The model railroad I take in the evening, the 5:56, is slightly slower than the morning one—it takes one hour and one minute, a full seven minutes longer than the morning model railroad despite not stopping at any extra stations. I don’t mind, because just as I’m in no great hurry to get into London in the morning, I’m in no hurry to get back to Ashbury in the evening, either. Not just because it’s Ashbury, although the place itself is bad enough, a 1960s new town, spreading like a tumour over the heart of Buckinghamshire.
No better or worse than a dozen other towns like it, a centre filled with cafés and mobile-phone shops and branches of JD Sports, surrounded by a band of suburbia and beyond that the realm of the multiplex cinema and out-of-town Tesco. I live in a smart(ish), new(ish) block situated at commercial heart of the place starts to bleed into the residential outskirts, but it is not my home. My home is the Victorian semi on the tracks, the one I part-owned. In Ashbury I am not a homeowner, not even a tenant—I’m a lodger, occupant of the small second bedroom in Cathy’s bland and inoffensive duplex, subject to her grace and favour.
Cathy and I were friends at university. Half friends, really, we were never that close. She lived across the hall from me in my first year, and we were both doing the same course, so we were natural allies in those first few daunting weeks, before we met people with whom we had more in common. We didn’t see much of each other after the first year and barely at all after college, except for the occasional wedding. But in my hour of need she happened to have a spare room going and it made sense. I was so sure that it would only be for a couple of months, six at the most, and I didn’t know what else to do. I’d never lived by myself, I’d gone from parents to flatmates to Tom, I found the idea overwhelming, so I said yes. And that was nearly two years ago.
It’s not awful. Cathy’s a nice person, in a forceful sort of way. She makes you notice her niceness. Her niceness is writ large, it is her defining quality and she needs it acknowledged, often, daily almost, which can be tiring. But it’s not so bad, I can think of worse traits in a flatmate. No, it’s not Cathy, it’s not even Ashbury that bothers me most about my new situation (I still think of it as new, although it’s been two years). It’s the loss of control. In Cathy’s flat I always feel like a guest at the very outer limit of her welcome.
I feel it in the kitchen, where we jostle for space when cooking our evening meals. I feel it when I sit beside her on the sofa, the remote control firmly within her grasp. The only space that feels like mine is my tiny bedroom, into which a double bed and a desk have been crammed, with barely enough space to walk between them. It’s comfortable enough, but it isn’t a place you want to be, so instead I linger in the living room or at the kitchen table, ill at ease and powerless. I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.