Big Read: The Apartment

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Rug up well before you immerse yourself in this evocative slice of quality fiction.  This is an extract from THE APARTMENT by Greg Baxter, a novel that takes place across one snowy December day in a northern European city.

Our hero, a US ex-serviceman with a history in the Gulf wars, leaves his run-down hotel with Saskia, a local woman he has met in an art gallery and who has agreed to help him search for an apartment to rent.

In this atmospheric passage, we visit two apartments – Saskia’s and our hero’s new home – and begin to understand how we are defined by both the places where we choose to live and the people with whom we share fragments of our lives.

I’m in her bedroom, because her flatmate is making dinner and Saskia has refused to let me go near him. She is in her en-suite bathroom, and steam is coming through the barely cracked door – the extractor fan does not work, she said, so she has to crack it. The room is dimly lit by two lamps with dark blue, almost opaque, lampshades.

I am lying on her bed with my boots off – I left them in the cold and damp stairwell. My jeans are wet at the ankles, from the snow, so Saskia has put a towel down rather than make me sit on a chair. My shins, ankles and feet are cold. It’s the first time my feet and ankles have been cold in a long while. Otherwise I am warm. I’m still in my coat and scarf. My hat and gloves are beside me.

The music on the stereo, Saskia told me, is a Spanish pianist named Mompou, who, she claims, was Chopin’s only equal when it came to volume of sound in single notes. The music is slow, very slow, and seems to swirl and radiate in the dissipating edges of the steam coming from the bathroom. Saskia has been taking a shower for almost half an hour.

She poured me a glass of wine and then poured herself a glass and went into the bathroom with it. And I lie here, imagining her wet arm reaching out from behind the shower curtain, feeling for the glass, bringing it in for a sip, then replacing it.

This is the first time I’ve been in her flat, and the building is as grubby as Janos, back in the café, implied. The stairwells stink. The paint is peeling and the floors smell of mildew. The walls are so thin you can hear the heavy front door to the building open and close, four floors down.

Saskia’s bedroom is messy and cramped, but in an eccentric, smart way. Books are stacked all over the floor, but her bookshelf is empty, suggesting that she is the kind of person who reads seventy-five books at once. In the stacks are the jagged, flopped edges of loose pages and stapled bundles of paper, which have come from years of evening courses.

In many ways, she has admitted, she is not really reading books but working on thoughts, so that she might read a sentence in one book – a novel or a book of poems – and immediately need to leap to a history book, or an economics textbook, or an art book.

Her small collection of paintings hangs on the four walls of the room. They are all so small that you have to get up and look at them closely to make sense of them. Propped up on my little grey Samsonite case is the painting we bought together. I still cannot tell which way is up, and I’ve forgotten the way Saskia has shown me.

As soon as she is ready, Saskia and I are going to drop my things at my apartment and go find food. The woman – the landlord, or the landlord’s agent, I wasn’t sure – didn’t want to give me the keys, even though I had my bank documents. I had expected this. Saskia and Manuela offered to act as my references, but she required references from landlords. So I gave her a year’s worth of rent in cash.

I went into the bathroom, pulled it out of my money belt, and placed the whole stack on the kitchen counter. I’d half-hoped the woman might find it suspicious, but money is money. She smiled, took the keys out of her bag, and said, This one is the deadbolt to your door. This one is the door downstairs. This one is the door to the side terrace, and this one is to the bedroom’s balcony.

Saskia sat down at the kitchen table and smoked a cigarette. That was a lot of money to be carrying, she said. She was, I could see, disappointed after having seen it. I could not say if she was disappointed in me – because of the way I placed it on the counter, perhaps, like a gangster, or because of a suspicion on her part, which would have been justified, that I had added evil to the world in order to obtain it – or if she was simply disappointed by the fact that nobody could or wanted to resist money.

I said, I just wanted to get this over with. This is why it’s good to be rich, Manuela said. We did not spend too long in the apartment after that. Manuela, with errands to run, left us, and we promised we’d meet up at Chambinsky if we had the energy.

I sat in my large living room, looking out the window to my small terrace, overlooking the cemetery, in a large, comfortable rocking chair, while Saskia paced around the apartment on the phone, trying to book a table for later. She came in finally and sat heavily on the couch. Every place she knew was booked out.

She said, Why don’t you go get your stuff and bring it here, I’ll go home and change, and we’ll meet in the city? I agreed that was the smartest thing to do, but as we sat there pondering the consequences of separating, we did not seem interested in that, either. There was always a chance we might get sidetracked, get tired, and decide to raincheck dinner, and for my part, continuing the rest of the evening without her had, without my realizing it, become unthinkable.

So I suggested we stick together and see what happened, and when she agreed I could tell she liked the idea. Mr and Mrs Pyz were sad to see me go, but our goodbye wasn’t as emotional as I’d feared. They simply wished me well and told me to come back for dinner sometime. It was also easy to leave my little room. It might as well have been a bunk in sleeping quarters, for all the emotional attachment I had to it.

Saskia came into the room with me, expecting to help me pack, and was shocked to see how little I had with me. When we left Hotel Rus, I turned around to give myself a chance to capture it in the condition of me leaving it, so that if I lasted in this city for another twenty years, I might think back on it one Christmassy night and remember the moment; but as soon as we left it the picture went hazy.

We took a taxi to Saskia’s place with my belongings. It was snowing again, though not as heavily as before. I was getting hungry, and was eager to head into the city, find a place to eat, then maybe hit another Christmas market, hear some music, and figure out a way to skip Chambinsky.

The glass door between Saskia’s bedroom and the little shared balcony that runs in a square over the courtyard below is sweating badly with condensation. At the end of her bed, Saskia’s clothes are piled in three huge mounds, which she classifies as dirty-and- to- be- washed, dirty-but- to- wear- again, and washed-and- ready-to- iron. She irons a piece of clothing only when she needs to wear it.

She told me that she irons against the wall, since there is no room for an ironing board and no other uncluttered hard surface. Against the wall? I asked. Like this, she said, and showed me. There is nothing hung up in her closet, except hideous dresses she bought in a fever and is too embarrassed to return. The shower stops. I hear the water dripping off her into the plastic-bottomed shower box. I hear her open the shower curtain and step out, and I even hear the towel drying her. The Mompou is slow and quiet. There are times I assume it has stopped, then another note comes.

Saskia opens the bathroom door fully, and steam and warmth billow out. She is wearing a towel around her body and another on her head. Is the music too dull? she asks. It’s perfect, I say. She sits down beside me on the bed and throws the towel on her head onto the mound of dirty-but-to-use-again. She opens a drawer in a little chest beside her desk, and takes out some underwear and a bra.

She lets the other towel fall from her body and exposes her back to me, an inch away from where my arm is lying. Her back is muscular. I can feel heat coming off it, after the shower. She puts on the bra and stands up, and ties the towel around her waist. She changes the music from the Mompou CD to some trashy europop. She taps her fingers along with the beat.

You like this stuff? I ask. She walks to the bathroom again. You sound like Janos, she says. He can’t stand the fact that I have base tastes. Maybe he knows his stuff, I say. She makes some noise in the bathroom, opening and closing a drawer, spraying deodorant, and returns with a blow-dryer and a hairbrush. Janos thinks his alternative music on his alternative station is art, and he thinks this is pop, she says.

It’s all pop. His music is just as predictable, just as sentimental, and nearly as catchy. The only difference, she says, is that this music does not pretend to be anything. And it’s sung by people who are not pretending to be anything but petty celebrities. She plugs in the blow-dryer and sits back down beside me on the bed. Anyway, you can’t hear Mompou over this, she says, and turns the blow-dryer on.

She’s ready about twenty minutes later, wearing black tights and a denim mini-skirt, a dark green, long-sleeve top, and an amber costume necklace. You look nice, I say. Do I? she says. We put on our boots in the stairwell, having completely avoided any contact with the roommate.

Every stairwell in this city has the same overpowering underscent – a scent of wet stone. Nothing gets rid of it. Nothing even really masks it. Not plants or pots of potpourri or urine or mice or sunlight or shadow or breeze. Saskia’s stairwell has it. The stairwell at Hotel Rus had it, and inside the lift too. And the stairwell in my new building has it.

The woman who showed us the apartment stayed on her phone all the way up the stairs. I immediately wondered if the phone call, which seemed to express the fact that she was speaking to somebody else about the apartment, was an act, and wanted to tell her, as she clicked severely up the broad stone steps, that it did not matter, that if the place had walls and a ceiling, I was going to take it.

She was a striking woman, less pretty in every respect but in every respect more beautiful than Manuela, not merely in aspect but in the air that came off her: she was stranger, more serious, more distant. I wondered if she spent time on her own after work watching people from windows, if she switched her phone off, sat down in a bar or café on her own, and wished she were another person, in another place.

We arrived at the door to the apartment and she put the phone away. She turned around and waited for us all to arrive on the landing. She gave us an inauthentic, polite smile, one she did not even realize she was giving. She put the key in the door and asked us to step in. I went first, then Saskia, then Manuela, and finally the woman.

The hallway inside the door was arched, white, and high, and had a small chandelier. The walls were wallpapered, and the wallpaper was old. Manuela and Saskia agreed that it would have to be redone, but I liked the way it looked. In fact, it was very much in line with the way I imagined it would have to be. There were two doors to the right and two to the left, and one straight ahead, which was the bathroom. The doors to the right were bedrooms.

The first door to the left was the kitchen. The second was the living room. Every room had high ceilings, white walls, and a darkly stained wooden floor, except the kitchen, which was tiled. It was cold, but that was because the woman arrived only a few minutes before us to turn the heat on, she told us.

Have a look around, said the woman. She checked the time on her phone and said, Take all the time you need. Saskia, perhaps sensing that I wasn’t going to bother looking at all, took me into the kitchen. It was a large, rectangular room, with lots of counter space and a little island for chopping, above which pots and pans and large utensils hung from hooks. Beyond the island was a space with a large rectangular table. Beyond that was the flowerpot-sized balcony we had seen from the street. There was also a glass door in the far wall, with a view of the graveyard, that opened to a long, narrow terrace that stretched the full length of the apartment.

It’s nice, said Saskia. It sure is, I said. Let’s check the bedrooms, she said. Manuela was in the bathroom, testing the water pressure. The shower came on – spurting once or twice, as the pipes in the wall shook and groaned, as though it had not been used in a long time. Manuela shouted, Good pressure!

The guest bedroom was the same size as the kitchen, but, with only one window, which faced the street we had arrived on, was much darker. I only peered in. I had a feeling I would never be in there. But Saskia sat on the bed and said, as she bounced up and down lightly on the mattress, This is perfect. This is all I need.

I left her there and went to the master bedroom, a large room with a big bed that faced some sliding doors that led to a small square enclosure. The curtains were drawn to either side of the glass doors. I opened them and stepped out. Saskia and Manuela followed.

The little balcony, which had a high wall separating me from the next balcony, overlooked a pitifully dark and narrow space between the backs of buildings. There were wires and clothes lines and antennae, little plastic chairs beside flowerpots and small charcoal grills. Saskia looked over the edge. It looks like an Egon Schiele painting, she said. There were so many different shades of white and grey and brown and silver and black in that narrow space that it seemed like one very mottled and disconsolate colour. Dots of contrast – hanging red shirts and yellow underwear and green sweaters – had grown icicles.

I like it, I said. Some plants might cheer it up, said Saskia. It’s north-facing, said Manuela. Nothing will grow but ferns. It’ll be nice in summer, said Saskia, when you want shade. I did not feel the need to check the bathroom closely, but when we crossed the hallway to the living room, I peeked inside, and saw a large tub, a gleaming white commode, and an oval mirror above a sink. That was all I needed to know – a bathroom of my own, with a tub big enough to lie down in. I would drag a little table beside the tub and put some books and a glass of cold water and an ashtray on it, and take the hottest baths I could bear.

The living room was large and wide, and because of the width there was the illusion that this ceiling was higher than the others. It was maybe thirty feet long and twenty feet wide. That is not large relative to really large rooms, but compared to my little room in Hotel Rus it seemed like an opera house. Manuela sat on the couch and Saskia and I looked out the window. Beyond the long, narrow terrace and the two-lane street below us, headstones and crypts dotted a snowy, tree-filled hill, and beyond that the city rolled gradually downward, toward the river valley, and far beyond that were mountains, concealed by snow and fog.

The woman drifted in behind us. That window, she said, gets the sun all evening. How long has the apartment been empty? Saskia asked. Not long, said the woman. The creaking and spitting pipes in the bathroom suggested she was lying, but that did not matter.

Somewhere between the apartment and Hotel Rus, on the underground, on our way to get my things, Saskia asked, Does it bother you to be so close to a cemetery? How do you mean? I asked. People like to pretend they will live forever, she said. Oh, I said. She said, quoting, speaking from memory, slowly, Let us await it everywhere. I looked at her. She smiled. She was always in many places at once, invested deeply in a hundred different notions, and of all the things I liked about Saskia that was the thing I liked most.

She took my arm in her hand, as though we were walking, and said, Such a long day. That repose, that sleepiness and quiet, accompanied her all the way to Hotel Rus, in Hotel Rus, and on the way to her flat. She had her eyes closed often, and rested her head on my arm. The daylight was still semi-strong when we separated from Manuela, but had disappeared by the time we arrived at her place. Saskia was so tired I feared the end of her day had arrived, but the shower and a bit of wine revived her.

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