I pressed my palms against the window panes to keep them from rattling when the rain blew across the council flats, washing their sadness against our house. I triple-dressed for bed and lay down in a circle to fend off the cold air that made the curtains billow behind closed windows.
He came to the house on grimy Wandsworth Road on a Wednesday. No one expected him. It had rained, and he looked small and cold. Pale, I recall, and with a pointy chin. A face that had been around the block at least twice.
It turned out he lived in the neighborhood. Regardless of his marital status or our misperception as to where the famous lived, he arrived at our door like he had no one else to turn to on a winter evening in London.
I led him into our tall house. The paint was peeling off the banisters and flaked in patches from the damp walls. The vinyl floor in the hall curled at the edges. The house smelled like all English rentals; a combination of poor ventilation, bleach, burnt toast, ashtrays and squeezed tea bags. The apartheid-protest expatriate downstairs and her Zimbabwean boyfriend cooked spicy meals. The scents drifted up, cruelly, no further than our kitchen where we made baked beans on toast.
I led him into the living room. The rest of the rooms had beds in them and were in various states of chaos. The living room at least featured a disgruntled looking sofa, discolored carpet and Annie’s saltwater tropical fish tank. We handed Nick a cup of tea before he got a chance to say what it was he wanted.
He suggested we'd go to the pub and play a game of pool. Did we fancy that? We drank lager or cider with blackcurrant cordial in it. He bought a round and some bags of crisps. We were hungry but too embarrassed to invite him to share chip sandwiches with ketchup at the house.
Lulu, hairdresser and American flatmate, let no opportunity for cash pass her by. She ran her fingers through Nick's longish hair and mused about color schemes, depth and layers. He tilted his head her way. Maybe that was what he wanted.
The day of the hair appointment, we rushed home from work and scurried around with a vacuum and buckets of sudsy water. Our high heels pounded up and down the stairs, puncturing the tired floorboards on the landings with more nicks. When the phone rang, we whispered, "Can't talk right now. Nick's coming." We collected dust bunnies, gathered stray magazines, TimeOuts and mugs with dried teabags, swept away Digestive biscuit crumbs and frayed cigarette ends. As if he cared. As if dust mattered when the rotten window frames let the rain in. When the doorbell rang, we pretended we had all but forgotten that he would stop by.
Lulu cut his hair as we paraded tea mugs into the salon to linger, to chat. A smile crossed his lips. Lulu speculated that the haircut was an excuse to see the Australian flatmate again. "He has the hots for Sue," she said but then she had that American focus on sex.
In the age of spiked hair and bondage pants, mock-gypsies were our mutual friends. They wrapped themselves in soft fabric, wore gold earrings and coin belts and smiled a lot. The tinkle of their limbs conjured up a world that was not London, not grey, damp and spiky like our hair.
On the dole, I dressed as if going to work because nothing comes of moping upstairs in bed. I placed drawing paper and a watercolor set, cheap brushes and a saucer with water on the table by the bay window with a view of Battersea power station. I made tea and stared at the four chimneys that rose from the field of council flats.
As I painted, all I could think of was the Pink Floyd album cover. To capture ugliness to get over it. To turn this world that sustained us poorly into something meaningful by freezing what we could barely stand to look at. Either that or dreamy scarves and coin belts.
We moved from Wandsworth Road and scattered into lives full of heating and properly closing windows. We didn't see Nick again. It was from Lulu that we learned that Nick had been diagnosed with cancer and died.
His guitar, and his name, lived on. Images of fantasy and glamor to escape the damp and sooty world of English poverty. With each footstep, the road behind him crumbled. When he stood before us, timid gestures were not enough to puncture the bubble.
In an adequately heated house in America, I light red candles on the desk in winter. There is a piece of driftwood with smooth hollows into which I have placed marbles. The light of the flames is reflected on the tiny surfaces in specks of gold. I think of faces, neither eyes nor lips, but the parts where we express ourselves. It is in the translucency around the eyes and the soft skin around the lips where we are honest. Human. The rest is a lie, incidental and meaningless.
Birgit Nielsen grew up in Berlin, spent time in London, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She now lives in Portland, Oregon. Holding an MFA in Writing from Goddard, she works as a writer/translator/editor. Her recent publications include Oregon Poets Against the War (The Habit of Rainy Nights, 2003) and Steeped In the World of Tea (Interlink, 2004). She contributes works to Our Truths, Nuestras Verdades (forthcoming). She is also working on a collection of stories about travel, family and (any sort of) post-war reconstruction.
Copyright 2005, Birgit Nielsen. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.