14. Unsuitable Friends
He would always be in a different mood when she turned up. Sometimes he would be locked away in the darkness and would have to be coaxed out. He could be sleepy, so sleepy, struggling to keep his eyes open. Other times he would be on edge with his eyes wildly casting around and not seeing her, biting on his nails and pacing the room. Sometimes he would make it clear that he wanted her to leave; he wanted to be left alone. Other times he looked so content and peaceful. She thought he looked so angelic when he was like that, but the other moods were also intriguing even though it was a wholly confusing and upsetting experience to see his emotional state shifting so rapidly.
Lying with him, stroking his face or just holding him, she studied the ceiling. Painted white, it was streaked with rust where iron girders ran across it. Industrial lighting hung on chains with fluorescent tubes. There were black cobwebs caked in dirt in the corners of the room and thin wispy ones that clung to the ceiling and to the lights. Draughts blew dust from the top of the grey metal trays that held the lights and the sun would illuminate the individual particles as they swirled in the air.
In the day, the room was brightly lit by windows that ran the entire length of one wall. The glass was re-inforced with wire mesh. The windows were divided into a grid of squares by a sturdy metal frame that was painted gloss black. The windows were dirty because it was impossible to clean them from inside. The middle panes of glass had been frosted for privacy and the lowest ones had been painted gloss white.
The walls were unplastered and painted matte white like the ceiling. The texture of large concrete blocks contrasted with the smooth cement in-between each brick. Pipes and wires were attached to the surface of the wall, and their path could be traced to the sink, bathroom, light switches and electrical sockets. There were red wires that connected a point where you could break the glass to set off the fire alarm and a shiny red plastic siren. The pipes and nozzles of a sprinkler system hung suspended a few inches below the ceiling, crossing the huge room three times.
In one corner of the room there was a part that had been partitioned off with unpainted plasterboard walls. A half open door showed that one of the small inner rooms contained a toilet and a shower. There was a second door that was closed. That was where he slept, but she had never seen inside that room.
There were no soft furnishings anywhere. No carpets, no curtains. The only comfortable items were an armchair and a double futon which was laid out flat like a day-bed in the middle of the room. There were big cushions and several quilts and blankets, which were necessary to snuggle underneath in winter. There was a gas heater, but the bottle was empty and it could do little more than take the chill off the cavernous space. The floor was cold polished concrete painted glossy blue, scratched, gouged and flaking in places.
The one door into the room was painted battleship grey and had a huge shiny metal door handle. There was a bright green sign above the door that said "FIRE EXIT" and had a picture of some steps leading down. The sign had special paint on it which glowed in the dark.
She was fascinated by the objects that filled the room. In one corner there was a drum kit, a red electric guitar and big black amplifier. There was an acoustic guitar leaning up against a round stool with chrome legs. Sheets of music, hand-written lyrics and songbooks littered the floor nearby, along with a broken drumstick, used guitar strings and some colourful plectrums. Along the length of one wall was shelving that had many bottles and tins containing turpentine, thinners, white spirit, lots of different paints, varnishes and other things. Glass jars were filled with paintbrushes, some of which were turned so their dry bristles were upwards and others were soaking in murky liquid. On top of the shelves were various tools and half-finished, discarded or drying pieces of artwork.
On the opposite side was a large sturdy table with a glossy worktop. Stencils lay scattered and huge pieces of paper had been stuck down with masking tape: works in progress. An enormous green cutting board was criss-crossed with a white grid pattern and three steel scalpels lay on it along with offcuts which spilled all over the table and onto the floor.
Several paint-splattered stools and collapsible steps were sat around the large table. The stools were made of a bright yellow wood and had blue leather seats. The steps were made of dark wood and had a shiny metal tube bent as a handle above the top step.
An easel with a canvas attached to it stood with the picture facing towards the windows. Sack cloth had been draped over it so the picture underneath couldn't be seen. A mixing board hung on the back of the easel, covered with a bright array of colours and thickly textured with paint. On the floor nearby there was a jar filled with long-handled brushes.
Near the door there was a small bookshelf, writing desk and some shelves with a record player and retro hi-fi system. Large wooden speakers sat on the floor. The only comfortable seat - a Chesterfield armchair - had battered brown leather and a deep imprint in the seat cushion. Sheaves of paper with pencil, charcoal and ink drawings were scattered nearby, along with many leather-bound notebooks of various sizes, some of them with their pages open displaying row upon row of neat handwriting, as well as sketches and diagrams.
Over by the windows, there was a two-plate electric hob, a toaster, a kettle and a microwave. The opposite side of the door, near the bathroom, there was a small sink with a single tap which dispensed cold water. Milk, sugar, tea and coffee were on a tray on the floor along with the other appliances. Several jam jars were arranged near the tray as makeshift mugs for hot drinks. There were some cereal boxes but not much other sign of any food or cooking activity.
A number of modern angle-poise and antique lamps filled the space with harsh and warm patches of light. The room was zoned, so that the art table was lit with bright white clean light, while around the futon daybed and in the snug corner with the Chesterfield, there was much softer and yellowish lighting.
She hadn't dared to disturb the art, the instruments, or the vinyl, but after some time she had figured out how to operate the cassette deck and play some of the compilations of music that had been recorded onto blank 90 minute tapes.
She felt it would take her a lifetime to explore all the wonderful things in that big loft space and she adored spending time there with him, even if he was sleepy and absent or increasingly anxious and cranky. How could anybody live like this? This mysterious alien environment was so intriguing.
"Should I go?" she would ask. When he was sleepy and content, he would open his eyes and tell her to stay. He would reach out for her hand, put it on his face and put his own hand over it. He liked her being there. He found it comforting. When he was growing uncomfortable and restless, he would distractedly say "Yeah. Whatever" but she didn't feel rejected. There was clearly something that bubbled up inside him that he was dealing with. Sometimes he would have to go out and he didn't seem to mind if she stayed or if she went. When he was gone, she didn't dare to get up and nose through his stuff, but she liked being there, spending time in that place.
Lying next to Neil in bed on a Saturday, Lara could remember every sight, sound and smell of Sam's loft. Her present environment was so familiar, so unstimulating, so boring.
The plain cream curtains, the simple modern light fitting on a smooth white ceiling. The walls were painted a tasteful neutral pastel shade and their bedroom furniture was practical and affordable Scandinavian flat-pack, with bland doors. Her bedside table was neatly arranged with a glass of water, an alarm clock and the book she was too stressed and distracted to read. Neil's bedside table was crammed with several dirty glasses and a stack of plates and bowls. Neil's side of the bed had become a no-man's land, littered with food wrappers, newspapers, unopened post, various electronic items and half-eaten meals. Lara would occasionally collect the crockery when there were only a few clean items left for her to be able to use.
Neil was present, but cold and passive-aggressively hostile. He would sleep with his back to her and he seemed to recoil from her touch. Just switching her bedside light on or rummaging quickly in her wardrobe for clothes seemed to cause him to toss and turn in bed, hiding his head under the covers and making little sighs of frustration. When she came into the bedroom, she could sense him stiffen and hold his breath.
Sam had been affectionate in a strange way. He had been grateful that she was there in his life, even though his moods were so unpredictable, so volatile. Neil and Lara hadn't made love in weeks, but it was the small displays of affection that Lara missed more than anything. Neil no longer seemed to want to hug and kiss her, to squeeze her, to spoon, to caress her skin and tickle her with his nose. She often used to fall asleep on Neil's chest in bed or watching TV together, but now they lived completely separate lives.
She started to feel unwelcome in her own home. She listened to the TV at low volume, worried about Neil in the bedroom above. She worried about the noise she was making when she left in the morning, or when she was doing housework. She wondered what she was even doing, watching crap TV series that they used to enjoy together. Many things were less interesting without another person to share the experience with. It started to feel as though she was making things worse, not better, by being around him.