I never found out exactly why, but the first thing I turned to in my local newspaper was the Accommodation Wanted section. An urge born of sadism, a therapist told me, or a delusional superiority over those in transit and not, like me, smugly settled. She depicted me as a man leaning over an ant hill, pitying the mindless, scurrying masses.
I dreamed one morning that was doing that very thing. I told my therapist, who was not as pleased as I thought she would be. She said, “We’ve talked about this,” and dug a tetchy note into her pad. She suspected me of lying to match my real life to her therapy. I didn’t tell her the end of my dream, the ants plodding in a soldierly fashion up my legs. I kept watching them, unperturbed, then was tasting and swallowing them, pretending I was the one feeding, and not them.
That dream revealed that my habit had a touch of masochism. I wasn’t sure what made my flesh creep when I read Student seeking Under/Graduate house – up for a laugh. Just one? Or all the time? Wouldn’t that be tiring? For everybody? Or Crazy music scholarship girl seeks central zone under a hundred dollars a week? Crazy, what, for real: rolling-on-the-floor frothing-at-the-gills self-harming need-to-be-restrained-and-force-fed-and-avoided-and-shunned crazy? Had to be, desiring that rent. Or merely optimistic, a form of insanity in itself. And Teaching couple seek share with other teachers – eh, but why? Were they going to share whiteboard markers, tranquilisers, or just the sheer black-dog-soul-destruction of teaching Inner London kids?
Vegetarian seeks family home, will do housework, babysitting, etc. in exchange for living space. That went to the crux of why I searched the columns, so I could muse over questions like: dirty dishes – yay – and wiping congealed baby food off sparkling surfaces – great – but looking after the kids? I wondered. Couldn’t vegetarians be child-slaughterers, like the rest of us? And – living space? What, a corner of the garage? A toy box under the table?
Fit man mid-thirties will do all your home improvements in exchange for room, city centre preferred. For how long, though? Who lives in such a ruin that there are enough home improvements to sustain a business relationship? And who would seriously want to move into such a place, even in the city centre? And if he did, and he worked builder magic, would it end terribly and dramatically with last bit of paint dry, now off you fuck, fit man, and close the now non-sticking, silent door behind you?
I could only pity them, which was useless for everybody, even me and, I guess, fear them. I couldn’t help them; it wasn’t like I had an apartment to let, or even a room in the house I live in, no corner of the garage – no garage, in fact – and no toy box, because – of course – no children. I read the ads because I needed to know that maybe I was a sad sack alone in a brown house under layers of paint among ancient newspapers and spiderwebs and dust, but out there, pining for such spaces, were even sadder sad sacks. If I didn’t find one lurking at the end of the column, my hands trembled. Then I would find myself in a crouch near the spotted potted palm that had given up the will to live or at least gone into a self-induced coma until it could find a more companionable owner. I would look up only when it was dark and the vaguely Balkan music bounced faintly from the apartments across the grass, knowing that there was no bigger sadder sack than me.
The thing was that looking at the few words allocated them by the ads section allowed me a glimpse into the minds of the great unsmug and the great unsettled from a safe distance. Only an idiot would reduce that distance.
I’ve had the Virus, the ads started to announce, in banner capitals – conquered it, done, gone. Or there was Virus-Free Flatshare Sought – neg test certs a must, show you mine if you show me yours. The virus was not going to come to my home. The virus was afraid of my home, I sensed, and what was trapped in it.
But Hugh wasn’t.
Hugh’s ad was headed Help out an Underdog, eh? It read: Teacher, philosopher, lecturer, guide, ex-Cambridge and Sorbonne, needs room in a household in a desirable area. Cambridge – hey, the one in England, near Oxford? Philosopher – what? And guide to what? Eh? And what was a Sorbonne? Some fancy watery ice cream, that was all. His ad continued: Due to unforeseen circumstances, temporarily in receipt of welfare checks. Sadly I smoke.
I analysed those last three unpunctuated words. Did he sit there puffing away and looking miserable? A better question came at me out of the mist: what kind of idiot would answer an ad that more or less said Pretentious jobless smoker with no funds wants to live in your house with you?
When I smell that tobacco pong rising, I go down to Hugh’s foggy ground floor. It used to be the living room and kitchen diner, I think. I ask Hugh if he wants anything at the store. He does: a packet of cigarettes, which now cost the arm and leg we will surely both lose from smoking-related hardened arteries. But at least we don’t have the virus. And if we do, Hugh will write us a negative test result cert on the doctors’ notepapers he has amassed over the years, his little sideline to supplement his dole payments. When I ask myself, again, what kind of idiot would answer an ad like Hugh’s, all I have to do is rub a line into the yellow patina on the hallway mirror and see a puzzled, anxious face peering back at me.