At 12 Steyne Road, tenants climb the stairs subtly like a serpent slithering through a hole. In the tradition of the gaunt, sleepy, Edwardian house, order is well cherished even when this means pedantry. ‘Hope you’re comfortable without a kitchen? We don’t allow laundry or washing here,’ Kwesi remembers what the landlady said earlier as he picks his way up, one foot at a time, in front of the short, wizened, old woman who leans on a baluster, taking him through the climbing lesson. Mrs. Azra follows at a much slower pace when Kwesi reaches the head of the stairs, the wooden staircase creaks wherever she places her heels on it.
‘Lovely gentleman,’ she gives him a toothless smile the moment she gains the landing but he is looking away towards the loos, where a gush of late September wind flicks the doors fitfully against the wall. She is a seventy-five year old woman and has a broad, meaty face set below a mass of fine, grey hair, flowing from the parting on her scalp down to her chin. Her husband had inherited 12 Steyne Road, only two years after she relocated from Croatia to London to begin a new life and they had wedded a year after. Robert, their only child, already had a family in Uxbridge where he worked in a firm as a database administrator. So the old couple had let out the upstairs rooms while they themselves led a quiet life, free of disturbance, on the ground floor apartment. Kwesi, directed from a Central London agency, has come to view a room that has just become vacant.
There are four rooms in all. She leads him to the first one on the left, the vacant one. Once inside, she lifts the blinds and pushes the window open. The room retains its faint musty smell despite the ventilation. The air chills his face and he runs his palm through his goatee that is beginning to itch as he takes in everything around him. The room cannot be larger than a third of the one he occupied at home back in Kumasi, he thinks. The bed, the edge on which Mrs. Azra sits, takes about half of the room, leaving a desk and a chair, a wall-high wardrobe, a cabinet, a waste-paper basket and a table, bearing a microwave, an electric kettle and a toaster to scramble for the remaining space.
‘You like it?’ she asks, pulling a chair for him to sit.
‘It’s okay,’ says Kwesi with an expression of forced calm.
He knows this is the wisest thing for him to say even though the landlady forbids cooking in her house (there is no kitchen for him and other tenants, anyway) and he has to take his clothes out regularly to the laundry. At £420 per month including bills, the room at Mrs. Azra’s house is the cheapest he has seen so far. Four days ago when he arrived London from Ghana, he had paid about £250 to stay in a room for five days at a place called International Students House round the corner of Great Portland Street. As he is running out of cash, he needs to get a regular accommodation today to avoid losing his £40 deposit when his rent expires 10.00 am tomorrow and before he starts his course proper at the University of London. Before he could obtain the details of this apartment along with two others at the agency this morning, he paid £120 and spent an awful two hours, forty seven minutes, finding the location with the aid of a map and his Blackberry phone, a journey that ordinarily should have taken thirty minutes.
‘Now, in case someone is coming to visit you, I need to be informed ahead. Will your girlfriend come often to visit you?’
‘I don’t have a girlfriend. I only have a fiancée who lives in Ghana but my cousin and a close friend may come around once in a while.’ He lays down his shoulder bag awkwardly and takes a form, which the landlady is offering him.
‘That is the agreement form. Run through it, fill in the necessary parts and sign here. Remember, the deposit. You will pay a deposit of £300 aside the rent.’
‘What is the deposit for?’ asks Kwesi, trying to hide his agitation as he leans his chin upon his palm.
‘It’s a sort of fallback…’ Mrs. Azra’s croaky voice rings through the room ‘in case you damage any of the appliances and fail to fix it when you are leaving or you don’t give me one month notice before you leave. I’m a very honest person. I’ll refund your money intact in case none of this happens,’ she says this with a look of someone who is seeking pity rather than trust.
‘Alright, lemme get the money from the cash machine downstairs. I’ll be right back.’
‘Lovely gentleman,’ says the landlady as Kwesi goes out.
He sits before his laptop, sipping juice and eating chicken when he hears a hard knock from the door and he rushes to answer it with oily fingers. Holding the frame, he sees the landlady heave into view, smiling.
‘Good Evening, ma’
‘Hi, Kwesi. You weren’t around when I came to clean the room.’
‘You’re right. I went to school. I came in not long ago.’ He motions her to sit down while he himself stands.
‘No, thank you. How was your day?’
‘I thought you might need some water so I brought that for you.’ She points at a large plastic bottle, standing next to the microwave atop the table. Always leave your window open for fresh air to come in whenever you go out.’
‘Alright ma,’ Kwesi picks a splinter of chicken bone from somewhere on the floor and stretches back to his full six feet one, glancing down at the landlady with a guilty eye.
‘I smelt something foul in here when I came in the morning and I can still smell it,’ the landlady pouts her lips and wrinkles her nose further though her face is naturally wrinkly.
‘Like what ma?’ he colours at his remark
‘Like the smell of something damp and stale. I guess you have some clothing in there that are due for washing. Could you open your wardrobe, please and smell the clothes?’
Hesitantly, Kwesi opens the wardrobe and starts sniffing the clothes hanging from a rod.
‘There is nothing smelling.’ He looks back at her in anger.
With two steps forward, the old woman leans with difficulty into the wardrobe and starts rubbing his nose against the armhole of each cloth. She yanks two polo shirts and four long-sleeve shirts to the rug.
‘You know, what normally happens is that we don’t get to smell our own bodies,’ she mutters, she wheels round and faces Kwesi. ‘I will wash these for you in our own washing machine. But you need to start taking your clothes to the laundry after this. Washing them once in two weeks is still very okay. Go with your own washing powder so they won’t charge you much.’
Image: Sarah Scicluna