Excerpt from A Woman of Experience
The outside of No. 15 Wrenbert Terrace, Mill Hill, didn't look much different from the house I'd left that morning, except that it was taller and the brick a little greyer. "Clean rooms, use of kitchen, low rents. Call Mrs. Carmody," advertised the paper I'd picked up at Victoria. What more could I ask?
I rang the bell and waited, and after some shuffling and throat clearing, the door was opened by a faded little woman in black whose white hair tumbling around her shoulders made her look like a fairytale witch. She waved a smouldering cigarette under my nose and said, "You've come about the room."
I said I had and was she Mrs. Carmody?
She nodded and ran an unexpectedly brisk eye over my plain blue dress and unpretentious luggage. I knew I'd passed inspection when she jerked her head at the narrow flight of stairs directly behind her and said, "Come on up then."
I followed her to the first landing. "Bathroom," she said, waving a trail of smoke at an open door through which I caught a glimpse of a cracked mirror and damp towels hanging on pegs. "Hot water."
Well, I should hope so. This wasn't the eighteenth century. If the landlady regarded hot water as a selling point, what would the "clean room" be like?
After following a puffing Mrs. Carmody up three more flights of stairs, I found out.
The top storey must originally have been the servants' attic, and it didn't look as though much had been done to improve its status since. An uncarpeted wooden floor slanted towards the ill-fitting door that Mrs. Carmody flung open to the accompaniment of a chorus of protesting creaks from tired hinges. "Here we are then," she announced. "Couldn't do better now, could you?"
Well, yes. One could. I took in the cramped little room with its low, sloped ceiling, and only just succeeded in stifling a groan. A single brass bed was pressed against the wall next to a small chest of drawers. The remaining furnishings were a scratched table supporting a bilious yellow ashtray and a straight-backed chair that bore a disturbing resemblance to a medieval torture rack. A worn piece of brown carpet beside the bed looked as though it housed a tribe of gluttonous moths. Other than that, the floor was bare and even more scratched than the table.
"Suit you?" asked Mrs. Carmody.
It didn't, but I was tired; it was getting late and I'd already looked at six other rooms. In spite of the strong possibility of moths, this was the best I'd seen yet.
"Where would I hang my clothes?" I asked glumly.
Mrs. Carmody waved her cigarette at three pegs on the back of the door. "Low rent," she said, as though that excused the lack of a wardrobe—as indeed it would have to. The room was dingy and depressing, but it had the advantage of being close to the Underground. Besides, it was all I could afford.
"Yes," I said. "I think it will suit me. That is... the advertisement mentioned a kitchen."
"Downstairs. First floor. You'll share it with the rest of'em, of course. Pots and pans provided." She beamed me a proud smile that revealed three blackened teeth.
"Oh. Yes. Thank you. Um—how many other tenants are there?" I had visions of waiting in line to boil an egg, which was about the extent of my cooking skills. Mother didn't like anyone messing about in her kitchen, and she had been impatient with my half-hearted attempts to help her bake biscuits or buns. Anyway, I'd always preferred reading to anything domestic and was quite happy to exchange biscuits and buns for my books.
"Well, said Mrs. Carmody, clamping her cigarette between her lips and counting deliberately on her fingers. "There's Miss Lavender and Mrs. Garcia on the second floor, but they don't cook, and Mr. & Mrs. Ash below you—and Mr. Bozelli. And you are Miss...?
"I'm Jane. Janey Blackman."
"Miss Blackman," said Mrs. Carmody firmly, and I understood there would be no unseemly informality in her house.
"Yes," I agreed weakly. "That's right."
"Well then?" She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
I scrabbled in my bag and pulled out the correct number of notes. "Thank you. I'll take it," I said.
Mrs. Carmody's right hand shot out to snatch the notes before I changed my mind. With her left hand she butted her cigarette in the ashtray.
"I'll leave you to settle in," she said. "You can fetch the door keys when you come down. My flat's in the basement. No visitors after eleven, no parties and no immoral behavior." She eyed me sternly. "You have red hair."
"Yes, I..." I stopped myself before I could start apologizing for my curly red locks. "Yes, I have."
"Hm." Mrs. Carmody nodded, and I thought she was about to tell me I wouldn't do after all. But she didn't, and as soon as she had shuffled off downstairs, I shut the door and took possession of my drab little room.
The first thing I did was pull back the thin white curtains. It didn't help. A cloud obscured the sun and in its leftover light the view was unrelentingly cheerless. Grey backs of houses like this one, dustbins and a couple of skinny cats. So different from the neat rows of vegetables at home…
Home. Lord, what on earth had I done?