‘Are they here already?’ Ella asked Lou as they pushed open the front door.
‘Dunno,’ Lou said. ‘Hang on. Can’t get the bastard key out.’
Ella glanced back at her friend as she stepped into the hallway. ‘Smells better than halls, anyway.’
‘Paint,’ Lou said. ‘Fuck. Me.’ Lou turned the key so the deadbolt slid out and in again. ‘Can you have a go at this? It’s jammed.’
‘There’s no post on the floor,’ Ella said, stepping up to the door and grabbing the key. ‘So either the landlord’s been in or they’re already here.’ She waggled the key gently and it slid out. ‘Done.’
‘Shit, how did you do that?’ Lou said, leaving her suitcase in the hall and heading for the kitchen. ‘We’ll have to get some lube for it. Can’t have that every time we come in.’
‘Lube,’ Ella said, smiling as she followed Lou. The hall was at least one source of the fresh paint smell – it was newly magnolia. When they’d come to look at the place, the walls had been a dingy, stained grey.
Lou threw a grin back over her shoulder. ‘You know what I mean. That spray stuff.’
‘WD40,’ Ella said. ‘Please tell me you don’t use it as lube.’
Lou laughed. ‘Not yet. But the semester is young.’
‘It worries me that you ever read a thing about WD40, but that is good to know.’
‘Kitchen,’ Ella said, opening the first door on the right.
‘I remember,’ Lou said.
‘Aw,’ Ella said. ‘That was one of my favourite things.’
‘Just means we have to start our own collection,’ Lou said. ‘Challenge accepted.’
‘What happened to “I’m not going to drink as much” this year?’ Ella walked around the kitchen, sliding open drawers and peeking into cupboards. Everything was empty and clean. There was actual liner paper in the drawers. Liner paper!
‘“As much”,’ Lou said. ‘Not “nothing”. I’m still young. I’m still at uni. I’m still human.’ She opened the fridge, which was also clean. And empty. ‘Need to do a big shop,’ she said. She closed the door and looked at Ella, who seemed to be examining the buttons on the washing machine.
‘Do you know which room you want?’ Lou asked her as she started up the stairs.
‘Bollocks you don’t.’ Lou grinned, stopping on the first landing and pushing open a couple of doors. ‘We’re here first so we get the two big rooms. Result.’
Ella followed Lou up the next flight of stairs to the main living space. ‘Is that fair? I mean, it’s completely random that we got here first.’
Lou looked down at Ella. ‘Bagsy rules apply, everyone knows that.’
The top floor of the house was the reason they’d chosen it. And the reason there was going to be five of them sharing instead of four, as originally planned. It was all one huge living space with glass doors leading out onto a roof terrace.
‘So they’re definitely not here,’ Ella said, following Lou over to the two huge sofas, arranged in an L-shape in front of the TV. ‘Should I text them?’
‘Actually, I haven’t even got Paige’s number,’ Ella said, sitting on the other sofa and immediately turning round to look at the rest of the room.
‘We should put a list on the fridge,’ Ella said.
Lou grinned at her. ‘Right next to the cleaning rota, yeah.’
‘It just makes sense! I know you think I’m a dick.’
‘I don’t think you’re a dick,’ Lou said. ‘I just think you’re old before your time. We’re. Here. To. Have. Fun.’
‘I’m. Here. To. Get. An. Edu—’
Ella had passed, but she hadn’t done as well as she’d wanted to. At school everyone had kept calling her a big fish in a small pond and telling her how she was going to wow them at uni, but she hadn’t wowed anyone. She hadn’t wowed anyone at all.
Ella didn’t pick the shittest room (the one next to the kitchen), but she did pick a small one. But it was nice. It had a bed and a desk and a window onto the street and that was all she really needed. Unzipping her case, she pulled out the fabric bag that she’d packed her underwear in. She opened the top drawer of the chest of drawers with some trepidation – the drawers in her room at halls had been absolutely disgusting, fag ends in one, an apple core in another – but this was clean, thank god.
She packed away the few clothes she’d brought with her – she still had to get the rest of her stuff from her parents’ house in Cheshire – and then sat down on the bed, looking around the room. She didn’t want any distractions this year and if that meant living in a room like a cell, that was fine. It was quiet though, just a bit of street noise from outside, which she should like – the noise in halls had driven her up the wall – but it made her feel a bit sad. A bit lonely. A bit lost.
She took out her phone and WhatsApped her brother a photo of the room with the caption ‘New home sweet home’. She hadn’t expected to hear straight back, but she could see him typing.
‘Couldn’t find anything smaller?’
‘Typical. U ok?’
‘Yeah. Ta. Just feel a bit … something.’
‘Hate that. Can’t ring, sorry. In an interview.’
‘STOP TEXTING THEN’
Dylan sent a string of laugh/cry emojis and Ella sent back the same number of eyeroll emojis.
‘Call later yeah?’ Dylan sent and Ella nodded at the phone before sending a thumbs-up and a heart. She didn’t know if he meant he’d call or she would, but it didn’t really matter. One of them would. She felt better already.
‘Are we allowed to paint the walls?’ Lou asked as soon as Ella walked into her room. She’d taken the biggest one on the first floor. ‘This room is way too beige.’
‘Magnolia,’ Ella said. ‘Same as the hall.’
‘Whatever. I’m thinking bright pink? Or, I don’t know, can you do all the walls with blackboard paint? Like the door?’
‘If you can paint it – which I doubt – I bet you can’t paint it pink or black.’
‘Fucksticks. I’ll just have to stick a load of posters up then. How’s your room?’
‘Fine. Small. Plain.’
‘Take the big one!’ Lou said. ‘Seriously. Why do you think one of the others deserves it more than you?’
‘It’s not about deserving it,’ Ella said. ‘I just don’t need a big room.’
Ella grinned. ‘Yeah, that’s just what I was thinking.’
‘It’d do you good,’ Lou said, finally throwing the underwear into a drawer. ‘You keep saying you’re here for an education.’
‘Don’t think so, no. They’ve got keys though, haven’t they? Want to go and get a drink?’
If Ella rested her head on the glass and looked to the right, she could see the beer garden of the nearest bar. But there wasn’t anyone sitting out there, because it was drizzling.
‘We could go and bring some back …’ she suggested.
When they got back from the supermarket – Ella carrying two bags of food, Lou carrying two bags of booze – they could tell the others had arrived. Every light in the house seemed to be on and ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber was blasting down the stairs.
‘Is that Justin fucking Bieber?’ Lou said, her face a picture of horror.
‘We should’ve got them to put that in the contract – no Justin fucking Bieber.’
‘To give him his full name.’ Ella ran up the stairs.
‘Hiya!’ Issey yelled, poking her head out of the door. ‘Where’ve you been?’
‘Getting provisions,’ Lou said from behind Ella.
Issey ran over and hugged them both at the same time, saying, ‘What did you get?’ too loud into Ella’s ear.
‘Oh shit. I hate tequila,’ Issey said. ‘Did you get limes and salt?’
‘What’s it to you if you hate tequila?’ Lou asked.
Issey grinned. ‘Isn’t it great? The house? So much better than last year.’
‘Where’s Liane?’ Ella asked, watching Lou take the bottles out of the bag and line them up on the huge wooden dining table.
‘Doubt she’s sleeping through this,’ Lou said. ‘Sorry’ had ended and ‘Baby’ had started. ‘Do you have to?’
‘You knew my feelings about Biebs before you invited me to move in,’ Issey said. ‘We come as a pair.’
‘You wish,’ Ella said.
Issey grinned. ‘Yeah, I do. Sexy little monkey.’
‘Jesus,’ Lou said. ‘There’d better be a bottle opener downstairs.’
‘Where were you last night?’ Ella asked her, hugging her gently, Liane nuzzling her head into Ella’s neck as she always did.
‘Leaving do at work. Didn’t get home ’til five. We were only meant to be going to bingo.’
‘They’re a bunch of bastards,’ Liane said, lifting Issey’s legs up so she could sit down and then putting them back over her own. ‘I told them not to let me drink too much cos I was moving in today. But they were buying me Long Island Iced Teas all night and then we did shots.’
Ella shook her head, laughing and frowning at the same time. ‘That sounds like a very bad idea.’
‘Oh, come on!’ Lou sat down at the scratched wooden dining table and tipped her head back, her long silver hair falling back over her shoulders. ‘It’s our first night together! We need to do something to mark it.’ She patted the pockets of her dungarees. ‘But I need a fag first.’ She stood up, stretched her arms over her head and walked out onto the roof terrace, leaving the door open.
‘Where’s the other one?’ Issey said from the sofa. ‘What’s she called?’
‘I’ve never done shots,’ Issey said.
‘WHAT?’ Liane screeched, before grabbing her head in both hands and muttering, ‘Oh my god.’
‘Never?’ Ella said, sitting down on the armchair next to the TV.
Issey shook her head. ‘My dad made me promise. Before I came away. No drugs, no sex, no shots.’
Issey laughed. ‘Yeah. S’why it seemed even more important to not do the other two.’
‘You smoked weed with me at the end of last term,’ Lou called from the terrace.
‘That was one time.’
‘May as well go for a hat-trick,’ Ella said.