‘Three Rooms,’ by Jo Hamya: An Excerpt

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Sink and unframed mirror. The southwest corner of the room. My phone, propped up between the faucet and the wall, and my lips in the mirror, and my fingers doing their little tap, tap over them with a tissue, blotting lipstick. All to the sound of my mother: Do we think that dress is the right choice for a work party, and my mother, Did you make sure they got the inventory form, and my mother, Are you making friends, and my mother, I miss you, when will you come home? The soft little worries running alongside the tap. I let them go down the plughole. It wasn’t enough. Some aspect of them stayed, as though they’d filtered from the faucet into the glass of water I’d had before leaving for the meet and greet. I got lost on the way to the English faculty and ended up late.

When I found it, from the outside, the building looked like a Bond lair. The whole thing was designed in rectangles by someone who had evidently misunderstood the purpose of Brutalism. For all its sparseness, the building radiated luxury. Rooms done in glass and dark wood spoke, sonorous through their large open windows. The thrum of conversations trickled out leisurely, unhurried. It spread itself out over the building’s brickwork and its flat roofs. The whole thing made no attempt to disguise its status as a new-build; threw itself still further into the role by sitting at odds with a decrepit church and silent, adjacent cemetery. I crossed the road and looked at the graves of well-known men whose afterlife it was to watch their work occasionally reinterpreted, but for the most part ignored by twentysomethings on the pavement opposite. I found Pater’s grave, then resumed my own place on the other side of the street.

The party could be characterized as one only by the sight of a drinks table around which various huddles had formed, each member clutching a glass of champagne. Everything had the air of being slightly stretched. The leather on the sofas shone too brightly, as though strained. The floorboards were bare. Nevertheless, someone had taken great pains to decorate. Noticeboards with numbers for help centers and bits of poetry had been spread all over the walls; there was a placard, and it read — “Join OxfordConnect today for alumni and student events. Available via Apple and Android.” I looked around and in my long, thin red summer dress, immediately felt overdressed; I took my cardigan from my waist and wrapped it around myself. Everyone had already latched onto someone else in the room, and looked as though they had no intention of leaving their particular group now that it had been formed. People asked each other their names, plugged them into search bars. I found a gap in a huddle of students and approached the formation from the side, angling my body half in, half out. I could be ready to leave should they decide they did not want me. A tall brunette girl held the stem of her champagne glass while two boys asked her who she was.

[ Return to the review of “Three Rooms.” ]

I’d slid in in time to hear that her name was Ghislane. The boys looked at each other, their heads began to sway.

O-o-o Ghislane. One day she’ll find her fame, they sang. The girl winced.

Bet you get that all the time, said one of the boys, clearly delighted. She tipped the remainder of her glass down her throat and said, Fuck off, into it with some dignity. They did not. Ghislane fixed on me. I think I recognize you, she said. You were walking around town earlier.

She had widely spaced eyes and a long, broad nose. She chewed on her small, wet lips and waited for an answer. With her schoolgirl skirt and turtleneck, with her tailored jacket and darting, impatient gaze, she looked somehow very grown-up and not grown-up at all. There were probably only three years between us. Standing before her made me feel inexplicably unsophisticated.

I told her it was possible, yes.

Okay, she said, accepting her escape route and guiding me towards a table with more champagne. A hand at the small of my back, a steer and request: Please let’s get away from them.

I was trying to pick up the pace. What was that song they were singing with your name in it? I asked.

She winced again. Ghislane. Stupid song from the nineties about a guy whose girlfriend leaves him to be a fame whore or whatever. The #MeToo movement should have killed it except someone made an argument about female agency, so it lived to fight another day. Then someone — a man, obviously — began moaning that it was just an objectively good song and that we — she crooked her fingers in air quotes around the word we — should be allowed to sing it as long as we recognize it as of its time. Really, you’ve never heard it?

I shook my head. This earned me a look of admiration.

It actually is meant to be a classic. Sad girls on the internet quote it when they want to look deep. She passed me a glass of champagne.

That seems like an unfortunate thing to share a name with. I was trying to sound sympathetic, but she shook her head and said no-o-o. The syllable went up in impossible crescendo. It echoed the tune of what the boys had sung earlier. Ghislane fixed me with a firm look: in fact, she was named after it. Having established this, she examined me more closely. What did I do?

I told her. She asked, Do you think you’ll be seeing a lot of everyone here? But I didn’t know, so she began to point out others in the room with impressive flippancy.

[ Return to the review of “Three Rooms.” ]

What you’re looking at is mostly contemporary lit. Our year is supposed to be some grand experiment, she said. They went for as many kinds of different people as they could. Apparently, our research proposals are all over the place. They want to see if they can breed the next great generation of literature. So . . . she considered the room over the rim of her glass. Then her mouth became a pistol, firing off bullets in expert shots: they’re nonbinary and gave a proposal on reading the canon as genderless; he’s on antidepressants doing environmentalist lit; she’s queer; she’s autistic, doesn’t speak, but a total genius; he’s obviously a Tory but he’s working on something he’s called “literature for the working class,” whatever the fuck that is; she’s a sweetheart, but she says she gets terrible SAD, so I’m guessing she won’t be much fun once the weather turns . . . and she’s really annoying, don’t talk to her. She glanced around the room to make sure everyone was accounted for, then pointed at herself brightly: Oh, and I have ADHD. So, yeah! What about you? Have you been here long?

I felt incredibly tired. I thought about it, catalogued what might be most true in my head, but all I had to offer up was the fact that I had been in London before. And of course, Ghislane said, you’re BAME. She delivered the pronouncement with great solemnity. It was good that I was here. She’d come from London, too. Did I miss it? I shook my head. I was too recently gone.

Ghislane put down her flute. Sometimes, she said, she would take a night bus back. She got restless. She had already been in Oxford for a few weeks. There was a coach, it ran twenty-four/seven, and she would go and stare at her old flat. She used to share it with some friends, but the lease ran out as she was leaving and they couldn’t find a flatmate in time to be able to afford staying. Which was a shame — it was a nice place in Hammersmith. She would get off the bus around Shepherd’s Bush and walk up the road she used to walk every day. It took her a while to get used to the idea that it wasn’t hers anymore. But once her new reality had set in, she went to see what the new tenants were doing in her old flat. They often left the curtains open, and from across the street, she could appraise all the decorating they’d done. Ghislane stopped looking at me and began musing over the place in her mind. Her face changed: they had made the flat wrong. They had put ugly little chairs in front of the fireplace where she had used to sit on rugs. They had stripped out the wallpaper, which had clearly been there from the seventies and smelt like it too. She couldn’t blame them for that, but — she came out of her reverie and focused back on me — the flat’s former derelict authenticity had been so aesthetically pleasing. Now it all looked brand-new. They had convinced the landlord to let them do it up in cream and chrome. On a moral level she hated all of this, she sniffed, but on a material one, she felt deprived. The extent to which the whole road had been gentrified dawned on her just as she moved out. For most of her stay there, it had resembled something more like a construction site and so she had ignored its daily goings-on. This was no longer the case. Now that the transformation was complete, she resented the fact that other people got to enjoy a yoga studio and coffee bar which she had only ever registered as a bombardment at her front door.

I tried to speak carefully. But her move notwithstanding, wasn’t it probable they were gentrifying it for people like her? Ghislane raised an eyebrow. You’re swilling twenty pounds’ worth of bubbly in that one glass alone, she intoned, and waited for a response. I didn’t take the bait. She sighed, became, by degrees, visibly bored. I could see the boys who had accosted her earlier drawing in. Finally, she said, It was cheap when I moved in and Hammersmith reminded me of being at St. Paul’s. Do you have Instagram?

This threw me a little. I said I did. She seemed cheered.

Okay, sweet. Look, add me on that — she thrust her phone at me — we can talk some other time. I plugged my username onto the screen. She took it back and was gone. Things moved fluidly, as if staged. The boys arrived as she left, looking earnestly after her. The questions came thick and rapid. Was she leaving? What did she say? Did she say where she was going? Why had she given me her phone? When I told them she had asked me to add her on Instagram, the boys exchanged looks.

Fuck me, one of them said, no one said it was a networking event.

I was getting irate. They looked at me with pity, as if I were slow. You’ve never heard of her before, the other asked, have you?

I wanted to protest. I had just met her.

They snickered and walked away. Out of the corner of my eye I could see one remaining bottle of champagne on the drinks table to my right. I hadn’t managed to speak to anyone else. The party could not be approached in any useful way. There were, at most, only four years separating me from the students in the room, and despite the seniority of my position, it was impossible not to feel inadequately young. It would not have surprised me if the boys who had asked after Ghislane had mistaken me for a classmate — I could not claim much on them except a minimum-wage job. We had too many higher powers in common: faculty lecturers; the student finance page of gov.uk. I looked around. I was too shy to approach anyone else. I moved towards the table of champagne, wrapped the last bottle inside my cardigan, and slipped out.

[ Return to the review of “Three Rooms.” ]

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