The Apartment - K. L. Slater


His chance to speak to her comes in Starbucks on Kensington High Street, of all places.

He stands behind the queue of people who are silently debating whether to go for the vanilla latte or today’s special: a Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino, according to the poster on the back wall.

When he arrived, the streets had seemed quiet, the warm air buffeting his ears, but here in the café it is busy and he finds it slightly claustrophobic.

He’d spotted her from the outside. She’d been scanning the cluttered bulletin board on the wall next to the window. Perusing the small white index cards, hastily scrawled by locals with details of items for sale, babysitting services, and a separate section at the side for homes available for rent.

He approaches quickly now, battling through the wall of noise rising from the packed tables. Her head, with its neat brown ponytail, is bent forward as she bites her lip and repeatedly runs a fingertip over the rental cards. The café atmosphere feels damp and cloying around him.

Michael picks his way past snivelling toddlers and families jostling for seats and positions himself in front of the board, right next to her.

He waits for her to look up and notice his frustrated expression. She doesn’t.

Michael clears his throat. ‘Sorry, I hate to ask but . . . would you mind awfully, if I just squeezed past?’

‘What?’ She looks up, startled.

Michael can see she is in no mood for chatting but that’s OK, they almost never are. He grins conspiratorially. ‘You know, coffee shops are quite a stressful experience when you think about it . . . all this chaos for little more than a cup of hot, frothy milk.’

Her face lights up with a brief but genuine smile. ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right.’

Michael reaches down into his overcoat pocket and plucks out the wedge of flyers. ‘I wasn’t sure whether to put these on the tables or’ – he makes a big deal of looking at the dingy bulletin board as the coffee machines continue to whoosh out their steam – ‘I could just pin one on the rentals board here. What do you think?’

‘What’s it about?’ She glances at the flyer he’s holding up. He sees her face is pale and drawn with worry. And no wonder.

‘Nothing exciting I’m afraid. There’s an apartment up for rent in my building. The tenant let me down, but if I can get a few flyers out today, it should be taken by the morning.’

‘Must be a nice apartment if it’s going to be snapped up overnight,’ she says gloomily, sitting down.

‘It’s a very nice apartment,’ he agrees, thinking of the distinctly average family home she has just been forced to sell. She’ll be worrying now, of course, about where she and the girl will end up. ‘A short walk to Hyde Park, built-in wardrobes and bills included. Ideal for the right person, I’d say.’

‘Lucky them,’ she mumbles to herself, and he almost misses the words amidst the background din.

‘Ahh, now that’s where you’d be wrong, you see. Because luck has very little to do with it.’ Michael pauses, waiting for his words to register and reel her in inch by tantalising inch. ‘The new person has to be just right. Has to fit in perfectly with the other five residents already living at Adder House.’

‘Adder House,’ she repeats thoughtfully. ‘Sounds . . . interesting.’

‘It is indeed very interesting,’ he agrees.

‘Can I take a look at one of those?’

Michael slides a flyer forward on the table and she reaches for it with fingers that are delicate but woefully neglected. Raw, rough patches pattern the top of her hand, and her nails are bitten to the quick. A narrow band of white shrunken skin is evident on the third finger of her left hand where her wedding ring sat for twelve years.

He watches as her burnished-brown eyes flick over the page, taking in the interior photographs of the apartment. She lingers on the impressive fa?ade of Adder House itself. It always gets them in the end, even the really stubborn ones.

‘It doesn’t say how much the rent is on here.’

‘That’s because the amount payable is dependent upon the circumstances of the successful tenant. The landlord sets the level, and it’s always a figure the person can afford.’

‘Your landlord must have a screw loose,’ she says, a thread of impatience unravelling in her tone. ‘A place like that? Be at least a couple of grand a week, I reckon. Probably even more.’

‘Maybe I have