Carol and Bev look for somewhere to live in London:
Willesden Green High Street had shops that were not boarded up and its very own traffic congestion. We got out the piece of paper with the address we were looking for scrawled on it and asked for directions. After a couple of people had scowled and scratched their heads we found someone who could help us and soon we were in a leafier street within a few turns of the busy centre. In front of us rose up a rather grand, detached house with enormous gates and a separate pedestrian entrance. The driveway was pebbled (good for hearing the approach of burglars) and there were two large stone steps up to a wide, panelled front door. There were bushes and shrubs that looked as though they had been transplanted from a botanical garden. We double-checked the address, opened the side gate and walked up to the house wondering what the catch might be.
‘Probably a caravan in the back garden,’ said Carol.
Carol rang the bell. A woman of about thirty-five with curly, strawberry blonde hair and freckles opened the door. She was wearing baggy yellow trousers and a cheesecloth shirt, bangles and bracelets and lots of rings. We were not expecting any of this.
‘Hello. What a lovely day. You must be Bev and Carol. Please come in. Watch out for the cat.’ She jangled when she moved, like my auntie Vera used to. She wasn’t a real auntie. I mean, she was real, but not my auntie.
We stepped over a ball of happy, black fur and waited politely in a large spangly hallway. It was a house where the cat would be more important than us. There were mirrors and tapestries, a glass lamp on a shiny black table engraved with elephants, a Buddha carved in wood and standing almost three feet tall, and a framed proverb hanging above it that said: ‘Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.’
‘Oh, don’t mind that. Adil thinks we should constantly strive for spiritual fulfilment. My name is Ursula. Pleased to meet you.’ We shook hands and I bowed.
‘I like your house.’ I blurted, in the short confused silence that followed.
‘Yes. It’s not bad, is it? Would you both like a cup of tea? The lounge is through here, I won’t be a sec. Make yourselves comfortable.’
The lounge was sumptuous, with sofas thick with padding and strewn with silky-bright cushions. Exotic paintings in colours rich enough to make you squint hung on the walls, expensive looking rugs layered the floor and adorned the walls and a large stone fireplace of intricate design housed a roaring log fire. It was light and cosy and I wondered whether we would be kidnapped and sold as slaves to rich Indian men who wanted a bit of western promise.
‘Weird,’ Carol whispered.
‘Yeah. Like some kind of palace.’ I whispered back. Carol raised her top lip and rolled her eyes.
‘Shall we sit down?’ I suggested in a more normal voice, now that I remembered we were alone.
‘She said to make ourselves comfortable,’ Carol said.
We sat on the edge of the largest sofa. I could feel the muscles in my buttocks tensing so I did a few pelvic floor exercises. Shame not to. I had read about what happened to women if they neglected to maintain their intimate muscles. Ursula returned with a tray of tea as I was in mid clench and I smiled serenely as she carried it towards us.
‘I brought biscuits. Don’t know whether you girls are watching your weight. I don’t bother any more.’ She took a chocolate finger and shoved it whole into her mouth as if to prove a point. ‘Adil will be here shortly. He likes to interview. Don’t worry – he isn’t as fierce as he looks.’
‘What is the flat like?’ Carol wanted to get down to business. I got stuck into the biscuits.
‘Oh? Yes. Well, it’s quite small I suppose. It has a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom with two single beds. What else…? Perhaps it would be easier to just let you see it after Adil has spoken to you.’
‘And the rent is £64 a week all in?’ Carol asked.
‘Adil will discuss the terms with you. I don’t really… Here he is now.’ She seemed relieved.
A large bellied Indian man with long hair and a beard, wearing white trousers and a white shirt ambled importantly into the room. He wore sandals with broken straps that threatened to trip him at any moment. I imagined him falling on top of us and pinning us both down on the sofa. Perhaps that was the plan. I thought about Mr. Badal and his less complex advances.
‘Good afternoon ladies.’ His lips were full and very pink. He looked at us and stroked his beard. He swivelled into a chair and Ursula handed him some greenish liquid with stuff floating in it.
‘My name is Adil and you are?’
‘Beverley,’ I thought it better to use my full name.
‘Carol,’ said Carol.
‘I see.’ He nodded and said something to Ursula in what must have been Hindi.
She passed him the biscuits.
‘I see.’ He nodded again, ruminating on a custard cream. ‘Well. I understand you girls are looking for accommodation?’
‘That’s right. We want a flat as near to Edgware Road and Park Lane as possible. And not too expensive,’ Carol said.
‘We are going to work for Playboy.’ I added and Carol pinched me on the arm.
Adil raised his eyebrows at this and stirred his tea. Ursula coughed.
‘I see. And what… type of work will this be?’ He had difficulty in formulating the question and I wondered whether he had mastered the English language sufficiently to follow our conversation.
‘ We will deal cards. Blackjack. With chips.’ I spoke very slowly and dealt from an imaginary pack of cards.
‘She means we will be croupiers Mr…’
‘Desai. It’s Mr. Desai. Thank you Carol. I see. And are these positions…permanent?’
‘Yes Mr Desai. We have signed a contract. I have a copy in my bag if you would like to see it.’ Carol was acting very strangely. I wondered why he might want to see our contracts.
‘That won’t be necessary. No.’ He nodded, spoke again to Ursula and then smiled benignly at us. ‘Would you like my wife to show you the accommodation?’
‘Yes please.’ I said, standing up and watching the biscuit crumbs fall from my lap and bounce across the carpet.
Once more he spoke in Hindi and I half expected Ursula to produce a dustpan and brush. She didn’t. Instead, she extended her arm for us to go with her, and her husband said that he would speak to us again once we had inspected the rooms.
The ‘rooms’ were in a large annex at the back of the main house with a separate entrance to the side. The hallway was dark and pokey and there were stairs disappearing up to a second floor. First impressions – nul points. The vacant flat we were shown was on the ground floor and above us Ursula said there were two others, which were occupied. She turned the key in a huge lock and we found ourselves in a medium sized bedroom with a small sofa and a television in one corner. There was no window. Through another door and down some steps was the kitchen, where a fridge hummed noisily and then shuddered into silence. It was freezing. There was a small, shoddy table and four matching chairs, a cooker and a kettle.
‘Where is the bathroom?’ Carol asked, politely.
Ursula pulled back a curtain and revealed a maroon bathroom suite, stained and with dripping taps. To the right, there was a heavy piece of plastic nailed inside a doorway. Carol pulled back the plastic where it had come loose and looked outside onto an area filled with dustbins. We both looked at Ursula.
‘Adil will of course be having a new door put in. There is a separate lock on your bedroom for extra security.’
I looked at Carol, who was looking at Ursula.
‘I see,’ said Carol, nodding and stroking her chin. I wondered whether Ursula would take offence at Carol’s mocking of her spiritual partner but she didn’t seem to notice.
‘I see,’ I said, nodding and stroking my chin. I think that did it.
‘I’ll leave you to look around on your own and, when you’ve decided, you can come back to the main house, okay?’ Her tone was colder but so were my extremities. She fiddled with her bangles and practically fled.
The flat was basic, dark, ill equipped and open to the elements but we had found no others advertised at a rent we could afford and it was not far for us to travel to work.
‘What do you think?’ I tried to open the window in the kitchen and failed.
‘I think we’re stuffed. For the money it’s as good as we’re going to get. As long as Ursula keeps Adil under control I’d say we should go for it.’ Carol opened the fridge and gave it the thumbs up. No fridge stink is a basic human right.
It would do. We wandered back to the house, theorising about the other tenants. Perhaps they were drugs dealers or murderers. Perhaps they were illegal immigrants. Perhaps they didn’t exist and we would be prisoners, doomed to a life as sex slaves. Mr. Desai was waiting at the door and waved us into his den with a knowing look on his insufferable face. He knew we would take the flat.
After we had signed the relevant papers, it turned out that there were several rules. There was to be no smoking or playing of loud music at any time, and silence after eleven o’clock. We would be asked to pay one month’s rent as a deposit and two month’s rent in advance, which, although we had been expecting this, added up to a shocking amount of money. We were not allowed to sub-let, take drugs or run a business from his premises. We thought Mr. Desai had either had a lot of trouble with tenants in the past or had a very vivid imagination.
Anyway, we were pleased to have found somewhere. It meant we didn’t have to waste any more time looking. It meant we could go home and sponge off our parents for a couple of weeks and see our friends before the adventure in Tring began. Tring – could it be a real place?
Bunny on a Bike is available on Amazon to download to your kindle, nook or pc etc.