The truth? The truth is that that damn real estate agent was a damn poor real estate agent, and the apartment viewing was a disaster right from the start. If the prospective buyers couldn’t agree about anything else, they could at least agree on that, because nothing unites a group of strangers more ePectively than the opportunity to come together and sigh at a hopeless case.
The advertisement, or whatever you want to call it, was a poorly spelled disaster, with pictures so blurred that the photographer seemed to believe that a “panoramic shot” was something you achieved by throwing your camera across the room. “The HOUSE TRICKS Estate Agency! HOW’S TRICKS?” it said above the date, and who on earth would get it into their head to hold an apartment viewing the day before New Year’s Eve? There were scented candles in the bathroom, and a bowl of limes on the coPee table, a brave ePort by someone who seemed to have heard about apartment viewings but had never actually been to one, but the closet was stuPed with clothes, and there was a pair of slippers in the bathroom that looked like they belonged to someone who had spent the past 1fty years shuAing around without ever lifting their feet. The bookcase was packed, and not even color-coordinated, and there were even more books piled up on the windowsills and the kitchen table. The fridge was covered with yellowing drawings produced by the owner’s grandchildren. Zara had been to enough viewings by this point to be able to spot an amateur: a viewing should make it look as if no one lives in the apartment, because otherwise only a serial killer would want to move in. A viewing should make it look as if anyone could potentially live there. People don’t want to buy a picture, they want to buy a frame. They can handle books in a bookcase, but not on the kitchen table. Perhaps Zara could have gone up to the real estate agent and pointed that out, if
only the real estate agent hadn’t been a human being, and if only Zara hadn’t hated human beings. Especially when they spoke.
Instead Zara did a circuit of the apartment, trying to look interested, the way she had seen people who actually wanted to buy apartments look. That was quite a challenge for her, seeing as only someone on drugs who collected 1ngernail clippings could possibly be interested in living in this particular apartment. So when no one was looking in her direction, Zara went out onto the balcony, stood by the railing, and stared oP toward the bridge until she started to shake uncontrollably. The same reaction as always, time after time for the past ten years. The letter she had never opened lay in her handbag. She had learned to cry almost without tears now, for practical reasons.
The balcony door was ajar and she could hear voices, not just in her head but from inside the apartment. Two married couples were wandering about, trying to ignore all the rather ugly furniture and instead visualize their own really ugly furniture in its place. The older couple had been married for a long time, but the younger couple seemed to have only gotten married recently. You can always tell by the way people who love each other argue: the longer they’ve been together, the fewer words they need to start a 1ght.
The older couple were called Anna-Lena and Roger. They’d been retired for a few years now, but clearly not long enough for them to have gotten used to it. They were always stressing about something, but without having anything they truly needed to hurry for. Anna-Lena was a woman with strong feelings, and Roger a man with strong opinions, and if you’ve ever wondered who writes all those too detailed, one-out-of-1ve-star reviews of household gadgets (or theater plays, or tape dispensers, or small glass ornaments) on the Internet, it’s Anna-Lena and Roger. Sometimes, of course, they hadn’t even tried out the gadgets in question, but they weren’t the sort of people to let that stop them from writing a scathing review. If you had to try things out and read things and 1nd out the truth about things, then you’d never have time to have an opinion about anything. Anna-Lena was wearing a top in a color usually only seen on parquet
Aoors, Roger was in jeans and a checkered shirt that had received a sulfurous one-out-of-1ve-stars review online because it “had shrunk several inches!” not long after Roger’s bathroom scale had received the damning judgment that it was “calibrated wrong!” Anna-Lena tugged at one of the curtains and said: “Green curtains? Who on earth has green curtains? Honestly, the things people do these days. But maybe they’re color-blind. Or Irish.” She didn’t say this to anyone in particular, she had just fallen into the habit of thinking out loud, seeing as that seemed appropriate for a woman who had gotten used to the fact that no one listened to her anyway.
Roger was kicking the baseboards and muttering: “This one’s loose,” and didn’t hear a word of what Anna-Lena said. The baseboard may possibly have been loose because Roger had spent ten minutes kicking it, but for a man like Roger a truth is a truth, regardless of its cause. From time to time Anna-Lena whispered to him about what she thought of the other prospective buyers in the apartment. Sadly Anna-Lena was about as good at whispering as she was at thinking quietly, so it was pretty much the sort of shouted whisper that’s the equivalent of a fart in an airplane that you think won’t be noticed if you let it out a little bit at a time. You never manage to be as discreet as you imagine.
“That woman on the balcony, Roger, what does she want with this apartment? She’s obviously too rich to want it, so what’s she doing here? And she’s still got her shoes on. Everyone knows you take your shoes oP at an apartment viewing!” Roger didn’t answer. Anna-Lena glared at Zara through the balcony window as if Zara were the one who’d farted. Then Anna-Lena leaned even closer to Roger and whispered: “And those women in the hall, they really don’t look like they could aPord to live here! Do they?”
At this Roger stopped kicking the baseboard, turned toward his wife, and looked her deep in the eye. Then he said four little words that he never said to any other woman on the planet. He said: “For God’s sake, darling.”
They never argue anymore, unless perhaps they argue all the time. When you’ve been stuck with each other long enough it can seem like there’s no diPerence between no longer arguing and no longer caring.
“For God’s sake, darling, remember to tell everyone you talk to that this place needs sevious venouation! That way they won’t want to put in an oPer,” Roger
Anna-Lena looked confused: “But that’s good, isn’t it?”
Roger sighed. “For God’s sake, darling. Good for us, yes. Because me can do the renovations. But the others—you can tell from miles oP that none of them knows a thing about renovation.”
Anna-Lena nodded, wrinkled her nose, and sniPed the air demonstratively. “There’s a de1nite smell of damp, isn’t there? Possibly even mold?” Because Roger had taught her always to ask the real estate agent that question, loudly, so that the other prospective buyers would hear and be worried.
Roger closed his eyes in frustration.
“For God’s sake, darling, you’re supposed to say that to the Realtor, not me.”
Wounded, Anna-Lena nodded, then thought out loud: “I was just practicing.”
Zara could hear them from where she was standing looking out over the railing on the balcony. The same swirling panic inside her, the same nausea, the same quivering 1ngertips every time she saw the bridge. Maybe she was fooling herself by thinking that one day it would feel better, or perhaps worse, so unbearable that she herself went and jumped. She looked down from the balcony but wasn’t sure it was high enough. That’s the only thing someone who de1nitely wants to live and someone who de1nitely wants to die have in common: if you’re going to jump oP something, you need to be pretty damn sure of the height. Zara just wasn’t sure which of those she was: just because you don’t much like life doesn’t necessarily mean you want the alternative. So she had spent a decade seeking out and attending these apartment viewings, standing on balconies and staring at the bridge, balancing right in the middle of all that was worst inside her.
She heard new voices from inside the apartment. It was the other couple, the younger pair, Julia and Ro. One of them was a blonde, the other had black hair, and they were squabbling noisily the way you do when you’re young and think
that every feeling Auttering about in all your hormones is completely unique. Julia was the one who was pregnant, and Ro was the one who was irritated. One was dressed in clothes that looked like she’d made them herself out of capes she’d stolen from murdered magicians, the other as if she sold drugs outside a bowling alley. Ro (that was a nickname, of course, but the sort that had stuck to her for so long that even she used it to introduce herself, which was just one of the many reasons Zara found her irritating) was walking around and holding her phone up toward the ceiling, repeating: “There’s, like, no signal at all in here!” while Julia snapped back: “Well, that’s tevvible, because then we might actually have to talb to each other if we lived here! Stop trying to change the subject the whole time, we need to make a decision about the birds!”
They very rarely agreed about anything, but in Ro’s defense she didn’t always know that. Fairly often when Ro asked Julia “Are you upset?” Julia would reply “NO!” and Ro would shrug, as carefree as a family in an advertisement for cleaning products, which obviously only made Julia even more upset, because it was perfectly obvious that she was upset. But this time even Ro was aware that they were arguing, because they were arguing about the birds. Ro had had birds when she and Julia got together, not as lunch but as pets. “Is she a pirate?” Julia’s mom had asked the 1rst time it was mentioned, but Julia put up with the birds because she was in love and because she couldn’t help wondering how long birds could actually live.
A very long time, as it turned out. When Julia eventually realized this and tried to deal with the situation in an adult way by sneaking out of bed one night and letting them out of a window, one of the wretched creatures fell all the way to the street and died. A bivd! Julia had to invite some of the neighbors’ children in for a soda the next day when Ro was at work so she could blame one of them when Ro found the cage open. And the other birds? They were still sitting in the cage. What sort of insult to evolution was it that creatures like that managed to stay alive?
“I’m not going to have them put down, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Ro said, sounding hurt and looking around the apartment with her hands deep in the pockets of her dress. Her dress had pockets because she appreciated looking nice, but still liked to have somewhere to put her hands.
“Okay, okay. So what do you think of the apartment, then? I think we should take it!” Julia said breathlessly, because the elevator was broken and every time Ro said, “We’re pregnant,” to family and friends as if it were a team sport, Julia felt like pouring molten wax in her ears when she was asleep. Not that Julia didn’t love Ro, because she did, so much that it was almost unbearable, but they had looked at more than twenty apartments in the past two weeks and Ro always found something wrong with every single one of them. It was as if she didn’t actually want to move. But Julia woke up every night in their current apartment to play every pregnant woman’s favorite game, “kick or gas?” and then she couldn’t get back to sleep because both Ro and the birds snored, so she was more than ready to move anywhere right now, as long as it had more than one bedroom.
“No signal,” Ro repeated morosely. “Who cares? Let’s take it!” Julia persisted.
“Well, I’m not sure. I need to check the hobby room,” Ro said. “That’s a walk-in closet,” Julia corrected.
“Or a hobby room! I’m just going to get the tape measure!” Ro nodded cheerfully, because one of her most charming and simultaneously most infuriating characteristics was that no matter what they’d just been arguing about, she could be in a wonderful mood in the blink of an eye if she thought about cheese.
“You know perfectly well that you’re not going to be allowed to store cheese in my walk-in closet,” Julia declared sternly, seeing as their current apartment had a storeroom in the basement that Julia referred to as the Museum of Abandoned Hobbies. Every third month Ro would become obsessed with something, 1950s dresses or bouillabaisse or antique coPee services or CrossFit or bonsai trees or a podcast about the Second World War, then she would spend three months studying the subject in question with unstinting devotion on Internet forums populated by people who clearly shouldn’t be allowed Wi-Fi in whatever padded cell they were locked up in, and then she would suddenly get fed up and immediately 1nd a new obsession. The only hobby that had remained constant since they got together was that Ro collected shoes, and nothing could sum up a person more clearly than the fact that she owned two
hundred pairs of shoes, yet always managed to have the wrong ones on when it was raining or snowing.
“No, I don’t know that perfectly well! Because I haven’t measured it yet, so I don’t know if there’d be room for the cheese in there! And my plants also need…,” Ro began, because she had just decided to start growing plants under heat lamps in the hobby room. Which was a walk-in closet. Or a…
In the meantime Anna-Lena was running her hand over a cushion cover and thinking about sharks. She’d been thinking about them a lot recently, because in their marriage, she and Roger had come to resemble sharks. That was a source of silent sorrow for Anna-Lena. She kept rubbing the cushion cover and distracted herself by thinking out loud: “Is this from IKEA? Yes, it’s de1nitely from IKEA. I recognize it. They do a Aoral version as well. The Aoral version’s nicer. Honestly, the things people do these days.”
You could have woken Anna-Lena in the middle of the night and asked her to recite the IKEA catalog. Not that there’d be any reason to, of course, but you could if you wanted to, that’s the point. Anna-Lena and Roger have been to every IKEA store in the whole country. Roger has many faults and failings, Anna-Lena knows people think that, but Anna-Lena is always reminded that he loves her in IKEA. When you’ve been together for a very long time, it’s the little things that matter. In a long marriage you don’t need words to have a row, but you don’t need words to say “I love you,” either. Once when they were at IKEA, very recently, Roger had suggested when they were having lunch in the cafeteria that they each have a piece of cake. Because he understood that it was an important day for Anna-Lena, and because it was important to her it was important to him as well. Because that’s how he loves her.
She went on rubbing the cushion cover that was nicer in the Aoral pattern and glanced over at the two women in a way Anna-Lena thought was discreet, the pregnant one and her wife. Roger was looking at them as well. He was holding the Realtor’s prospectus with the layout of the apartment in his hand, and grunted: “For God’s sake, darling, look at this! Why do they have to call the
small room ‘child’s room’? It could just as well be a perfectly ordinary damn bedroom!”
Roger didn’t like it when there were pregnant women at apartment viewings, because couples expecting a baby always bid too much. He didn’t like children’s rooms, either. That’s why Anna-Lena always asks Roger as many questions as she can think of when they walk through the children’s section in IKEA. To help distract him from the incomprehensible grief. Because that’s how she loves him.
Ro caught sight of Roger and grinned, as if they weren’t really at war with each other.
“Hi! I’m Ro, and that’s my wife, Julia, over there. Can I borrow your tape measure? I forgot mine!”
“Absolutely not!” Roger snapped, clutching his tape measure, pocket calculator, and notepad so hard that his eyebrows started to twitch.
“Calm down, I only want to—” Ro began.
“We all have to take responsibility for our own actions!” Anna-Lena interrupted sharply.
Ro looked surprised. Surprise made her nervous. Nervousness made her hungry. There wasn’t much she could eat in the immediate vicinity so she reached for one of the limes in the bowl on the coPee table. Anna-Lena saw this and exclaimed: “Dear me, what on earth are you doing? You can’t eat those! They’re viewing limes!”
Ro let go of the lime and stuPed her hands in the pockets of her dress. She went back to her wife, muttering: “No. This apartment isn’t us, hon. It’s nice and all that, but I’m getting bad vibes here. Like we could never be our best selves here, yeah? Remember me saying I’d read about me-enevgies that month when I was thinking of becoming an interior designer? When I learned that we had to sleep facing east? And then forgot if it was your head or your feet that… well… never mind! I just don’t want this apartment. Can’t we just go?”
Zara was standing out on the balcony. She gathered the wreckage of her feelings into an expression of derision and went back into the apartment. Just as she walked in, the pregnant woman let out a yelp. At 1rst it sounded like a roar of guttural rage from an animal that’s just been kicked, but eventually the words became clearer:
“No! That’s enough, Ro! I can take the birds and I can take your awful taste in music and I can take a whole load of other crap, but I’m not leaving here until we’ve bought this apartment! Even if I have to give birth to our child right here on this carpet!”
The apartment fell completely silent. Everyone was staring at Julia. The only person who wasn’t was Zara, because she was standing just inside the balcony door and staring at the bank robber. One second passed, then two, in which Zara was the only person in the room who had realized what was about to happen.
Then Anna-Lena also caught sight of the 1gure in the ski mask and cried out: “Oh, dear Lord, we’re being robbed!” Everyone’s mouths opened at the same time but no words came out. Fear can numb people at the sight of a pistol, switch oP everything except the brain’s most important signals, silence all background noise. Another second passed, then one more, in which all they heard was their own heartbeats. First the heart stops, then it races. First comes the shock of not understanding what’s happening, then comes the shock of realizing 9vecisely what’s happening. The survival instinct and fear of dying start to 1ght, making space for some surprisingly irrational thoughts in between. It’s not unusual to see a pistol and think: Did I smitch the coﬀee machine oﬀ this movning? instead of: What’s going to ha99en to my childven?
But even the bank robber was silent, just as scared as all the others. After a while the shock gradually turned to confusion. Anna-Lena sputtered: “You are here to vob us, aren’t you?” The bank robber seemed to be about to protest, but didn’t have time before Anna-Lena started to tug at Roger like he were a green curtain, crying: “Get your money out, Roger!”
Roger squinted skeptically at the bank robber and was evidently engaged in a complicated internal struggle, because on the one hand Roger was very cheap, but on the other he wasn’t particularly enamored with the thought of dying in an apartment with this much potential for renovation. So he pulled his wallet from his back pocket, where men like him always keep their wallets except when they’re at the beach, when they keep it in their shoe, but found nothing of use in it. So he turned to the person closest to him, who happened to be Zara, standing over by the balcony door, and asked: “Have you got any cash on you?”
Zara looked shocked. It was hard to work out if that was because of the pistol or the question.
“Cash? Seriously, do I look like a drug dealer?”
The bank robber’s eyes, visible through the repeatedly adjusted holes in the sweaty mask, were darting around the room.
Eventually the bank robber shouted: “No… ! No, this isn’t a robbery… I just…,” then corrected that statement in a breathless voice: “Well, maybe it is a robbery! But you’re not the victims! It’s maybe more like a hostage situation now! And I’m very sorry about that! I’m having quite a complicated day here!”