The footsteps paused for a long moment on the landing before starting forward again, crisp and loud against the echoing concrete. A final two steps and then they stopped. Keys jingled, scratched at a lock, slipped, engaged and turned. In the small, dark room the woman held her breath. A door swung open, not her door, feet shuffled across a mat and the door closed. She let her breath escape in a long, slow sigh. Not yet, not yet.
The other feet, now muffled by the separating wall, clumped across the other floor. A radio voice blared for a moment before softening into a background mumble. It might have been a foreign language for all the words she could make out. The cardboard wall resonated as shoes dropped, one by one onto the thinly carpeted next door floor.
The woman forked potatoes in a pan. They split, well cooked. She turned off the gas. She stayed quite still, leaning over the cooker, breathing in the mix of unburned gas and potato steam, her thin shoulders hunched inside an old, well worn housecoat.
The tiny room was quiet apart from the sound of the rain. The only movement the woman’s small, pale breasts lifting and falling against the cotton of her thin shift, and her hands darting like busy spiders across the front of her clothing, pulling, smoothing, closing. Rainwater, washing down the window panes, distorted the amber streetlight glow and turned the walls to tears. She listened for the downstairs door.
A bus squealed and hissed to a stop outside. Five heartbeats later, a bell pinged the idling diesel into life and roared it away. Six fifteen. She came to life; plates, cutlery, drain the potatoes. The black crusted pie was being dragged from the oven as her door was flung open.
He filled the room, crashing about, throwing off his coat, splashing water over his face and hair at the sink, kicking off his boots. He flicked on the hard, bright light, closed the curtains and turned on the TV. He didn’t speak. He didn’t acknowledge the woman in any way.
She placed the food on a cork mat on the table between his outstretched arms, a glass of beer to one side, then returned to the sink to wash up as he fed. He shouted now and then, though not at her. He shouted at the news, at the weather, mostly at the sport. As soon as he had almost finished eating, he pushed the plate away, belched and lit a cigarette, tossing the spent match into what remained of his meal.
She poured him another beer, collected the plate and slid an ashtray in its place. The man flicked through the TV channels before grunting in disgust and throwing the remote into the one and only armchair.
She closed her eyes, waiting for the blast.
It didn’t come.
As she placed the last item of cutlery carefully and silently onto the draining board, he grabbed his coat and left the room, slamming the door, muttering away across the hall and down the concrete stairs.
The woman wiped her hands thoroughly before turning off the TV.
She made an unhurried pot of tea, then opened the curtains, switched off the light and turned the armchair so that she could watch the rain. A muted rattle of studio laughter and applause from next door ebbed and flowed to a TV tide table, punctuated by theme tunes and jingles. She recognised them all. The rain blew against the casement, rattling the window in its frame. She clenched her hands in her lap, pressing down against her sex.
Hours later, the traffic slowed, the last buses sweeping past the end of the road. Her knuckles ached and still she pressed. The water heater roared next door and the pipes tapped and groaned. The unseen bed creaked and shifted against the wall, was still. She pressed and breathed – slowly, deliberately, listening.
He arrived home at twelve fifteen. By twelve forty five, his snores were loud and uneven, his beer and tobacco breath mingling with his rank body odour.
The woman lay on her back where she had been placed, eyes closed tight against the curtained darkness. She squeezed her thighs together against the familiar pain, her nipples sore from being pinched and pulled, her face raw from his beard.
She tasted sweet blood from a crushed lip.
The rain drummed against the window and she thought about crying, only she couldn’t quite remember why.
The mattress shifted as he rolled over, one clumsy arm groping up and across her stomach to grab blindly at a breast. She shrugged it away, cringing at last, safe while he slept. He snuffled, coughed and pressed his face against her shoulder.
The ache spread.
For the rest of the week it rained on and off as it had done for the preceding seven days and the seven before that. She always shopped on a Friday – struggling up the endless stairs to squirrel away a few hard won tins and packets against the endless week.
Friday nights were the worst. She took analgesia before the pain. He was usually too drunk on Saturday to get it up, his impotence a flailing rage that was mostly avoidable.
Predictably, he had slept through most of that Sunday, lying in all morning then snoring away the afternoon and evening, his belly packed with roast dinner. He never drank on Sunday, though God knows why.
She woke at eight thirty on the Monday morning and, the moment she opened her eyes, knew something was different. The bed was, as usual, empty, he had left at six. She was still sore and bruised from Friday night’s exertions, but something had definitely changed, something she couldn’t quite define.
She climbed stiffly from the bed and flung the curtains open. A blaze of Spring sunshine cascaded into the room, washed around her bare feet, swept the shadows from the corners and seared into her eyes. She laughed, turning her head as though under a hot shower, soaking her face and shoulders in the light. She stepped back and fell full length across the rumpled bed, arms above her head, thighs splayed to catch the healing warmth.
But something else was different, something more than just the weather.
Washed and dressed, she opened the single window wide and pulled back the soot darkened lace curtain to un-filter the sunshine. With fresh tea and hot toast, she sat on the floor with her back against the bed to solve the mystery. What on earth could had changed?
At first she thought she might be ill, except that she felt better, not worse than usual. Pregnancy was out of the question, she made damn sure of that. So where was her special inner glow coming from?
The knocking at the door was so unexpected that she ignored it. The next knock, a few moments later, was louder, accompanied by a voice, only slightly muffled by the closed door, “Hello… Mrs Bryce.”
She was tempted to sit quietly until they went away, whoever they were.
“It’s the police, Mrs Bryce. Please open the door.”
The police. Suddenly she knew. The glow, it had to be. Please God, let it be.
She opened the door just enough to see a dark haired policewoman on the landing with another figure behind her, a policeman, helmet and all. The policewoman had her hat off, was turning it in her hands, “Mrs Bryce?”
The policewoman looked uneasy, put off by the silence and stillness. The woman answered, her face puzzled, “Mrs who?”
This time it was the policeman who spoke, “Are you Mrs Amelia Bryce?” He sounded impatient, speaking clearly, as if to a child. The woman shook her head, “No, I’m Miss Perkins. Miss Amy Perkins.”
“Shit.” It was spoken under his breath as he turned away, but she heard the word clearly enough. The policewoman smiled, raised her eyebrows, “Is this Flat seven, Holmesworth House?”
The woman nodded, “Yes, it is. What’s this all about?”
The still smiling policewoman turned and shrugged towards her colleague who moved away along the landing and spoke into his shoulder microphone.
The policewoman turned back, “I’m ever so sorry to have bothered you, Miss Perkins. You see, a man was knocked down this morning and he was carrying documents which led us to believe he lived here. Does he?”
The woman looked interested, concerned. “No… no, he doesn’t. Poor man, was he badly hurt?” she asked.
The policewoman lowered her voice, “I’m afraid so. I shouldn’t really tell you, but he didn’t make it. Horrible it was. Crushed under a lorry, took ages to get him out. Are you absolutely sure he doesn’t live somewhere else in these flats? Bryce was his name, George Bryce.”
The woman shook her head emphatically, “No, I’d have remembered a name like that. I’m on my own you see.” As she spoke, she fingered the coarse fabric of George’s donkey jacket hanging out of sight behind the door. “I’m so sorry I can’t help.”
The policeman clumped away down the stairwell without even a good-bye. Before she left, the policewoman smiled and explained, “Probably another one of those Social Security fiddlers, always using false addresses. Don’t you worry yourself, love. If anyone misses him, they’ll find him.”
That afternoon, the woman packed up all of George’s stuff into four dustbin bags. As soon as it was dark, she tossed them one by one into the back alley with all the other rubbish. They’d be gone in the morning. She spent the rest of the evening cleaning and dusting the room and slept, for the first time in months, like a log.
A second beautiful spring morning brought a half expected visit from a polite but obviously bored CID Sergeant. He sat awkwardly while she plied him with tea and biscuits, apparently anxious to know everything about these fascinating Social Security fraudsters.
He escaped from the overwhelming stench of lavender polish and rosewater after half an hour. He noticed neither the carefully camouflaged bruises nor the faint odour of cigarette smoke that still lingered despite the polish.
“Poor cow. Stuck in a poky hole like that. Wonder what made that sad bastard come up with her address? Mean looking sod though wasn’t he? Sleeping rough alright. Did he stink or what? Anyone fancy a pint at lunch time?”
Later that same evening, the woman watched the last of the sun’s rays painting the brickwork of the house opposite. Blackbirds called to each other in the still, evening air. She stretched and chuckled to herself at the thought of George, cold and silent on some slab. ‘If anyone misses him, they’ll find him.’
Like bloody hell they will!
© David Hermelin 2016