What is it? A “student-friendly” one-bed that seems to have been modelled on a sauna.
Where is it? Caledonian Rd., the end of King’s Cross that pretends it is a very short walk to the amenities and street food and pubs and restaurants and train stations of King’s Cross, and it is, but that walk is absolutely dreadful, for every single second of it.
What is there to do locally? King’s Cross is one of those strangely transient areas of London that is obviously very glamorous – everyone’s heard of King’s Cross, haven’t they! It’s on the Monopoly board! – and has all the markers of a decent destination (1 x dirty pub, 1 x Nando’s, 1 x sourdough pizza place where you have to sit at the tables on a high chair for some fucking reason, and your mate swears “no it’s nice” and “no it’s actually good there”, but being honest this is some 6/10 pizza you’ve paid 8/10 pizza prices for [*1], 1 x Nike Outlet store), but nobody actually goes there, for any reason, apart from that one weekend where your girlfriend really wanted to go to Coal Drops Yard for weeks and weeks and weeks, until you relented and you ended up going there – dead, charcoal, sit in a Mexican restaurant outside for 20 minutes before being served – and spending an hour-and-a-half in A.P.C., somehow, while she tried on three identical pairs of trousers in three slightly different sizes, and whenever you got bored of checking the football scores on your phone you would idly pick up the sleeve of a nearby jacket, and then a shopkeeper would almost immediately swoop in – canihelpyouwiththat? – and you would have to pretend to both him and you that you were just browsing, mate, just browsing actually, even though both of you knew that if you attempted to buy this jacket right now, four days out from the end of the month, that your bank would not only immediately call you and tell you your card was being used fraudulently, but they would also explain that they, as a bank, can no longer represent you and your overdraft, and that you’ll have to shift over to Lloyds TSB and set up all your Direct Debits again.
Alright, how much are they asking? £1,300 p.c.m.
The men put down their tools and gather. Normally, a tree falling here – here in the forest, here in the swelter, here in the cool early morning mist that’s white like a ghost – isn’t an event. Logging sites like this don’t stop for trees. But as soon as this one cracked, and the air filled with shouts, the men knew. The sound of saws stops buzzing through the air. The animals nearby, growling and chirruping as their habitat is laid to waste, fall silent. When a tree this big is felled, it creaks and wheezes on the floor like a dying beast: the crackle of settling boughs, high and far away up the path; the fresh gash of the new stump, issuing sap like blood; long grass, rustling and crushed, suffering hard under its new weight. The men smudge their ashen faces with the backs of their gloves.
“We work quickly,” the foreman says, “before it’s too late,” and in an instant a flurry of activity: men burst back to vans and portacabins, hurry back with wedges and mallets. The foreman takes a long chalk string and hands it to a local boy – “run,” he hisses – and watches as he streaks up into the distance, to the upper nests of the tree, to line up with him from afar. He cracks a brilliant blue line down the centre of the trunk and the men get to work: one every metre, first a crack then a groove then a wedge, hammering in time – clink, clink, clink – until the tree starts to ease open.
“Is it...— boss?” someone starts to say, but the foreman snatches the words out of his mouth like a whisper.
“Don’t jinx it,” he commands. “We will see.”
It’s long, hard work. The mist rises and sizzles in the sky. This tree is a big one – long, straight, heavy and heaving – but what’s inside there could be more precious than gold. The lunch break comes and goes. The boy runs between the hammers with a gallon jug of water, pouring it raw into arid waiting mouths. It’s been hours since the tree fell, and since then the other ones – those with chainsaws still in them, those with low wounds on their trunks as they prepare to take the blow of an axe, those marked with spraypaint for felling – allow themselves to breath. They all watch, tall and looming, as the men pull their chieftain apart.
“The sun,” a crew chief says. “We cannot work much longer.”
“She will creak,” the foreman answers. “She will creak and she will crack.”
When it happens, it happens quickly: the sound in the air is distant, like thunder, then the wood splinters open. The men know now to jump back – they scurry backwards away from the tree, hoping that the two huge sides don’t roll on them – and watch in awe as the trunk cracks apart like it’s possessed. The wooden wedges shoot out, one by one, first slow then fast, fast, terribly fast – pling, pling, plinkplinkplinkplinkplink – and the foreman stands at the head of the tree and smiles. He knows what this means. He know what treasure will await him when the tree spreads open and shows him what’s within.
“It’s—” the crewman says, gasping, shocked. Years he has worked on these sites, in these trees. Never, in all his years, has he—
“Yes,” the foreman says. “Yes”. He takes off his gloves, takes one single grizzled finger and extends it forward. He runs it tenderly down the freshly exposed wood – hundreds of years in the making, but fresh and delicate, like honey, like a melon. “Yes, yes.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it, boss. So many… knots.”
“It was foretold.”
“So many knots in one piece of wood.”
“It was said… but I never believed it.”
“Because obviously normally we look for wood without many knots in it.”
“It makes commercial sense.”
“Because it’s prettier, stronger. Easier to cut into planks and sell.”
“Who buys the knotted wood, foreman?” the men ask, and they turn to him, beaming like gold.
“Landlords,” he whispers. “There is a race of men across the sea: landlords, in London.”
“What do they do with the knotted wood, foreman?” they ask him. “Do they use it in rituals, do they use it in magic? Is the wood holy, is it sacred?”
“Wardrobes,” the foreman says. “They turn it into the ugliest fucking wardrobes you’ve ever seen in your life, and rent them to cunts for £1,300 a month.”
Why is this wardrobe in 50 percent of the rental flats in London? Why is this wardrobe always there? Who keeps inviting this wardrobe guy? Why do I keep having to look at this fucking wardrobe? Anybody? Please. Anybody? Please!
The thing with this flat – and this is the most cursed recurring sentence that ever crops up on this column – is that it’s “not that bad”. The bedroom is separate from the kitchen, for instance. There seems to be another separate room – listed as a living room, but the photo of it just shows one curtain falling out from behind another curtain, and a folded-down leather sofa bed, and inexplicably another knotted-wood wardrobe, so either this house comes with two wardrobes (for absolutely no reason at all!) or it has been being used as an impromptu two-bed household, and has the appropriate residue energy from that (when you walk into someone’s front room, you can tell – instantly – whether someone has ever slept in it for long periods of time. This is called “human instinct”).
The kitchen is bizarrely long and horribly fitted and there are a lot of exposed pipes and wires, but whatever, whatever. The bathroom is windowless and features something I’ve never seen before – a cistern, toilet seat and bath that are all entirely different colours, but all of them some vague remix of “green” – which tells me this place hasn’t been well looked after, for a very long time. But you could live there if you had to. You would be uncomfortable, and you would be overpaying – and the fact that this £1,300 p.c.m. listing is advertised as “student friendly” really is a stretch beyond – but you could exist here, fine enough.
And then when the lights go out the creaking starts. You put on the lamp: no, surely it was nothing, surely it was a sound outside. But no, right there, right on the edges of sleeping: you swear you heard a whipping sound, you swear you heard a crack like a rip in the sky. You turn the lamps on, turn the big lights on, rub your sore little eyes. A heavy clunk. It came from the wardrobe. Clunk. There it is again. The knotted tree has come to take its revenge on you. The men ripped it apart and bought it here and varnished it and made it into an ugly wardrobe to wear all those clothes you have – those jeans that don’t fit, those trainers you got dirty and can’t figure out how to clean, that “festival style!” vintage anorak you bought off Depop and never had the nuts to wear – and now it lives here, in your flat, in ultimate indignity, dying another death. A thump, a clunk, a creak. The wardrobe falls apart into a pile of knots. The Landlord’s Curse. It strikes you again.
[*1] There is a particular bitter flavour that pervades through food when it’s 6/10 quality but you’ve paid an 8/10 price for it, that little inch of leeway – 7 – turning like ash in your mouth, and what started as a reasonably serviceable Diavola has now turned, on its greasy paper plate, into something more crushing: a broken promise, a fulfilment unwrought, a tarnish against your fine, fine family’s name.