From the outside, it looked like any other townhouse. It was squeezed in between two identical concrete blocks, two-thirds down the street. The whole road was grey on grey on grey, perpetually damp, all lifeless front gardens with weeds poking through broken pavement slabs, cars parked half up on the curb, and weathered graffiti. It was a normal neighbourhood in a normal town, where mothers chatted on the front steps while their kids played in the street, where everything was the same day in and day out.
Armin hadn’t grown up here, but he might as well have. This town was on another side of the small country but it was just the same as the one he’d grown up in. Standing outside his new house left him with a sense of familiarity and he hadn’t even put the key in the lock yet. Boring was the word that came to mind. He shouldn’t have expected anything exciting. The only thing that was really different about this place was the smell of the ocean in the air.
He parked outside and walked up to the house, double-checking he had the right address, and shoved two sets of keys into his pocket. The gate was rusty from all the rain and it creaked when Armin pushed it open, just like he’d expected it to. One of the slabs on the path was loose and it wobbled when he stepped on it. He held the keys in his hand, peering through frosted glass. He couldn’t get a good look in the door. He felt like a visitor, like he should be knocking. But this was his house now.
It was left to him by a grandfather he’d never met. Armin was sure he was the only person left in their family for it to be left to. He didn’t even know that his grandfather had passed away until after the funeral, which had apparently been arranged by friends of his. He’d been contacted out of the blue that his grandfather had left this house to him, a convenient bombshell that landed at a time where he had no idea what he was doing with his life. So he’d dropped everything - which admittedly, wasn’t much - and packed all his stuff into his car to move into a new, empty house and start over, leaving broken friendships and a lot of bad memories behind.
When he opened the door, he’d expected to see an old, dark house. He’d expected to see his father’s house reflected in it, the same drab wallpaper and damp on the ceiling, the same worn welcome mat, the same off white carpet.
But when Armin walked in, he was completely taken aback.
This was… nothing like he’d expected. The narrow corridor leading to the stairs was cramped and filled with stuff, strange items didn’t recognise stacked up on shelves, bags and boxes leaning against walls. It was cluttered, but it looked deliberate, in a way, like everything had a purpose in where it was placed. There were framed vinyl on the walls. It looked… cool. Armin felt like he’d stepped through a portal.
The thing that surprised him most, though, was just how clean everything was. This did not look like a dead man’s house. There wasn’t even any post. It set him on edge. It was clear that this house hadn’t been left untouched for as long as he’d imagined. Had someone been here? Was he just overthinking things again?
“Hello?” He called out curiously, not expecting a response. He wasn’t all too surprised when he didn’t get one, but he still felt strange. Maybe if he scraped the last of his money together he could change the locks.
Slowly, he made his way through the house. His bags were still in his car, but he would bring those in later. Every room was weirder than the last. It wasn’t even set up like an actual house. There was so much stuff everywhere. The living room was full of bookshelves, and the one ratty old armchair was piled so high with even more books. That excited Armin a little, even if he was still in shock over how strange it all was. The living room, if it could even be called that, was a small square, and most of its space was used up by a grand piano sitting dead in the centre, immaculate, totally gorgeous. There were piles and piles of sheet music stacked up on the stool. Seeing it almost made Armin want to play again. Almost.
The kitchen was the only room that looked half normal, though the fridge was absolutely covered in magnets. Armin could hear it humming. The power was still on, then - he hadn’t even thought to try the lights, but when he did, they flickered on sure enough. This was weird. Really weird.
Upstairs, there were two rooms that were locked , which was a complete mystery that irked him. He didn’t like locked doors; he was too curious for his own good. Even the bathroom was full of books. It looked its age, with mint green tile and yellowing sconces.
There was another set of stairs leading upwards, and since Armin couldn’t get into any of the other rooms on the first floor, he decided to go up. They led right up to a door, which, when opened, revealed a room that was shaped like the roofline, completely triangular. Even though it was small, it was the only room in the house that looked bare, like something was missing inside. There was a single bed that looked like it had been assembled haphazardly, shoved in at a strange angle. There wasn’t a bedside table, but there were a few books on the floor next to the bed, and a lamp, too. Other than a dresser, that was it. A window looked out to the street, giving Armin a good look up at the dark clouds of late autumn, and when he went over, it looked like it would be possible to crawl through the window and out onto the roof.
He figured that this was where he’d be sleeping, then. He took another look around, still not really able to get over how weird this all was, and turned to go back downstairs when he heard the front door slam.
Armin froze. That was definitely this front door, there was no doubt about it.
Fear churned in his gut. Quietly, he grabbed a book and tried to make his way down the stairs silently, though it felt like every step creaked under his weight. The person was moving around down there. Armin was sure he’d locked the door. How did they get in? They must have had a key. Was his grandfather actually alive?
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he almost forgot to be scared. But when the intruder spoke it made him jump out of his skin.
“Who the fuck are you ?”
Armin stared down at the intruder, who was looking back up at him with the same bewildered expression. He looked Armin’s age, maybe a little older. He was tall, with light brown hair pushed back behind his ears, and a slightly scruffy beard. He was holding a case that Armin thought probably held an instrument, but it had been so long since he’d been around music that he couldn’t exactly tell what it was.
The real question on his mind, though, was why this man had walked into his house and asked who he was. That told him that he must come here a lot. In that case, he was probably the person keeping everything clean, and dealing with the post and keeping the power on. So he had a key. But the will hadn’t mentioned anything about sharing the house, so why -
“Are you going to answer me, or are you just going to stand there staring?” The man asked.
“Is this your house?” He asked, playing dumb trying to get a reaction and find out what was going on. He was holding the book in his hand still, but he didn’t sense that there was any threat. Still, though, you could never be too sure. The man set down his case and took a step forward. Armin took a step back. Alright, maybe he was a little nervous.
“I have a key, don’t I?” The intruder said, holding it up. “So I’ll ask again. Who the fuck are you?”
Armin paused for a second while he tried to figure out what to do. He could try to kick him out, but this guy was easily a lot taller and stronger than him. He could get to the phone and try to call the police, but he was in the way. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“This is my house.” Armin got the keys out of his pocket and held them up so that he could see them.
“ Your house,” the man said, raising an eyebrow. “Since when?”
“Since it was left to me.”
Armin watched as shock, confusion, and then realisation passed over the man’s face, and he took a step back in shock.
“You’re Mr Arlert’s grandson?”
Armin just nodded, and the man paled.
“Shit,” he said. “Uh…”
“Who are you?” Armin asked, leaning against the wall. He was trying to look less nervous than he actually felt, but it was hard.
“A friend,” the stranger said. “A friend of your grandfather’s.”
“You were my grandfather’s friend,” Armin repeated with a bit of a sceptical expression. “Aren’t you around my age?”
“How old are you?”
“Does it matter?”
The man leaned against the wall and folded his arms over his chest. “I’m twenty-three.”
“Good for you,” Armin said. “Now please explain why you’re in my house.”
“Your grandfather used to let my band play here.”
“You’re in a band?”
The intruder’s face lit up like nobody really ever asked him about it. “Yeah. Well, I mean, sort of.”
Armin raised an eyebrow. “Sort of? Are you, or not?”
“I was ,” he said.
“This is becoming more and more complicated.”
Armin was sure that if this man was trying to rob the place, he would have run off by now. Besides, everything was clean and definitely not stolen, judging by how much stuff there was around the place. Something in his gut made him believe that he was telling the truth, and his intuition was rarely wrong.
“I know it is,” the man said, taking another step forward. “Just - let me explain. So I was in a band, back when Mr Arlert was still alive, right? And he’d let us stop by and play in the cellar all the time. I even have a key.”
“You showed me.”
“Right. So after he died, the band broke up, and I still come here to practise.”
“Okay,” Armin said. He set the book down on top of another pile and sat down on the top step. He wasn’t quite sure what to say, so he took a moment to pause and think.
“Look,” came the voice from the bottom of the stairs, interrupting his train of thought. “Just - can I still use the cellar to practise? I’ll - I’ll give the main house key back, man, just let me use the cellar.”
“My neighbours hate it when I play,” he said. Armin squinted at him, pushing his glasses up his nose. He could tell that wasn’t the whole truth.
“Are you that bad?” Armin asked, joking a little, which seemed to take the man by surprise, because he laughed.
“I sure as fuck hope not,” he said, a grin on his face that quickly faded to concern. “You won’t even hear me down there, I swear.”
Armin sighed, but he couldn’t help but feel a little… exhilarated. This was different, wasn’t it? It was hard to feel too annoyed at the situation when it was at least a bit of excitement, though maybe not the exact kind he’d been hoping for.
“I’ll pay you,” the man continued.
Armin’s eyes widened. That… was enticing. “How much?”
“Five pounds a day?”
If Armin was drinking something he would have spat it out. That would tide him over easily, along with what he already had, until he found a new job…
“How do I know you’re not up to something shady?”
“You look pretty smart, Glasses, can’t you see I’m telling the truth? I just want to play my sax in peace.”
Armin sighed and stood up again, walking down the stairs. So there was a saxophone in that case.
“My name isn’t Glasses,” he said. “It’s Armin.”
“Jean,” the man said in return. “Is that a yes, then?”
Armin looked up at Jean, trying to get a read on his face. He wanted to be able to tell what he was thinking - he wanted to know the history behind Jean and his grandfather, how they knew each other. There were a million questions he wanted to ask, and he couldn’t help himself.
“Not yet,” he said, holding his hand out for the key. “I want to ask you some stuff first.”
Armin was sure that it was probably a bad idea, but Jean handed over the keys with no question, and he led him out to the kitchen. Armin opened the cupboards and peered around to see if there was any tea. Sure enough, there was a tin of Earl Grey, which was his favourite. It felt odd, but not in a bad way. There was a little connection there between Armin and his relative, even though they had never met. Armin kind of liked it.
Jean sat up at the counter on one of the stools. His legs were really long, Armin noticed. He tried not to stare. It seemed like Jean was totally at home there, while Armin was still overwhelmed by the sheer volume of everything in the room.
“Cutlery’s in the drawer next to the sink, if you were looking for a teaspoon,” Jean said, and Armin tried not to look taken aback by it. Jean really did know his way around the place, that much was obvious.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, making them both tea. When it was done, he stood by the sink, peering out into the small, boxy back garden. There was a washing line and a door which he presumed led to the cellar. Several thriving houseplants sat on the windowsill, recently watered.
“Are you the only one that comes here?” Armin asked. “Or do I have to worry about other random people letting themselves into my house?”
“No, it’s just me,” Jean said, and Armin thought he heard almost a twinge of sadness in his voice.
It must have been Jean taking care of the houseplants, then, he thought. It showed that he respected the house at least.
“Was that all you wanted to ask?” Jean continued.
“No,” Armin said, taking a sip and almost burning his tongue while he decided where to start. He chose to go for the obvious. “How did you know my grandfather?”
“How did I know him?” Jean repeated. “I’ve known him since I was a kid. He was my music teacher at school.”
“And you visit your teacher’s houses often?”
“No,” Jean scoffed. “But Mr Arlert was different.”
“How so?” Armin asked curiously.
“He cared,” Jean said with a shrug of his shoulders. “He was the only teacher at our school that gave a shit. I was a bit of an asshole back then, I guess. A troublemaker.”
He grinned almost wistfully, like he was proud of it, like he missed it.
“And that’s changed how?” Armin couldn’t help but tease a little bit. “You just broke into my house, I think you’re still a troublemaker.”
Jean laughed. “I didn’t break in, I have a key.”
“You had a key,” Armin reminded him. Jean rolled his eyes and took a sip of the tea Armin had made him.
“Anyway,” Jean said. “Mr Arlert was amazing at music. He could play pretty much anything, you know that, right?”
Armin shook his head. “No, I knew nothing about him before he died. I never even met him.”
“Oh,” Jean said. He looked taken aback, but he continued. “He could play any instrument you gave him. And there were a few of us that he’d give lessons to, and eventually a couple of guys from the year above and I started playing together.”
“And that’s this band you were talking about.”
“Yeah,” Jean nodded. “The three of us. And Mr Arlert would let us rehearse here, and he’d help us out with anything. He taught all three of us how to play.”
“Why did the band break up?” Armin asked.
“It was after he passed away,” Jean murmured. He was scowling. “It wasn’t the same after that. I was the only one that really wanted to keep going.”
“Why did you carry on?”
“Why?” Jean asked. “Because I love music.”
There was a moment then when they were both silent, but the air between them wasn’t tense or awkward. Armin wasn’t used to that. He was used to feeling like the odd one out, or being paranoid that other people found him weird. He definitely wasn’t accustomed to a comfortable silence, let alone with a complete stranger who just moments before he’d considered calling the police on.
“You ready didn’t know him?” Jean asked after he’d drained the rest of his tea.
“No, not at all.”
“Was he your dad’s dad?”
“Didn’t he ever talk about him?”
“You should ask him. I’d love to know what kind of stories your dad has about Mr Arlert.”
Armin didn’t know if he should be blunt about it or not, but he decided that was the way to go.
“I can’t,” he told Jean.
Armin bit his lip. “He’s dead.”
“What? Are you kidding?”
“That would be a pretty morbid thing to joke about.”
Most people didn’t ask that, they just offered their condolences and said they were sorry. Armin had never really liked that very much. Jean was a little tactless but Armin almost appreciated it. It was refreshing.
“Both of my parents died in an accident when I was at uni,” Armin said.
“Fuck,” Jean murmured. “Fucking hell, that’s heavy.”
“Yeah,” Armin said, breathing out through his nose in a little huff. “Yeah, it was awful. I didn’t think I even had any family left, and then it turns out I did… but I didn’t find out until it was too late.”
Armin smiled humourlessly. He couldn't believe he’d just dumped all of that on a stranger. But Jean didn’t really seem very bothered by it, or uncomfortable. He looked just the same as he had before.
“And that’s why you didn’t just sell the place?” Jean asked. He was surprisingly perceptive, Armin thought.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “I wasn’t expecting this , though…”
He gestured around all the stuff. Jean laughed.
“It is pretty weird in here, right? God, the first time he showed me around… I must have been fourteen or fifteen. My jaw was on the floor,” Jean said. “It was so cool.”
Armin agreed. It was cool in this house, in a way that didn’t suit him. He was nerdy, shy, and he definitely didn’t play music anymore. This place was effortlessly eclectic in a way that seemed more akin to Jean.
“Let me see the cellar,” Armin said, putting his mug in the sink. He wanted to know if there was any way to get into the main house from there, just to calm his paranoia. Oddly enough, he seemed to have an intrinsic trust of Jean, but he didn’t want to regret it later, so he remained careful.
Jean grinned and went right for the back door, forgetting that it was locked.
“It’s the key with the green cap,” he pointed out to Armin, and Armin rolled his eyes, picking it out and opening the door. Jean seemed to shoot out into the garden like a dog that hadn’t been walked, going right to the door of the cellar. Armin followed after him, noticing a cat on the back wall that shrank away when it saw him.
Jean led Armin into the cellar, and Armin wondered for a moment if he was going to get murdered, but it seemed that Jean was really telling the truth. There was another door at the bottom of the stairs, and once that was unlocked too, Jean flicked on the lights and let the room fill up with light.
When Armin thought of cellars, he thought of dingy, dark rooms full of spiders and bugs, but this had subverted his expectations once again. It was a spacious room, stocked with instruments. Everything was pristine. A drum kit was set up in the corner, the light glinting off the metal, and a double bass leaned against the wall. There were all sorts of stands, and a keyboard that Armin felt a strange urge to play. He didn’t touch it, though. He didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of someone who obviously knew a lot about music. It had been far too long since he’d last played.
There were stacks and stacks of sheet music and a few stands on the other side of the room, and Jean was looking around with glee like he was a kid and this was a playground.
“What do you play?” Armin asked. “The band, I mean.”
“Anything,” Jean replied. “But funk, mainly, and jazz. Do you want to hear?”
“It’s not much of a band if there’s just one of you, is it?”
Jean laughed, glaring at him jokingly. “Maybe I’ll be able to convince the guys to come and give it another go.”
Armin nodded and started trying to get the front door key off Jean’s set so he could give the cellar ones to Jean. He was pretty much certain that he wasn’t going to kill him in his sleep or steal anything, so Armin was comfortable giving them over.
“Take them,” he said. Jean almost looked surprised.
“You’re really letting me have these?” He asked. Armin shrugged.
“It’s not like I’m going to be using the stuff down here,” he said, his eyes flicking over to the keyboard for a second. “Even though it’s probably worth a fortune.”
Jean took a step back.
“You’re not going to sell this stuff, are you?” He asked, looking genuinely panicked.
“No,” Armin said honestly, but he didn’t tell him why. He didn’t know if he could bring himself to sell the only reminders he had left of a family. His own parents hadn’t been able to leave him a penny. They hadn’t owned their house, either. Armin didn’t want to throw away his grandfather’s things. It was the only way he could get to know him. That was why he hadn’t sold the house, too.
“Good.” Jean breathed a sigh of relief.
“Are you going to play now?” Armin asked, watching the way he’d bent down to pop open the clasps on the case. He resisted the urge to lean over and peer at the instrument inside.
“Nah, I’m just getting this out to stare at it,” Jean said sarcastically. “You staying to listen or not?”
Armin felt a blush crawl up his cheeks and he blinked at him. Jean was so nonchalant about other people hearing his playing. How was he so confident?
“No,” he murmured, “that’s alright. Lock up after you’re done.”
Jean nodded, and Armin quickly scurried back up the stairs. As he got back into the kitchen, he heard the sounds of Jean tuning up. So much for not being able to hear him. But it was almost like he had company…
And Armin found it difficult to mind.
That night, Armin lay awake in bed, covered in blankets that tried to fight off the early winter chill. Jean had left hours ago. When the music stopped, Armin had peered out one of the windows and watched as Jean locked the back door behind him, then jumped over the wall into the back lane.
Jean was a stranger, just like his grandfather. Armin knew that, but he was still letting him use part of his house. He’d only been here for one day, whereas Jean had been a part of this house’s history for years. He didn’t feel like this was his, even though it clearly was. It was like it should belong to Jean instead.
Armin rolled over and leaned back, stretching out and pulling the blankets closer around him, wondering when Jean would come back.