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Because of Olsen

By Comma Press

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Stirred by voices, Miller awoke in an unfamiliar room. At first it was the morning-pale surroundings that disorientated him. On his back, stupid with unshed sleep, he failed to make sense of the ceiling (high, corniced), the cast of light from the window (left to right), and the garish, too-thin curtains rucked to a halt on an ancient radiator. But the book on the bedside table was the one he had been reading the night before, and there were his phone, his wallet, his keys. With them, came the recollection of where he was. As these details resolved themselves the talking reclaimed his attention, became the new point of disorientation. There had been several voices before, but now there was just one – male, nasal, slightly camp – coming from the landing. Another of the tenants, he supposed, or callers at a neighbouring bedsit. Miller rolled over to stare at the door, straining to hear what was being said beyond it. At that moment, a key turned in the lock, the door opened, and a group of people – perhaps as many as ten – filed into the room to form a cramped semi-circle facing his bed, where he lay, naked and partially covered. One of them, a tall, sporty blonde, aimed a camera and took his picture.

Once they’d all filed back out, and Miller had slung on some clothes, the guy with the nasal voice re-entered alone, knocking this time. He was in his early twenties, student-ish, his head variously pierced.

‘What are you doing here?’ he said.

Miller was still buttoning his shirt. ‘I live here.’

‘I mean, what are you doing in?’

‘Why am I in the room I live in?’

From the other guy’s expression, the point of the question eluded him. Miller rubbed his face with his hand. ‘Okay, let’s start this conversation over again, only this time I’m the one who gets to say: “What are you doing here?”’ He was conscious of sounding like a character in an inferior American sitcom.

‘It’s 10am,’ the student-type said.

‘Jesus.’ Miller needed coffee, food, a shower. No longer looking at the other guy but at the floor between them, he said: ‘Uh-huh, 10am. Tell me about 10am.’

‘The last guy, he used to just clear out for half an hour.’

‘The tenant before me?’

‘Luke something.’

‘And why would he do that?’

‘While I showed the Danes round.’

‘Danes.’ Miller glanced at the door. He could hear their voices, out on the landing. ‘Those people are Danish?’

‘One of them’s Norwegian, I think. Bergen. Is that Norway?’

Miller gave him a look. ‘Let me get this straight. At 10am, I clear out of my bedsit for half an hour while you bring the Danes in. Is that how it goes?’

‘Only on Saturdays.’

He shifted into sitcom-speak again. ‘And I do this, be-cause...?’

‘That’s when Mr Kaursar said they could come.’

Miller exhaled. ‘What I’m trying to clarify... sorry, what’s your name?’

‘Ben.’

‘The point I’m trying to clarify, Ben, is this: Why do a bunch of fucking Danes get to come into my fucking bedsit at 10am. every fucking Saturday?’

‘Because of Olsen.’

Ben was right, there was a clause in the tenancy agreement – which Miller had signed without reading – permitting London Art Tours Ltd. to enter the building, and Miller’s bedsit in particular, on Saturday mornings. No, the Mr Kaursar hadn’t thought to mention it when they’d discussed the lease; he was sorry, but... Miller pictured the moustachioed smile, the waggle of the head. The rent, it was pointed out, had been adjusted to compensate for any inconvenience – and the tours had been running all summer, without complaint from the previous tenant. As for this Olsen character, the landlord knew nothing of him, beyond what was inscribed on the plaque outside. Hadn’t Miller noticed the blue plaque?

As soon as he was done talking to Mr Kaursar, Miller shut off his phone, slung his copy of the tenancy agreement back in a drawer and – jostling through the party of Danes, and one Norwegian, still gathered on the landing – went out into the street. There it was, high up on the wall above the front-door lintel:

Thorvald Olsen

(1884–1914)

Artist lived and painted here

from September 1912 to March 1914

Miller was surprised not to have noticed the plaque when he had come to view the bedsit, and again, yesterday, when he’d moved in. Olsen had died at thirty, the age Miller was now. He thought about that – and about 1914, wondering whether he’d been killed in the First World War, but unsure if the Danes had taken part.

Miller returned to a deserted staircase and landing. The tour party was back inside his room, attending to their guide’s nasal, slightly camp, monologue.

‘... at his most prolific and innovative, producing some of his best...’

Miller’s reappearance effected a pause. Every face turned his way. He caught the eye of the woman who’d taken his photograph, then found himself trying to figure out which of them was the Norwegian, and whether it might be her. Ben, occupying what little space there was between the group and the unmade bed, tugged at his triple-pierced earlobe and looked at Miller as though nervous of another outburst. In fact, seeing them all like that, engrossed in the guide’s spiel, Miller felt as if he was the intruder, now. Instead of telling them, for the second time that morning, to piss off out of his room, he coughed, lowered his eyes and apologised for interrupting. With that, Miller collected his keys and wallet from the bedside table, excused himself again and left, pulling the door closed with a soft click. He would clear out for half an hour, find some place serving fresh coffee and all-day breakfast and wait for the Danes to leave.

As it happened, one of them – the blonde, with the camera – had stayed behind.

The sex was as athletic as Miller had imagined, although he had the vague sense of being, if not surplus to requirements, incidental to the woman’s pleasure. He mentioned this afterwards, as they lay in bed, not smoking.

‘It is the room,’ she said. ‘Olsen’s room.’

‘You were fucking the room?’

‘I was fucking in the room. The room where Olsen worked. On his bed.’

Not the actual bed, Miller hoped. Not the mattress, at least. But, then, with Mr Kaursar, anything was conceivable. ‘Who was this Olsen?’

She lifted her head from the pillow to look at him. ‘You’re not serious.’

© Copyright Comma Press, 2017. All rights reserved.