By Olivia Lowden
Our house seemed to operate on a revolving-door system of interactions. I didn’t see my housemates often, and when I did it was in dribs and drabs. It was a strange way exist, but it suited my way of living. Having found the place online at the last minute, I entered blind. It all became routine very quickly. Outside of classes, I would see Laura most frequently, with virtually all of our conversations taking place in the kitchen. She had the most optimistic and cheery disposition of anyone I’d ever met. Her unfailing positivity did not compensate for a lack of personality in other aspects — she had as many interesting and witty comments as she did sanguine ones. Laura was the first housemate I met in my third year. As it happens, she’s probably the one whose impression will remain with me for the longest.
‘Hey,’ she had said, face beaming at me from across the kitchen counter. ‘Wesley, right?’
‘Wes,’ I corrected her.
There was a warmth to her face, a reassuring, familiar smile that I tried to return. I stood without purpose, grateful for her ability to just talk and talk. Apparently, her dad took her up from Norwich about a month ago — she managed to get a job at a local café, hence the early move in. After a while it became obvious that I was struggling to continue conversation and juggle the numerous belongings that I still clung to, so she left me to it.
‘Those things are worse than death,’ began Laura, appearing in the kitchen doorway later that first day. I was halfway through making some instant noodles when she found me.
‘It wasn’t my first choice, believe me —,’ I stopped in my tracks as my second housemate joined us in the kitchen.
‘Felix,’ he introduced himself, shaking my hand firmly and dipping slightly into a — bow? He was tall and slim with dark, unruly hair. Probably handsome, though not noticeably so.
‘I was thinking of hosting some household drinks tonight, in honour of our final housemate joining us.’ Felix made a grand gesture towards me before continuing. ‘How does eight o clock sound? What say you, Wesley?’
Felix leaned towards me, raising an eyebrow persuasively. His theatricality was commanding.
‘Wes,’ I said quickly, before accepting his invitation.
‘Good luck convincing Art. I, however, will be there. Mind if Jon joins?’ Laura asked.
‘The more the merrier!’ Felix declared.
I stayed mostly mute that evening as Felix did most of the talking. He started by welcoming us into the living room and, after offering us seats, filled some glasses with his choice of red. Overwhelmed and slightly out of place, I sank into the unyielding sofas and brought myself to a foggy level of intoxication. Laura and her boyfriend Jon sat close. He seemed to enjoy challenging Felix in his bizarre convictions and wore an expression of gentle bemusement for most of the evening. Every now and then Laura would catch my eye, making a gesture of unanimity as I found my feet in this strange communion.
At one point in the evening, a strong smell hit the room.
‘That will be Artem having his evening spliff.’ Laura rolled her eyes with playful annoyance.
‘Repugnant stuff,’ quipped Jon.
‘Artem?’ I wondered aloud.
‘Artem,’ cried Felix, ‘our ever-elusive housemate!’
‘He’s got the downstairs bedroom, so get used to the smell of green. He smokes it every bloody day. And also, he literally never. Leaves. His. Room.’
She looked at me directly as her last words fell with staggered impact. ‘I’ll try to coax him at some point.’
Musing vaguely on Artem for a while, my eyes drifted to the sickly magnolia paint that seemed to dress the walls of every student house. Felix continued his spiel and I listened only in fragments. Something about a comedy sketch was mentioned which sparked my interest. Felix outlined a grandiose plan to perform some stand-up at the student union’s open-mic night later in the term. Laura and Jon shook their heads, laughing in encouragement. By this point, the room was filled with translucent clouds of hazy smoke and my eyes felt heavy. Jon lit another cigarette and I sat still, my attention drifting in and out of focus. We dispersed late into the night, and I stumbled up the stairs to my top-floor room, drunk and still carrying the bitter smell of smoke.
I discovered that Felix was taking the same politics class as me that term. We usually walked there together, and I got to know him fairly well in those first few weeks. He had a number of compelling ideas that he did not hold back from relating in the most forceful way possible. Much to my dismay I became inevitably associated with Felix’s convictions. Whenever our professor would make a comment about inheritance or big business he would often struggle to restrain himself. At best he would visibly nudge my side, raise an eyebrow and whisper audibly something like, ‘The rich get richer, eh, Wesley?’ Or, if he was feeling optimistic, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ At worst I would sit silently as he delivered a well-meaning but painfully evoked speech on democratic socialism. My own ideas were a lot less formed, so I kept a safe distance from Felix’s tirades and aimed to project this distance publicly, too.
Although I was now well acquainted with my other housemates, Artem still remained elusive. I finally bumped into him on one quiet evening in the kitchen. He greeted me in a thick Russian accent and continued with his food preparation, entirely undisturbed. His lack of desire to continue the conversation further was clear, and somewhat relieved, I reciprocated. Mostly there were only traces of him throughout the house — the lingering smell of marijuana in the downstairs hallway, a pair of his shoes by the front door. It was clear that Laura knew Artem best. They had lived together the previous year and had stuck with each other largely out of convenience, but a mutual fondness was present between them.
These revolving-door interactions worked mainly out of habit, but I decided to try and familiarise myself with the backstories of the people I’d met — for some kind of understanding, I suppose. So, one evening in the kitchen, I asked Laura about her mother. She’d already mentioned her dad had moved her up here, and I knew she had a brother, from passing conversation.
‘My mum died when I was still at school. Just before I moved here, actually,’ she said unaffectedly. I was naturally taken aback and sorry that I’d asked, but before I could muster any sort of response she said, ‘There’s no need to worry about it. Death is just part of life, after all.’
Laura looked at me searchingly, sensing that I had nothing more to give. She smiled at me before leaving the room while I quietly loathed myself for being so obtuse.
Naturally, university life progressed in a similar fashion as before. Despite my initial resistance to voicing political opinions, I had now decided that I was a staunch middle-grounder. My political leanings clearly infuriated Felix, to whom I had represented a malleable canvas in which he could impose his beliefs.
‘Wesley, I beg you to see reason!’ he cried impassionedly, as I told him about my new-found leaning. Although we differed politically and Felix still refrained from calling me by my preferred name, I’d learned to enjoy the strangeness of his company.
The content for his stand-up still remained a mystery. Often, he would laugh loudly from his room, his thunderous bellows echoing down the hallway. Whether he was impressed with his own wit or simply appreciating the punch lines of another comedian was hard to tell. Sometimes I’d knock on his door and he’d be too enraptured to answer. Hours later he would appear, large headphones draped around his neck, looking like he hadn’t slept for days. He would look me straight in the eye and say:
‘Comedy is counter-intuitive, Wesley. You have to find your authentic point of view and stick to it.’
Felix spoke a lot about authenticity and self-expression. He told me about how a good comedy act is like a tonic. About the power of the spoken word, the art of connecting. I learnt that a good joke can be like magic . . . but little of his actual plans for the performance. A product of his excitement, these episodes would often end with suggestions of rendezvousing for drinks later that evening, and I was always more than happy to comply.
Jon walked into our evening of drinking. ‘It’s like a bloody seventies brothel in here,’ he said, nodding to the lava-lamp. This was a new household addition bought by Laura, primarily for what she insisted were ‘ambience purposes’.
‘I thought I’d spruce the place up a bit.’
‘Well, whatever you wanna call it.’ He took his seat and shot me a smile and an eye-roll.
That same night was the first time Artem joined us at one of our gatherings. Laura declared she was fed up with his reclusiveness, swiftly got up from the sofa and gave three sharp knocks on the door of his downstairs bedroom. Whatever she had said was muffled, but it must have worked — she emerged with Artem moments later. I offered him a beer as he sat down next to me.
‘I don’t drink that stuff,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘Right. Where were we, Felix?’ Jon began.
‘I believe we were just about to begin discussing the rise of the alt-right in Western society,’ Felix replied, ‘but I must say, the presence of our dear friend Artem has inspired me to move our discussion onto Russian politics!’
Artem smiled. ‘It is always the same with you English. You always want to talk politics.’
‘Maybe this is why the English are hated so much,’ said Laura. ‘Painfully conservative, yet always bringing up contentious topics.’
‘But I am interested to know what you think of Putin, Art,’ Jon said, in his always reasonable voice. ‘Obviously, his reputation precedes him in Britain, but he’s got a pretty high approval rating in the old motherland, I hear.’
‘What can I say? I probably feel the same way you do.’
‘But you actually live in Russia, Art. That counts for something.’
Artem shifted in his seat, his expression now sober. I realised that this was the first drawn-out conversation I’d ever witnessed Artem engage in.
‘I don’t know what to say. Russia is my country. It means something different to me than it does to you.’
Laura looked at Artem with furrowed brows, holding him with her gaze.
He looked at Jon directly before saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
I had started seeing a girl on my course. It happened almost accidentally, but I enjoyed our meetings and her funny quirks. She made most of the effort in conversation, and her intelligence far surpassed my own, but she seemed to enjoy my company nonetheless. Sometimes she would turn to me in bed, say something arbitrary like, ‘What would you do if I shaved all my hair off?’ Or, ‘Do you ever feel like there’s too much?’ To the first question I’d say ‘not a lot’, and to the second, I would ask her what she meant. She’d reply insistently, ‘Too much! You know, like a build-up of everything,’ to which I would answer, ‘No’.
It was on the afternoon before one of our evenings together that I realised I had made a mistake. Felix had spent the past few days locked quietly in his room, but finally emerged to remind us all that the night of his stand-up had arrived. Laura seemed enthusiastic; she confirmed her and Jon’s attendance. Artem was out of the question. My stomach knotted slightly as I realised I had double-booked. I didn’t want to cancel on the girl I’d been seeing. I explained to Felix what had happened, cited an error in communication and wished him all the best for the show. A pregnant silence hung in the air.
‘An utter travesty!’ He finally burst out with bravado. ‘Your presence will be missed, my dear Wesley. I’m afraid that a rather untasteful joke will now be made at your expense tonight — for your disloyalty.’
I nodded and laughed slightly, but guilt clung to me like dry sand on wet skin. Felix could see it in my fumbling hands, the way I avoided his gaze. I was taking advantage of the fact that he was far too good a person to ever say anything about it.
The girl came round that evening as planned, but I passed Laura and Jon as they sat waiting in the living room.
‘Well, have fun tonight, guys,’ I said, standing in the doorway of the room. Laura looked up at me and smiled.
‘Shame you’re not coming, Wes. I think Felix will miss you being there. You know, he really thinks fondly of you.’
I tried to think of something to say to make my actions excusable. Unable to find the right words or any fathomable excuse, I left the living room.
They returned later that evening. I heard the front door go and footsteps thundering up the stairs. Moments later the door slammed again. Thinking nothing of it, the girl and I continued to watch whatever film she’d chosen for the night.
When it ended I made my way downstairs. Laura and Jon were sat in the living room. Laura was on the phone, her brows furrowed as she spoke into the mouthpiece. Jon looked at me blankly.
‘Things didn’t go well for Felix tonight, Wes. It’s not been good,’ said Jon. I looked quizzically, but Jon shook his head.
‘Hi, is that Felix’s mum? We’re a bit worried about Felix . . . Things didn’t go well at the open-mic night. He ran off the stage and we haven’t seen him since. He was so nervous before he went on.’
Jon explained quietly while Laura spoke: ‘He sort of froze up on stage — no words came out. Nothing. All he did was stare . . . Then he ran off and we couldn’t catch up with him after.’
I tried to be helpful. ‘I heard the door slam twice earlier.’
‘He definitely came back here. His bedroom door’s left wide open,’ Jon said.
Laura continued to talk with Felix’s mum a little while longer and then put down the phone. The girl I’d been seeing came downstairs, and we all sat without purpose in the small living room. Sometimes Laura would fill the silence with snippets of information, or small expressions of concern. I said nothing and just let the words hang in the stagnant air, choosing silence over comfort. My presence was the only condolence I could offer.
We never found out where Felix went that night, or what he did. But the next day there was a note left on the kitchen counter, explaining that he was going home for a few days — that he hadn’t been himself recently. I’d always pinned his extraverted nature and whimsicality down to personality quirks. Those long periods spent boxed up in his room, and the sudden bursts of energy that often followed . . . In all honesty, I had never thought much of it. Artem happened to be in the kitchen when I saw the note, and he nodded in acknowledgement.
‘Laura told me about Felix’s comedy night. I was sorry to hear it didn’t go well for him. He didn’t deserve that.’
I agreed. We both stood in silence for a while longer, until the sound of muffled sobs came from an upstairs bedroom.
‘You know,’ Artem continued, acknowledging the cries, ‘before Laura came to university, just after her mother died . . .’ He trailed off, trying to find the words. ‘She was very upset. For a long time.’
I thought that this rather went without saying — what, with the death of her mother. But the gravity of his words spoke volumes.
‘Is she better now?’
Artem shrugged, ‘I think what happened with Felix triggered things. She cares a lot.’
I made my way back up to my room, thinking about what my grandmother had told me before I left for university. She had warned me about the traps we fall into, how we become stuck in our ways, unable to break out of the easy cycle we find ourselves in.
‘Especially you, Wes. Sensitive ones suffer the worst.’
I hadn’t really missed my family these last few years living away, but the house was cold and still, and I felt a strange longing to be at home. The girl had left already — packed up her things quietly while I was still half asleep, said she’d call me later to ask about Felix. As I got into bed a sudden nausea came over me. I sat up quickly and tried to vomit into my bin but nothing came out, only my rattling breath sending confetti-like paper into a flurry at the bottom. Zombie-like, unwell, a dull ache beat in my chest. I thought about Felix – the casual injustice of it all – and the ache intensified. Artem’s reclusiveness, Laura’s muffled sobs. They were rooted in my core in some inexplicable way. I sat back in bed, closed my eyes, my thoughts a revolving-door, wondering how it all came to this. I didn’t budge an inch.
o o o
Olivia Lowden is a recent graduate from Cornwall, England, currently seeking a purpose outside of the education system. She writes stories about people and their lives, and has previously had her fiction published online at Storgy magazine. Find her tweets about nothing in particular at @olivialowden_