After working hard all afternoon, Toni was taking a break. Most of her things were away and there were only a couple of bags left to sort. She had followed Maddie’s suggestion of putting a couple of cushions on the window seat, and was sitting on it with a cup of camomile tea, gazing out into the street. Since Duncan Road was a cul-de-sac there wasn’t really any traffic, and only the occasional person on foot going to or from the main road. The ones returning were often carrying shopping bags. She was enjoying the solitude, and the looking outside without really looking, and the quiet.
After a while, however, she heard what seemed like shouting, coming from somewhere outside. As she waited, it got closer, until she saw a group of five students around her age, all male, walking down the middle of the road. A couple of them were carrying hockey sticks, were dressed in what looked like hockey kit – she didn’t know much about the sport – and were swigging from beer cans. Two of the others were carrying large pizza boxes, while the last was carrying a box, from which the beers seemed to have originated. When they got closer still, she realised that what she thought was shouting was in fact singing, primarily from the tall one in the front; the others were sometimes joining in, as well as laughing and offering encouragement. Toni shuddered: imagine living with them!
Just as she was thinking about returning to sorting her things, she took one last look out of the window and saw them slow down and then – please, no – turn into the path to the house. When she didn’t hear a knock, but the front door opening and the noise moving inside, she knew: these were her missing housemates.
It was a few minutes before Toni felt able to move. She was thankful that her door was closed, because she was struggling to compose herself, and she didn’t want her new housemates’ first impression of her to be of someone stuck on their window seat, hugging her knees, barely able to talk. At least that time let her think of what she might say and to learn that, from what she could decipher of their whooping and singing, their team had won. Perhaps that meant it would be a good time to let them know she was here? She could not stay moored to her window seat forever. Doing her best to look more confident than she felt, Toni went to the door and, after a last pause, opened it.
Outside her room, she heard someone bounding up the stairs, and was soon face to face with the tallest of the group she had seen outside. He was tall – over a foot taller than her – and broad shouldered; he seemed to fill the landing. He was holding a half-eaten slice of pizza.
‘Fuckballs! Who are you?’
He peered at her.
‘Oh… are you the new girl? Well, the only girl, but you’re new.’
He spoke with an accent that was all too familiar from her childhood in leafy suburban West London.
‘I’m Toby, and I’m a bit shitfaced. We won. Beat the fucking Medics. Hate those wankers. Wow, you’re small.’
This hadn’t quite gone how Toni imagined, but she thought she’d better reciprocate.
‘Toni and Toby? Hah. Cool.’
He paused, pondering something, and then thrust what was left of his pizza at her.
‘Want some? It’s got loads of shitty meat on it.’
‘No? Suit yourself.’
Another thought struck him, and he shouted:
‘NEW GIRL’S HERE!’
He addressed Toni again.
‘If you go downstairs, you can meet the…’ – once again at full volume – ‘…BUNCH OF TWATS that live here. Anyway, I really need a piss.’
After he kicked open the door of the bathroom, he said:
‘I think there’s some margherita down there.’
He didn’t close the door behind him.
Toni was bemused, and her bemusement intensified over the next quarter of an hour. Steeling herself, she went downstairs and met the rest of her new housemates. They were variations on the theme established by Toby, albeit with less intensity, apart from one. Leo was quieter than the rest, and less chaotically effusive in his greeting.
Toni had, finally, accepted a slice of margherita but, before she had finished it, she began to feel overwhelmed by the noise and energy swirling around her. Making her apologies, she somehow located a clean plate and took the remainder to her room.
Once inside, she let out a long, deep breath, and considered the last half an hour. It could have been worse, couldn’t it? They were just full on today, that was all. They’d just come back from a hockey match, and they were drunk. They’d probably be different tomorrow, especially if they were hung over. They’d be calmer next week, when they had lectures to go to. Even Toby; even he would be calmer. When Toni put on her headphones, she silently thanked her father for buying ones with noise-cancelling and, as she sat once again to look out of the window, to look at a street that now seemed different, she did her best to quell the hollow feeling that was growing in her chest.