How the Other Half Lives


Compulsive neat freak meets chaotic slob: Can their living space survive the conflict?

Martin Harrison keeps himself to himself and his Central London flat as neat as a new pin. Maybe he should loosen up and enjoy more of a social life, but in his mind, that’s tantamount to opening the floodgates to emotional chaos. He agrees, however, to join the flat-sitting scheme in his building and look after another tenant’s flat in exchange for a similar watch over his when he’s travelling for his work.

A floor away in the same building, Russ McNeely is happy with his life as a freelance cook and a self-confessed domestic slob. He also joins the flat-sitting scheme, both to be neighbourly and to help keep his flat in order, as Russ also travels for his work.

For a while, the very dissimilar men never meet. Martin is horrified at the mess at Russ’s flat, while Russ finds Martin’s minimalist style creepy. But in a spirit of generosity, each of them starts to help the other out by rearranging things in their own inimitable way.

Until the day a hiccup in the schedule brings them face-to-face at last.

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© Clare London

My friend Ethan looks both annoyed and bemused—I suspect he’s struggling to remember the meaning of the word detritus. “You’ve lived in this building for six months, but you have no idea who your neighbors are. You’re not involved in neighborhood committees, you don’t play any sports, you have weekly grocery deliveries so you never mooch around the supermarket. You work long and erratic hours, and I’ve never known you to entertain anyone here except for me and Harry. Look at the pair of us here, tonight! Just sitting in, drinking a couple of beers, talking about work. Our regular Thursday night get-together has been like this for months. You’re an island, Martin, and some would say, a damned unadventurous one at that. Do you even know where your local pub is?”

I frown, because he knows I’m not comfortable with the effect of drinking at the best of times. “I have a place of my own, surrounded by my own things, arranged just as I like them.”

“Arranged? But that’s what I mean.” Ethan stands up, his whole body vibrating with dramatic tension. “You can’t always arrange everything in life. You’ve got to loosen up a bit, be receptive to new experiences, to new relationships. Things can be…irrational, sometimes, you know? People, too. Martin, you are so anal retentive that being around you makes my teeth clench up.”


He shakes his head—another impatient gesture. “So that didn’t sound quite right. I just want you to be happy. To engage with life, to enjoy the fun, the benefits. Will you please listen to me, for once? Properly?”

He really does look distressed now, and I have no intention of challenging him on the “benefits” issue. I know exactly what he means, and the fact it inevitably includes sexual relationships. He knows I’ve never been really comfortable with them, either. Such interactions can so often lead to mistakes, confusion and embarrassment. Better avoided in case of failure, is my opinion, though that’s one I keep to myself when faced with the obvious romantic affection that Ethan and Harry share, and don’t think twice about demonstrating in public. Just a touch or a kiss, of course, not full-on intercourse. Though I wonder sometimes, when I see the look of devilment on Ethan’s face. Thank God for Harry’s more sensible attitude.

But this is how most of my conversations with Ethan go, nowadays. It’s another observation I’ve pointed out to Harry when the three of us meet up. Ethan has a low emotional threshold—a tendency to overreact. Or maybe that’s just around me. Harry smiles gently whenever I mention it and his eyes sparkle, which leads me to assume that, despite Harry’s more sensible attitude, Ethan’s excitable reactions are no problem to him.

“I’m listening,” I say to Ethan now, seeking to keep his exclamations down below an offensive decibel level. “If it makes you less outraged, I’ll try to…loosen up a bit.” His eyes are rolling again now. But because I am fond of him, and because he’s been a constant, decent friend since we were at college together, I cast around in my mind for some consolation prize for him. “There’s a notice on the communal board downstairs, suggesting a flat-sitting scheme, for when tenants go away at weekends. That would be useful for me, I admit, for when I go to auctions, to have someone located in the building to pick up my mail and check the heating thermostat settings. And there’ll apparently be adequate police checks for all the contributors, which is reassuring.”

“Reassuring, indeed,” Ethan murmurs, his brows still suspiciously arched.

“I’ll sign up for that, okay? To show my”—my throat feels a little dry—“public spiritedness. But nothing more. I don’t want to join book clubs or learn conversational Spanish. And as for taking part in the local choral society concerts…” I’m trying to explain my feelings to Ethan, but maybe my small shudder does that just as well.

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