The Landlord's Daughter
by Guy Ware
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The young woman in a black tee shirt and jeans consulted her clipboard and said she’d call them through in fifteen minutes. Then she disappeared, leaving them side by side on a chocolate-coloured sofa, each clutching a hardback book. He hadn’t known that Julia would be there; she wouldn’t have been expecting him either, but when they first saw each other, she’d nodded and smiled as if it had been a couple of weeks, rather than decades, since they’d last met. There had been a lot of faffing about, coffees offered, disclaimers to sign, and they hadn’t really had the chance to speak. But now they were alone, with so much to say. Fifteen minutes was too long for mere pleasantries.
When it came to the point, however, he had no idea where to start, and said, “How’s Mr P?”
She looked a little panicky. “Who?”
She smiled, thin lips stretching over small white teeth; she smoothed a crease from the knee of her linen trousers. “You called him Mr P?”
Everybody did. Mr P – Mr Painter, Henry Painter, Julia’s father – had been the kind of man whose disposition simply compelled old-fashioned chumminess.
Julia shook her head, a small, slow movement. She sniffed gently once or twice, as if tasting the wind. “He’s fine.”
Rob said, “Good. Good.” He nodded.
She said, “To tell the truth, I don’t ... see him. Once, at my mother’s funeral. Not since then.”
“She died? I’m sorry.”
Julia studied him for a moment, as if she were sifting his words. “It can’t be a surprise?”
He said, “I suppose not. But still...”
He felt she was mocking him, but he was sorry. Mrs P had been like a mother to him, or – better – like a scandalous favourite aunt who would periodically descend upon him in a cloud of gin and eau de toilette, pressing wads of Turkish delight and cigarettes into his outstretched palms. Why wouldn’t he be sorry?
There was a pause. Before he could ask how long ago it had happened, she pointed to the book lying face down in his lap. “What are you plugging?”
He lifted the book an inch or two, seeming to weigh it in his hand. “My bid for popular acclaim. One of those books about how economics explains everything. What about you?”
But she said, “Let’s see.”
He turned the book over, showed her the front cover.
She read the title. “Pelf? That’s not a word you hear too often.”
“No. As a matter of fact, I got it from Mr ... from your father.”
He expected her to remember, or to ask him about it, but she said nothing.
“They may talk as they please about what they call pelf.” Rob half spoke, half sang the words. “Surely you remember that?”
Julia shook her head: she did not remember.
Rob said, “Go on? I don’t believe it.”
Julia said, her voice firm, “I don’t remember that.”
The young woman in the black tee-shirt stuck her head through the door, said “Five minutes, okay?” and disappeared.
Julia said, “At least it isn’t television. All that fuss with the make-up.”
Was she showing off? Perhaps, but it was an opening, and he took it.
“Have you done a lot of TV?”
Rob nodded. He told himself he was glad it was only radio: he had recently switched from glasses to contact lenses and was afraid they made him look watery-eyed and myopic. Julia, though, would look good on the telly, no doubt about it. They say it adds ten pounds, but that would never be a problem for her. He had often wondered at the time how Mr and Mrs P – who were both large and soft and spread themselves widely – could have produced so slight a daughter, a girl whose skeleton one could always sense, just below the surface. He had pondered childhood illnesses, consumption even, before reminding himself it was the twentieth century. (In the Painters’ house it didn’t always seem that way.) It wasn’t just weight, however – where her parents’ features were florid, loose and baggy, hers were elongated, clear and finely drawn, her nose long but delicate, her mouth precise. She had dark hair, and had worn it – even then, when she would have been fifteen or sixteen – wound and pinned fast against the back of her head, lifted clear of her pale, slender neck. Her back was straight, her shoulders small and square; she had no hips to speak of, and, although she was not tall, she looked long and almost perpendicular; only her breasts – the fullness of which came as a surprise against so angular a frame – gave any hint of her mother’s sensual and tactile generosity.
If he had loved Mr and Mrs P like family, he had assumed that their daughter must love him.
He said, “How about you? What are you selling?”
Julia lifted her own book. “Dubuffet. Critical biography.”
On the cover of the book was a picture of a man, crudely but vigorously outlined in pale yellow against a dark background. He was standing, one hand flat on his stomach, the other perhaps tucked into a waistcoat pocket. His head was large, the eyes round and close together, the ears stuck on his cheeks as if both were facing us, his mouth large, lips pursed and sensual. His legs were splayed; he looked, Rob thought, like he was drunk, bracing himself to stay upright whilst possibly fearing that he was going to belch. He looked, Rob thought, a lot like Mr P.
“A painter, and sculptor. French.”
“Twentieth century. He’s dead now.”
The woman in the black tee shirt reappeared. “Ms Painter?”
Julia stood, taller than he remembered; she shook her trousers gently, settling them over her thighs and heels, then tugged at the sleeves of her blouse, ensuring that an even expanse of cream silk showed beyond each arm of her jacket; she checked the lapels, smoothing the way they fell over her breasts.
He said, “Break a leg.”
She paused, perhaps wondering what he meant. Then she reached into her shoulder bag and produced a small enamelled case, from which she plucked a card. She handed it to him.
“We could have coffee.”
The doctors eventually gave it a name: prosopagnosia. Face-blindness. It means I cannot recognise faces.
It is not a memory thing (I may have memory problems, but this is not one of them). It is not, as people often think, that I can’t remember who they are. It is rather that my brain scrambles faces: it does not acknowledge eyes and ears, noses or mouths as facial features, as constituents of the special pattern that allows other people instantly to spot a man they’ve seen once – or seen often, but only years ago – in a crowd, in a café, in a police line-up. So while I won’t have forgotten you – I will know you, still, always – I won’t recognise you by your face alone, won’t know it’s the you I know without some other clues.
If a man in uniform stood in the road directing traffic, I might guess he was a policeman. But if that man were my father, or my lover, doing it for a prank, I’d never know.
Between your neck and hair there’s nothing but a blur.
So, like many face-blind people, when I meet you, particularly when I meet a group, where I’ll know one or two of you, at least, but may know more, I’ll nod and smile, just in case. In case I do know you, in case you know me and would be offended if I appeared to blank you. If it turns out I’ve never met you, you might be a little surprised, but are unlikely to be hurt. It is remarkable how often people take such recognition as their due.
I can remember some faces: that is, I can visualise some faces, particularly those of people that I knew before it happened. I can’t be sure that the face I visualise is accurate, of course – or even, sometimes, that it belongs to the person in front of me and to whom I am ascribing it. Oddly, I find that I can visualise such faces better – that is, as less blurred, albeit in black-and-white – if I squint just to the side of the person I am looking at.
Some people are born face-blind. I was not.
My brain still recognises other patterns, and I’ve learned tricks to help me spot my friends, my colleagues at the university, my students. If I get close enough, there are certain people I can recognise by smell alone; although, frankly, it’s not often I want to get that close to anyone I’m not already sure I know.
In some people it is caused by trauma.
Faces are not everything, then, but they are an awful lot of what we know about each other. If you smile, if you scowl, I won’t know it. If you wink, the message will be lost on me. I may know you, I may love you. I may hate you. But, if you cut your hair, or grow your hair, start wearing glasses, stop wearing glasses, change your clothes, your aftershave, grow up, grow old and meet me after all this time, the chances are that I won’t know it’s you.
The chances are, I’ll nod and smile just in case.
“I read your book.”
The museum café she had suggested was airy and cool and almost empty in the late morning. He guessed it would fill up soon, when the students and the tourists got gallery feet and headed for an early lunch. For now, however, they were the only customers, apart from one other table where three men sat, suit jackets on the back of their chairs, peering into a laptop. They’d been there when he arrived, and looked set for the morning. Julia had been there, too, talking to another man. Rob held back at the door, saw her check her watch, write something in a plain black diary with a silver pencil that caught the light and stood out clearly against her jacket. She closed the diary, dismissing her companion. Rob ducked back out, waited until the man went past, then re-entered the café; Julia was checking her watch again.
She stood when she saw he was there, and he wondered if he should kiss her cheek. Instead, he gestured to the empty room and said, “Nice place.” The ceilings were high and white, the lower part of the walls panelled with dark wood. Tall casement windows filled the space with light. Bent wood chairs gathered around square tables with brass inlays; in the middle of the room high stools surrounded a long, thin, marble-topped counter. The counter was divided by low glass screens to protect customers’ coffee from the spray of pastry crumbs and the spittle of those sitting opposite.
Julia glanced around her, gave a slight shrug. “It’s useful in the mornings. It’ll be hopeless later.”
He wondered why she’d invited him. When he’d rung, a couple of days after their radio interviews, she hadn’t sounded surprised, but neither had she sounded all that eager to meet. She had been polite, Rob thought, professionally friendly. She had asked him to hold while she checked her diary, and had arranged a date two weeks ahead.
Now, however, she was smiling. “You nearly read it? You mean you looked at the pictures?”
He smiled uncertainly, not sure if she were teasing.
“It is art history,” she said. “You’re allowed.”
He had looked at the pictures, and had liked some more than others. There were two, however, he knew he would not forget. The one on the cover, the one that had reminded him of Mr P, turned out to be called ‘Monsieur Plume with Creases in his Trousers’. It was a portrait of Henri Michaux, the author of a series of stories featuring his alter ego, a certain M Plume, and was painted, apparently, with oil and grit. And later, inside the book, in glossy, high-quality reproduction, he had found ‘Soil, The Tree of Fluids’, which, despite its title, was the flattened portrait of a woman, painted on a paste that repelled the oils to give a liquid, veined, alveolar effect: she looked as if she had been flayed and pinned back for dissection; and yet the effect was somehow affectionate, cheerful rather than grotesque. It was also, allowing for the distortion of the artist’s approach, the spitting image of Mrs P.
He asked if this were the source of Julia’s interest in Dubuffet, but she did not understand.
“They look so much like your parents. Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed?”
She laughed again, a fraction late. “So who am I?” she said. “The cow with the subtle nose?”
The reference was lost on him; he hadn’t read the whole book.
One of the three men leaned away from the laptop, tipping back his chair; Rob heard the wood creaking under the strain.
“My publishers must have spotted a likeness,” Julia said. “They gave me a print of it when the book was launched.”
A waiter appeared – a beautiful young man in a starched white apron who must, Rob decided, be an actor – and they ordered coffee. Rob ordered cake; Julia didn’t. While they waited Rob said, “Have you read mine?”
Julia seemed to be looking not quite at him, but just to one side. She said, “I looked at the equations.”
Rob relaxed, happy.
I was fifteen when I kissed the lodger. He was pale, with dark eyes and dark curly hair I told myself was romantic, but which flopped across his spectacles. He had arms like pipe cleaners, a room full of books and smelled of sweat and cigarettes. But he was male, and I wanted to experiment.
He was not the first – not the first lodger, I mean: he was the first I kissed – and I cannot now remember his name. My parents were in perpetual need of money. We lived in a shabby corner of a university town, in a three-storey Victorian house my father had inherited from his mother, who had spent most of my childhood – and, if my father was to be believed, many years before that – dying genteelly in the first-floor front bedroom, while my father grew middle-aged, lost jobs and bankrupted small businesses, married late and started a family around her. When she finally kicked the bucket, my parents moved into her room and let out the one on the second floor to a series of pretty much indistinguishable postgraduate students who rarely lasted more than a term or two, and never more than a year.
The one I kissed had a frightened look around the eyes, I remember that. Perhaps that was why I chose him. More likely, it was just an accident of timing, of hormones: he happened to be there when, in my mind, I began to go so much further than kissing, pressing my hips to his, grinding myself against him, pushing my hand down the front of his jeans, pulling his penis free and measuring it with my hand. I imagined it as much longer than my span, I remember that, and I wondered how much of it had to go inside me. He’d be eating his dinner, talking to my mum about something on the news, and I’d be thinking about him pushing it into me, there, on the table, glasses and spoons and forks clattering as we swept them to the floor.
When I kissed him for real our teeth collided.
It was about three in the afternoon when he came into the kitchen. I’d been peeling potatoes, standing at the sink. My parents were both out; they’d asked him along to the pub, but he’d said he had too much work to do. He hesitated at the door and I called him in, asking if he wanted dinner with us that evening. He said no, he’d be all right. There was a Baby Belling in his room, and I knew he had one of those sandwich toasters. I took a step towards him, the small, sharp knife still in my hand, and he looked terrified, poor thing, but he didn’t move. In my mind I’d always had to go up on tiptoe, to pull his face down towards mine; when it came to it, even at fifteen, I was as tall as he. Our mouths were on a level. I tried to slide my lips against his, but all I felt was the rasp of stubble, and then teeth. He stepped backwards, reaching up towards his face as if he could somehow feel the kiss better with his fingers; doing so, he knocked off his glasses. As he bent to pick them up I stepped forward and his face ploughed into my breasts. I had on a new black bra beneath my tee shirt.
He fled, and I returned to the potatoes, the taste of nicotine still on my lips.
After that, he did his best not to be alone with me, never spoke to me without becoming confused. For a while I teased him, not locking the bathroom door when I was in it, bumping into him on the landing in nothing but a night-shirt that just about covered my bum. He would blush and panic but managed to resist me. I was pretty horrible, I suppose, but no more so than any teenage girl. Mum saw me doing it once, and just winked – at me, or him, I wasn’t sure; I didn’t do it after that. He was a pig, I thought, or a prig, or maybe both. Perhaps he was a poof? I didn’t care. I met a boy at school with a genuine 1960s Vespa; I got into 2-Tone for a while and decided I was a mod. I stopped thinking about the lodger.
A month later we were advertising for another tenant. It was summer and the room was empty for several months. Mum and Dad were around the house much more, without the rent. It was not a good time. Dad said, “He was sweet on you, you know?”
I didn’t want to talk about it.
“You could have been a bit nicer to him.”
“All I’m saying. He might not have left.”
“How do you know Julia?”
It was one of the women who asked. They were in Julia’s flat, helping themselves to nuts and olives while Julia did something in the kitchen.
Rob said, “We go way back.”
Rob wished he could remember her name. Julia had introduced them about ten minutes ago – rather formally he thought, as if she were reading from a card – but the woman’s name, as often happened to him, had slipped immediately away. He wondered if it were too late now to ask. There came a point in any conversation when it was just too rude to admit you had no idea who you were talking to.
He was pretty sure she was married to Martin. Rob knew the man was called Martin because he’d been there when he and the woman arrived. When Julia opened the door he’d pushed his face towards Julia’s and said, “Guess who?” The woman had slapped him lightly on the arm and said, “Mar-tin!” loudly in mock exasperation. Julia kissed her on both cheeks and led her into the flat. Martin followed them in. Spotting someone he didn’t know, he’d stepped up to Rob and stuck out a paw. “Martin.” “Rob,” said Rob, and wondered what to say after that.
There was another couple there when Rob arrived: Jenny, Janey, something like that. She was blonde in that colourless way some women, and a few men, were – her eyebrows and her lips were almost invisible, her cheekbones sharp, her eyes like pale ash – which Rob found more attractive in principle than in practice. She and her husband – partner? David? – were both at the university with Julia: History and ... Political Science. Rob thought he was doing pretty well. If only he could remember this other woman’s name. He’d bide his time: someone else would say it soon enough.
He said, “Really. Twenty years – more. Though, to tell you the truth, we hadn’t actually met since the eighties. Not since I was at college here myself.”
The woman cocked her head to one side, sensing a story.
“I was a graduate student, and she was the landlord’s daughter ...”
Martin erupted in a loud guffaw. “Sounds like a good old-fashioned rugby song!”
The woman smiled at Rob conspiratorially.
Martin was right, though, it did. When Rob looked back, the whole thing had a bawdy, antiquated flavour. Landlord; lodger; bedsit – the very words sounded archaic, out of time. He supposed there must still be bedsits – places for the impecunious, the lonely and the optimistic to lay their heads. But the innocent maiden – the landlord’s daughter – seduced and betrayed by the older scholar? Had this happened to him, or had he read it somewhere? Somewhere as old as Chaucer?
“And you haven’t seen her since? How ever did you meet again?”
“Just luck, really. We were both plugging books on Arts Forum. We met at the studios.”
Martin said, “Did she recognise you?”
The woman tutted, and said, “Don’t mind him.” Rob laughed politely. The question was ridiculous, a joke. Of course she’d recognised him. She knew him: she’d nodded and smiled and said hello. They’d talked about her parents; she’d invited him for coffee, and now for dinner.
Martin said, “Don’t know that I buy it, myself.”
“Mar-tin.” The woman sounded tired now.
David got up from the sofa and said, “She’s face-blind.”
Martin said, “She says.”
David continued, speaking to Rob: “It’s not a joke. She can’t recognise faces.”
“I get that way myself after a few,” Martin said, but it was obvious he’d lost his hold on the conversation.
“It’s called prosopagnosia.”
Rob, who had never heard the word before, said, “I didn’t know.”
The woman whose name Rob couldn’t remember said, “It must have happened since you knew her. It must have been about that time.”
The kitchen door opened. Julia called out, “Can someone help me with the bowls, please?”
Jenny/Janey stepped rapidly towards her.
The other woman whispered. “It can be caused by trauma.”
Art history is not so perverse a choice for the face-blind as it might at first appear. There are few paintings, and fewer artists, that we recognise by their faces: paintings come rich in other clues, in visual symbolism and stylistic signatures, they bear their own labels, even where – as is most often the case in my trade – labels have not already been applied by galleries or catalogues. If only people were so accommodating.
Michaux calls Plume “a peaceful man”. In Un Certain Plume, he falls asleep repeatedly. He sleeps while his house is stolen from around him: Madame Plume is not amused. The next time he awakes, she has been dismembered. “Where there’s blood,” he thinks, before falling asleep again, “there is always so much unpleasantness.” The judge is sceptical, but Monsieur Plume has noticed nothing. He is sentenced to death; when asked if he has any final words, he says that he is sorry, but he has not been following the case, and falls asleep.
“I got it from Mr P.”
An unvoiced question hung above the table until Julia said, “That’s what he called my father.”
The woman whose name Rob still didn’t know, Julia’s oldest friend there apart from himself, spoke quickly, as if to fill a silence. “Shall I help you clear the plates away?”
While she and Julia carried soup bowls out to the kitchen, Martin said: “But what does it mean?”
Rob said he had asked Mr P that himself, once, but Mr P hadn’t known. The song was really a poem, he said. Mr P’s father had sung it, too.
David swirled the wine in his glass. “It means wealth – ill-gotten gains.”
Rob nodded to him. “Exactly.”
He lifted a bottle, offering to refill David’s glass. Then he poured some into his own, but his hand was too heavy. The glass toppled and the wine spilled onto the tablecloth, a deep-red stain quickly wicking out through the absorbent linen. Rob patted at it briefly with a napkin, then righted his glass and poured again.
Jenny/Janey said, “Salt. Put salt on it.”
Rob said he never knew if that really worked, or was just superstition. He supposed it might be worth a try.
Martin, who had looked bored, now said, “Let’s change places!”
They looked at each other. “While Julia’s in the kitchen.” Martin said. “We can change places – see if she notices.”
Jenny/Janey sighed, just loud enough for them all to hear.
Was that you? The lodger I kissed? Or the one who kissed me? You all looked much the same, even then, when you had faces. You all smelled of sweat, even when you washed.
I was sixteen: you all looked at me, you whistled loud enough for me to hear. You leered. You stood on the landing outside the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel slung low over your hips; I could see black hair curling out above it. When I came out you didn’t move, just watched me. One day you turned as if to let me pass, but your prick rose, under the towel, pushing it out like a tent. You grinned. You didn’t move. I squeezed past, careful not to touch it, and you just laughed.
That afternoon, you knocked on my bedroom door. I was surprised by the knock and opened it. You pushed in, a bottle of vermouth in one hand.
Was that you?
I thought, at the radio studios – when I saw that you recognised me, that you weren’t just making conversation, that you had known my parents, known me – I thought: I have to know.
I didn’t want a drink, I said: I was revising for exams. And you said: what about a kiss then? I pushed you away, but you hung on. You pressed your face to mine. Our teeth banged together as you kissed me, or bit me. I tasted sickly vermouth and caught the chemical scent of mint: you had brushed your teeth.
Where there is blood there is always so much unpleasantness; but Mum and Dad had noticed nothing, had not been following the case. Mum said you were such a nice boy. Dad said you always paid the rent. I could do worse, he said.
Was that you?
They took you to the pub; they brought you back. To your bedsit in my home, their home. Where you would do it again, if you ever got the chance.
I left. I never looked back, never saw you, never saw Mum or Dad, never recognised either one of them again until I saw him standing, weeping alcoholic’s tears by her grave. And even then I only knew that it was him because he threw the dirt in first and stank of whisky.
Was that you?
I thought I had to know.
Rob said, “I’ll stay and help you with the washing up.”
The others were leaving. Martin had suggested party games – “We could play blind man’s buff!” – and his wife had looked tired and said it was time they went. She hugged Julia, then steered Martin out of the door before he could do the same. David and Jenny/Janey said they’d better be off, too. David shook Rob’s hand, said he’d look out for Pelf. Jenny/Janey kissed him on the cheek. They both kissed Julia. They’d see her on Monday.
Rob offered to help clear up.
She turned – thin, pale, tired, an empty wineglass in her hand. A strand of hair had come loose and fallen forward, hanging from her temple down over her cheek. She hooked it back behind her ear, turning her face slightly to one side as she did so. She looked just past him. She sniffed gently, once, twice, her long, delicate nostrils widening.
Rob brushed the salt onto a plate with the side of his hand. Underneath the stain had leached and blurred into a purple bruise.
She thought she had to know.
“I’m tired,” she said. “I’ve given up, really, but do you have a cigarette?”
Rob said, “I don’t smoke.”
She thought, that’s right. There’s no smell on him. Just wine, and food. Her food.
He said, “Come on, I’ll wash. You wipe.”
He’d smelled of tobacco once. Or toothpaste and vermouth. Which was it?
“Oh, don’t,” she said, “you mustn’t.”
“I insist,” he said. “The prerogative of old friends.”
He smiled as he spoke, but she would never know that.
Guy Ware's stories have been published in many anthologies, including the 'Best British Short Stories 2013' (Salt), and in his collection 'You Have 24 Hours to Love Us' (Comma Press). His first novel, 'The Fat of Fed Beasts' was published last year by Salt and described by Nick Lezard in the Guardian as "Brilliant… the best debut novel I have read for years." His second is out looking for a home in the world while he gets on with the third.
Sacha Lenz is an amateur photographer from Switzerland. View more of his work at Flickr.