Cacti by Uschi Gatward
So this is it then. I've been here a year today.
It isn't much, but then it isn't much. In fact it's ridiculously cheap. Very few people know that you can get rooms in London this cheap.
I'm paying less now than I was paying ten years ago when I first moved to London. I don't mean less in real terms, taking into account the cost of inflation. I mean really less. I'm paying less than I have ever paid. Although ten years ago I was paying far too much for my room.
What you get, for less than half what you would dream of paying, is a bedsit in a block of eighteen bedsits which was probably once six flats.
This is all the space I need. I can fit everything I own into a suitcase and two carrier bags. I know this because that's what I had with me when I moved in here and I haven't bought anything since.
The main feature of the room is the bed. It has blankets on it, which came with it. I brought the sheets with me.
The other feature is a large stain on the floor. Rug-sized, but I don't have a rug. I don't mind.
The top left-hand corner of the room is my kitchen. It's next to the window so I can look across the street when I'm cooking. The window is too small and high up to see out of unless you're standing next to it. There is a sink with a draining board on one side and a hob on the other. The hob holds two saucepans.
The small rustspotted fridge with the corroded seal doesn't light up when you open it. When I open it. I'm the only one who opens it. It contains a dish of baked beans, a tub of margarine, a carton of milk, a small, slightly furry cube of cheese, half an onion, and a bottle of champagne.
The champagne is real champagne and was given to me by someone a long time ago, before I moved in here, when I had something to celebrate. The something to celebrate turned out very quickly to be nothing to celebrate, before I'd even had time to drink the champagne, so I brought it with me in my suitcase when I moved in here, and it's stayed here, waiting for my luck to change. Every time I open the fridge it reminds me that my luck has yet to change.
On top of the fridge is a small radio, and a cactus. I've had the cactus for three years. It seems to survive anything, even if you forget to water it for weeks. I look after it now, because it's in the same room as me, and it's getting healthy. I use the fridge top as a work surface.
I don't have a wardrobe, which is fine, because I don't have clothes. My jeans and t-shirts are stacked on a shelf, along with my toiletries. The second shelf holds crockery, cutlery and dry food. Spaghetti, cooking oil, salt, bread, and tins: baked beans, tomatoes, soup. There is also tea, coffee, and four cartons of longlife milk. The longlife is so that I'm not tempted to go to the shops and spend money. You can live very cheaply if you don't buy anything.
The space underneath the shelves is occupied by the meter, which takes cards. A small cabinet next to the bed holds a clock and contains paper, pens and library books. It also contains my post office book, which has eighty pounds saved in it. I don't know what I'm saving for, because all I could buy with my savings is whatever I'm going without in order to save. I just feel like there might be something to save for, something I should save for. A rainy day.
My shoes are by the bed and my coat and my towel hang on a peg on the door.
Laundry goes into a carrier bag on a nail on the door. There is a laundrette half a mile away but at weekends the bathroom is often free for washing clothes. I tie a length of string diagonally across the room for a line. I share the bathroom and toilet with the couple next door and the man across the hall. The woman is the only one who stops to talk. When I first moved in I said hello to the man across the hall but he always hurried past me so now I don't. He wears a suit. I don't know if he has the kind of job which requires a suit (in which case, what is he doing here?) or if he's the kind that wears a suit anyway. I've never spoken to him. I only ever see him when he comes home from work. He goes straight to his room and slams the door, quickly, and never comes out. He must have a bladder of steel. I hear him frying things in the evenings.
I hardly see the husband. I think he works nights, which is probably the only way two people can live in one room. I don't know whether their room is the same size as mine because I've never seen inside it. She usually half closes the door behind her when we talk. She can't be much above thirty, but her hair is faded brown and greying. Her clothes are grey too, washed too often. Her face is pale and lined. She moves very slowly and softly, and she speaks quietly. I think that's how I got the idea her husband works nights. I don't think she's ever said.
She looks like she never sees daylight but I know for a fact she does because I hear her leave for work at seven o'clock each morning. I don't know what kind of work she does. When you're living in a ten by six bedsit with nicotine wallpaper and mushrooms in the skirting board it seems politer not to ask.
There's a couple upstairs as well. Chinese or Vietnamese or something like that. I see them quite often, but they don't speak English. There's an old man on the same floor as them. I know he's on the same floor because I hear him wheezing up the one flight of stairs and coughing on the landing. I wonder why he didn't take my room when it came up. He must have been here for years.
I don't know who lives above me, but I hear their music. The others upstairs I hardly know by sight. I only see them if we pass each other at the front door, and people come and go. Even while I've been here, people have come and gone.
Today could be an occasion for the champagne but it doesn't seem enough, especially after keeping the bottle for so long. Maybe when I've been here five years. Will that be something to celebrate? How long can you keep champagne? Does it go off? That would be terrible, if the champagne went off. If my luck changed and I had something to celebrate and I decided to open the champagne and it had gone off.
I don't have a glass to drink it from. I would have to drink it from the bottle. I could take it next door. I could ask the woman next door if she has any glasses, and if she'd like a glass of champagne. She would wonder where I got it. She might think I stole it. I might have to tell her how I got it, and then I would have to tell her the whole story and I don't want to do that. Or she might not ask. She might just say no, she doesn't have any glasses, and no, she doesn't want any champagne. I don't think she would ask me in. I could ask her in, but there's nowhere to sit, except on the bed. I could go next door with the champagne and say I've been here exactly one year and I'm celebrating and would she like to have some champagne with me. She might wonder what there is to celebrate.
I hate the way the champagne looks at me, but the other reason for not drinking it is that once I've drunk it there will be nothing good in this room, except the radio and the cactus and the library books and the post office book.
I should mark the day in some way. I could buy a cake.
I go to the shop and spend a long time choosing. It's a long time since I have had a cake. I feel dizzy with the choice. I choose a coffee and walnut sponge. At the flowershop I buy another cactus, a different one. It's in its own tiny flowerpot the size of an eggcup and it's a perfect globe, pale green and covered in thousands and thousands of tiny bristles which are soft to the touch. The man in the shop tells me it doesn't need much water or light. So now I have two of them. Cacti. This is the first thing I have bought for the room.
I walk home with the cake in one hand and the cactus in the other.
As I return with the cake and the cactus, the woman from next door tells me that the man across the hall is dead. She doesn't say how, or how anyone knew, and I don't ask. The couple from upstairs stand on the stairs talking their own language. The old man comes out of his room and coughs on the landing for a while then goes back inside. An ambulance takes away the body, and the room is cleared and locked up again. I wonder how they'll let that room now. I wonder how big it is.
When the ambulance leaves, I go back inside and crack open the champagne. Not because the man is dead. It just seems like the thing to do.
© Uschi Gatward, 2014
Uschi Gatward was born in East London and lives there now. She has been shortlisted for the Asham Award and the Bristol Short Story Prize. Her story 'Pink Lemonade' appears in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (vol 6), published 2013. Her work has recently been featured online at Litro and performed at Liars’ League London, and is forthcoming in Southword, Structo and a British Council anthology. She is a guest blogger for Mslexia.
Cacti was read by Kristen Calgaro on 4th June 2014