One of the more difficult things about the time of year was knowing when it was appropriate to turn the heating on. There were several points in the weeks before I eventually relented that I could have used the heat, when conditions in my flat were becoming cold enough to make Greenland look like an appealing warm-weather getaway. It seemed to me that determining when to put the heating back on was one of those decisions that people only ever had to worry about once they became adults, like figuring out what time it was best to go to bed.
I was reluctant to make such a move while it was still September, before the autumn had really taken hold and when we were still in meteorological summer, even though the climate on the west coast of Scotland had never recognised the seasons. If I could have, I would have left it at least until the clocks went back, but that was pushing it. Apart from anything else, the two heaters in my flat never seemed to make a great deal of a difference to the feel of the place. Their performance had always been underwhelming, and raring them up for the winter seemed to be as futile a gesture as carrying an umbrella into the eye of a hurricane. I could never get it into my head how the storage heaters were supposed to work. As far as I understood it, their task was to gather energy during the night and release it as warm air through the following day, but it was hard to say if that was what they were actually doing. To my limited knowledge, the heaters only seemed to be storing up disappointment, and I had never needed expensive equipment to do that for me.
It was the first of October when my resistance to the tumbling temperature broke and I flicked the switch on my two storage heaters, and by the fourth, I was standing in my kitchen at half-past ten on a Sunday night wondering why my neighbours upstairs had decided that it would be the best time to use the washing machine. No-one gets off the couch at half-past ten on a Sunday night and thinks, “I know what this is a good time for: I’m going to put an entire load of t-shirts in the wash.” It had to have been a premeditated move by people who were much more organised than I could ever dream of being. They had presumably put a lot of research into the matter and learned that the most cost-effective way of running your laundry – or anything really: boiling a kettle, running the hover, utilising a power drill – was to do it at a specific hour on the weekend. I envied their preparedness and their ability to save money. My own policy for putting on a wash was a lot more staggered, effectively being whenever the wicker hamper beneath the window in my bedroom had more shirts in it then my wardrobe did, or when I was looking for some green socks to pair with a tie to make a particular outfit work, whichever instance arose first.
During that same week, I had begun to suspect that I had a new neighbour across the landing from me. The place had been quiet for an indeterminate period of time and I hadn’t really noticed that the previous tenants had moved out until I saw the let sign in the window some weeks earlier. Suddenly there was a great deal of activity which started one afternoon when I arrived home from work for lunch to see the door opposite mine sitting wide open. There were removal men treading back and forth through the close carrying cardboard boxes and items of furniture which were stacked so tall that the men almost appeared to be headless. The recycling bins in the back became choked with scrunched up balls of newspaper, while inside the close door a black CD storage unit was abandoned, a relic of time. in the evenings I could hear the soft shuffling of footsteps on concrete and the door opening and closing so loudly that it suggested whoever was entering the flat hadn’t yet come to terms with the weight of the door. There was no longer any sign of the let notice in the window, and it was clear that the residence was once again occupied.
Having a new neighbour seemed exciting, a lottery that could be either won or lost. It could have been virtually anyone in the world who had moved in across the hall from me, and naturally I had my own ideas about who my ideal neighbour would be. Over the subsequent days I spent much of my time contemplating the potential scenarios that may have landed on my doorstep. I thought about how in my preferred outcome the new person living in my block would have been a young single woman, possibly new to the area and without any contacts. We would happen upon one another on the landing when I would be wearing my finest colour combination, having run a wash a few days prior. She would introduce herself, starved of any kind of social interaction and eager to meet her new neighbours. We would hit it off, our interaction too brief and off the cuff for me to say something stupid, and she would suggest that since we are both single occupants we should form a bubble and hang out together.
My new neighbour would come over to my place on a night and we would gradually form an unlikely friendship. I would invite her to comment on my lucky plant and she would observe how well watered it is for a succulent. She would compliment the mood set by the crepuscular lighting in my living room and marvel at the warmth in the small space between it and the kitchen, where the second of my storage heaters hangs on the wall. Her remark on my living space was that it had charm, an emporium of bachelorhood. We would dine on a meal of one of the three pasta dishes I know how to cook and then listen to U2 for hours whilst laughing and getting to know one another. The more consideration I gave to the situation, the closer the bond I could see my neighbour and I forming. But even I knew the thought was ridiculous, and although I could see our friendship blossoming in the reel of my sub-conscience, it was clear that we would only ever be two grapes on the same branch of the stalk who are destined not to wind up in the same bottle of wine. She would be destined for better things, surely forming an intoxicating blend with some other grape from a different stem, while I would finish up a tired old raisin, the one which sticks determinedly to the bottom of the box.
I didn’t want to feel miserable about being spurned by the new neighbour who I had never laid eyes on, so I took yet another swipe through the dating app Tinder, an act which seemed to be like striking a dud match against its box again and again and
again, desperate for any sort of spark. By some peculiar fate I made a match, and I resolved with myself that I would not rush in and make any silly jokes like I had done when I was last paired with a woman on the site. I played it cool, even though I couldn’t be sure what that actually looked like, and we exchanged a couple of cursory opening messages after I initially enquired about what makes a good escape rooms game moderator, since that was her listed job title.
My Tinder match later went on to tell me that she had read my profile and believed it to be funny, which immediately led me to suspect that I was talking to some kind of scam bot. I was waiting to be offered a link to some expensive website where I would be forced to pay to interact with women, and I was already looking out my debit card so that I could hear more of the compliments. I should have seen the signs, really. A 21-year-old University of Glasgow graduate, an escape rooms game moderator named Maria – it was barely plausible. Nonetheless, we continued chatting on the app without transferring any financial details, and after around five days it became evident that Maria too had experienced some trouble with keeping succulent plants alive. We had established a connection, a common bond, and it naturally followed that she would tell me that she was only using Tinder to make new friends, since it was difficult to meet people in the post-pandemic world. It was a confirmation, at least, that it was all for real, since only I could find the one woman who was using the dating app for plutonic purposes. If we were going to make wine, it was going to have to be a non-alcoholic vintage.
Other than the torment over the question of when the heating should be switched back on, I always enjoyed the change in the seasons at this time of year. The sky seemed to be a different colour every day, sometimes every hour. Bright and brilliant then dark and brooding, grumpy like a grown man who has been told that the pubs will have to close for two weeks. The sun setting early in the evening would bring into focus a horizon of slates and chimneys, and the air was always redolent of coal fires, no matter the time of day. More than any other month, October seemed to be when the sun would sit lowest in the sky, being almost exactly at eye level when I was rounding the town on my walk home after work. It made it difficult to truly enjoy the scene and caused me to rethink the resentment I had been feeling towards those people who I had been seeing carrying their face coverings in all sorts of unusual ways. Perhaps they were onto something after all. Only, instead of scrunching the masks up under their chin or hooking them around the elbow joint as though portraying a gentleman from a fifties silent movie, the coverings could be worn over the eyes as some sort of protection from the glare of the sun. As it was, I made do with the menace of the low lying sun since if I managed to catch it at certain points, it was at least as warm as the four-foot spot between my kitchen and living room.
I arrived home from my walk on Friday evening with a commitment to an hour or so of babysitting, though I could no longer be sure if it was technically still babysitting when my niece was four-years-old and approaching a similar level of maturity to my own. Nevertheless, we had a rare old time together catching up and familiarising ourselves with all the hiding places my flat had to offer, which was really just behind the net curtain where everything was automatically invisible. Out of nowhere, my niece told me that she had recently watched the 1997 movie Spice World, and I thought that it would be a good way of passing a few minutes if I played the Spice Girls song Wannabe on YouTube. Clearly it had been some months since my last session of childminding and I had forgotten that videos can never be watched just once. I think we spent at least the next 35 minutes listening to the song on repeat, and my niece announced that she had aspirations of being Baby Spice. She seemed to have been particularly impressed by her ability to kick, though not as much by my performance of the dance, which led to me being assigned the role of Scary Spice. There was nothing I could say to dispute the point – it seemed pretty fair. Two days away from my thirty-seventh birthday and this was where life had taken me.
After my niece left, high on girl power, I was in the kitchen preparing for another of the Friday night Zoom meetings which had become a placeholder for our usual visits to the pub when I heard a knock on my front door. I was about as accustomed to hearing someone chap at my door as I was listening to the Spice Girls and I couldn’t begin to guess who would have been on the other side, so I decided to go and answer it instead. I unlocked the door and opened it up to find the figure of a man who was holding out a Royal Mail missed delivery slip. He was slightly shorter than I was, perhaps a little older, and he had a reasonably well-kept beard. Extending the red piece of paper towards my face he asked me if the name on it was mine. I took a closer look at it, since my vision had a habit of failing in near darkness, and directed the man to one of the flats upstairs. He thanked me and turned to leave, before doubling back on his steps.
“I’m your new neighbour, by the way.”
Of course you are, I thought to myself, as all my hopes and dreams of a bubble were burst. He introduced himself as being Norman, or Edward, or Nigel, or some name of that sort. I had forgotten it as soon as he said it, my bitter disappointment making me reluctant to learn anything about the man. He remarked on how surprisingly quiet the street was to live on, considering that the block of flats were right by the main road, and I felt like telling him that he should learn how to close his door more carefully, but he seemed like a nice person and I wasn’t really wanting to get into anything that would make me seem like a dick, particularly when the truth was that he was the dick for not being a lonely single woman. He thanked me again before heading upstairs, and I returned inside, where I picked up my phone and continued the conversation I had been having on Tinder about my ineptitude with houseplants. I leaned against the storage heater in the hallway and accepted that friendship on a dating app was probably the best I could hope for.