The winner of the VS Pritchett Memorial Short Story Prizeby Michael Newton / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Michael Newton’s “The premises” is the winner of the VS Pritchett prize, judged by Georgina Hammick, Jacob Ross and Tom Chatfield. It was inspired, Newton told Prospect, “when I recently wrote an essay on lodging for a book on urban life… After seven years living away from England, that essay brought back seven years I spent as a lodger in a small room in a large house in Hampstead. The story comes out of that milieu and the experience of sharing a house with strangers, knowing the limits of what we know about the people with whom we live, and the ambiguities of help.”
The first time I saw him, I knew he’d be trouble. “I’ve come to inquire about the room,” he said. I recognised his type. He didn’t look at me much, just gawped at the hallway and into the kitchen.
“You’re…?” I said.
“Nigel Milner. Ten thirty appointment,” he said. “I hope the room’s not gone.”
“No, the room’s still free,” I said.
“You’re not the landlord, are you?” he said. “I thought it was a woman?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m responsible for showing the room.”
“So, you’re in charge?” he said.
“Just responsible,” I said.
We walked all the way up to his room.
“Third floor,” he said. “Quiet is it, up here?”
“We keep a quiet house here,” I said.
It was a good day to show the room. It catches the light that time of day, the morning sun. The street looked its best too, with all those blossoms.
“I’ll need those shelves,” he said. “I’ve a lot of books.”
“And what do you do?” I asked him.
“I’m a tutor,” he said.
“What university?” I asked him.
“Not at university. TEFL,” he said. “A local college, over by Finchley Road.”
“I see,” I said.
He looked around him and sniffed.
“The bed’s not so big,” he said.
“I thought it was just you?” I said.
“Just me,” he said. “That’s right. But you never know, do you? I mean I’m a grown boy. You know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid Mrs Van Baren doesn’t want anyone bringing girlfriends into the house,” I said.
“She the real landlady, is she?” he said.
“She doesn’t like strangers in the house,” I said. “Would that be a problem?”
“It reminds me,” he said, “of my time in Barcelona. I rented a room in a big house owned by a high-toned American lady—you know, the Elaine Strich type. And when she showed me the room, she said to me, ‘Love may be a very fine thing, but I’m afraid Mr Milner, I don’t want any of it on my premises.’ Same story here, is it?”
“It’s a reasonable request,” I said. “After all, this is Mrs Van Baren’s home.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I’ll read some of my books on those shelves.”
“I don’t get much time to read books,” I said. “I like Radio 3. And paintings.”
We went to look at the bathroom.
“She’s not interested in who takes the room, though, is she, this Mrs Van Baren?” he said. “Not interested enough to see me herself, I mean.”
“She trusts me to do what’s right,” I said.
He peered at the green-grey hard water stains in the bathtub and ran a speculative finger along a shelf.
“And what do you do?” he asked me.
“I’m looking for a job,” I said. “While I’m looking, I look after Mrs Van Baren.”
“Need looking after, does she? Don’t her children do their bit?” he asked, glancing out of the window onto the gardens.
“She never had any children,” I told him.
“I see,” he said.
But he didn’t bloody well see. He didn’t see the meals I’d cooked, those walks I’d walked, the shopping I’d done, the washing I’d done, the ironing, the bath-times. Making tea for her, making things comfy. The hours sitting with her, listening to the BBC, shutting doors against draughts, opening windows against the heat, fetching the rug against the chill.
“I’ll take it,” he said.
So there are five of us now. Though Miss Pillat—Anna—and Gordon don’t count somehow. You hardly see them. Miss Pillat’s a Romanian lady. She works as a receptionist at our local GP’s. Doesn’t go out much, just the Romanian Orthodox church on a Sunday morning. She could afford a place of her own, but likes to live locally. She can walk to the surgery, taking the short cut across the heath every morning. She works for Dr Parry; he’s Mrs Van Baren’s GP. I sometimes see Dr Parry at the shops by the tube station on a Saturday morning, with his wife and their son. They always nod to say hello. The son has autism Miss Pillat told me, but you’d never know it. It’s a spectrum, she told me. He seems such a quiet boy.
I don’t think I need to describe Gordon. He’s been finishing his PhD for ten years now; takes the 24 bus every morning to the British Museum. He sticks to his room; he’s no trouble.
But then this Nigel Milner, he’s certainly trouble. I know he smokes in his room. He knows that he’s not permitted to smoke, and yet he does it. I know his type. He’s always smirking, as though someone’s just made a dirty joke. “What are you grinning about?” I want to say to him, though of course I say nothing. Public school, I bet; not a good one. Speaks with plums in his mouth. That’s what Mrs Van Baren liked about him, first time she saw him. I took him in to sign the contract. “It’s very cosy in here, Mrs Van Baren,” he said. “Ah,” she said, “you speak so nicely.” “I could read something to you,” he said, just like that. She thought that very charming. “Ted never reads to me,” she said.
It’s been four weeks now since Milner moved in. Now often when I go in to see her, he’s already there. I’m left standing in the doorway, while he sits at the table beside her. Whenever she’s been with him, her glasses are off, though she can’t see a thing without them. Though you would have thought she’d see right through him. She’s ninety-five, after all. You would have thought she’d know his type too. Still I just fetch her tea and do her things as usual. She still has to be looked after, Milner or no Milner.
Now that summer’s here, we take a walk daily, out on the heath. Except when we have a cup of tea at Kenwood House or at Louis’s and we’re sitting facing each other, we don’t talk much, due to the wheelchair. Even though it’s summer, she’s well wrapped up, because of her chest; bronchitis nearly killed her last winter. I’ve got used to my thoughts, looking down on her white hair and then up to the white clouds over Hampstead and out over London. She likes the view from Parliament Hill best even though the kite-flyers are a menace. They’ll be building that dome soon, and you can see the sunlight flashing on Canary Wharf, despite the bloody IRA, and right over to Crystal Palace. She once said she thought that you could see Box Hill from here, but that’s just her daydreaming. “Lovely London,” she said yesterday. From up here it is, I thought.
He’s been trying to befriend me too. He’s asked me out for a drink a couple of times, though I said no, of course. There’s always things to do for Mrs Van Baren in the evenings. But then yesterday after we came back from our walk, and Mrs Van Baren took her nap, he phoned.
“Is that you?” he said. “I’m taking the afternoon off. Why don’t you join me for a drink?”
“I’ve got Mrs Van Baren,” I said.
“Come on now, she’s dozing isn’t she?” he said. “She’ll be asleep a couple of hours. Why not play truant, just this once?”
By the time I got there, I was already wondering why I’d caved in. Milner reeked of beer and cigarettes. He’d had a few pints already, he said. He thought it was time to move on to the whiskies.
We sat at a table by the open door. He preferred it inside, he said. I sipped my lager.
“You see that blonde over there?”
He nodded towards a young woman in jeans leaning forward over the bar.
“I’m going to destroy her,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“That arse,” he said, his right hand shaping its shape in air.
“Yes,” I said.
“You know what I mean,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“What do you think of Anna?” he said.
“Miss Pillat,” I said.
“Yes: Anna,” he said.
“We get on quite well,” I said. “She keeps herself to herself.”
“Not always,” he said. “We had a little tête-à-tête, the other night.”
“Did you?” I said.
“Oh yes, a real heart to heart,” he said, still gazing at the blonde girl’s jeans. “She opened up to me, you know.”
I wondered why we hadn’t sat outside. On the terrace, there it was sunshine and the trees, and there we were, with the stink of beermats and carpets.
“Anyway I bet you know her story,” he said.
“I know something of it, yes. I wouldn’t say I know the whole story.”
“Her fiancé died, you know that? In a car crash in 1986.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And she’s never been with another man since.”
Outside at the tables on the terrace, the young people chattered. And I had the sudden longing to be out there with them, to be free and away from him.
“And you know what I think that is?” he said.
I didn’t know.
“An excuse,” he said.
“I’d like to get back soon,” I said. “Mrs Van Baren will wake up, and she’ll miss me.”
“An excuse,” he said, “not to have to be with anyone. Not to be alive either.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said.
“All of you in that house are doing the same thing,” he said, “and I don’t know which of you is worst.”
“What thing?” I said.
“Avoiding living. Hiding out. Playing possum.”
“Mrs Van Baren will be missing me,” I said.
“The eternal spinster—I know her type!”
I gulped my beer. I wanted it finished, to be back at the house. I felt smeared by the sense that he had waylaid me, and that now I would have to go back, smelling of the pub like him.
“Don’t drink so fast,” he said. “Let me buy you another.”
“I have to get back,” I said. “I shouldn’t have come at all.”
“A couple of beers don’t hurt,” he said. “Besides I think you and I need to talk.”
“We can talk at the house,” I said, though I hoped that I wouldn’t be talking with him again. Out on the roads all the cleanness of Hampstead, all that beauty, all that privacy of which I was a member, felt sullied. As I came into the house, I passed Miss Pillat coming back from work. I wanted to be especially friendly to her, to show that I wasn’t a Milner, but somehow all I could manage was a mumbled hallo, and then I was back in my room.
Mrs Van Baren was still asleep. I needn’t have hurried back at all. I lay on the bed feeling that I had acted ridiculously. I put on Radio 3. It was a piano recital from Wigmore Hall. Mrs Van Baren always enjoys those. Why listen to Milner? The man is a fool, I said to myself. Then—perhaps because of the beer—I too dozed off and dreamed of that blonde from the pub until I heard Mrs Van Baren calling from her room below.
After dinner, when Mrs Van Baren was in bed, I sat with the radio in my room. It was late but still light. I went down to the kitchen to make myself a hot chocolate. Milner was there, slumped at the table with a glass of milk.
“Oh, you’re back,” I said.
He said nothing. He just looked at me. You could tell he was drunk just from how pale he was. He looked oily and the flesh that rimmed his eyes was livid pink.
I went to the fridge, but found that he’d taken the last of the milk.
“I’m going to have a talk with Mrs Van Baren one of these evenings,” he said. He didn’t sound the slightest bit drunk, though I knew he was.
“Are you?” I said.
“I know what you’re doing here,” he said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“I’ve been watching you,” he said.
“You’re drunk,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “I know. I see, I observe. I hear, I listen.”
“Sounds like one of your bloody TEFL lessons,” I said.
“I know your ploy,” he said. “No children, has she, Mrs Van Baren? No friends either. Only you, helpful you. Quite a nice house this, isn’t it? Reckon you’ll own it one of these days?”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I said.
“I think you do know, Ted” he said. “I think you know all too well. Nice to live in Hampstead, isn’t it? Nice for someone like you. Where do you come from anyway?”
“I’m going to bed,” I said.
“OK,” he said, “go to bed. Don’t forget your cocoa. Make yourself comfortable. And just think one day all this will be yours… I think Mrs Van Baren might be very interested about this talk she and I are going to have.”
“And what if you do tell her this lie?” I said. “Do you reckon that she’ll be grateful? Grateful enough, you reckon, to get you out of your TEFL college?”
“You think I’m like you, don’t you?” he said. “I don’t want her money. I just want some truth. And if I can, I want to stop you. To stop your sordid game.”
“You don’t know anything,” I said.
“She’s pretty healthy. She could live for another five years,” he said. “Can you keep it up that long? This façade of helping her?”
“I do help her,” I said.
“I suppose you’ll be paid well enough. Not a bad salary really. How much is this house worth, do you think? In a rising market?”
“I help her because she needs me to help her,” I said.
“Though maybe she won’t last five years,” he said. “Well then your wages go up considerably, don’t they? Quite considerably.”
“I’m not listening to one word more of this,” I said.
“Ever thought about hurrying the process on?” he said.
I walked out of the kitchen, and as I went by her room I saw the door was open. I peered inside, but Mrs Van Baren was asleep. How tiny she looked, almost as though she were lost in the bedclothes. Why do old people feel the cold so much, even in midsummer? Her liver-spotted hands rested on the coversheet. I stood for a moment watching over her, and then closed the door as quietly as I could and went to bed.
Milner’s been reading to her these last few days. I don’t think he’s said anything to her. I thought, should I say something to prepare her, just in case. I don’t want her upset by him. She’s ninety-five, and I look after her. But then I thought about it a bit more and things started to look a little different. The more I considered it, the less likely it seemed that Milner would say something so appalling to her. What would he gain? Why would he hurt her like that? There was no good reason.
Then today I came back from signing on and went to take her for her stroll on the heath. But the wheelchair was gone.
The house was empty. Miss Pillat was at work, Gordon at the library. Had Milner taken time off again? She couldn’t have gone out on her own. I went out and walked over the heath looking for them. I went to Louis’s and to Kenwood House, I even went to the cafe on Swains Lane, and when I came back I looked in at Polly’s. I wandered under the trees and crossed over the meadows facing Highgate. I climbed Parliament Hill, and went down the alley onto South Hill Park and walked around the loop of the street onto the path down between the ponds. They were nowhere.
When I came back she was sitting up with Milner in her room. He was reading her some story from some book of his, I don’t know what.
“I went looking for you,” I said. He stopped reading, though he didn’t so much as look up to acknowledge that I was there.
“Did you?” she said.
“I thought we were going for our usual walk,” I said.
“I had a walk with Nigel,” she said.
“You could have left me a note,” I said.
“We had a fascinating chat,” she said.
I didn’t say anything.
“I wonder if you know what about?” she said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Oh I think you do,” she said, and all the time Milner was just looking at his book, as if waiting to pick up again from the word where he had left off. “I want to make another trip to Mr Burgess,” she said. Mr Burgess is her solicitor.
“What do you want to do that for?” I asked her.
“I want to see Mr Burgess,” she said. “After what Nigel’s told me, I’ve changed my mind about a few things.”
“You’re getting cross,” I said.
“You’ll see soon enough,” she said, “just how cross I am.”
“I’ll come back later,” I said, “and sort out your tea.”
“Nigel has said that he’ll get me dinner,” she said.
And then I left them. Before I’d even shut the door, he’d starting reading again, just as though nothing had happened.
But the next morning it turned out that she still needed me after all.
“Nigel’s gone to work,” she said.
“I’ll get your breakfast,” I said.
We didn’t talk much over breakfast. We never had talked much, I thought. She seemed very small in her armchair, like the girl she’d once been. Her flecked, worn hands had once been a child’s hands.
“I want to go to Mr Burgess,” she said.
“Then I’ll have to take you,” I said.
She looked at me for the first time that morning. But she didn’t say anything.
When we got to the solicitor’s office, a sign was up on the door: “Closed due to bereavement.” I read it to her, as her eyes were too bad to make it out. “Poor Mr Burgess!” I said. “Never mind that,” she said. “We’re coming back tomorrow,” she said.
“He’ll be open again in a few days,” I said. She didn’t say anything.
The air was heavy and moist.
“It’s raining,” she said.
“Just spitting,” I said.
“I want to go home,” she said.
“Let’s take our walk anyway,” I said. “It’s almost time.”
“It’s going to rain,” she said. “And we’ve nothing with us.”
“It’s not going to rain,” I said.
We were crossing the bridge over the pond by the East Heath, the one that looks down like a viaduct onto the water. The sky was like steel and every leaf seemed outlined. “There’s going to be a storm,” she said. “We’ve nothing.”
“Then we’ll have to hurry,” I said.
As we walked the raindrops began falling, striking the leaves. The heath sighed as the sky dimmed and the rain all at once came down. We sheltered under the trees. But the drops gathered and thickened as they moved down among the leaves. The gloom deepened into the distance. There was no one around but a couple sheltering like us across the path. “Perhaps they have an umbrella,” she said. “We could go and ask.”
The couple kissed as the water streamed around them. We started off towards them, leaving our place under the tree. And then they turned and I could see their faces clearly. The woman called out, surprised.
“They don’t have an umbrella,” I said.
I pushed the chair along the track, hastily.
“That sounded like Miss Pillat,” she said.
“Let’s hurry back,” I said, “we’re going to get soaked.”
“But that man she was with…”
“We have to hurry.”
“You know I think it was Dr Parry.”
The rain quickened.
“That’s thunder,” she said.
Through the flash we hurried down onto the tarmac path. The water ran down our faces and into the gap between our necks and our clothes, and into the clothes themselves. The rug on Mrs Van Baren’s knees dripped water onto the path.
We passed between the ponds; they were like lead and marked with raindrops. “I think it’s stopping,” I said. By the time we crossed South End Road, the sun was out again and the streets gleamed.
Mrs Van Baren was wet through. I ran a bath, and helped her dress in warm clothes, putting an extra bar on in her room. “I’m so tired,” she said.
“You go to sleep,” I said.
I sat by her while she was sleeping, until I drifted off too. Her coughing woke me.
“Are you poorly?” I asked her.
She clung onto my hand, and looked me in the eyes.
“Don’t be frightened,” I said, “you’ll be alright.”
But she just kept looking, as though she were searching for something in me.
It began as a cold. Her temperature rose; she wouldn’t stop coughing. The next morning Dr Parry came, and prescribed some pills. But that evening things worsened.
I was in her room with her. It was just before midnight and she couldn’t sleep. We both heard the door open and close, and Milner’s footsteps going up to his room. He hadn’t been home the previous evening. As he knew nothing of course about how ill Mrs Van Baren was, he didn’t bother to look in. I listened to his footsteps, but there was something strange about them, a confusion that I couldn’t account for.
And then Mrs Van Baren turned to me and said, “You knew it would rain.”
“Try to be quiet,” I said.
“You knew it,” she said.
But once again she clung to me, holding my hand.
“I want Nigel,” she said.
“You need to be quiet,” I said.
“Get me Nigel,” she said.
I left the room and walked up the stairs. There was a girl leaning in the doorway of Nigel’s room. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen. She was wearing jeans and a shirt, and the shirt was unbuttoned almost to her navel. She had one of the most beautiful faces I’d ever seen. From inside, Nigel called her in Spanish, and she answered him. But she didn’t go inside. “Excuse me,” I said, and went back down the stairs.
“Nigel won’t be coming,” I said, as I went back to her. “He has a guest.”
After a while she fell asleep. I dozed in the armchair. Someone had to be there to watch over her. There were noises from Milner’s room, though I don’t think it was those that woke her. It was three o’clock and her pulse was fast and thin.
I went up to Anna Pillat’s room. I hadn’t spoken to her since we’d looked at each other up there on the heath.
I said, “Anna, could you call Dr Parry? Mrs Van Baren’s suddenly very much more poorly.”
And when I went back down, Mrs Van Baren was sitting up on the side of the bed, as if poised to go somewhere.
“I need help,” she said.
“Who do you want?”
“I want you,” she said.
She was sitting on the side of the bed, looking wild-eyed with her hair damp and her nightclothes stuck to her shrivelled body. She looked as old as could be, and nothing like a child.
“So you want me, do you?” I said. “You don’t want Nigel?”
“I want you,” she said, “to help me.”
There were eight of us at the cremation: Anna, Gordon and myself from the house; two elderly sisters, once friends of Mrs Van Baren (they must have read the announcement in the Telegraph); the younger sister had come in a wheelchair with her carer, a hard-faced young woman dressed inappropriately in a lurid pink dress—the older sister had come pluckily on her own; and the solicitor Mr Burgess and Dr Parry. Dr Parry stood opposite Anna, without once looking over to her.
Afterward back at the house we had a quick snack. The older sister strode over to me.
“I think it’s wrong,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“A cremation. It’s wrong, it’s not what she would have wanted. She had deep Christian beliefs, you know. She would have wanted a burial. Didn’t she say something about it to you, or mention it in the will?”
“No,” I said.
“She never talked to you about her faith? It was so important to her,” she said.
“No,” I said, “she never did.”
Dr Parry and Anna were standing talking by the windows that opened onto the garden. Gordon did his best with the sisters. On the street the hard-faced carer smoked a cigarette. Mr Burgess came over to me.
“My second funeral in less than a fortnight,” he said.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“No need. My wife’s mother. We never really got on. She was rather a difficult woman. It’s just a matter of being there for my wife.”
“Not much of a turn-out for Mrs Van Baren,” I said.
“Well she was nearly ninety-six. Same age as the century. She thought very highly of you. But you know that,” he said. “She appreciated all you did. You should come by my office tomorrow and we’ll have a little chat about the will. Things are going to be very different for you from now on.”
“Are they?” I said. “I expect so.”
When the visitors had left, Gordon and I cleared up the plates and cups. And Gordon said, “You’ll be lost for something to do now Mrs Van Baren is gone.”
And I said nothing.
The next evening Milner came into the kitchen, after his day at the college.
“Isn’t that a new suit, Ted?” he said. “Very smart. Zegna, isn’t it? Good to see you cashing in already.”
“I’m giving you notice to leave,” I said.
“So that means, I suppose, that you’re the landlord now.”
He sat down at the kitchen table and put his feet up on the other chair, as though he meant never to leave.
“We both know, don’t we,” he said, “what you’ve done.”
“I don’t know what we know,” I said. And then I looked right at him for the first time since the day he came and asked to see the room.
“I’m giving you notice to quit your room,” I said.
“Wasn’t that an estate agent that came here this morning?” he said.
“You have a month to find lodgings elsewhere,” I said.
“Cashing in your windfall already?” he said. “Moving on, are we, from the scene of the crime?”
“Though I’d prefer it if you found somewhere a little more promptly,” I said. And then I left him alone in the kitchen.
And I went into her room. There were all her things. I had brought a roll of binbags with me. I started sorting through her things. On the mantelpiece there was a photograph of Mr Van Baren. He’d been a Dutchman ten years or so older than his wife. Cancer killed him some thirty years ago. I took the photo out of its frame and put it into the bin-bag.
There beside it on the mantelpiece was the photo of her wedding, dated on the back, “21st May 1929”; a row of smiles outside a church of home counties Gothic. In the bedside table there was a Bible and Book of Common Prayer, both much underlined. There were some letters from a Captain Firth—David—dating from the war years. A quick glance showed them to be love letters. There was another little bundle of letters from her brother in Rhodesia, wrapped up with ribbon, and ending with a newspaper cutting from 1973 that described his murder. There were many such things: some diaries, intermittently observed; a box of photographs; some theatre programmes; a signed menu from some long-closed restaurant.
I threw them all into the rubbish bag. The binmen would collect it that Wednesday.
And then I came on a photo of a young woman. I looked closely. It was her alright. She was lounging on a beach sometime in the 1920s, her hair cut in a bob and the sunlight almost white on her shoulders and on her skinny bare legs and her hands. And her face looked right out of the picture, her eyes catching mine. I’ll keep that, I thought. That one I’ll keep forever. And I slipped the photo into my jacket pocket, and stepped out for a stroll on the heath.