It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like Chang and myself secure a luxury apartment in London for the summer.
An empty new build, a property investment. I would say a haunted house and reach the height of romantic felicity—but that would be asking too much of fate! It is The Denizen, a block of 99 empty flats on Golden Lane erected by Taylor Wimpey in the face of fierce opposition from local residents, people whose homes and local park it overshadows.
Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.
Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have so few people living in it?
Chang laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
Chang is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
Chang is a hospital orderly, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a hospital orderly, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
My brother is a physician, and of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but Chang says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
So I will let it alone and talk about the The Denizen.
It is an ugly construction quite out of place with its surroundings! To the north and south are listed ensembles of modernist housing, viz the Golden Lane Estate and The Barbican Estate. To the west is the Jewin Welsh Church, which The Denizen enfolds. To the east Fortune Street Park and two schools – one is for disabled children – all of which Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen overshadows.
The Denizen is newly built and quite empty. That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid; but I don’t care—there is something strange about The Denizen—I can feel it. I even said so to Chang one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.
I get unreasonably angry with Chang sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But Chang says if I feel so I shall neglect proper self-control. So I take pains to control myself—before him, at least—and that makes me very tired.
I don’t like our apartment a bit. It looks out onto a brick wall of The Cripplegate Institute, another listed building I haven’t yet mentioned. I wanted a flat overlooking Fortune Street Park but Chang would not hear of it. He said there was no point paying extra for a view which we could enjoy for free if we walked out of the building.
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day. He takes all care from me and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
He said we came here solely on my account. That I was to have perfect rest and enjoy the air in London. “Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear,” said he, “and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time.” The air in London isn’t perfect but it’s better than in Beijing.
Although The Denizen is a new build, the paint and paper in our apartment don’t look new. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. I should hate it myself if I had to live in this apartment for more than one summer.
There comes Chang, and I must put this away—he hates to have me write a word.
* * * * *
We have been here two weeks, and I haven’t felt like writing before, since that first day.
I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious apartment in Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength. Chang is away all day and even some nights. He is having to work in private nursing home to pay for our holiday in London.
I am glad my case is not serious! But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing. Chang does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! I meant to be such a help to Chang, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!
Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able—to dress and to take coffee at the Giddy Up stall in Fortune Street Park. I suppose Chang never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wallpaper! He said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies. He said that if the wallpaper was changed I’d start complaining about the carpet, and then the window frames, and so on.
“You know the place is doing you good,” he said, “and really, dear, I don’t care to renovate this Denizen apartment just for a three months’ rental.”
“Then do let us go downstairs,” I said, “the games room or the private cinema would be a change from this oppressive flat.”
Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the private cinema if I wished – but first we had to find something we wanted to screen in it. But he is right enough about the carpet and windows and things.
It is no smaller than the apartments occupied by our relatives in Hong Kong, and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim. I’m really getting quite fond of the apartment, all but that horrid paper. Out of the windows I can see London brick and I try to imagine the red is the sun setting, but I can’t.
Sometimes I fancy I see ghostly figures walking the corridors of The Denizen, but Chang has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.
I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. But I find I get pretty tired when I try. It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship. When I get really well Chang says we will ask friends he has made at the nursing home where he works to come over for an evening visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now. I wish I could get well faster. But I must not think about that.
This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.
I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store. I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend. I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe.
The furniture in this room is no worse than inharmonious. The wallpaper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother—they must have had perseverance as well as hatred. Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed, looks as if it had been through the wars. Which is strange considering the apartment has only just been built.
But I don’t mind it a bit—only the paper. This wallpaper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn’t faded, and where the sun is just so, I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to sulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.
Chang says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Kuala Lumpur in the fall. But I don’t want to go there at all. I don’t feel as if it is worth while to turn my hand over for anything, and I’m getting dreadfully fretful and querulous. I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when Chang is here, but when I am alone. And I am alone a good deal just now. Chang is working as many hours as he can to pay for this holiday.
I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper. It dwells in my mind so! I lie here on this great immovable bed—it is nailed down, I believe—and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.
I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of. It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise. Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of “debased Romanesque” with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.
But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase. The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction. They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.
There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the cross-lights fade, I can almost fancy radiation after all—the interminable grotesques seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction. It makes me tired to follow it. I will take a nap, I guess.