Artur’s girlfriend Wicktoria did not actually have a bedroom. In the living room of her flat, there was a space set back into the far wall, a rather hefty alcove which was blatantly taking a bite out of the room behind it. Too deep to have been a fireplace, it might have been once intended as a cupboard or a larder. This was Wicktoria’s bedroom. A long quilted curtain had been used to partition it off from the living room. Her box bed took up so much of the space that it was, to all practical purposes, the floor. A rail had been installed overhead and Wicktoria’s various clothes hung on hangers above her. So small was her room that it was not realistic for her to own any other possessions.
Wicktoria did not pay any less rent for this. Indeed, the other flatmates were always complaining that she used the common living room far more than they did. Every night she would take down the screen of the only television in the flat and place it on the living room carpet so that she could watch it from her bed.
The flat was often busy and the impossibility of maintaining any privacy behind the curtain meant that Wicktoria could never bring a lover home. On the first day of her relationship with Artur, however, Wicktoria had inspected his own flat and she had been disappointed. Lately, a man who Artur knew obscurely, a man called Marcin who he remembered as being a teacher of his younger brother’s, had come to stay. Marcin was looking for a job in Edinburgh, in spite of the significant handicap that over eighty per cent of his English was ums and ers. As far as Artur was aware, Marcin had been never selected for a single interview. Marcin was sleeping on a Bean Bag on Artur’s floor. He now spent most of his life on this Bean Bag and he was sitting there dumbly, like a frog on a lily pad, when Wicktoria arrived.
He eyed Artur and chuckled unhappily. “I guess you’ll want me to leave?” he prompted. Yet Marcin did not appear to be going anywhere; in fact, he seemed to look even more frozen and shrunken on his lily pad.
Artur feared that they were suddenly intruding into a scenario that was obscene. “Man, I’ve told you – this is your home as much as mine.” In reality, Artur could imagine trying to lose himself in lovemaking with Wicktoria and being always conscious that Marcin was sitting on the floor outside his bedroom (he would haul the Bean Bag out into the corridor).
Artur had rented rooms in Edinburgh for so long that every flatmate was automatically reduced in his mind to a list of problems. When measured against the others in this mental filing cabinet, Marcin’s list was relatively short. The fridge was the only other issue. Marcin had driven across Europe to Edinburgh with a gigantic cured ham strapped into the passenger seat of his gasping Honda. You could only get this exact ham in the village of his birth, he had explained to Artur, and every other available ham on the planet was just different degrees of inferior. In the fridge, the ham had looked rather like a whale in a carp pond. Artur and his other flatmates were currently forced to eat all of the food that they bought immediately, since there was no room for it in the fridge. Although Marcin was permanently eating plates of ham, the block was being whittled down so gradually that Artur was reminded of a snowman that would not melt.
Wicktoria was offered a plate of ham. Increasingly, the cloying greasiness of this ham seemed to Artur to be the authentic flavour of these days and their immense frustration.
On the first occasion that Artur came to Wicktoria’s flat, he was disappointed also. He visited in the daytime, when the other flatmates were supposed to be out or at work. Wicktoria hurried him into the alcove and flung the curtain shut. Artur vaguely pictured Hamlet hearing a rat and thrusting his rapier through the curtain, straight into Artur’s bare arse.
But Artur had not even got his shirt off when he heard a clear “tut.” This came not from the other side of the curtain but, disconcertingly, from behind the alcove wall. Next, Wicktoria’s flatmate had stomped out of her bedroom and around the pattern of the flat into the living room.
Ludicrously, she and Wicktoria both upheld the pretence that the flatmate had to knock on the curtain as if it was a door and that Wicktoria had to tell her to come in.
“Come in,” Wicktoria called.
The flatmate parted the curtain and stared down at them, quivering with fury. A tall, gaunt girl with hair which had been dyed so many different colours that they were now watery and blurred, like spilled petrol. Her eyes were oddly motionless with hysteria. “Wicktoria, I have my exam in two days and I really need to concentrate…”
Wicktoria turned to Artur and nodded. “The wall is very thin. She can hear me when I undo a zip.”
“Please can you keep the noise down? I mean it!”
The unreasonableness of this demand crossed Artur’s mind. Why couldn’t the girl play music or something, so that she couldn’t hear them? He attempted to negotiate. “Can’t you play music or something – so you can’t hear us?”
Evidently, she couldn’t – the flatmate had burst into tears. She sagged with wretchedness, blinking wetly and chopping up the tears as she shed them. “Of course, we’ll keep quiet,” Wicktoria assured her with double haste. “I know how important this exam must be to you.”
After the flatmate had gone, Artur and Wicktoria lowered their voices until they sounded like two rustling plants conferring together. “It’s a cosmetics exam,” Wicktoria explained. “She has a plastic head in that room and she’s been painting it over and over again for the last week.”
“I can still hear you!” the tearful voice raged with stentorian clarity from suddenly above them.
So they couldn’t make love in Wicktoria’s flat either. Soon, this poor couple had been in a relationship for over two weeks and they had been unable to reach that mountain ledge which was such a crucial stage. Artur lay in his own bed listening to the snoring from the Bean Bag and Wicktoria lay behind her curtain pretending that she could not hear her flatmates chatting over wine a few feet away, and both wished that they were on the same bed, within the privacy of four walls, rolling in each other’s arms.
Artur could book a hotel when he was paid at the end of the month, but what would happen after that? Would they have to break up? He liked Wicktoria enormously and he was worried that their relationship would go down in his memory as a month-long one night stand.
The conundrum was solved, strangely enough, on Valentine’s Day. Artur and Wicktoria had been shopping on Leith Walk and as the afternoon darkened, they decided to make their way back to Artur’s flat in Gorgie. At St Andrew Square, they came face to face with the Edinburgh tram. Neither of them had ridden on it before, though they otherwise travelled on trams without a thought whenever they were in foreign capitals. This tram was like a well-known homeless character who you often saw in the street but who you never wanted to strike up an acquaintance with. It was a free country though – what was stopping them from riding the tram back to Haymarket? There was a novelty – a minor recklessness to the notion – like having an untried biscuit instead of a regular one.
They descended upon a ticket machine, crowding in arm in arm, and the process turned out to be all very quick and straightforward. After purchasing two cheap tickets, they stepped on to the next tram to come along.
The interior of the tram was a soundscape of soothing noises and calming voices. Officialdom, speaking in a mother’s half-kindly voice, recited various important announcements under the plastic ceiling. There was something faintly preposterous about the tram – its shininess, its jolly toyshop clunkiness. It was like a tram which a teething child could suck without swallowing any loose parts.
All at once, Artur had grown tremendously alert. There was nobody aboard this tram aside from them.
He looked around – he glanced over his shoulder – he stuck his neck out and peered up and down the carriages, studying the silence intently.
Nobody was here. The tram was entirely empty.
Were there cameras? There probably were, but would the tramline really pay for security personnel to sit and watch footage of these empty seats?
“Wicktoria,” he murmured in her ear, with the newly solemn voice of a lover. “It’s time, no?”
She seemed to fully awaken beside him, to register awe and then concentrate and become determined.
“Yes, let’s do it.”
She undid buttons wildly and wrenched until his shirt gave up and surrendered his bare chest. Her hands started here before working their way down, trickling between the muscles. He gripped her whole head by the hair and forced it to dive after her firm, exploring fingers. Her hands dropped away to give her mouth access and she gorged herself on his hugeness, slugging on the flesh as though she was downing a pint of stout.
Outside, Princes Street glided magnificently by. They were now in almost the exact centre of Scotland’s capital city, and surrounded by thousands of unsuspecting shoppers.
The tram continued on its £112 million per mile journey, as inconsequential, aside from the two lovers, as a mild breeze.
By the time that they had reached the Scott Monument, they had got through all of the major positions. There were purple and pink bite marks on Artur’s neck and his eyes were streaming. Most of their clothes were strewn around the carriage. “We’re still alone?” Artur gibbered.
Wicktoria smiled fondly. “Keep going, my lovely.”
So they plunged back in, into the steamy warmth and the frantic hands. Finally, the bell was clanging raunchily and the stern-friendly mother’s voice in the ceiling was announcing that Haymarket was upon them. They scooped up armfuls of damp clothing and staggered off the tram.
They had given new meaning to that expression about being alone in a crowd.