creative non-fiction Strange

ON ADELAIDE ROAD | All people are strange when you’re a stranger, as Sarah Jane Millar finds in her story of an old flatmate.

Creative Non-fiction

by Sarah Jane Millar

The lease is coming to an end on my tiny Camden studio. It is the first lease I have ever signed and the first space I have ever occupied alone. I am, in an immediate sense, accountable to no one at all. Every choice feels reckless and somehow, not reckless enough. Friends roll in after long nights out and we chase dawn with warm cans of lager. In sober moments, I romance melancholy with cigarette smoke and streetlights, perched on a concrete balcony, watching rain soaked shapes slump into methadone clinic next door.  My own front door collides with the end of my bed if opened with any degree of enthusiasm. I get electric shocks in the shower. When my neighbor sneezes he waits for my blessing through the party wall. The rent is already exorbitant and according to my landlord Attila, about to go up. I am a second year Art History student; financial independence is a concept as nonfigurative as the paintings I study in class. When I am told the new number is too high I am relieved. 

Jethro is Frank’s suggestion. He and I have finally broken up for the very final time. Over the years that I have been dancing in and out of Frank’s orbit, the on periods of our extended on/off relationship have all but been eclipsed by much longer and more frequent offs. Mine is a lazy magnetism; his own perceived gravity far stronger. What began when I was eighteen was simply an attraction to an older, alpha male. He referred to himself as a lion watching over his pride. The rest of us were younger, smaller; we had higher pitched voices and impressionable minds. This lionization was an overt and much exercised nod to a South African childhood, which was also used to justify a carnivorous bent and dark moods under cloudy skies. London is often cloudy. So post-graduation, pre-life-as-a-working-stiff, Frank is off to travel the world. Or, as it turns out, America, where he will ride a Greyhound bus and have a brief fling with a blond haired, blue-eyed cheerleader in Kansas named Whitney or Britney or something equally fluffy. His flatmate Jethro and I are handed off to one another for safe keeping; we will share a storage locker as two pieces of a life left behind.  

Frank arranges a meeting for Jethro and I at a pub in Camden. I formally agree to live with him and he somberly agrees to take on the flat hunt while I spend the summer in New York interning at a blue chip gallery. It is 2007, the market is yet to crash and I am full of unfamiliar enthusiasm, false hope and opinions so exhausting they are easily felled.  I leave him with rigid parameters, both geographic and aesthetic, and when I return in August we move into the home we will share on Adelaide Road. It is across the road from Chalk Farm station and just beyond the bridge to Primrose Hill. The flat has blue carpets and big sash windows and crown molding. We have a washing machine and a dishwasher. We take the bus to Ikea. We have moved up to Camden’s leafy northern suburbs. We split the rent in my favor. Jethro pays the council tax. He is quietly proud of himself and I am silently impressed. 

But I still don’t know Jethro. I have only met him a handful of times. Our connection seems tenuous at best, worrisome at worst, and yet I committed to living with him. I transpose the general apathy which has guided my relationship with Frank onto his surrogate, who seems to receive it less defensively. Frank and Jethro met through an ad on Gumtree and for two years they shared a flat in Kilburn. Kilburn is either eternally up and coming or it came and went without anyone noticing. Either way, I tried to avoid it as much as possible. Their local was little more than a working men’s club shoved on the side of a busy A road in a bleak cement block. The sign read the North Star but the only direction it offered was to fly south, swiftly, and with immediate effect. The walk from the bus stop to their front door was through a cloud of exhaust fumes and kebab smoke. It was a hurried clip in platform heels to avoid getting raped or robbed or accosted by child gangs. One night I was hit by a purple hatchback pumping house music on my way to catch the 31 back to Camden town. I pieced my Nokia back together under the neon glow of a lamppost and rang Frank, “Dude. That’s rough.” But cheap beer, camel lights and the scent of Old Spice were enough to keep me coming back for more. 

Frank and Jethro lived together for months before I caught sight of him. Their third flatmate remains a mystery. It isn’t that Frank never spoke to me of his living arrangements, more that he seemed perpetually stumped for the right words with which to describe them. The general gist was simply that Jethro is strange. He was twenty-eight. He was a bell-hop at the Mandarin Oriental by day; he got high and watched Bill Odie on repeat by night. When I did finally meet Jethro, the image I had conjured in my mind was shattered by, and confusingly at odds with, this trademark black turtleneck and overcoat and foppish hair that speaks the Queen’s English as he stands before me. 

As it turns out, Jethro was, and is, a breed of Englishman that is fast approaching extinction. Decidedly upper crust but not quite landed gentry; he bears both the vanity of heritage and the chipped shoulder of having been born a few generations too late to enjoy it. The son of a gentleman farmer. West Country raised and Home County educated. A unique blend of provincialism and polish that no attempt at classless nonchalance will conceal. His father collects small planes and his mother once ran away with a shepherd.  

After a few months we stop noticing the smell of our neighbors’ cabbage that lingers in the hallway and fall into domestic habits of our own. I iron his work shirts. He does garbage and mice and electricals. We share the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When a furious pigeon flies in through the living room window one afternoon, he handles both the pigeon and my panic with equal gallantry.  

“The general gist was simply that Jethro is strange. He was twenty-eight. He was a bell-hop at the Mandarin Oriental by day; he got high and watched Bill Odie on repeat by night.”

Jethro is the first man who insists on my walking to the inside of the pavement. I ask him to come with me to the pub with the scene where I fancy the bartender with the deep v-necks and the drainpipes and the long stringy hair and the bad tattoos. Jethro hates this pub and I know he hates it and I relish knowing that he can’t refuse me. His discomfort buoys my enjoyment in a way I don’t completely understand.  I wear heels so high that my legs have limited control of their own path, which weaves from left to right as we walk through a light but drenching drizzle. He takes me by the shoulders, forcibly removes me from the curbside and instructs me to stay. I ask what the fuck the thinks he’s doing. He is exasperated by the question and tells me that in days gone by sewage poured down the streets of London and it was a gentleman’s duty to protect a lady’s train from the filthy splashes of a passing carriage. I mention the advent of modern plumbing, point to the high gloss of my latex leggings. He is blushing, but duty-bound to uphold the institution. And I let him, enjoying the manhandling as much as the courtesy.

He holds doors open as I walk through them. He pays for every pint I drink in his company. His overcoat is thrust over my shoulders as we wait for the night bus home from Angel or Old Street or somewhere else we resent.  These gestures bother me less than I think they rightly should. They don’t read as overt patriarchal gesticulations or even the desperate affectations of a would-be Don Juan. They read very simply as component parts of being a man as he understands it, along with an appetite for steak and ale pie, drinking bitter, watching cricket and being well versed in both the history of the English monarchy and Monty Python. Abiding heir to an unfashionable tradition of chivalry, he wears the mantle even if that means bloodying himself on a few hidden barbs of chauvinism. 

But Jethro is strange. Frank was right. He is no longer bell-hopping in the West-End, but has quietly started working as a commodities reporter in the City. I don’t know that he is particularly experienced with either journalism or global economics, but this doesn’t seem to concern him. The extent to which it even matters is hazy, as is so much about his life outside the walls of our flat. I know that he works somewhere near St. Paul’s and keeps bankers hours. I understand this to mean he leaves work at 4pm and goes out on the lash afterwards. Sometimes I don’t see him for days at a time. I’m never sure if he is just holed up in his room, out on a bender or genuinely a Missing Person. From afar, Frank offers manic depression as blanket explanation for Jethro’s actions.

It is the dead of winter and I have an essay deadline looming. Jethro appears in the flat late morning looking worse for the wear of unchecked depravity. He is smiling as he finds me straddling the window sill in my stripy jumper and woolly hat. One bare leg inside, the other hangs over the ledge; steam rises from my twentieth cup of coffee in one hand as smoke rises from my zillionth cigarette in the other. He does what he always does when he finds me in this place. He makes a viewfinder with his hands and extends his arms and says, “Beautiful! Freeze! Right there!” His suit is crumpled and his coat is wet and his shoes are dirty and one sock is missing. He tells me he woke up in an empty houseboat tethered to an abandoned dock “somewhere near Canary Wharf” and  offers no further explanation. I make him a cup of tea (Yorkshire, whole milk, one sugar), we share a silent smoke and off he goes, back out into the icy wild wearing a freshly ironed shirt.   

Jethro often sings himself to sleep. I don’t know if he realizes that I can hear him through the wall between our beds. But habits aside, there is so much about him that is alien to me. He is just so different to the other men in my life. Frank’s masculinity is overtly pronounced by comparison, by the depth of his voice, the angles of his jawline, by his height and stature and frontier-man’s vigor. I wonder briefly if I’ve allowed my understanding of manhood to be obscured by a pheromonal cloud, limited to cowboys and strongmen, James Dean’s bad boy and Brando’s brute. But the majority of my male friends at this point in my life are artists, liberals, dreamers with paint on their hands and hearts beating garishly on their sleeves. I come to see Jethro as a rogue vestige of the past, a man whose stiff upper lip is only loosened by dark ale and my elbow deep in his ribs. His wit is too quick for most to catch. It is dry and searing and dripping with the arrogant omniscience of Wilde’s finest Edwardian dandy. We become allies in the cynicism that hides our hope. He makes me watch Scarface and mocks the expensive fruit I buy from the greengrocer in Primrose Hill. I make him watch An Affair to Remember and let him wonder if. Because I know he does wonder. He sees me and he wants to see more of me. I let him catch a glimpse before violently slamming the door in his face.  I am aware of the vague power I loosely hold and choose to delay its harness. For now I find it amusing. I can’t decide between taking command and letting it slip away, but I refuse to hand it over all the same.  

We live together until I graduate, until it is time for me to leave and for Frank to hold on to Jethro for safe keeping. There is an overlap in our living arrangements as Frank returns from his travels and needs a place to stay. My relationship with Jethro is emasculated by the presence of this other man. Pre-existing loyalties quickly untangle us from one another. We pull away quickly, chastely. The two friends send me off to New York with a kiss on each cheek and the scent of Old Spice in my hair. They help me carry boxes to my mother’s car where she is charmed instantly and I am judged endlessly for not having fallen in love with Jethro. I tell my mother he is too conventional. 

Years pass. Frank marries; Jethro is his best man. Frank tells me his wife is the first woman to see past his good looks. He is loved. We remain friends. I didn’t go to the wedding. He buys a house in Kentish Town, gets a job in banking. I work in art, and then design, and then fashion, in New York and then LA. I cut my hair short and then grow it very long. When I am bored, I return to London. My friends have all become conventional in my absence. And I am now nearing thirty. I miss the eccentricity of a man I once knew. We go for a beer. I no longer drink. He comes to my side of town. I am west-coast fresh with sun-tanned skin and sun-bleached hair and baggy clothes and slower speech. He is the same as he was the day I walked out of that flat we shared on Adelaide Road. He reads like character from a once loved and abandoned book. We see each other occasionally. I rent a flat in Shepherds Bush. He owns a flat in Swiss Cottage. He is thinking of moving to the country. He still writes about commodities. He is nearing forty. I ask if he is looking to marry. He tells me he isn’t worried. He tells me he has land. He says it with a wink. I send him on a blind date with a friend. He behaves well. We make plans and I break them. I suggest new plans and I break those too. I offer myself manic depression as blanket explanation for my actions. I don’t want to be seen. I slam the door. I leave London, again. I say goodbye to Frank and fall silent on Jethro. I pass through town from time to time. I see Frank, but never his wife. I am told that Jethro has met someone. I am told they live together in Swiss Cottage. I assume they will marry. I assume they will move to the country. And when I eventually move back to London I send a text, to see how quickly he’ll reply.


Sarah Jane Millar
Sarah Jane Millar is a writer, currently based in London. 

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