Falling - Jane Green

ONE

It’s lovely,” she lies, in her most gracious of voices, looking around at the tired wood paneling lining the walls of the living room, floor to ceiling. As she looks down, her gaze lands on well-worn salmon-pink shag carpeting and she quickly conceals her horror.

Emma wonders if this house might not be beyond even her capabilities to transform. Perhaps the landlord would let her paint it? Surely he would let her paint it—who wouldn’t want to lighten up this room, so dark it feels more like a cave? She would paint it for free, and pull up that carpet. Maybe she would be lucky and find a hardwood floor underneath; even if it was merely concrete, surely it wouldn’t cost too much to stick down some inexpensive sisal.

This room could be transformed, she determines. Lipstick on a pig is her specialty.

Her landlord, or potential landlord, smiles. “Hey, I know it’s not everyone’s taste today,” he says. “Why do people want everything to be gray and modern?”

Emma is surprised by his comment, surprised frankly by his interest in making small talk. “I hate that look,” Emma offers. It happens that she does agree, quite passionately, in fact. “None of those decorated houses feel like real homes.”

“Exactly!” he says in delight. “This is a home.”

Struck by his words, by the obvious sincerity with which they are spoken, she turns to look at her potential landlord for the first time. She can’t help but feel struck by the sight of him. He is not too tall, only a few inches taller than her, with skin tanned by the sun and an easy smile that seems to put her at ease. It isn’t so much that she finds him attractive, but that there is something familiar about him, a recognition, a sense of having somehow met him before.

Perhaps because she has remained silent, he goes on to add, “At least, it was a home. My grandparents lived here for forty years.”

Yes, thinks Emma, it looks like it. It smells like it, too. The air is fusty. Of course old people had lived here. That explains the wood paneling and the floral wallpaper in the family room; it also explains the salmon-pink carpet and avocado-green bathroom suite with matching tile.

“How would you feel about me putting . . .” Emma pauses, wondering how to say this diplomatically. She doesn’t want to jump in and tell him she’d like to tear everything out and start again. He probably doesn’t want to change anything; his voice had softened when he mentioned his grandparents. She has an odd reluctance to offend him, and senses she’ll need to take this slowly if she wants this house. “. . . a woman’s touch on the house?”

“A woman’s touch!” The landlord smiles and nods approvingly. “That’s exactly what I’ve been saying this house needs for years. A woman’s touch.”

She follows him into the kitchen at the back of the house and her heart sinks slightly. It hasn’t been touched since the fifties, rough wood cabinets bumpy with layers of white paint, although pretty black iron hardware. Formica countertops with large cracks, and linoleum floors. A stove that is so ancient as to be fashionable again, and, surprisingly, a large modern stainless-steel fridge.

Emma looks at the fridge and raises an eyebrow as she looks over at the landlord.

Damn, she thinks. What was his name again? Donald? Derek? Something like that.

“The old fridge gave up last year,” he explains. “The tenants picked out this one. And I paid for it,” he adds quickly, as if to reassure her that he is a good landlord,