“This is a lovely place, lots of room to move around in. It has a communal kitchen and living area, quite cozy if I say so myself. I am sure it will adapt to your needs. The neighborhood is quiet and there is a little garden as you can see.”
¿A garden, I asked myself? It was more like a square of dirt, maybe a square meter fifty. Nothing grew in it except weeds and it was littered with bits of trash that had blown in through the iron fence posts. Blown in from the unending cold wind that had been present since I got off the plane, what seemed like now years ago, though it had only been two weeks. Two weeks filled with visits to horrid homes, all with old plumbing, kitchens from the nineteen-forties and run down furniture with even more run down adults living in them.
The estate agent opened the door and in we went, out of the chilling wind that swept my ankles and ran up my calves to bury under my skirt. Why in the world do I always wear skirts and especially in this weather? I asked myself for the thousandth time. The entry hall was narrow and dark. The only light came in from the top of the door, where a small pane of glass sat covered in dirt. The floor was a much worn, dark polished wood, filled with scratches and deep groves imbedded in it, almost like if someone had been dragged digging their nails into the wood as they went. I shook off the creepy image. There was a small entry hall table, very narrow, with a coat stand next to it. The house seemed empty of life. Nothing new there, as most homes that I had seen these last two weeks had been empty too. I supposed the people living in them had been off to work and would return at the end of the day with cartons of take away food, Indian, Chinese or pizza, filling the house with the sad aroma of what life had become for most adults now. I called it the aroma of defeat. No future, no prospects, no children, no partners, no car, no nothing. The Eau of Defeat of the middle-class young adults. Though lately I had been starting to see adults in their fifties living with thirty-year old’s, some with frightened eyes, looking forward at the gloomy prospect of retirement and old age.
“As you can see, the living area looks out to the front garden with such lovely three paneled windows. The same in the upstairs room that is for rent. Quite nice for your writing, dear,” went on the estate agent.
I was wondering why there was no formal dining area when she explained that it had been boarded over to make another bedroom. Out into the hall again there was a small bathroom placed under the staircase with hardly any room to stand up in but that was surprisingly clean, if dated. At the end of the hall there stood a closed door. The estate agent said that this was the owner’s bedroom and bath. To the right stood another door that gave to the kitchen, with a small pantry washroom that included, miracle of miracles, a washer and a dryer. Also quite new. This, so far, had been the best I have seen in the last two weeks. But I was already a pessimist about house hunting. Surely it will have something horribly wrong with it, I thought, besides the so-called garden and dark entryway.
The kitchen was old fashioned but well maintained, with dark wood cabinets and wooden countertops that were slightly stained. Again, everything was clean; no years of grease buildup on the range and the wall tiles were actually quite pleasing to the eye. The best part of the kitchen was that the wall that gave to the back of the house was all glass, with a little glass roof extending over the garden in which a small, round, iron table was set with four matching chairs. It actually looked as though the garden furniture had been put into the kitchen and left there over time. But the room was pleasant and inviting. The back garden had a great walnut tree that covered the whole of the small plot and I could imagine myself sitting outside under its shade in the summer relaxing, even though the ground was just dirt and weeds.
The estate agent was watching me with a calculating look in her eyes. I knew how much a bedroom was running for in this area, so she would not be able to up the price. I kept my features free of expression so that she could not decipher what I was thinking.
“Let´s see the upstairs, please.”
“The stairs are a bit steep and rickety but quite sturdy nonetheless,” she stated as we went up.
There would be no way that I could go up or down without making creaking noises. The landing was small. There were three doors, all closed, one to my right and two to my left, side by side. She took out a key and opened the furthest to the left. We stepped in to a small sitting room with a two-seater sofa and a small leather armchair that had seen better days. Right when you walked in, on the left, was a low wall unit to put the television on and to the right the whole of the wall was a closet.
“This is the biggest room of the three and as I have stated, the one with the lovely view to the front of the house.” She said, walking forward and opening dark, heavy velvet curtains, letting in the poor morning light. There was as promised in front of the three bay windows an ample desk with a good comfortable chair. To the right there was a double bed, headboard and two small drawers that served as nightstands. I looked out the window and was pleasantly surprised again to find myself not looking at the dreary houses in front but at the line of trees that covered the sidewalks on either side of the street. Sure, in the winter the trees would be bare of leaves, but the thickness of the branches would still afford some privacy. Next to the bed, on its left, was the door leading into the small private bath, old but in working order. There was no shower, just a four clawed, old-fashioned bathtub.
“Like I told you this morning, it’s only been on the market for three weeks but it will go soon. It´s not every day that you find a bedroom with its own en suite bathroom.”
“¿What is the catch? There has to be one. This is too good to be true at this price. Spit it out.” I said looking at her sternly.
She was nervous. She wrung her hands together, walking around the room, straightening this and that. I kept my mouth shut knowing that she wouldn’t be able to withstand my silence for long.
“Well, not that anything is wrong with the house or the neighborhood. It´s all above board. And the room is perfect as you can see. The only thing is that you would be the only woman in the house. The others are men. Older men, mind you, but men if you catch my drift.”
“No, I am afraid that I don´t catch your drift. Spell it out for me.” I was getting tired of her evasiveness.
“Oh you Americans are so straight forward. They are old men; very old men and they don´t tend to leave their rooms much. They don´t permit noise of any kind. So no music, no telly, no high heels, no friends over, no chatting on the phone at night, etc. Have I spelled it out for you clearly enough, dearie?”
“Sarcasm doesn´t suit you. Keep to the nice lady down the street act.” I said while I watched her eyes fill with anger. “What are they like? Are they nosy old men that are going to be knocking at my door bothering me about having a chat because they are bored?”
“Actually, I have never met them. When our company was offered the flat it was through some law firm. I am supposed to let them know when I will be visiting the flat and that´s it.”
I thought of all the other homes I had visited. The sad looking people I had met. All dreaming of having their own place some day and the older, more pessimistic ones, depressed because they saw themselves living with strangers for the rest of their lives. Homes smelling of adult failure, cheap food, booze, cigarettes and long noisy nights. Here I had three old men who didn´t like noise of any kind. It was like a dream come true for me. And I had no problem with managing men. At my age I had been manhandled, insulted, accosted, almost raped, dumped and pushed around by men enough to know how to handle any situation that came my way.
“I´ll take it.” I said, watching her face change from bitchiness to a smile that could have ripped her face in half if she´d tried to make any it bigger.
I moved in the next day. I only had to bring two big suitcases and four boxes of personal items without the help of a moving company. Once the taxi had left, after helping me unload everything inside the small gated front garden, I looked up at the house with my first misgivings. The heavy curtains that yesterday we had left opened where closed again. The first thing I would do after taking everything upstairs was to go the closest hardware store and buy an extra latch for the door. I wouldn´t be able to rest if I knew someone could come in while I was sleeping or showering.
I remembered another flat, long ago, that I had lived in with other adults like myself that still had some hope for the future. I had caught one of the men in my room, my undie drawer open with one stuck to his face while he inhaled. It still gave me the creeps. I would have to ask at what time was convenient for me to wash my clothes so that I wouldn´t interfere with their routine or make noise.
I carried the first suitcase up the two front steps, inserted my key and walked in. The house was as silent as it had been yesterday, with no sign of life, though I could detect the faint scent of a strong cleaning product, actually it smelled like sulfur. Once I had everything stashed in the front entry hall, I proceeded to take each step up the horribly creaky steep staircase. By the time I had finished I was out of breath. I was thin and out of shape. I probably was thin because I had never made enough money to eat too much, what with all the other expenses that I had to cover to live in a halfway decent room and what was left over for food usually wasn´t enough. Maybe now that I lived in such a nice area I could take long walks and get into a little better shape. But who was I kidding? I would probably do what I had always done. Lock myself up in my room and write on my pc for hours on end, then spend the rest of the time trying to sell what I had written.
I looked over at the box that contained my famous reject folder filled with letters from publishing houses, editors and magazines saying that they were not interested in what I wrote. Nowadays they didn´t even bother with that. Though this didn´t stop me from writing. I wrote what I myself would of liked to have read. So, since I usually found that my books where more entertaining, I just kept writing them in the hope that one day someone would take notice. And in the meantime, I would find some low paying job editing other people’s work as a freelancer. There was always something for me there. I didn´t starve, but almost.
At least I was free, I told myself. I had no boss looking over my shoulder. No coworkers that I had to compete with. No getting up at eight and rushing off to commute and then spend my day locked up in a stuffy cubicle. While I was thinking all of this, I started to put my clothes in the wardrobe and drawers, my little personal items around the room, my pc on the desk along with paper, pencils and other writing implements. Suddenly I saw, under one of the night table lamps, an envelope. I picked it up and noticed that it was of high-quality paper. Paper like the kind you don´t see anymore. I opened it and took out the letter. This paper was the same quality, having impressed in it a logo or a coat of arms. I put it against the light to have a better look but I really couldn´t make it out. It looked like the face of a goat with serpents around its head, creepy but interesting. The handwriting was beautiful. The handwriting of an older, finely schooled person.
Dear Ms. March,
Welcome to Bleak House. You are probably thinking that the name brings to mind a certain Mr. Dickens work, but let us relieve your mind that this bleak house has nothing to do with said masterpiece. The name is fitting nonetheless due to our very bleak demeanor. We believe that you have been forewarned about what is expected of you. As to other more mundane matters let us set forth a timetable for the use of the common areas of the house, shall we say, breakfast for yourself between eight and ten. Lunch between one and three, dinner after seven till ten. We are aware that young people like to dine late. The main refrigerator is off limits but you may use the one that is in the pantry. All kitchen cabinets with no locks are for your personal use.
As to the use of the laundry area, washing will only be permitted two days a week so as not to interfere with our rest. Mondays and Thursdays should be convenient for you. And now for the most worrisome part for us. The use of the living area and back garden, weather permitting. We would prefer if you should abstain of using the living area as you have your own in your room. If you should wish to entertain for a short period of time in the living area or the back garden, and we do stress short period, then please let us know in advance so that we may avoid any uncomfortable meetings. We have been assured that you are a fine and well-mannered young lady who wouldn´t dream of entertaining a gentleman in her room. If for some reason you wish to have some girlfriend over for tea, please, let us know a day in advance.
Following all of this, welcome to our home. We are delighted to have you with us. May you find happiness in this, our humble dwelling.
There was no signature of any kind, so I still did not know the names of the three men whom I shared a roof with. But everything asked for in the letter seemed alright to me. I could adapt to the hours and I really liked not having to meet them too often to make trivial and polite conversation.
I had thought the day before that I would have to clean the room top to bottom, but this had been taken care of, which is why I had smelled the sulfuric cleaning product. Every surface was clean of dust and dirt. The bathroom tiles and faucets shone. The bedcover that had been on display yesterday had been removed and a new mattress cover had been fitted over. There were two pillows still in their plastic covers lying on the bed. I had brought my own thick mattress cover, dreading an old stained bed, but now I would have no need for it. So, I put fresh sheets on the bed and two thick blankets. Once that was done, I laid towels out in the bathroom and I hung my bathrobe in back of the door along with my favorite nightgown, a flimsy piece of fabric reminiscent of days when I still had hope of finding a partner and forming a family. The television unit would serve nicely for all of my books, as I didn´t own a TV.
Once everything was put away in its place, I folded up the boxes and proceeded to take them out back through the garden to the dumpster I had seen on my visit yesterday. As I was coming back, however, I stopped dead in my tracks. By the downstairs windows stood three men staring at me fixedly. The evening had gotten dark and there was no illumination in the room so I could not make out their features. They just stood there and stared, neither making any gesture of salutation nor acknowledgement. I found their attitude strange and rather bad mannered, but then again, they had spelled out that they wished the least possible contact with me.
I ignored them and went back inside. Since I hadn´t had time to buy any food I thought I should go out and explore the area. Find where I could buy groceries, where the chemist was and most importantly the closest library. Remembering the warning about heels, I put on trainers, grabbed a coat and scarf and down the creaky stairs I went out the door to the Scottish night. It was freezing! I really had to stop wearing skirts, I wasn’t in California anymore. I walked without much thought, just canvassing the neighborhood and looking at the people around me. For some reason everyone seemed happy, or maybe it was my own mood reflecting on them. I had found a room where I could write. It was clean and decent, something that I had finally given up on. And best of all, I could afford it.
I found a street not far that had everything I needed. I bought the latch for the door with a little screwdriver to put it in. I bought groceries that would last me a week and found the chemist. While I was looking in the window of the chemist, I bumped into a man that was around my age. We smiled at each other and as I started to walk off, he asked me if I would like a coffee, pointing across the street. For some reason his smile was catching so I said to myself, why the hell not, and followed him across the street.
“Calum Campbell,” he said before we had sat down, extending his hand out to me. “You can call me CC though, everyone else does.”
“CC it is then. My name is Beth, Beth March.”
“You´re American! I thought you were a Scottish lass, what with the red hair and all,” he said with a charming smile spreading over his face.
“The hair comes from Scottish ancestors, so almost.”
“Been in the city long?” he asked while pouring three packages of sugar into his coffee.
“No, just two weeks. I just moved into the neighborhood today. A couple of streets over,” I answered while drinking my coffee black with no sugar.
“I live around the corner with five other people. The houses in this area are old and have lots of bedrooms. But it’s cheap, so I make do. What about you? How many in your flat?”
“Just myself and three old men. But I´ll have to see how it goes. They are kind of strange and believe it or not I haven´t really met them. I saw them today watching me as I came through the back garden from throwing some trash away. They didn´t even acknowledge me, just stared. I have just bought a latch for the door. I don´t want any surprises. I have had enough experience living with strangers to know to watch out.
“I know what you mean. You know, I´m thirty-eight years old. Have a university degree in applied sciences. I thought by this time in my life I would be all set up. But I am just like most people I meet. We have jobs with low pay and the lucky ones, like me, find work in their field but there is never enough to get out of the unending cycle of low wages, long hours, fighting every little step forward. We all live together in apartments just like when we were studying. We don´t own anything of importance because we can´t afford to. The other day some politician was going on about how adults didn´t want to buy cars, that they preferred to run around on electric scooters. That we didn´t buy homes because we liked to live in shared apartments. ¿Where do they get these ideas? ¿Do they even step out on the street and see how people live? I´d like to see them waiting in line to use the bathroom in a house with five other people, all late for work, some of us almost in their forties,” he said, looking around the café at others just like us.
“I know what you mean. I´m forty-two, still waiting for my break and frankly I don´t see it happening either. But we really have no other options. Once I was unemployed for almost three years. I was living in Spain and received a small unemployment sum that barely allowed me to survive. It was one of the worst times of my life. And there was no work out there. Not even waitressing. I would have done anything but there was not enough work to go around. Jobs are disappearing at an incredible rate due to tech advances and AI. I try not to think of the future. Sometimes I meet people with a certain look in their eyes that scares me. I don´t want to find myself one day looking at myself in the mirror to find I have that same desperate look in my own.”
We kept talking till late. The café filled up, emptied, filled up again and by the end of the evening we were fast friends. He walked me to my door that night and on the stoop we exchanged our Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages. I had told him about the house rules and the creaky stairs but he didn´t seem to mind. I think that we were both just happy to have found a friend in this cold, web connected world.
After putting away my groceries in the kitchen I tried to snoop in the old men’s fridge, only to find it locked, so I went upstairs to shower. I spent the rest of the night writing seated at my desk in front of the windows. I had left the curtains open, as I found them too heavy for my taste; they made the room feel too silent and shut off. I must have been off in my own little world when I heard the stairs creak. I almost jumped out of my seat. Since moving in I had heard no noise from the three men. This was the first time. And used to the silence as I had been that stair creak filled me with an uncomfortable fear. But what was there to fear from three old men? I asked myself. And so, I tried to continue with my writing, but to no avail. The muse had flown out of the room and down the creaky stairs.
I brushed my teeth and got into my warm bed. I must have been tired, as I fell asleep right away. I slept peacefully in the knowledge that my door was secured from within and no one could disrupt my sleep. However, the stairs creaked again in the middle of the night, waking me fully and instantly. I sat up in my bed and listened for a while, but all I thought I heard was the soft closing of a door on the landing. I lay back down and eventually slept, waking to the early morning light filtering into the room through the windows.
I opened the window next to my bed and breathed in the morning air of car fumes, trash and rain. The rain was falling steadily, nothing new there, as it had done so since I had arrived. It would be another day of overcast skies. I might as well get used to it. I checked my cell phone for the hour. It was after eight, so I showered again and dressed, going out onto the landing and trying to go down the stairs without making too much noise. I found the kitchen just as I had left it the previous night. As I started to prepare breakfast, I heard a thump at the front door so I went to see what the noise was about. On opening the door, I found the morning paper lying at my feet. I picked it up and brought it inside, although I didn´t know what I was supposed to do with it. Would they be offended if I read it first? I had no idea, so I did the only thing I thought would be correct and left it on the hall table. Later on I would leave a note asking if I could read the paper after them. I went on to fix myself some breakfast.
In the next weeks I saw CC almost every evening. We got into the habit of meeting at the café and from there taking a long walk so that I could get a feel of the city. On the weekends I would go over to his place and we would have dinner, usually accompanied by some of the people he shared the house with and other friends, sitting on the floor on cushions around the coffee table as there was no dining table to speak of. The conversations tended to run towards politics and the economy. About wishes and dreams that had not yet been fulfilled. Then we would be off to the nearest pub for a drink or two. On Sundays I would always end up walking towards Saint Michaels and the All Saints church. I would sit in the furthest pew and instead of listening to the homely, I would look at those around me, imagining what their lives were like and asking myself how they could still have faith in anything living as we lived.
I saw families with children and I envied them, reminding me once more that I only had a couple of more years left to try to have a child. I had known some women who, desperate to have children, had forgone waiting for the right man to come along and had themselves a child on their own by artificial insemination. But I still had hope. Hope that my living conditions would change. That soon I would be able to afford to live on my own, raise a child and even the hope of having a steady relationship. I thought of CC. He was nice, but not exactly husband material. And see, that was the problem. Most men my age found themselves in the same situation that I did. None would even dream of embarking on fatherhood and marriage. What would we do, live with others like us in shared apartments? But it really was the only way. If we wanted to mature, to have a partner and children, we really had no choice but to continue living as we did in our early twenties. We had learned to adapt to this new situation, knowing that we would probably never live as our parents did, with their steady jobs, good wages and small house in the suburbs.
I was so depressed with my thoughts that when I got home I didn´t notice at first that my room had been gone through. Whoever had done it had tried to be careful but I was extra neat, so I noticed right away a pen out of its place, a book moved and my medicines in the bathroom cabinet with the labels looking another way. I filled with anger and rushed out of my room to the landing.
And I stopped right there as I didn´t know who had done it. So I just shouted to the top of my voice saying that if I ever saw my things searched again they would find out what was good for them. I got no response. No noises could be heard, no rushing to the doors to apologize or even to ask what the ruckus was about. Nothing. I was getting sick and tired of these three silent men. I went downstairs, banging my feet on each step, increasing the noise they made twofold. But I got knocked off my high horse when I walked into the kitchen to find the three old men sitting at the table drinking tea. The wind of my anger just left me in a big whoosh.
The three men contemplated me in silence. They had set before them, in the middle of the table, what looked like a folder filled to the brim with sheets of paper. As I walked slowly into the room the men did not interrupt themselves from their tea drinking. They kept right on while they observed me approach with shinning watery eyes. When I reached the table, I saw my name written in cursive on the folder’s cover.
“Why is my name on that folder? What’s inside it?” I asked in a quavering voice. I didn´t understand what was wrong with me, but these three men scared me. The one next to the window stood and pulled out a chair, indicating that he wished me to sit in it. And like an automaton I went and did just that.
I felt my hands start to shake and my knees slightly knock against each other. Something was wrong with these three men but looking at them I couldn´t for the life of me explain what. Me, a writer, couldn´t put into words an adequate description of the three men seated in silence at the table.
The one in front of me pushed the folder softly towards me, indicating that I should open and see what it contained. With trembling fingers, I opened the folder with my name on it to find that the first sheet was a picture of me taken from my blog on the internet. I studied it for some minutes. I looked so young and happy in it. I could still remember where it had been taken. It was one of the last outings I had had with my father in Santa Cruz. We had gone to spend the day at the beach to celebrate getting my university degree.
I turned the page and saw a medical form. It contained my last medical checkup and other health information. I didn´t quite understand how they had gotten a hold of this information, but then again, these days you could get someone to hack anything and retrieve the information desired for a ridiculously low price. I looked up at the three old men drinking tea calmly while they studied me with their eyes.
The man on my left must have been imposing in his younger days due to his height. He was extremely thin, to the point of inanition. Bald, with rheumy watery blue eyes, his extremely thin hand shook as he lifted the cup to his lips. All three where dressed all in black, in three-piece suits, including their shirts. The man in front of me had fine white hair, parted on the side. Again, blue eyes stared out at me but his where steady and clear. He was well proportioned, I would have even said athletic and held himself straight, prideful of his better condition in comparison with the other two men. The man to my right still had some hair but his appearance was not as well cared for as the man in the middle. His eyes where a dark grey, set above fat red cheeks with a heavy jowl under his chin. He was overweight, with thick fingers covered in gold rings with diamonds, rubies and emeralds shining on them. He had a gold watch on a chain in one pocket like you used to see in pictures of other centuries gone by and the plate in front of him was heaped with tea cakes and shortbread.
“Why do you have my medical records?” I asked in a soft voice, scared of raising it too much and breaking the silence of the room. I should have been furious that they had had the affront to violate my intimacy this way. But I found myself subdued and submissive before these three silent men staring at me.
When they didn´t answer me right away I looked down again at the folder in my hands and continued to look at the rest of the papers in it. I found short stories of mine, first chapters of some of my unpublished novels and so forth. So they had been methodical in going through my pc. They had read and copied some of my most intimate works. Things I had let no one read before.
“We can help you attain your dreams,” the extremely thin man said suddenly.
“Yes, we can make sure you are recognized,” whispered the fat man, stuffing a tea cake whole into his mouth, leaning forward slightly to get a better look at me, it seemed. His grey, cold eyes ran up and down my body greedily.
“We only want to help you achieve your dreams, your rightful place,” spoke the man in front of me, sitting up straighter in his chair, if that were possible.
I was silent though. Something was not right. Even the quality of the air in the kitchen seemed unreal, hazy. These three men were offering me what I had always dreamt of. Recognition, fame and economic security derived from that fame. And in just three sentences I had understood that, though it seemed that they had been talking much more than this to me. I felt dizzy and unsure of my surroundings. Was I still sitting in the kitchen in front of the three men, or was I someplace else? It seemed to me that out of the corner of my eye the room was different, a dark quarter devoid of light and life, with strange things moving around in the dark, just out of reach. But when I turned towards the image that I seemed to see, it was just the kitchen again.
I felt like I had been sitting there with these three men for hours. I was thirsty and sweaty. I wanted to shower and sleep, be away from this conversation that I knew must be taking place though their mouths were unmoving. Just their eyes were fixed on me, staring deeply into my soul, dragging from its deepest corners everything I wished for and everything I had ever wanted to hide, even from myself.
“We only want one thing from you in return. It´s really not much to ask for as it is something that you yourself have wanted for a long time,” said the thin man.
“What do you want?”
“We are three very old and lonely men. There is really no joy in our life anymore. We have always been very busy, still are actually, but let us say that the things we used to find joy in do not fill us anymore. And what gives more joy in old age than a child,” stated the fat one, shoving a shortbread into his mouth and chewing noisily.
“Mam, your manners are appalling. What will the young lady think?” queried the thin man with a look of slight disgust, watching his friend eat with gusto.
“Beel, if you would eat more, even eat anything at all, you might find more joy in your life,” spit out the man called Mam.
“Luc, he´s being rude to me again. I just can´t take much more of this,” said the thin man looking at the man in the middle who kept staring at me.
“Stop your bickering. We are waiting for an answer from Ms. March. Though I am sure it will be a yes to our proposition.”
“I would never give my child over to you. Are the three of you crazy?”
“Oh dear, you have misunderstood us. We don´t want to keep your child, we just want you to raise it here in the house with us. To let us care for it, play with it and help you raise it while your career becomes a brilliant success,” replied Beel, the thin man.
“I don´t have a boyfriend. And I refuse to go to a clinic. I really have no time to have a child. How would I pay for its upbringing?” I couldn´t believe that I was even having this irrational conversation with them. What was I thinking of, following along with their absurd request?
“Ms. March, you know we can make your career a success. You know this deep down. As to the child, all you have to do is say yes and everything will be taken care of. Do say yes, Ms. March. Remember what is out there. How adults are living these days. I believe you stated it quite well the other day while you were having a conversation with yourself; no future, no prospects, no children, no partners, no car, no nothing. Do you smell that, Ms. March?” Luc asked, while raising his nose in the air and inhaling deeply. “It´s the aroma of Eau of Defeat, as you have aptly named it.”
There were tears running down my face as I found that I was holding a pen in my hand. Before me lay a document that stated quite simply that I would have literary success for the rest of my life if I agreed to have a child that they might raise with me. And the devil be damned, when I looked down again, there was my signature in what looked like red ink.
The days and weeks passed in a blur. Whenever I brought myself out of my fogged-up state, I found that I was seated in front of my pc, writing away. For some reason this is all I remember of those first weeks after signing the document. I had forgotten about everything else, even my friendship with CC, till one morning, for some ungodly reason, I found myself conscious about my surroundings as a man pulled me back brusquely from the curb as a bus passed, barely missing my huge and protruding stomach.
I tried to thank him as I turned around but the sidewalk was empty. I smelled freshly baked shortbread suddenly and nausea such as I had never known made me throw up on the curb. I held myself up on the stop sign till it passed and when I felt better, I looked around me. On the other side of the street was a medical facility. I was sure that had been my destination. I placed a hand over my stomach as I felt the child move inside. I could not for the life of me remember when I had gotten pregnant and with whom.
“Are you Bethany March, the writer? I can´t believe that here I am off to market and we cross paths! You are my favorite author. I have read all of your books. Are you working on another one? What is it about? You can tell me, I know how to keep a secret! My but you are pregnant. Here, you look a little peaked. Were you going over the road to the doctor? I will help you cross. Oh my when I tell the girls at tea that I have crossed paths with you they will be so jealous!” said the older woman that had appeared suddenly at my side. Once she had helped me to cross and left me with the nurse everything seemed to go blank again. Though my moments of lucidity came forth more often as the day of the birth approached.
I had one in the doctor’s office as I was examined with an ultrasound. The doctor said the baby boy looked perfect and that if everything went according to plan, I would give birth in two months. Two months! What had happened to the other months? I had no recollection of them. As I left the clinic I stepped out to another cold windy day. I was wearing a skirt again, but the cold didn´t seem to bother me anymore. I started walking home, feeling my stomach with my hand. I felt tears drying on my cheeks in the wind. I was pregnant. I was going to be the mother of a baby boy and I had no idea who the father was, though I was beginning to get slight snatches of memories as I walked towards Bleak House.
When I had another of those clear moments it was to find myself lying down on my bed and hearing the cry of a child coming from somewhere in the house. I got out of bed like I had been drinking all night, stumbling and having to hold myself steady on the wall some minutes. My robe lay on the back of the chair in front of my desk. When I picked it up it hit the mouse, making the computer light up to the page that had not been closed. It was the front page of The Scotsman newspaper and I saw my picture staring out at me. The headline spoke of my having won the prestigious writing award the Man Booker Prize. I closed my eyes and shook my head, but when I opened them the newsprint had not changed.
I could hear the child now gurgling with what seemed like glee from downstairs. I went to the door, opened it and went down the creaky stairs towards the kitchen where the sound was coming from. Luc, Mam and Beel had the baby sitting in its chair in the middle of the table while they made funny faces at it. The one face that I fully catched I did not find funny at all, as Luc was pushing through and retracting a set of horns from his forehead that had the baby laughing in mirth.
And seeing such a horrible sight I remembered everything since that day when I had found the three having tea in the kitchen. I remembered the deviousness of these three devils. How they had confused and tricked me to attain what they wanted. Sure, I was famous now, but at what price? But for some reason, seeing them there laughing along with the child, my heart softened. They did not seem so terrifying.
I remember sitting in the kitchen with the three old men, laughing at some story Luc was relating, while Mam in his old slippers and robe made tea. I also saw myself seated next to Beel, while he lay in bed in a room devoid of every comfort, holding his hand while he whined of his loneliness. I could clearly visualize the house now and all of its rooms. Luc´s room was downstairs, clean and orderly. Filled with books and the various trophies he had collected of the disgrace of prideful humans. As to Mam´s room, it was filled with gold, diamonds and other items of wealth that had been the downfall of the greedy. But these three demons, I clearly knew now what and who they were, Lucifer, Mammon and Beelzebub, only wanted what most humans wanted. Comfort in their old age and a child to fill Bleak House with laughter.
I could clearly remember seeing Beel in his pajamas out in the back garden hanging out to dry his boxers! Or Luc, mopping the entry hall in an old Black Sabbath t-shirt. They were old, very old, and had no wish to go out into the world looking for souls to tempt and take anymore. All they had wanted was a child to fill the hours, a child’s laughter to fill the days, a little ray of light shining into what had been a dark house, wanting to do no harm to it. And this house, Bleak House, had become my home. I was one of the lucky adults now. One who had a successful career, a home, a child, a car, a life. Even though it was a life lived with three old devils.
And as I went to pick the baby up, I wondered, did some of the apostles live down the street in a shared apartment? Old, lonely and tired because hardly anyone believed in them anymore? Maybe they all sat in the park together at mid-day and talked about theology. Were they on the same street to watch out for the three demons I lived with? Or maybe looking for a lost soul to share their apartment? Help them pay the rent? I could imagine the ad, something that read like this: Room for rent in shared apartment. Divine location. Lots of light.
I wondered if they took in single mothers that had lost their way…