and slammed it shut. The sash windows groaned. Gemma shoved it out again through the letter box, staring apologetically at the tiles over the kitchen sink as she washed her hands.

I have offended my new house, she thought.

The admin woman looks at Gemma kindly. Gemma smiles back until she realises it is time for her to take the lift back downstairs.

One morning a hand written envelope appears through the mouth of the letter box. The envelope is thick and creamy coloured and she doesn’t recognise the handwriting. She feels excited, and postpones opening the letter until after she has eaten her breakfast. She has learned already that living alone saves time. The half hour after she finished washing her cereal bowl and before she needs to start the walk to work had become problematic. She’d been thinking about a television, wondering about the primary coloured tinkle of CBBC. This morning, the letter would do.

It is a card with a picture of a bumble bee on the front of it. The bee is smiling at her. One of its eyes is closed. The bee is winking at her. Gemma stares until a folded piece of paper falls from the card and drifts to the carpet. She picks it up. It is a page torn from a magazine. It is an article about stress. It is an article about the top twenty most stressful events in life. It is an article about how to deal with stressful events in life. There is a list of stressful events. The card says wishing you well in your new home and saw this and thought of you and love Dora. Gemma doesn’t know anyone called Dora. Gemma stares at the winking bee. Gemma remembers the administrator. She was called Dora. She might have been called Dora. Gemma puts the card on her kitchen table and sits to read the magazine article. Gemma washes her tea-cup and goes to work.

Gemma’s main task at work is to walk around the second floor of the museum and make herself available to the patrons. She gives directions to the toilets and baby changing facilities. She recommends the café and gift-shop. She tries to encourage people to buy programmes. She herds children behind their teachers on the school tour days. She picks up discarded leaflets and brochures, throwing away the crumpled ones and slotting the neat ones back into the correct Perspex slot. She asks people, when necessary, to please refrain from touching the exhibits.

She always asks like that: uses that particular phrase. They all do. Can we ask you to please refrain from touching the exhibits? And a smile, not the megawatt smile of the air-hostess, but the self-effacing, apologetic smile of the public servant. The ‘we’ is a nice touch too, she always thinks – deliberately chosen. Her supervisor had explained it to her on the first day.

‘They’re not here to look at us. Keep the jewellery to a minimum. Some of the girls wear lipstick: I don’t recommend it though there’s no policy on it. Think neutral. Think professional. You’re not the exhibit, no-one’s meant to be looking at you. At any of us. Think about it. We’re invisible. And if you ever need to talk to them directly, make sure your blazer is buttoned and always say ‘we’ – like the queen. You’re not Gemma while you’re working here, you’re one of the floor staff. You’re a customer service operative. You’re a floorwalker. It’s about uniformity of service. They don’t want personal. Get some different shoes. Soft soles, nothing that creaks,’ he’d said – or something like it.

He hadn’t used the words to describe it to her, he probably wouldn’t have even thought of them, but Gemma imagined herself as one green, silent footed cell in the organism of the museum. When she said ‘we’ (can ‘we’ ask you to take that ice-cream into the café and gift-shop area, please?) she referred as much to the wooden floors, the pinned butterflies and the Vivian Westwood platforms, as she did to herself and her colleges; the collective, ghostly entity of The Whole Floor Walking Team.

There was talk of them getting radios. Something as small as a matchbox, with a discreet plug into the ear. They were going to put it to a vote. Sometime in the coming months. After the busy season. She rubs a finger mark from a glass case of Victorian perfume bottles and thinks of herself withdrawing into a vestibule and whispering into her collar. She worried. Radios were radioactive, weren’t they? A person shouldn’t have to concern themselves with malignant multiplication while they were serving the public, should they? Cancer was one of the top five on Dora’s list.  

The magazine article stays on the kitchen table and Gemma reads it every morning over breakfast and every evening over tea. The body isn’t capable of feeling stress for extended periods of time. There is something called habituation. All things pass. Things either improve, or you get used to them. Either way, even the top five most stressful events eventually become commonplace. Events are not situations. The average is three weeks.

‘In three weeks time I will be feeling better,’ she says to the house cautiously, and makes a mental note of the date. She treats herself like a convalescent, allowing herself to eat children’s food: scrambled eggs, fish fingers, rice pudding. She bathes after her tea and puts herself into her pyjamas, smelling the talc in her armpits and between her breasts every time she changes position in her seat. She reads Flowers in the Attic and The Brothers Lionheart. She buys a television (just for now) and watches Caspar and The Sound of Music. She reads Dora’s magazine article until the paper goes soft and the words condense into an equation which she can see very clearly, floating along the surface of her mind. Like this:

Moving house = divorce, death of the spouse, birth of a child.

 They were ranked, she knew that, but she couldn’t remember how. And she wasn’t sure if renting was quite the same as buying and selling. It might not have applied to her. Sometimes when she was tired it came to her in the wrong order. Moving house death of the child, divorce of the spouse, birth. Death of the house, birth of the spouse, moving child, divorce. They all sounded stressful. But only for three weeks.   

It is not just the time between washing up and going to work that is problematic. It takes Gemma one week to decide that. The time between work in the evening and work in the morning is problematic. She tries to get to know the house. She runs her hands over the walls and makes overtures towards the dips in the plaster with her fingers. The house and her will take time to get to know each other but in time they will be as intimate as lovers. She measures her breath by the drip in the tap. She pads the gap under the sash window with a lump of newspaper. She does it tenderly, and waits until a train passes so she can see if it works. It works. But in the morning the newspaper is gone.

Gemma is waiting for her house to welcome her. But however many times she rearranges her possessions, spreads out the cutlery in the drawer, hangs up her clothes in the over-large wardrobe and plumps the pillows on her marshmallow coloured sofa, the house tilts and bucks in the night and all her possessions shrink back into their places. All the furniture is too big. She doesn’t have enough mugs to fill the cupboard so she decides to keep the cook books in it too. A home should look pleasantly cluttered. It should look lived in. She potters and clutters and leaves casual trails of her discarded possessions around her. During the night the house sighs them back into the single bare precision of a hotel room.

This is a house that likes the geometry of emptiness. She is temporary. She is a guest. The house has been let, it has been let down, it is unfulfilled. It is unfilled. This house hates her, Gemma decides, and asks for some evening shifts at the museum. Her supervisor is grateful, and lets her take the top floor, where after five it is quiet and there is really nothing to do but walk up and down and listen.

 The third floor of the museum is a series of rooms, kitchens and living rooms mainly – the children could touch these, sit in the seats, twiddle the knobs of the bakelite radios, try on aprons, turn the handle of a milk churn, press buttons on the touch screen of the kitchen of the future and find out how many kilojoules a fried egg contains. There are arrows on the floor, pointing you from one room to the next. To enhance the viewing experience, making sure that as you progressed, you moved from mangle to twin-tub to Zanussi, and also having the effect of keeping people moving during busy periods, discouraging the school tours from lingering in a knot around the trouser-press, the red pointers promising the digital fridges and automatic, heat sensitive mood lighting of the future.

While she waits for her three weeks to pass, Gemma gets into the habit of walking through the Homes Exhibit, but doing it backwards – moving from aluminium and chrome to wood effect linoleum, formica and scrubbed oak. They weren’t houses, she knew that – they were sets, three walls only, with the fourth open to whoever wanted to wander in and examine the furnishings. She’d worked at the museum long enough to become almost invisible to the evening caretakers, who would sometimes turn the lights off while she was sitting in the red vinyl recliner – thinking perhaps she was part of the exhibit herself.

While she sits, Gemma empties out her mind and lets it go blank. Sometimes she is curious about how little effort that takes. Late at night there are films, films with people running along rope-bridges that are burning and turning to ash behind them. They always make it to the other side safely. She learns that. She learns that what comes behind her is as insubstantial as smoke. She sits in the red vinyl recliner and forgets to smile and nod at the fluidly-moving caretakers and tries to remember what has come behind her.

There are only two or three things. Long black hair that clogged the vacuum cleaner and could not have been hers. A wardrobe so stuffed with clothes she folded the overflow in a row of laundry baskets. Recycling boxes filled with green and brown bottles. Mugs of coffee that appeared on the bedside table, steaming as soon as she opened her eyes.

The caretakers move around after dark in little pools of their own light. It is like a theatre. Every time she thinks about it she reminds herself to pay attention next time. Do they carry little torches to light their way like the ushers in the cinema that Annie and Grace and Daddy Warbucks go to? Or are they spotlit, like Danny and Bernadette dancing to Blue Moon in Grease? She always forgets. It shouldn’t be ‘always’. It is only four or five nights that she sits like this. It feels like longer. The house is not waiting for her to come home. Now they spend their evenings apart from each other they are both breathing sighs of relief. Breathing more easily. Just breathing.

I have said I am going and I want you to come with me but if you don’t I am going to go anyway because two years and four months is long enough for you to make up your mind about me, Gemma thought. I have said that and I meant it but I did not think this would happen. In three weeks (one week and two days) I will be feeling better. I will have settled in.

Sometimes she settles in the dark for so long she can see the ghosts in the Home Exhibit come to life. One touch and the Kenwood mixers start churning pizza bases and cake mix and pancake batter. Shadowy, aproned figures open and close oven doors, pull long handled pans from the depths of shining, steaming Rayburns. Wooden blocks form themselves into toppling towers on rugs in front of gas flame effect fires, and rocking horses start to swing in front of suddenly glowing coal, pulled backwards and forwards by the manic lean of insubstantial, half-grown bodies. There are smells too: shepherds pie, prawn cocktail, angel delight, mutton, bread, microwaved lasagne, powdered falafel mix, toast, tea, beef.

The sets pause, shimmering in anticipation, as if they were nothing more than the reflections on soap bubbles. Gemma holds herself still and waits with them. The vinyl arms grow tacky under her palms.

It seems a long time to wait. She reminds herself to count from the beginning the next time is happens. She has time to think that. A person can hold their breath for two minutes. Olympic swimmers, maybe. Pearl-divers. Mothers and midwives and the models for the works of art that hang on the walls downstairs. She has had time to think this. And time to think about how long thoughts take. How long they exist before they fall apart and dissolve into strands of ash and smoke-blooms.

And then twelve, fifteen, twenty three doors swing open with such force the cut glass handles, wooden knobs and shining plastic leavers impress their shapes soundlessly into the walls of the plasterboard sets. And the men, the men who we have been holding our breath and waiting for, all those men lope or stride or shuffle in, carrying brown envelopes of old money, or briefcases and bible-sized mobile phones, smelling of whiskey or pigs or blood, tramping in coal dust or snow or nothing but boot polish and the smell of newspaper print and Brut, Old Spice, Coal Tar, sweat. There is a whispering, a fluttering of net curtains, the sound of a thumb flicking through a telephone directory. The houses are pleased and inhaling and exhaling all at the same time, and the little and big waiting ghosts are pleased, and Gemma is pleased because her three weeks are up.

I’m home, all these men say, like a choir, a pretend choir of men in a musical, like the chimney sweeps, like the Von Traps, like nothing else apart from themselves. And Gemma stands up from her chair and opens out her arms, smiling her greeting at the dark.

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