He stops on the street and stares up at Fiona’s house. This isn’t what he expected. It’s large, Victorian and old looking. The front garden is neatly mowed and tidy although it is littered with deck chairs. There are empty bottles stacked neatly outside the front door and if Toby listens really closely he can hear the strains of some song or other that he doesn’t recognise. There are people moving around on the ground floor, he can see their shapes through the massive bay windows that cover practically the entire front of the house. He wonders if any of them are Fiona. He sighs, straightens up his jacket with a few tugs and begins to walk towards the front door.
He glances in the window, staring at his reflection as he waits for someone to answer the ringing of the bell. He wants to make sure that he looks at least vaguely tidy, he doesn’t want to upset Fiona’s parents if they answer. There’s a silhouette coming down the hall towards the front door, getting bigger and clearer as it gets nearer. The door swings open with a creak and the shaking of glass. Toby smiles although it falters when he realises that it’s not a middle aged woman on the other side of the door but a guy, probably a few years older than Toby himself is. He’s got curly dark hair, bright blue eyes and he’s wearing a dressing gown. He looks nothing like Fiona. Toby wonders whether he’s come to the right address.
“Erm… hi?” Toby says.
“Hi,” the guy says, smiling widely, “Can I help you?”
“Oh right, yeah,” Toby stammers, “Erm, does Fiona live here?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the guy says, nodding quickly. He sort of squints at Toby, sizing him up, “You a friend of hers?”
“Yeah, sort of, I’m Toby,” Toby admits, grinning awkwardly, “I was supposed to come round later but I found myself free sooner than I expected. Is Fiona in?”
“Aww, she’s not back yet mate,” the guy says, rubbing his head, “But tell you what, why don’t you come in and wait for her. She shouldn’t be too long.”
“If you don’t mind,” Toby says, hesitating.
This is a strange guy, in a strange house and Toby is supposed to be meeting a girl that he realises that he barely knows. It’s not the most normal of circumstances. But the guy seems friendly enough, if a little odd, and Toby doesn’t feel a single bit of worry when he looks at him.
“No problem mate,” the guy says, “We always love meeting new people. We’re in the living room, you can hang with us until Fiona gets back, she usually comes straight in there anyway,”
Toby nods, hesitant at first but pretty quickly he decides that it’s not a problem. The guy grins wider and steps aside, waving an arm towards the rest of the house.
“Well come on in buddy,” he says happily, “Me casa est su casa and all that jazz,”
Toby steps through and looks around. The door shuts behind him and he almost misses the click of the key turning in the lock. He turns to look at the guy and sees him putting the key back on a peg beside the door.
“Bit of a rough neighbourhood,” the guy says, grinning apologetically, “Can’t be too careful. Well, that and we like to be able to hear if someone’s coming in. I’m Marco by the way.”
He holds a hand out for Toby to shake which he does so happily. This guy seems cool enough. Toby isn’t going to argue about the bad neighbourhood. One of the streets that he walked down to get here, had house after house with the windows boarded up where they’d been smashed, bins toppled over and graffiti scrawled everywhere. This street itself isn’t too bad but the big houses must be like catnip to wannabe burglars.
Marco grins and slings his arm around Toby’s shoulders. He leads Toby further in to the house.
“Great to meet you Toby,” Marco says. He kicks open the living room door with a clatter, “Welcome to our little family.”
Toby steps, or rather is dragged, in to the living room. He looks around in amazement. He’s never seen decorating like it. Everything is brightly coloured and natural. There are beanbags in a few places, a guitar propped up near the fireplace, a set of bongo drums next to it. There’s an entire shelf stacked full of books and CDs and DVDs. Toby’s sure that he can see a few video tapes in there too. The television, wide screened and curved, looks like it’s playing some cartoon or other. There are two other young people sat on the sofa, a guy and a girl, their legs twisted together and their fingers doing some sort of dance with each other.
“Guys, this is Toby,”Marco says, clapping his hands together to get their attention. “Toby this is Carrie and John.”
The girl, Carrie, smiles at him widely. He smiles back. He likes her already. She’s got one of those small round faces and a turned up nose that makes her look like a pixie. Her hair is a wild mess, long and blonde. There are flashes of purple and blue amongst the blonde but he can’t tell if it’s dyed or paint. There are splodges of purple and blue on her clothes too, a long green skirt and white tank top. Her feet are bare. There are flowers twisted into the strands of her hair and she’s wearing bracelets and bangles that jangle whenever she moves. Toby blinks when he realises that there’s a paintbrush sticking out of a knot of hair at the back of her head and that there are feathers hanging from her ears.
The guy, John, nods at Toby, smiling a little less widely before he turns his attention back to playing whatever game it is that he’s playing with Carrie and her fingers. John is much more put together than Carrie, he’s wearing tailored trousers, a loose shirt and a waistcoat that’s hanging open. He’s got stubble on his face, probably about three days worth and Toby is suddenly acutely aware that he doesn’t even need to shave more than once a week. John’s dark brown hair flops into his eyes and he pushes it back with a ringed hand.
“Take a seat, take a seat,” Marco says, waving Toby towards one of the bean bags. “Our errant housemate shouldn’t be long. She tends to be back before eight.”
“Yeah,” Carrie says, not looking up, “And then she’s out again in minutes. I don’t know why she doesn’t just stay with her mum and dad, it’d save a fortune on rent.”
“Have you met her parents?” Marco asks, his voice full of laughter, “They’re crazy.”
The conversation starts to wind towards jokes and stories about Fiona’s parents that Toby doesn’t get, either because he’s an outsider or just too young. He just sits and looks around, half listening to what they’re saying. This is beyond bizarre for him. He had been expecting Fiona to live in a small flat possibly, or maybe with her parents. Most of Toby’s friends live with their parents still. He had been expecting some posh terrace house in Manchester, mum and dad perfectly dressed and unwilling to let some strange, slightly scruffy looking boy sit in their living room to wait for their daughter.
Instead Fiona’s in a house share, living with people her own age and probably having loads of fun. It’s strange and weird and so out of the ordinary for Toby that he doesn’t know where to begin. A tap on his knee brings his attention back to the room. Carrie’s smiling at him and holding out a spliff.
“You smoke?” she asks brightly.
Toby looks at it for a moment. This really is strange.
“No,” he says quickly, “No thanks.”
“Suit yourself,” Carrie says with a shrug.
She slips the spliff back between her lips and skips over to settle on John’s lap. Toby wishes he had tried it, even a little, but the Academy does spot drugs testing and the last thing he wants is to get thrown out of it for being high on weed just the once. It’s one thing if he leaves it of his own free will to go on to something better but getting thrown out is far worse than that and would not look good for him in the future.
He’s surprised though, how easily Carrie had accepted his refusal. They’d always been taught in school that people who wanted you to try drugs would keep pushing and pushing until you gave in. Carrie hadn’t done that, she had asked and then walked away when he had said no. It was like she had been offering him a drink and accepted his answer straight away. Suddenly he was less nervous and felt more relaxed. Maybe it was the second hand smoke or maybe it was just because these people seemed to be genuinely cool and relaxed themselves.
“So… erm,” Toby says, trying to figure out how to have a grown up conversation with people who are blatantly older and wiser than he is, “What do you guys do then?”
“Well I’m a waitress,” Carrie says, “Working in a cafe that all the builders go to in the mornings and at lunch time. But really I’m an artist and a poet, trying to break out of the narrow box that society keeps trying to put us in to so I can make my mark on the world.”
“Oh… cool?” Toby says.
“And I work at a cinema,” Marco says as he exhales a plume of smoke. He passes the spliff on to John, “But I’m trying to get my band noticed by one of the big labels. Even if its not the sort of music they listen to and produce normally I’d love the chance and the feedback would be awesome.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Toby agrees. He doesn’t have a clue what Marco is actually talking about. He looks at John, “And what about you… John?”
“I’m a lay about,” John drawls, holding the spliff to Carrie’s lips, “Mummy and Daddy provide everything, including this house, I collect the rent from these losers and in the meantime I’m trying to put together a few of my own creative projects.”
“Basically we’re all trying to hold down regular jobs,” Carrie says, exhaling a cloud of smoke, “Just to support ourselves while we try to break into the arts world, you understand? Well all of us except John here. He gets to keep the rent as long as he collects it so he doesn’t need a job.”
“Rich tosser,” Marco says.
Its not spiteful though. It’s said with a smile and a laugh. John looks at his friend and house-mate and smiles indulgently.
“You’re just jealous my friend,” John says, “I get to lay around all day and follow my own pursuits while you’re stuck selling sweets to snotty children and chavs,”
Marco doesn’t say anything. Instead he just grabs a nearby cushion and tosses it at John’s head. John squawks when it hits him in the face and holds his hand out to stop the spliff from getting damaged. Carrie takes it from his fingers and skips out of the way. She settles herself on the sofa next to Toby and smiles at him. The two guys are messing around and she sits and watches them both fondly.
“They’re always like this,” she says, “It’s so cute.”
“Hey!” they both shout, “It’s not cute!”
“Whatever,” she says in a sing song voice, “Keep telling yourselves that.”
The two guys sit back in their seats and pout. Carrie giggles and puts out the spliff.
“Did you get that fifth room filled yet John?” she asks, “Your parents left another message about it the other day.”
“Oh for God’s sake,” John groans, “Why can’t they leave it alone? It’s not like they need the money for it.”
“Well have you?” Carrie says, unconcerned, “I can’t keep putting them off for you.”
“No alright, no I haven’t,” John snaps, “I’ve been interviewing people all week but they just don’t seem to fit.”
“What kind of people?” Marco asks.
“Builders, lawyers, office workers,” John says in a droning voice as he waves his hand around, “You know the type. But they all have the wrong vibe. I don’t think they’d fit in here and I’m not having a repeat of Jason again.”
Marco and Carrie groan and roll their eyes. Toby wonders who Jason is and what he’s done to get that sort of reaction. John looks at Toby and narrows his eyes.
“I don’t suppose you might be interested?” John suggests, “Or do you know anyone interested in renting a room here?”
Toby opens and closes his mouth a few times as he thinks about it. No one springs to mind and he shrugs.
“Ah well,” John says with a sigh, “If you do let me know.”
They lapse in to silence for a few minutes. Everyone is focused on the TV. Then Toby hears a key in the lock and the door creaking open.
“Hellooo!” Fiona cries out. “I’m home!”
The others all shout greetings but Toby just sits there, a little awkwardly. He wonders how she’ll react to seeing him here so early, sat on her sofa. He hears her footsteps, slowly coming closer to the living room door. She walks in and sees him sat on the sofa. She pauses for a moment, her eyebrows raised before she smiles. She’s just as gorgeous as she was this afternoon in Toby’s eyes. His breath catches a little.
“I see you’ve made yourself at home,” she says brightly, “You’re early.”
Toby shrugs and grins apologetically. He does feel at home though, completely relaxed and like he belongs here. Fiona disappears off in to the kitchen for a little while and he can hear her banging around pots and pans. Toby finds himself wondering why he feels so comfortable here, why he feels like he’s home. He supposes it’s because all of these people are on the same wavelength. They’re relaxed and they have the same hopes and dreams, they know where the others are coming from. They all want to be a part of the arts world and even though it’s probably just as competitive as the world of sports that competitions doesn’t seem to bother these people.
Toby tries to figure it out, why he’s so relaxed. Normally he hates new people, it usually take him a while to properly get to know them and even longer to feel properly comfortable with them. But here it’s different. He likes it here, no one’s arguing with each other or trying to compete in snide little ways. He supposes that it’s because they’re all so similar. He knows that there’s competition in the art world but it’s different in a way. Sports have only a few places to really show yourself off, to let yourself shine. Everyone wants one of those few places so they’re all competing against each other. If one person succeeds then someone else loses out, one person’s failure is another person’s victory. It’s win or lose, no middle ground and the critics will tear you to shreds in a matter or minutes if you make one mistake. And they never let you forget it either.
But the art world is different. Success comes from being happy with your work, not from shining the brightest. Wealth and fame are bi-products, not the ultimate aim for these people. They know and understand, that becoming famous can be a matter of chance, it’s not the end goal, their reason for doing it. They want to be in the art world because they love it. They know that one person’s success doesn’t mean that they’ll lose out. For Toby the art world suddenly seems so much more relaxed. There’s no cut throat competition, people help each other and applaud each other’s successes. Art touches people so much deeper than football ever could or ever has. Everyone responds to some sort of art in some way, no matter what, while football is, in comparison, only enjoyed by a minority.
Football, in comparison to art, suddenly looks so dumb to Toby, so trivial and unimportant. The art world is deeper, more important. The people, the profession, the substance of art, it’s all involving, all consuming, and people seem to be happier because they’re doing what they love for the sake of doing it. At least it seems that way to Toby as he watches these people that he’s just met but who he likes more than he has ever liked anyone. They remind him a little of Arjan, doing what they want to rather than what society is telling them to. Just like them Arjan is following his dream. He wants to make money because he wants to be rich but he wants to be rich on his terms, no one else's. Toby thinks that Arjan would probably like these people even if he doesn’t get the art world. They seem to have the same principles as each other.