Information about the serialization ("The Wattpad Experiment")
Links to: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13
“Hey, Viv, I’ve got some good news,” Julie said in the lunch room on Monday. She had just heated up some chili in the microwave and sat down at the table beside Viv to eat it. Viv was taking a bite from her egg salad sandwich.
“What is it?” She looked up, licking mayonnaise from her lips.
“Do you remember me telling you about Fred Shiner, the University of Toronto ancient history professor I met last year?”
“The one with the cat with the funny name?”
“Constantine. Anyway, Fred’s going to Greece for a year on sabbatical. He’s leaving next week. The man who was supposed to be renting his house just backed out with some health problem or other, so Fred’s desperate for somebody to rent his house right away. It’s furnished very nicely, plus it’s only six blocks from school. You can walk it in ten minutes.”
Viv put down her sandwich. “What’s he asking for the rent?”
“Only a thousand a month, plus utilities.”
Viv’s eyes opened wide. That was amazingly low for a house rental.
“What’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch. Fred’s pretty finicky about who he rents to because he’s got a lot of antiques. You’d have to water his plants and take care of his cat. I hear that Constantine’s a little difficult to get along with, but he’s only a cat. I was over there once, and I didn’t even see him.”
“I can get along with a tarantula for a furnished house six blocks from school and only a thousand. Is it detached?”
“Two and a half.”
“When can I see it?”
“Tonight. I told Fred we’d come over after dinner. He’s very excited to meet you. I talked you up a bit.”
Viv smiled broadly. “Thanks, Julie. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity.”
“That’s all right. I owe you.” She looked across the table at a third grade teacher who was reading a novel and picking at her salad. The woman was notorious for spreading gossip. Julie leaned forward to whisper in Viv’s ear, “Because of Josh.”
“You don’t owe me for Josh. I enjoyed meeting him,” Viv said in a low voice. “It’s too bad he reminded me so much of my first boyfriend. The resemblance was uncanny. I just couldn’t warm up to Josh after what Justin did to me.” She faked a shiver of distaste.
“Well, if the chemistry isn’t right, there isn’t much you can do about it. As my Italian grandmother used to say, ‘You don’t visit a garden that has no flowers.’ Whatever that means. But Josh must have liked you a lot if he pretended to be coming onto me just to make you jealous.” She elbowed Viv. “It wasn’t very mature of him, but you must have felt good when you found out. That Josh liked you so much, I mean.”
“I did,” Viv said with a rueful smile. “Now, tell me more about the house.”
It was seven when Viv got off the subway at Broadview and walked the three blocks to Wolfrey Avenue. The house was not far from the corner. There were two towering apartment buildings across the street, but they had a lot of green space around them and didn’t make the residential neighbourhood feel crowded. The houses on Fred’s side of the street all seemed well looked after, too.
Fred’s house was a red brick with beige trim, plus a handsome bay window on the second floor. Viv studied the house from the sidewalk. The yard was enclosed by a low stone retaining wall, and had a flowerbed of tall grasses and perennials off to one side. A flagstone sidewalk led past a weeping pea to the wide front porch.
Viv rang the doorbell and waited. The door was opened by a tall, slim man with stooped shoulders, a headful of grey hair, and a Van Dyck beard.
“You must be Viv,” he said. He had a bright, clear voice perfectly suited to reaching the back of a lecture hall.
“I am. And you must be Dr. Shiner.”
“Call me ‘Fred.’ Come in,” he said with a bow. His dark eyes swept her from head to toe as she stepped inside. The vestibule was painted a rich burgundy, while the hallway was papered in a blue-and-green peacock pattern. A white wooden staircase with a green runner rose from the front hallway to the second floor.
“Julie and Olivia are in the parlour.” He indicated the first room to the right with a sweep of his hand. Julie was seated on a red, Queen Anne-styled couch with a curved back, round arms, and slim feet. Olivia was dressing one of her dolls on an oriental rug of faded reds, blues, and greens.
“Hi, Viv,” Julie said. Olivia glanced up and smiled before returning to her doll.
“Please, sit anywhere you like,” Fred said.
Viv gazed around the cluttered room. In addition to the couch, there were two high-backed chairs in floral upholstery. Just beyond the chairs was a beautiful fireplace with a frame of white vines and flowers. A mirror mounted in a matching frame hung over the mantle. To the left of the fireplace was a stained-glass window of yellow flowers with green stems and a border of blue and yellow squares. Beneath the window sat a mahogany writing desk and a wooden chair with a petit point cushion. An overflowing bookcase filled an alcove in the back, while several round side tables bearing ferns, statuary, and knick-knacks were interspersed with the furniture.
“Such a lovely room,” Viv said. What a lot of dusting, she thought. She joined Julie on the couch.
“I’m glad you like it,” Fred said. “I inherited the house from an aunt twenty-five years ago, and I’ve been adding to the decor ever since.” He seated himself in a wing chair and crossed his legs. “Julie tells me that you’re looking for accommodations?”
“That’s right. I’ve been staying with a friend for almost four months since the break-up of a long-term relationship. I didn’t want to remain alone in the old apartment. My friend has been very kind, but her condo really isn’t large enough for the two of us.”
“I quite understand. Better to start over again somewhere fresh. What about furnishings?”
“None of them were worth keeping. All I have are my clothes and a few personal items, mostly books and photographs.”
“That would suit me very well. As you can see, there isn’t room for additional furnishings. Tell me, how do you get along with cats?”
“Just fine. My boyfriend and I didn’t have pets ‒ our apartment was too cramped ‒ but I’ve babysat other people’s cats.”
“Viv looked after my orange tabby when I was in the hospital having Olivia,” Julie piped.
“Marmalade, wasn’t it?” Fred asked.
“That’s right. We lost her a year ago.”
“I’m so sorry. How terrible for you.” He looked down at Olivia, who was redressing her doll in a doctor’s scrubs and lab coat with a tiny stethoscope. “Although you do have the consolation of the child.”
“That’s right,” Julie said, hiding a smile.
Fred returned his attention to Viv. “Well, why don’t I take you on a tour of the house? I’m sure we’ll encounter my Siamese, Constantine, on one of the beds. He likes to take an after-dinner nap before his evening playtime.”
“That would be great,” Viv said. She jumped to her feet, eager to see the rest of the house. Fred showed her a casually-furnished office across the hall, a separate dining room with a large walnut table and a side board filled with china and crystal (“I do love to entertain”), and a kitchen. The kitchen was a disappointment. It was galley style with a stove and fridge that had seen better days, and cupboards painted a dingy blue. It did have a dishwasher, however, and a view of a fenced backyard with a flower garden and stone patio.
The house’s only bathroom was on the second floor, a four-piece with pink tile. There were three bedrooms, each with a queen-sized bed and handmade quilt. The master had the bay window Viv had spotted from the street, plus a flat screen TV, and a collection of DVDs in the bookcase beneath it. In the middle of the bed sat Constantine, cleaning his front paws. He had a dark face with almond-shaped blue eyes, a cream-coloured body, and chocolate-coloured legs and tail. He stopped cleaning himself to meow petulantly.
“Hello Constantine,” Fred said, sitting down on the bed and stroking the cat’s back. The sleek animal climbed onto his lap and purred as Fred scratched behind his ears. Viv followed Fred into the room; Julie and Olivia had stayed below.
“This is Viv. Can you say hello?”
“What a handsome animal,” Viv said. “He looks young. How old is he?”
“Just eighteen months. I’ve had him since he was a kitten.”
Viv offered her hand to the cat, who hissed and disappeared under the bed.
“Constantine is very attached to me, but he takes a little time to warm up to other people. I’m sure you and he will get along magnificently once he knows you. He’s such a loving, companionable animal.” From beneath the bed the cat protested, producing a meow that sounded like a baby’s cry.
“Yes, Constantine, I know you’re there. I’ll find your laser pointer in a little while. He loves chasing that,” Fred said. “Let me finish showing you the house.”
The third floor attic was devoted to storage (“I’ve never bothered with the attic . . . the house is too big for one person as it is”), and the basement was low-ceilinged, dark, and creepy, but contained a washer and dryer. Viv considered that a luxury after years of schlepping her stuff to a laundromat.
Leaving the house, Fred led the way to a detached garage at the rear of the garden. He unlocked the padlock on the garage door and levered it up to reveal a yellow, 1973 VW Beetle.
“Her name is ‘Daisy.’ She was my aunt’s car. I take her to the shop for check-ups, but I don’t drive her very often. You’re welcome to use her, if you like. I forgot to ask ‒ you do drive, don’t you?”
“I have a licence. I don’t drive much, living here in Toronto, but I appreciate the offer.” Fred nodded, shut the car back up in the garage, and returned to the house with Viv.
“What do you think? Could you see yourself living here?” he asked. They were back in the living room, where Fred was serving tea from a silver service and lemon poppy seed cake he had baked himself on china plates.
“I certainly could,” Viv said. “It’s a beautiful house, and so convenient to work.”
“I wouldn’t rent my house to just anyone, but Julie recommended you. She said that I could trust you to keep all my treasures safe and to take excellent care of Constantine. You understand that he must never be allowed outside. I couldn’t bear to think of him being hit by a car, or attacked by a dog.”
“Of course not. Cats should be kept indoors, where they’re safe.”
“Exactly. I have a manual here with Constantine’s routine and his vet’s phone number, as well as instructions on lighting the furnace, what to do if the water heater leaks, a maintenance plan for the indoor and outdoor plants, and my contact information in Greece. We’ve already discussed the rent and utilities. There’s a lease here, if you want to take the place. You could move in on Saturday.” He lifted a coil-ringed manual to expose the four-page lease.
“I would be delighted to look after your home and Constantine during your sabbatical,” Viv said. Rent cheques were produced, but Fred insisted they review the lease paragraph by paragraph before allowing Viv to sign. When she had, he handed her two keys on a pewter fob.
“Welcome to your new home,” he said with a smile.
Check back for Chapter 15 on Sunday, May 10.
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