When I first moved to London and was looking for a room to rent, I didn’t take any of the precautions I now know to be necessary. I didn’t check the mattresses and furniture for bedbugs, I didn’t visit the neighborhood after dark to gauge its safety, I didn’t check my landlord’s record with the council to see if there were any lawsuits. I avoided the disasters to which I had left myself vulnerable only by luck.
The room I chose is in a pre-Dickensian tenement in the old Irish neighborhood of Kilburn. When I moved in there were two other people living in the flat, a pensioner from Liverpool named Ken, and a Philippino cleaning lady named Irma; one other room was empty. Ken told me that Irma used to have a another friend living in her room and that my room and the empty room downstairs each had two people living in them, all Philipino immigrants, bringing the tenant number of the four-bedroom flat to seven, but that that arrangement had recently been outlawed by the council for some reason having to do with taxation. Before he had arrived a few months before, his room had been occupied by a German woman named Lolita, who apparently still came around once in a while to steal silverware or other amenities that she claimed to have originally purchased for the house. It all seemed part of the exciting new world of London to me.
The day after I moved in, Ken asked, in the overly-tactful tones of someone whose job it is to tell you a loved one is dead, that I not put my tampons in the bathroom bin.
“But….where, then?” (blushing horribly)
“Well, the Philipinos used to do all that stuff in their rooms and then take them out in little baggies to the dumpster when they went to work in the mornings.”
“What?? No, I can’t do that—why do you know this??”
“I mean it’s unsanitary to have them just lying in the bin like that; it’s biological material and it decays and stinks and attracts flies.” His anxiety surprised me; it's not as if I flung them naked over my shoulder and watched them slide down the wall; I usually wasted half a roll of toilet paper wrapping them up like small mummies and stacked them neatly at the bottom of the can.
“I’ve never had a fly problem. I really don’t like talk—“
“I mean if you won’t keep it in your room, at least the bin in the kitchen has a lid so the flies won’t get at it.”
“I’m not walking my tampons to the kitchen.”
Actually, Lolita had recently stolen the lidded bin from the kitchen and ever since then we’ve thrown our garbage in an orange plastic grocery bag from Sainsbury’s which sits atop the kitchen table. Even had I been willing to make the journey with fistfuls of balled-up tissues from the bathroom to the kitchen every time I required a change, I figured that adding menstrual detritus to the used teabags and banana peels staring Ken in the face while he takes his tea would just aggravate his unease, so I bought a small bin with a flip lid for the bathroom. For the first few months I’d leave the bin empty and only line it with a grocery bag when I needed to use it, but I found that if Ken saw the orange handles peeking out from under the lid for more than five days in a row, he’d lecture me again about flies and decay. So now I replace the liner with another at the end of my period and leave it there for the rest of the month so he can’t tell when my periods are or how negligent I’m being without flipping open the lid and risking a faceful of rot and stench. Sometimes, tired of his policing, I consider collecting nine or ten of my used tampons and hanging them like windchimes over his door, but this fantasy usually only preoccupies me in those vengeful and intemperate days leading up to my periods; when the time is ripe for gathering, my moods have softened and I’m more concerned with finding burgers and chocolate.
Ken told his life story to me in fragments; when we get along, he often comes into the kitchen while I’m eating dinner and picks up at whatever chapter he left off, or repeats one he had told me before if it is sticking in his memory. He worked as some significant sort of bureaucrat in Whitehall all his life until offered a deceptively attractive early retirement package, which he accepted and has regretted ever since. Now he is past reemployment age, bored with the idleness to which he consigned himself, unable to enjoy much of a social life on his paltry stipend, and spends many hours a day sitting on the couch in the living room staring at the wall. Eventually he bought a TV license and took his old Panasonic out of storage and now watches sports and American movies from breakfast until he goes to bed at one thirty in the morning. He was married once, just after his retirement, to a Colombian woman named Bibiana who he claims comes from one of that country’s notorious drug cartel families and who finally wiped him out and ruined his credit: after giving up his lucrative job, he lost in his divorce from Bebe his house in Greenwich, his life savings, including his severance package from Whitehall, and most of his possessions. Every once in a while Bibiana calls up, asking for “Meester Ken” and Ken disappears with the phone into his room, and emerges two hours later, white-faced and shaking.
More naturally fussy than I am about housekeeping, Ken usually takes the dishes left after washing to dry by the sink, towel-dries them, and returns them to their cupboards. I consider life to be too short to be spent in pointlessly fastidious tasks like wiping down cereal bowls and polishing spoons, and have always been content to live out of the dish rack, so to speak. It saves the trouble of having to both open and close the cupboard door, and eliminates the threat of leaving it open and bumping one’s head against it while lost in concentration over the stir-fry. Also, I’ve probably seen too many movies, maybe watched too much X-Files, but there’s always in my mind a small but specific dread of opening the cupboard door and finding something hideous and unnatural sitting on the shelf next to the coffemugs—a severed foot, perhaps, or the chupacabra. Unlikely, I’ll admit, but better safe than sorry. When Ken and I are on the outs, he continues his meticulous attention to his own and the other housemates’ utensils and porcelainware but leaves mine on the rack. In our relatively peaceful household, this passes as “fightin’ words.” So in retaliation I put my goods in the cupboard and use his stuff instead. I replace my usual low-maintenance snacks of avocado and yogurt with more complicated meals requiring pots and large spoons and multiple plates, even a colander if I can find a use for it. After I wash them, I then leave all of them dripping and preferably still sudsy on the rack, forcing him to either fume silently as his own kitchenware air-dries, or to once again clean up after me like the harried hausfrau he failed to recognize is his true vocation. An advantage of this method is that unlike me, Ken did not buy his silverware at the 99p shop, and it’s refreshing to use knives that don’t bend when I try to cut cheese with them, and forks which don’t break off at the head and get lost in my spaghetti. Likewise, once we’ve made up, in a gesture symbolic of our renewed amity, Ken will take whatever I just washed, lovingly wipe it down so that it shines dry and pristine, and carefully return it to the cupboard.
Ken and I have been the only constant tenants of our apartment for these two years. Irma had an obese boyfriend who would break the tiles on the bathroom floor when he stepped out of the shower, and when we complained, she moved out. Then we got an American girl from Texas who was studying for a year at London School of Economics. She drank a lot and would introduce disgusting or otherwise objectionable topics when we were all eating in the kitchen, particularly if Ken was there. I remember an awkward dinner one night when she opened the discussion by asking Ken if she could borrow his razor to shave her nether bits before her date later that night. She would often attempt to provoke him in this way; I think she believed herself something of a brazen Yankee firecracker amidst the stodgy old-world Brits who just didn’t know what to make of someone so honest and uninhibited. Ken never responded with the level of aghastment I think she was seeking, but he did develop a keen and unyielding animosity towards her with which he bullied her into leaving after only two months. For a while we had a Japanese girl who was here on a workstudy program in PR and a Colombian woman who worked for a fishmonger in St. John’s Wood; we liked her even though she spoke no English because she would often bring us free fish, and even better, cook it for us with pilaf, but she left to move in with her boyfriend, also a fishmonger. Then we had two Japanese girls named Yoko. Downstairs Yoko still lives with us, but Upstairs Yoko moved out after a horrifying murder took place in our building.
I left the house one morning to find our street cordoned off and a policeman with a clipboard asking me for my name, my exact address, where was I going now, when did I plan on coming back and would I be available for questioning then? He wouldn’t tell me what happened, but I found out on the news later on that a headless body had been found in the recycling cage in front of our house. When I came home that night the street was still roped off, I had to sign in again, and a large tent had been set up in our courtyard, with security guards and men in forensics suits milling about, taping black plastic over the windows and carrying boxes of things from the apartment. I caught a glance of a meat cleaver in one of them. Luckily they honed in on the man they believed committed the murder before I got home, but Ken and Upstairs Yoko had each endured three-hour interrogations that day.
It turned out that the body belonged to our neighbor on the first floor, who, it quickly surfaced, went by several names. To us he gave the name, “Kamal Kamal,” to our landlord Bilesh, “Alberto Reynondo,” and to others, some complicated Algerian name I can’t remember. He received, and still receives, mail addressed to all of his names. The man charged with the murder was our neighbor next door, who lived in the flat above the victim’s, and who was tracked down in Leeds two days later. He admitted to having dumped the head in a canal in nearby Little Venice.
It was all a very dismal business, and the Yokos were quite shaken by it, particularly as the murderer had chatted each of them up on different occasions. I felt that the least our landlord could do, considering it all, was to lower our rent, but when our contracts were up he instead raised it for each of our rooms by five pounds a week. Two months after the murder, the police returned control of the two empty one-bedroom apartments next door to Bilesh, who then rented both of them at two hundred forty pounds a week each to the family of Somalians who had been living in our basement for the past year. We were shocked Bilesh had the cheek to demand the market price, and the highest end of the market price at that, for these apartments which, even without considering what had taken place in them, were pretty shabby—ill-heated, no fire escape. We were even more shocked that the Somalians, who knew what had happened there, were willing to pay such a sum for them, but the council is paying their rent and they don’t seem to mind the ghosts. I suspect they’ve seen worse in their lifetimes.
Upstairs Yoko decided to move somewhere she believed more peaceful, although I doubt there’s anywhere in this ancient city that didn’t see, somewhere in its history, a similarly bloody episode. I considered moving at the time, but it somehow seemed an overreaction. Ken’s fussiness, a daily bother, is a much more powerful incentive to leave, as are Bilesh’s relentless increases on the rent every six months. And yet Kilburn is a pretty great neighborhood to live in, and I have a lot of closet space, and an extra bed in my room for when my mom visits me. Ken does make nice mashed potatoes for us once in a while. I guess it all makes for a good story.