The borough is pieced up and sold. They stake signs in front gardens, or balance them between bins. Agents fill the streets with crowds, strangers pushing into flats in queues while the tenants sit on the beds. They finger the ferns in the back garden and take tape measures to furniture, snapping pictures and murmuring or calling their mothers for more money.
After they leave, the tenants linger, semi-detached, peopling pubs and bakeries and nightlines and food banks. At night they hear music coming from the cars or the parks or the houses, and say: there; they can’t take that away.
Here, even the rubbish is elegant: a mandarin peel with stalk and leaf still attached; a single gardening glove; flattened cigarette packets with Turkish and Ethiopian safety warnings scrolled across; two rosebuds, cut short for corsages, abandoned together. Breezes spin the dirt and dust in dancing whorls, and pick it up or set it down like a toy. When I walk back from my shift, the streets are empty, all mine.
On my shift one night I saw Lorraine. She caught my elbow when it was just the two of us. Her caked lashes fluttered.
‘I didn’t know whether to say,’ she murmured, ‘but Sam’s wife had the baby. But there were complications.’
‘Complications?’ I asked.
‘It died. I didn’t know whether to tell you but he keeps coming to the food bank, and I didn’t want you not to know.’
I first met them at the open house at our old place. The flat was full of strangers, and in the living room the estate agent had spread copies of the floorplan on our sofa, so there was nowhere to sit.
‘It’s not even really for us to live in,’ she groaned to someone on the phone, toying with the leaves of my flatmate’s ficus while she talked.
Then, later: ‘We’re digital nomads, Mum. We’ll put it on Airbnb. It pays for itself, and then some.’
I found the second one looking through our fridge, eyeing bloody beef chunks still sitting in their plastic packet. When I caught him at it, he looked over at me with a chill gaze.
When I got back to my room, I saw I had left my wallet on top of my chest of drawers. A tenner was gone from it.
After the open day, me and my flatmate found a new place up the road but in that final month before eviction, I burned furious in my room.
The day before it was time to give the keys back to the lettings agency, I marched into the keycutter in High Street Ken station. He was a tall, bald man with an apron on, like a butcher. He wore a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show old blue tattoos, blotted with years.
I fetched the Yale key and the one for the deadlock off my set, and set them on the counter.
‘Would you be able to make another set of these for me, please?’
He looked me in the eye as he reached for them, and he took the keys away with a strange jangle.
‘Airbnb?’ he asked, drily.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘For a visitor.’
He turned away. At the machine, he fitted the old Yale key into a vice, then set a blank in alongside it. The machine traced the profile of the key, cutting its double. Then he ran the new key along a whirring brush, cleaning up the blade.
‘There’, he said, lifting the new key into the air. ‘Sharp as you like. Any trouble getting it through the door –’ He slid it back to me over the counter, ‘be rough.’
We moved house. The new place was OK. I was working half the week as a freelancer, sitting at home day-in day-out like a convalescent. In the new living room, the faithful sun would track across the table and walls like a slow-stroking finger as I sent and received emails, silent repartees. A better person would have found some relief in the glitter of leaf shadows on a freshly-painted living room wall.
‘Where have you been?’ my flatmate asked a month later. ‘You look radiant.’
When I went to turn the light out at bedtime I still felt a nicotine-like lightness in my fingertips.
In the mornings, when I was off out to the shops or wherever, the couple often left the old place just a moment before me.
‘Quo Vadis?’ He asked her one morning.
She rolled her eyes. ‘Again?’
‘I don’t really get why they’ve piled on Stacey Dooley,’ she opined.
‘Mm,’ he replied, midway through a protein bar.
Their voices rang down the street like children’s. They didn’t listen to themselves, so instead, I did.
(Never mind the luminous lavender sunsets, silver moons, red Boston ivy, someone’s daughter perched in her pram creased with laughter, central heating, loved ones, that autumn’s yellow plane trees. This couple was so ugly, then, that nothing was good).
Back at the food bank, I saw Lorraine again, peeling off white labels with her French tipped nails. We remarked at length on the weather.
‘You look well,’ she said, her eyes politely dancing down my outfit then back to my face. She smiled. ‘Have you been away?’
‘On my salary?’ I laughed. ‘I wish.’
‘Doesn’t have to be expensive, does it?’ She smiled, catching my eye.
Of course she was right. There was always a trip back to my parents’. Clichés about sea air blowing cobwebs away held firm. I loved the train ride back to London after a weekend away, a feeling that I’d made a home here.
I thought about going to the sea. I was doing so well for a while, then. I managed to go for weeks hardly looking at the flat. I shopped, I danced, I dated. But like an incredible kiss, the memory of it kept coming back to me at night. I began to blush when I walked past it to the shops or the tube, fantasising about the key in the lock. On a very drunken night bus, I could finally hear a voice inside me, whispering: you are not like the others.
I didn’t mean any harm by what I did to them. I just started to knock at the old flat during the day. 8am, 6pm: when they were in, they would hand my post back.
Through the doorway I gazed in at my ex-home. Furniture stood draped in ghostly sheets.
By knocking, I discovered they were both out between about 8.45am and 6.20pm, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. So one day, I took my keys. Sweat sobbed from my palms as I walked past half a dozen houses to the old place. The paint on the gate was still chipped, and spiders still clung to the undersides of the window ledges. I put the Yale to the lock, like always, and fumbled like it was the first time. With a shocking crack, the door moved just a millimetre when I pressed. I hulked against it twice before remembering the deadlock. By then it felt like my heart had dropped onto the welcome mat. I backed off its Helvetica HELLO and walked away. Cowardice gnawed my guts.
But after that, it was easy. Inside, I turned the heating off, spat in the milk, rearranged their shoes and stole a housewarming card. Closing my old door afterwards, my heart thrummed.
The second time came four days later, worse. Sweating with indignation, I heaved open the back door from the inside, familiar with its stiff handle, and left it swinging. I took the loose change from the side, pocketing the pounds, and planted the pennies in their leftovers. I pulled silk shirts from the wardrobe where my grotty T-shirts had hung and snipped the buttons from their threads and pocketed one, where it jingled with the pound coins like a pearly ducat.
Go, I wrote on the mirror in lipstick. I tipped the contents of the fridge on the floor. I took their pestle and smashed the glass in their picture frames. I found a book of poetry – poetry! – on the sofa and ripped out the pages. I chewed them and spat them out onto the mustard velvet of their brand new couch. I cast my eyes about the room for other things – Taschen books, succulents, soy candles – to wreck. Anger quite suddenly deserted me. I found myself standing tensed in a stranger’s living room, a fragment of Rupi Kaur stuck to the roof of my mouth.
I thought I heard something. I glanced at the slatted blinds at the front of the flat to see a figure at the door: the postie. As soon as he was gone, I ran out.
They had come not with keys but with letters, papers and banker’s drafts, to lock me out. Why did they deserve peace?
It was a shift at the food bank that finally got me out of bed. It was all going smoothly until I saw Lorraine again.
‘Sam’s wife had the baby,’ she said. ‘She’s alright, the baby’s alright.’ She pressed her glossy lips together and beamed, then patted her immaculate blowdry and went back to work.
As I walked home afterwards to the empty flat, I could hear the quiet voice again.
The third time was the worst. I had worked myself up into a rage, see. I walked to the door with my chest, keys hurt-tight in my fist.
I had made it so far as to put one key to the hole when I noticed it: a black plastic device clamped to the red brickwork. I eyed myself in the dark bulb covering the camera, a red light for its pupil. I slowly, slowly turned away.
I moved stiff and slow back down the garden path, then went home and lay on the bed, staring at smears of white emulsion on the light fixing.
I was laid out like a floorboard when I heard a knock on my door. I looked out of the window and saw him with his arms crossed on the street, staring at the front door. He glanced up and saw me, then called to someone at the door, ‘she’s inside’.
I ducked behind the tall back of the chair between me and the window.
Someone banged again.
‘We know you’re in there,’ he shouted.
Desperate to resolve it before my flatmate got back, I crept down the stairs.
As she knocked a third time, I answered.
She stared at me for a moment before opening her mouth.
‘We saw you today,’ he interrupted.
‘Alright, Pete,’ she told him.. ‘We did see you,’ she said to me. ‘Was it you who….’
‘No,’ I said, blushing furiously. ‘I was just returning that set of keys.’
‘Fucking liar,’ Pete yelled. He paced the kerb.
‘We are going to the police,’ she said quietly. ‘What you did was completely illegal.’
I nodded, and she drew away. I double-locked the front door, and then lay in bed again.
After an hour, I began to think I could hear someone moving around inside our flat.
But it was just the wind outside, rifling through the branches of the trees behind the flat. It looked for leaves to tear out, and the branches let them go.
Ellie Broughton is a writer and journalist from London. Her short stories have been published by Open Pen and others, and her non-fiction can be found in Elsewhere Journal.