It was easy to find Avon Street. It was just a ten-minute walk from the Gunter Center.
It was on a listing for university graduate students. A basement flat. I stood on a small wooden stoop, staring up at a tall grey clapboard house, gathering my courage to knock on the bumpy glass pane of the front door.
This is it, I thought to myself; I, who couldn’t imagine how to survive nearly a year ticking off days on a calendar for two hundred plus repetitions, must now face just that. I was a woman who’d burned through bridges and taken thousands of hours of sunlight for granted. But this wooden stoop I stood on represented the last bridge, the one to my future after the age of fifty; the Gunter Fellowship was a bridge of last chances created for women by another woman, a benefactor struck by the conundrum faced by professionals who interrupted their working lives to become mothers and were often — through circumstance or penury — unable to rejoin the academic mainstream. In my case, the Center was a refuge for a deliberate loser, a shirker and late starter. What they offered I needed — a place to pause long enough to regroup, to reassemble the pieces of my life and my work.
It seemed to be both a real answer to and a metaphor for much that I was asking.
I could hear the house, a skeletal crunching as the spectre of its owner approached, gathering the forces of its distorted shadow behind the uneven and frosted glass. Judging by the height of its figure, I expected a man. The door opened, and that’s when I first saw Charlotte.
Six feet tall, ancient yet imposing, an impression of strong, deliberate bones, very long arms that dangled tentatively from slightly stooped shoulders, the only part of her that appeared to have given in to the gravity of age.
She wore a white sweater with large black dots. A tall Dalmatian, staring at me, puzzled.
“Why didn’t you ring the bell, for heaven’s sake?” Her face now beamed, her question sounding like a call to arms, a challenge that I, as a prospective tenant, must take up.
Why indeed? But how could I imagine that the brass face of a lion was a bell? In the Caribbean, old doors in old houses like this usually stood open.
“I am Charlotte,” she said, over a firm handshake. “Welcome to my house. It’s even older than me, and I’m eighty!”
Although it was still August, I sensed autumn in the air, and I was glad to be led into a snug, warm, surprisingly bright sitting room with a lot of yellow cushions and curtains and vases of cheerful yellow flowers. Everywhere was the happy junk of oldtime days, porcelain figurines of women in long dresses and ball gowns on shelves, small dishes and fat paperweights with swirling inner streaks of colour, tables stacked within tables, the accumulated mementos of a life. On the back of a sofa, set against the wall, sat a huge, long-coated grey cat basking in half-sleep. He eyed us benignly as we entered.
“Giacomo,” Charlotte announced to the animal, who barely opened its eyes to observe the newcomer to his home, “she’s come to replace Yvette!”
Unimpressed, the cat closed his eyes long enough to gather his purpose, yawned, jumped off the sofa, and, with dignified nonchalance, left the room. I know cats and didn’t give a hoot either, but I did wonder who Yvette was.
“Yvette was my previous tenant. She too was a Gunter Fellow. Pakistani. A chemist. She was inventing some new type of battery. We loved Yvette.” She addressed the warm space just vacated by the cat.
I was about to explain modestly that I wasn’t a scientist when, slowly circling like a dog preparing to sit, this tall old lady folded herself into a chair and told me she was disappointed.
“In me?” I assumed she wanted another chemist or physicist, an inventor.
“Your musical Jamaican voice! I expected a large, colourful Caribbean lady. You are so small and pale. How silly of me. After all, Panama hats originated in Ecuador!” She tilted her head back, her neck obviously stiff, the action, which in most people would have seemed spontaneous, appearing instead slow and deliberate. The sudden outburst of her rusty chiming laughter was expelled from a mouth of over-large and discoloured teeth. I was surprised the years had not deepened her voice. Only her movements reflected her age.
“My Creole mother …,” I offered meekly, thinking how strange it was that even far from my Caribbean home I was needing to explain my pale skin, my lack of colour.
“You mustn’t be so serious,” she said. “Not if you want to live here. But how can you know if you want my place if you haven’t seen it? Let’s go now before it gets dark.”
That’s when I noticed the light. It was an afternoon light, and it came into its own with all the yellow of her parlour. But as we went outside to peruse the basement it became diffused, gently settling on the greens of her garden.
We walked between unruly branches of shrubs and trees down the side of the house, its boundary marked by a wire fence sagging under the weight of morning glory vines, heavy with late summer foliage. Under her old feet, brittle leaves, harbingers of the autumn to come, crackled. I followed her closely, quietly, a whisper, like her obedient shadow.
“You remind me of my grandmother,” I said. She did.
“Ha,” she scoffed. “Live long enough and you’re like everyone’s grandmother!” Living long had nothing to do with it. There was something about her. I’d already decided before I even saw the flat that this one would be my home. I was comfortable with Charlotte. She owned me already. We’d have a year.
“Grandy’s the reason I’m here.”
“Will your granny be coming to visit you?”
I cringed; my rebellious, naturally elegant, unconventional, ever-youthful grandmother would never have allowed anyone to call her Granny. “Lord, no! I am fifty. Too old to have a grandmother.”
“Well, maybe she’ll drop by anyway!”
“Could be,” I said. “She seems to turn up a lot nowadays.”
“More likely a broomstick.” I laughed.
“What’s that, dear?”
My grandmother loved witches. For her, the shrew represented wisdom. And her wisdom was a mix of reading signs and her own keen intuition, which she observed. I liked invoking my grandmother’s spirit. It conjured up luck. But I was here, talking to Charlotte about houses, not horoscopes. There was no point going in to that now.
We descended three stone steps to an entry under a small portico at the side of the building.
The basement wasn’t exactly under the house; it extended along one side — a warren tucked in behind bushy flower beds. Charlotte pulled at the outer net door that fussed to open and, weighted with some closing contraption, automatically slammed itself shut. On her second attempt, I held the outer door for Charlotte as she fiddled with the lock of the solid inner door.
She ducked her head as she entered, and I followed her in, the outer door clattering shut behind me, almost slapping my bottom. I entered the small flat with its musty dampness, not aggressive but manifest, an oldness akin to its surrounding earth, exuding its own intimacy though the place appeared thoroughly clean.
The walls were bright white, the floor a nondescript linoleum that curled up the wall in the corners, which caused me a small dismay I tried not to show. She opened a tiny old fridge to display it — “It will need manual defrosting,” she explained. The stove on the short counter was a two-burner. There was a square table with one chair, a two-seater, an armchair, and a small television.
“Everything is clean. All self-contained, fully equipped, linen and plates and so forth. Matches for the stove in the drawer.” She pivoted to face the bedroom door, and from the top of a bureau within I glimpsed her image like a spectre buried in the mirror. Inside the surprisingly large bedroom I was pleased to see a wide bank of windows a third of the way up the wall, where they should be, unusual for a basement, and that’s when I realized that whereas the little sitting room was under the house, it was the bedroom I had seen extending at the side. The room was spacious and bright with grey carpeting that I could smell was new, a long pine desk and chair under the windows, and against the far wall a single pine bed with a mattress I tried for firmness. It was sufficiently firm.
“Bureau, desk, and chair — I assume you do need a desk, dear?” Yes, I needed a desk. That’s when I got around to telling her that I was a writer.
“A writer.” No exclamation point. No question mark. No “Oh my.” She nodded and continued announcing items, providing a list of modern requirements with incomplete, half-hearted gestures that reflected what I would come to understand as an impatience with what she considered mundane. “Bedside table and lamp, clock — awful digital thing! — drawers under the bed with the blankets.” She paused. “A single bed ensures single occupancy,” she explained. She displayed little conviction showing me the small flat, as if to say a lot of this was nonsense that she knew was expected, but she couldn’t really see the point of either these extras or her need to provide them.
“I only rent this for one.” She repeated the point.
She was forthright, and I suspected she was making it clear I would be expected not to have gentlemen callers. I wondered if Yvette had tried. I pulled open the sheer under-curtains and was pleased to see the room respond, flooding with afternoon light, the bureau now freed of its fleeting ghost.
The small ensuite bathroom was adequate, but I was disappointed it had no bath.
“Is the heat on?” I asked as I looked around for electric heaters or radiators. “I can’t stand being cold.” I had always heard that heat rises and knew that basements were usually chilly.
“Of course!” She led me back to the outer room and pointed to the wall. “It has its own system and thermostat, so you can adjust your heat to feel like the tropics if you like!”
“What if I have a kidney stone attack?”
She blinked. “Why, you call an ambulance!”
I must have frowned, because she stopped for a moment to think as she made bat wings of her long arms, which held her waist.
“I can leave the door at the top of the stairs unbolted, if you like. It leads to my kitchen. Your side can’t lock. I had to remove its deadbolt. Long story. You can holler up the stairs for me.”
The flat reminded me of the street, a small, safe cul-de-sac whose imperturbable spirit imploded uneventfully. A dead end in a town without beginnings or conclusions, and a door to my landlady that couldn’t lock.
This would be my hutch, my warren in winter. I found the house’s enduring resilience reassuring.
“I’ll take it,” I said.