Prologue / Chapter 1
“The sunlight dazzled that afternoon. Two women thanked their cab driver and mounted the steps of their shared flat, skin still laced with sweat and salt from the night before, mouths dry. Both were desperate to crawl under the covers of their respective beds and cocoon themselves, blocking out the slithers of Sunday dread that were already beginning to creep in.
Neither were ready to start thinking about work or real life again just yet.
‘I know I say this every time,’ started the taller one, ‘but I can’t keep partying like that; the day after is too much of a killer.’
The other, with smudged eyeliner, murmured in solidarity and began fumbling in her bag, searching for keys. Her neck was stiff from sleeping on an unfamiliar sofa. Hot rays beat against their backs as the key turned in the lock. For anyone else, this would be the perfect summer’s day. For them, it was too early. Too bright. The cool air in the hallway felt unusually still. It was gone lunchtime; surely their other flatmate would be up and about by now? Boiling the kettle and sliding bread into the toaster, singing along to music playing from her phone. It wasn’t like her to sleep in so late.
They headed upstairs and the woman with the smeared make-up knocked on the door of their flatmate’s room. She waited a few moments for a reply. There was none. Hesitantly, she let herself in, just wanting to check that everything was okay.
The sour stench of vomit hit instantly. It was all over the sheets and in her flatmate’s hair, undignified clumps of it clung to her chin and lay scattered across her chest. She noticed her flatmate’s ashen face, the body lying there lifelessly. She shook her, then urgently tried to scrape whatever was blocking her flatmate’s airways using her finger, took her wrist in one hand. There was no pulse. She let out a high-pitched scream and her friend ran in, stood for a moment in stunned horror then grabbed the phone from her bag and started to dial an ambulance. But she could see it was too late. Their flatmate was dead.
Flat-hunting had proven to be a thoroughly arduous task, on a par with training for a marathon or having a tooth – no, several teeth – extracted, by an incompetent dentist. In fact, Jessie Campbell decided, either of those options would be preferable to viewing yet another flat that was riddled with damp or falling in love with a room listed on SpareRoom or Gumtree, only to realise it was three times over budget. Even the ones that she’d actually visited in person and liked seemed to end in disappointment. It was always the same: she’d reply to a ‘flatmate wanted’ advert, make small talk in the kitchen with the current tenants, before judging whether or not all of her belongings could fit into the available bedroom. So far, after a month of intensive searching, Jessie had made an offer on four different places and heard nothing back from any of them. Nothing. Despite politely following up twice. The rejection was worse than being vetoed after a job interview, given that it was based strictly on the twenty minutes of personality she’d been allowed to display – not her skillset or lack of experience – all the while trying to work out how much cupboard space she might get in the kitchen.
Jessie had posted her own ‘room wanted’ adverts too, to minimal response, and then spent an afternoon email- ing all of the Brighton letting agents that came up on the first page of Google, with a list of her requirements. A good-sized double bedroom in a friendly flat-share, £600 (bills included), happy to live with males or females, but no students, please. Within minutes, her phone had started buzzing non-stop with calls from unrecognised numbers. Did letting agents not sleep? And how did they keep managing to convince her to view so many rancid places? Jessie always felt as though she were snooping without permission when viewing a bedroom still obviously in occupation, barely daring to do more than peer around from the threshold.
One of the dives she’d been shown by an agent, on Upper Lewes Road, had an actual gaping hole in the floor covered by a sticky Persian rug. Another, a basement flat near Preston Park station, smelled of burnt rubber and was so cramped that when Jessie sat on the bed, she could touch the walls either side. Then there was the rundown townhouse by Hove Lawns, where a plump landlord resembling Henry VIII had given her a wink and said that he often crashed on the sofa whenever he had business in town. Truly repulsive. She’d seen plenty of properties with black mould scattered across the ceilings in hazardous constellations too, all of which made her ache for the flat she’d spent the past three years lovingly curating with a man she’d believed was her future. A flat that had once upon a time seemed so perfect…