Sooner or later everybody leaves the house where they grew up. They have to deal up with many things. If you are going to be an exchange student or just move and live with other people, you should know which conditions are comfortable for you and declare them in advance. Then you will be able to avoid awkward situations. The character of this story is a young foreign student. He entered the university in England. But he refused to live at the student hostel. He wanted comfort as he had in his native country. All he said in his requirements of the house was the availability of the desk in the bedroom. He moved to a house where a modern family lived. Their mother did not cook at all. There were only a fridge, a sandwich-making machine and a microwave in her kitchen. The family ate a frozen pizza during the day.
'And this is your room...' Mrs Stonehouse opened the door.
The young man swallowed in amazement. There were dozens of painted rabbits all over the walls. There were white rabbits, black rabbits and brown rabbits. There were even rabbits painted on the bed itself and on the cushions on the bed.
'It was the children's room when they were small,' said Mrs Stonehouse. 'I hope you don't mind. But you said that you wanted a room with a desk and this is the only room we have with a desk in it. It's nice and clean, though. I dusted it only this morning.'
'No,' said the young man. 'I don't mind. It's fine. I expect that I'll soon get used to the rabbits.'
'I did them myself,' said Mrs Stonehouse, who always admired her own work. 'I painted them with a stencil.'
'I'm sorry,' said the young man. 'I don't know that word. With a what?'
'A stencil,' replied Mrs Stonehouse. 'You buy them at art shops.' She smiled. The young man could see that she was very proud of her work. 'It's like a thick piece of paper with shapes cut out and you stick it on the wall and paint inside the shapes. You can stencil all kinds of designs. Clever, isn't it?'
The young man thought it sounded like something he used to do at his nursery school. He had been about four years old at the time. He thought it was a rather strange thing for a grown-up woman to do, but he was too polite to say so.
'Well,' said Mrs Stonehouse, 'I expect that you'll want to unpack your things. I'll leave you in peace.'
The young man looked around the room and wondered whether he had made a mistake. Perhaps he should have stayed at the university and not chosen to have a room in the town. But he had thought that living in a family would help him to improve his English. It was already quite good. Good enough, in fact, for him to have won a place at the university to study science. He had a degree in his own country, but he wanted to carry out some additional research in England.
This was not what he had expected. He had expected a family of university people. People like his own family, who sat round the table talking and arguing at all times of the day and night. Although Mrs Stonehouse had said that she had two teenage children, the house was surprisingly tidy for a family with children. His own home, he realised, was always untidy. Every room was filled with books and piles of paper that threatened to fall down on to the floor whenever someone banged a door. This house was not at all like that. One of the first things he had noticed was that the entrance hall had been quite empty. There was just a small table with a telephone on it and a neat pad of paper with a pen beside it. Perhaps the kitchen would be more like his home, he thought.
The young man unpacked his clothes and put them away in the wardrobe. Then he piled his books on the desk, as there was no bookcase in the room. He was hungry. He looked at his watch. It was seven o'clock. He wondered what time the family had dinner. Mrs Stonehouse still seemed to be the only person in the house.
He walked downstairs and knocked on the door of the front room. He could hear sounds of laughter inside.
'Come in,' called Mrs Stonehouse.
The room was very pink and there were bows and little white baskets painted on the walls. He supposed that Mrs Stonehouse had done these too, with a stencil. He thought that the room looked horrible and imagined how his mother would laugh if she saw it.
Mrs Stonehouse was watching television. There was a quiz show of some kind. Two rows of contestants faced each other. They laughed whenever the man asking the questions said anything and they all clapped every time one of the contestants said anything. They reminded him of seals in the zoo. There were similar television shows in his country, but his family never watched them. They thought they were very stupid.
'Is there something you want?' asked Mrs Stonehouse, without looking up from the television.
'I'm sorry,' said the young man. 'I just wondered what time you had dinner.'
Mrs Stonehouse laughed. She had a strange laugh, like the bird-like sound of a mobile phone. 'We don't have dinner. We're all so busy; we just eat and run.'
The young man thought that was a strange thing to say when all she seemed to do was sit and watch television.
'Come with me,' she told the young man. 'I'll show you the kitchen.'
Mrs Stonehouse led him into the room at the end of the hall. It was bright, very bright. The young man thought it might look better through sunglasses. The walls were yellow, the ceiling was yellow and the cupboards were yellow, bright yellow. It was like walking into the inside of a lemon. And there were, indeed, several lemons in the kitchen. And oranges and apples and bunches of grapes. All stencilled over the walls and the cupboards.
'It's... er... brilliant,' he said. He was trying to say that it was bright without saying how horrible he thought it was. But Mrs Stonehouse thought that he meant that it was very clever and she was pleased. She liked her work to be admired.
The young man looked round the room. Something was wrong.
'Excuse me,' he asked, 'where is the fridge?'
Mrs Stonehouse laughed again. 'It's here,' she said, opening a cupboard door. 'And the freezer is hidden here.'
The young man could not understand why anyone would want to hide a fridge or a freezer. He wondered where Mrs Stonehouse had hidden the cooker. What a strange kitchen this was, he thought. The only thing he recognised was the sink. It was a big old-fashioned white sink like his grandmother had at her farm. He wondered why Mrs Stonehouse did not have a nice new sink like his mother.
'It's a big sink,' he said.
'Yes,' Mrs Stonehouse replied. 'It's wonderful. I've been wanting a sink like this for years. It's a copy of an antique sink you know. They're very fashionable at the moment.'
'Oh,' said the young man. He felt more and more confused.
'And the cooker?' he asked. He couldn't see how you could hide a cooker in a cupboard, but in this house anything seemed possible.
'Oh, we don't have a cooker.' Mrs Stonehouse smiled. 'We'd never use it anyway. But here's the electric kettle and here's the sandwich-making machine, and this is the microwave.'
'I see,' said the young man. 'Do they live on sandwiches?' he wondered. 'But where do you cook?' He could see a shelf of big colourful cookery books on one wall.
'The poor boy,' thought Mrs Stonehouse. 'I suppose that in his country they don't have very much. I suppose that the women stay at home and cook simple food like they did here in England before I was born. I expect that he feels that he's very lucky to be able to stay in a house like this.'
'Oh, I don't cook.' She laughed. 'We're a very modern family. We don't waste our time on things like that and I've never been one for cookery. I love reading cookery books, of course,' she added. 'But that's different.'
The young man was now very confused. Mrs Stonehouse opened the freezer. 'Here,' she said. 'Everything you could want.'
The freezer was taller than the young man. Inside were boxes and boxes of frozen pizzas and ready-cooked meals. They filled all the shelves.
'You can help yourself to any of the packets. You just open the packet and put it into the microwave,' said Mrs Stonehouse. 'Nothing could be easier.'
The young man was still very puzzled. In his country he sometimes had pizzas with friends after going to the cinema. But they never had pizza at home, only in pizza restaurants. 'But when do you have dinner?' he asked.
'We don't have dinner,' she said. 'As I said, we all just help ourselves. I eat when I get back from my aerobics class and the kids grab something to eat when they get back from school before they go out. Though sometimes, like today, they go straight from school to their friends' houses. And Harry, that's my husband, he eats at different times. It depends whether he's working late or at the pub. We're a very independent family.'
'I was right,' she thought. 'In his country it must be very different. He's never been in a home like this.' She felt sorry for him.
'Her husband works late and goes by himself to the pub and her children go to their friends' houses. She must be very lonely,' thought the young man. 'That is why she doesn't cook proper meals.' He felt sorry for her.
Mrs Stonehouse was pointing out the contents of the square boxes that filled the freezer. 'There are frozen desserts, too,' she said. 'You don't have to defrost them; you can eat them straight out of the freezer. And we always have ice cream, too. At the moment we have chocolate, banana, and apple pie flavour.'
The young man suddenly remembered an article that they had discussed in his English class. It was from an English newspaper and explained how more and more people now ate ready-made meals, and how the contents of these meals were not what they appeared to be. So that if the packet said fish, you would not find an actual piece of fish inside, not like you would buy in a market, but bits of different fish squeezed together. This would then be covered with a strong-flavoured sauce so you wouldn't be able to taste the fish anyway.
The young man looked at the packets in the freezer and saw that on one packet of frozen fish dinner it actually said, 'contains real fish'. 'But what else could it contain?' thought the young man.
'What would you like tonight?' asked Mrs Stonehouse.
'Pizza will be fine,' said the young man.
'What kind of pizza?' asked Mrs Stonehouse.
There were so many kinds of pizza: pizza with mushrooms, pizza with ham and pineapple, and even baked bean pizza. 'Who could ever combine pizza with baked beans?' he thought. 'What a disgusting idea.'
'Cheese and tomato will be fine,' he said.
'Are you sure?' Mrs Stonehouse asked. 'He's obviously never had such a choice before,' she thought. 'It must be wonderful for him to come here.' 'What about mushrooms and olives with cheese and tomato?' she suggested.
'Yes, thank you,' he agreed.
'Fine,' said Mrs Stonehouse, taking a packet out of the freezer. 'Now, do you know how to use a microwave oven?'
The young man admitted that he had never worked a microwave before. So Mrs Stonehouse put the pizza inside the microwave and showed him how to set the timer.
'When it goes "ping" that means it's ready,' she said. 'So, now you're one of the family, all you have to do is come in and help yourself. You don't need to ask me.' She walked out of the door. 'Enjoy your pizza,' she said.
The young man found a knife and fork in a drawer. He put them on the table. Then he heard the microwave go 'ping'. He opened the door carefully, and using a cloth so that he didn't burn his hands, he took out the plate.
The pizza was awful. The base was soft and tasted of nothing and the sauce was too sweet. The olives and mushrooms had no flavour at all, but he ate it anyway because he was very hungry. 'How can people eat like this?' he thought. It was horrible to eat alone with nobody to talk to. The room was so bright, it was more like a hospital than a home. He felt quite miserable.
He washed up his plate and his knife and fork and went to his room. Later he heard doors open and someone went into the kitchen. He heard a 'ping'. Then, whoever it was climbed the stairs and another door opened and shut and he could hear loud music and the sound of a television.
'They all live by themselves,' he thought. 'How very strange. They don't talk to each other and they don't even meet up for dinner.'
He had never thought much about food before. At home, it was cooked by his mother, it was put on the table and he ate it. But now that he was away from home, he realised how much the food was part of home life. The smell of chicken soup filling the house as he walked in the door. His mother with flour up to her elbows, making a pie and talking and laughing at the same time. The feeling that the kitchen was the heart of the house and his mother was at the centre of the kitchen. Cooking, he saw now, was an essential part of family life back home.
The kitchen in this house was sad and lonely and no amount of yellow paint could change that.
The young man read a book until he was tired and then turned out his light. The rabbits danced around the walls.
The next morning the young man moved out. He went to a cafe and had some breakfast, and then went to the university housing office. The woman there listened to him and immediately found him another place to stay.
She also rang Mrs Stonehouse and told her that the young man had moved out.
'Was it the rabbits?' Mrs Stonehouse asked. 'I offered to put him in another room, but he said that he wanted a desk. He even had his own television. Really,' she continued, getting more and more angry. 'Compared with what he must have come from in his own country, you would have thought that he'd be grateful.'
'It's not that,' the woman at the housing office replied. She was writing on her list as she talked. Opposite Mrs Stonehouse's name she wrote, 'Unsuitable, except for independent teenagers. Note: no conversation practice, no home meal, frozen pizza.'
- THE END -
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