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Abby, the landlady, pressed her ear to the closed door of her bedroom. She could hear the faint sound of the television in the living room. She longed to go outside and sit with her new tenant, Tom, but she restrained herself from doing so. From past experience she had learnt that tenants didn’t like too much familiarity. They found it intrusive.
She couldn’t hear the television anymore. Abby frowned to herself. And then she heard footsteps approaching her door. Her heart started thudding loudly and her body tensed up in anticipation. Maybe Tom was coming to talk to her. But instead, she heard the footsteps fade away again as he entered his bedroom. The door swung shut behind him. Abby slumped against the door, disappointed.
She finally pulled herself away from the door, and sat on her bed. Even though her room was spacious, it was cramped with so many things that there was hardly any room to walk around. Her four-poster bed occupied a quarter of the room. The metal cupboard stood right next to it, towering over the small keyboard that was balanced on its stand. The only table in the room was covered with books. The shelves were filled with paper dolls, small figurines, wreaths and paper cuttings. She had been an artist once. Her creations were her companions. Her cluttered room prevented her from going insane. Empty spaces reminded her of everything she didn’t have. A family. A companion. Someone to talk to.
The clatter of plates in the kitchen caught Abby’s ear. Unable to keep herself confined in her room any longer, she flung open the bedroom door and hurried to the kitchen. Tom froze with a plate in his hand. For a moment, he looked surprised. And then his face broke into a smile. “Abby, how are you?”
A flood of emotions welled up inside Abby’s chest at the opportunity to converse with another human. “Tom, what are you having for dinner?”
Tom shrugged. He was still in his office attire, but his shirt had come untucked. Abby couldn’t tell how old he was. But with his freckled face and toothy grin, he could easily pass as a teenager. “I had ordered pizza yesterday. Heating up the leftovers. Do you want some?” He picked up a greasy slice of pizza from a pizza box and placed it on the plate.
Abby shook her head. She felt suddenly self-conscious in her tight slacks and loose t-shirt. But then again, why should she care? She was seventy years old. Half of her teeth were missing. She walked with a limp. Her hairline had receded. She was so unattractive that some days she couldn’t bear to look at herself in the mirror.
As Tom waited for the pizza to heat up in the microwave, he smiled good-naturedly at Abby. “Your apartment is beautiful. How long have you been living here?”
“Oh, I know. I absolutely love this apartment. I moved in years ago with my boyfriend. I mean, he was my boyfriend then. We decorated this place together. You see the living room? How beautiful it is? I found all those antiques myself. Some of it is just junk which I found on the road and then remodelled myself. It was nice, you know, setting up this place. Anyway, our relationship didn’t work out. He left one day. But I couldn’t bear to leave this place. So, I continued staying here. I’ve had boyfriends since, but nothing serious. Obviously you know that. It’s just me living here now. All by myself.” Abby gave an awkward little laugh, leaning on the kitchen counter.
Tom smiled, not saying anything.
Abby carried on. “I’ve had so many tenants live here over the years. And…”
The sudden ping of the microwave made Abby pause. This was the problem with her. When she found company, she couldn’t stop talking. She should go away or else Tom would get tired of her. But she couldn’t pull herself away now. These few minutes of conversation had invigorated her.
Tom had been nodding methodically all this while, a look of sympathy on his face. He took out the plate from the microwave and sat down at the dining table.
“But it gets lonely here, you know. Look at the apartment, it’s quite large, isn’t it? Two bedrooms! And, the rent isn’t cheap either.” This wasn’t entirely true. Even though the apartment was large, it was quite cheap. Abby had rented it decades ago, and Toronto’s housing laws had prevented large rental increments over the years. The only reason she rented out the other bedroom was because she was lonely, and she would go crazy in here if she didn’t have company. She didn’t talk to her sister anymore. Her brother had died a few years ago. God, her life really was pathetic. She didn’t have anyone.
Tom’s eyes were glazing over, and he had started glancing at his phone frequently. Abby knew it was time to stop talking. “Carry on with your dinner. Make this place home. Let me know if you need anything at all.”
“I will, Abby. Thank you so much.”
Abby turned to leave, but then she stopped again. “I’m sorry. I know I start blabbering each time I meet you. It’s just so good to have someone else around.”
“No worries, Abby.” This time, Tom’s smile was definitely forced.
Back in her room, Abby sat on her bed and looked around at the blue walls. She was hungry, but she didn’t want to have dinner with Tom because she didn’t want him to feel bothered by her presence. It was strange to feel like this. A guest in your own home. But if she started bothering her guests too much then her ratings on Airbnb would fall, and no one would rent her place. And alone in this place… She didn’t want to think about it. She would wait for Tom to finish dinner and then she would quietly step outside to eat.
Next morning when Abby stepped out of her bedroom, Tom had already left for work. He worked at a marketing agency. He was only visiting Toronto for a few weeks. None of her tenants stayed for long. The deathly silence of the house felt tolerable because Abby knew that it was short-lived. In the evening, there would be voices again inside her home.
She walked through the living room, admiring the furniture. On the study-table, stood a vintage typewriter. One of her previous tenants had been a writer, and had been the first and last person to ever use it. Abby still remembered the sound of the keys clacking as the writer’s fingers moved nimbly over the alphabets. A warm summer breeze made the light curtains flutter. A street-car was moving majestically down the road. Abby stood by the window, letting the sunshine flood her face. Maybe she should visit the library. It would do her some good to step outside. She sighed to herself. Not today. Bright, happy days like this made her very unhappy.
As she slowly trudged back to her room, she paused outside Tom’s bedroom. The door was firmly shut. Abby turned the doorknob gingerly, and opened the door. Tom must have left in a hurry in the morning. The bed lay undone, sheets rumpled. His clothes lay scattered on the bed. Abby immediately longed to tidy up his room, but she stopped herself. If she cleaned the mess, then he would know that she had been inside his room. And that would be a problem. Her fingers twitched. She wanted to run her hands over someone else’s belongings. She wanted to care for someone. She wanted to be of some use to the world. Instead, she clenched her hands into fists and forced herself to leave the room as it had been.
Abby had lunch by herself, and then fell asleep in her room.
When Abby woke up, it was dark outside. She had been having a terrible dream. She was sweating and her clothes clung to her. She fumbled around in the darkness and found the light, switching it on. Her heart was still racing. Her room seemed to be closing in on her. The stillness of the room suffocated her. The apartment was too quiet. Where was Tom? Had he not come back? She hurriedly moved to the door, and pressed her ear to it. She couldn’t hear anything. Her heart thudded painfully.
“Calm down, Abby.” She forced herself to stop shaking.
Exchanging a few sentences with Tom would make her feel much better. She inched open the door slowly, and peeked through the gap. She couldn’t see any sort of movement outside. Gradually, she opened the door fully and stepped outside into the hallway. Finally, she heard him. He was talking to someone in his room. His door was slightly ajar. She wanted to move away now, but she couldn’t. It was so good to hear someone after all this time.
“I had a busy day at work, sweetheart. Sorry, I would have called you earlier. I miss you too.”
There was a pause. Abby waited.
“The landlady? Oh she’s okay. She stays inside her room most of the time. Thank God for that. Once she starts talking, she can’t shut up. But it’s okay really. I mean, she’s just lonely. I don’t mind her honestly. The best way to get rid of her is to not reply to anything she says. Just keep nodding, and after a while she leaves.”
Abby wanted to turn, but she was frozen in place. How could Tom talk about her loneliness so flippantly? But it’s not as though he owed her anything. She needed him more than he needed her. She needed her tenants more than they needed her. But Tom’s words cut through her body like a knife.
“What? Stacy, you’re asking me how she looks? Do you know how old she is? She’s ancient. She’s an old hag. Anyway, how was your day?”
Abby didn’t want to hear anymore. She went back into her room, and closed the door. If only she could be strong and stay alone in this house. Then she wouldn’t have to hear nasty things like this. She wouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers. For the next hour she sat on her bed, fuming. She would tell Tom to leave. Tell him to be ashamed of himself. She didn’t care anymore about what he thought or felt about her. She would go out and have dinner. And if he happened to be in the dining room, she wouldn’t even look at him.
That night, Abby had dinner alone. She wanted Tom to come out of his room, but he never did. As she chewed through the lasagne she had made for herself, she felt her anger slowly ebb away. She saw herself for what she really was. A fat, old woman. Who had no one in the world. Who cared if she was angry? Who cared if she was hurt? The world had no time for people like her.
After dinner, Abby switched off the lights in the living room. For a moment she stood in the darkness. Maybe she didn’t need any more tenants. Maybe she shouldn’t rent out her place. But as she trudged back to her room, she paused momentarily outside Tom’s room again. He wasn’t on the phone anymore. She could hear him tapping away on his laptop. The sound of another human placated her. The heaviness in her chest loosened.
She willed herself to keep walking, but every cell in her body screamed out in desperation, “Talk to me, please.”