St. John’s Avenue
Nobody answered when she knocked on Keith’s door. Maybe she would come back tomorrow. Or this afternoon. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t come back at all. She would forget about Keith and his garden and put the past back where it belonged, where she could control it. Those were her sensible options, sensible as her shoes. ‘Sod it,’ she said, and walked round the back.
Keith’s side gate could have done with some work, but the rotting post leant in her favour. With a quick shove she realigned it, pulled up the latch and walked through.
She tapped on the back door – the same geranium red hers had been – and listened. No sound came, no shape appeared so she tapped again, sharply this time. She wrapped her palm around the door handle, noticing the liver spots on the back of her hand. A bird began to sing, a garden thrush on the roof of the coal shed. The lock stayed put. She tried again with more pressure. The bird kept singing. She felt its eye on her. In the shed there might be something to force it with but there’d be spiders too so she rummaged in her bag for a nail file, or scissors, anything, and felt the sharp outline of the shrapnel through the lining of the pocket. It might be too crude a tool but she liked the idea of it so she lodged it between the handle and the wood of the door. The fit was tight. She put her weight behind it, ignoring the pinch on her skin.
The way the door yielded, the way the lock cracked so fast, it might have been waiting for that piece of metal alone. And then she was in the kitchen, the bright stillness somehow expanding the space of it. These kitchens had always been so full of natural light. She stuck the pinched side of her hand in her mouth, the taste of the shrapnel sharp on her tongue, and stood for a moment, listening, breathing.
The room smelled of sick and the never quite dry wood of the draining board, and of tea leaves, years of boiled potatoes and whatever film covered the lino. A towel lay across the chair where Keith rested the day before and a tin of soup sat on the table, a smear of tomato and fat on the underside of its lid.
She found the vomit in the sink. ‘Jesus Christ,’ she muttered and swallowed hard, against the reek, against the contents of her own stomach. Under a bowl and saucepan bits of carrot and potato speckled the enamel. Holding her breath, she squeezed in some Fairy Liquid and ran the hot water so it filled the saucepan and then the bowl, sending a quiet fountain of diluted soup onto the lumps to make a foul new broth of its own. She let it run, adjusting the flow to match the outpour of the drain.
She saw her mother pouring water for potatoes in the old days next door, the peelings in a sink strainer. She heard the clatter of a colander on a weeknight after school, saw the steam rising like a genie and the soaking of their draining board, a very slight slime always in the wooden grooves and crevices.
Keith had the same shelves they did. Hastily painted, a layer of dust had settled in the brush marks, but they were quality. They would stay on the wall until someone pulled them down, and not before. These old council houses were built in the days when things mattered.
Hattie picked up a strainer. ‘You’ve got a mind like a sieve,’ her mother used to say. And sometimes that was true, but not now. Breaking and entering had made it airtight. She stroked a collection of figurines. A cocker spaniel, a Dalmatian, a collie, all coated with grime.
The water ran cold. Hattie turned off the tap. She opened the cupboard that contained the immersion heater and flipped it on. While the sink drained she stood still, listening to the house, hearing only the plumbing the way it used to sound next door.
‘Hello?’ she called.
Nothing but the pipes.
‘It’s me, Hattie, your old neighbour.’
On the bitter cold days – it was never any other kind of cold – they used to lug the oil stoves out, one to the kitchen with a kettle on the top, and one to the bathroom to stop the pipes from freezing. When she was old enough she was sent Down The Road for a gallon of paraffin. She could smell the oil shop now, the greasy tang, the faint damp forest trapped in the oak of the floorboards.
The hallstand at the bottom of Keith’s stairs was lumbered with coats, all of them his by the looks of things. On the drawer sat the same phone, it must have been, that Keith’s dad had used to call her that morning, the morning that had shifted from the long ago to the now. Two tone olive with a dial, it was a relic. She ran her hand over the smoothness of the receiver and shivered. ‘I’ve got some bad news, I’m afraid.’ She caught her reflection in the mirror, the image both her and not quite her. She was the same age now as her mother had been, on the morning Keith’s dad found her.
Eleven steps. Every time. Eleven on Christmas morning, eleven at bedtime, eleven when she climbed them in twos to the landing at the top, peeping at the Ottley’s back door beyond the Busy Lizzy on the windowsill. And eleven the time she flew down them, not fell, but flew, levitated, bouncing only once on the sixth step. She remembered that impossibility, still convinced that she had flown, just that one time, when she was small and light and capable of defying the Earth.
Halfway up she stopped and called out again. ‘Hello?’
She saw her mother sighing, so small as she gripped the banister tight, and already stooped at Hattie’s age so that her cardigan gaped at the bottom.
The landing was filled with sun. English sun. Keith had a spider plant growing on his window sill. It was happy there, at home, heavy with trailing offspring. In her house she would have turned right to get to the bedrooms but in Keith’s she had to turn left. It was a small difference, a small price to pay for being otherwise at home in the sun on the landing this day in June, with the hydrangeas and roses outside, the clematis and the lupines. It was home, really, as close as it gets.
She entered the front bedroom first. A single bed in the corner, a night stand beside it and opposite, a wardrobe. Otherwise, nothing but dust particles in the sun. She could see the colours in them. If she listened hard enough she could hear them, space particles like fairy bells.
She found Keith in the second bedroom, the mirror of the room next door where she was born. She had to stifle a cry. He lay on his back, his mouth open, one hand limp over the edge of the bed and his head centred on the pillow, which was clean and uncreased and cradled him like a cloud. There was no sun in this room, just flat white light. To stop herself shaking she wrapped her arms tight around her body. She stood over him, looking for movement behind his eyelids, finding none.
‘Keith. It’s Hattie. From yesterday. From next door.’
No response. She would have to touch him, to feel for his pulse. She would have to call for help, her own pulse dangerous in her neck. She would pick up the phone on the hallstand, the weight of the receiver heavy in her hand, put her index finger in the nine and push it around, see and hear it revolve back, clicking, and then push it around another time, and another. ‘I’ve found my neighbour dead.’ She would say that out loud. She would hear herself saying it in the empty hallway.
But when she touched him he felt warm and when she looked closely the covers rose and fell. He looked peaceful, not with death but the oblivion of a deep sleep. He was alive. Her blood rushed back all at once and she let out a sigh for the ages.
He looked so much like his father, the nose and mouth and cheekbones and brow. It could have been him lying there, the same age as thirty years ago. She picked up his hand – it felt cool, not fevered – and placed it inside the covers, expecting the movement to wake him; but nothing about his breathing or face changed.
Hattie looked over the things on the nightstand. A book of crossword puzzles, a pair of reading glasses, a tumbler of water with bubbles clinging to the sides. And a prescription box of pills, a blister pack on top of it with two compartments popped and empty.
She had got herself into a fuss over nothing. Keith had gone to bed not feeling well and taken a couple of tablets to sleep it off. That’s all there was to it. There would be no need to call the emergency services because there was no emergency. She would call a doctor, that would be all, get the number from the box of medicine. But first she needed to collect herself, to take a few deep breaths and wait for the adrenaline to wear off.
She went back into the small room, the mirror room where Keith’s dad had found her mother cold. Hattie had not been able to say goodbye. They had advised against seeing the body. But she had imagined the pathologist’s cuts around her mother’s skull, blue and yellow and purple ridges on the waxy grey of her skin. She had not been able to stop herself. Hattie sat on the bed. Her weight shifted things and the dust danced frantically. She ran her fingers over the bedspread, a candlewick. Then she lay her head down so she was half on, half off the bed in the position her mother had died. Hattie closed her eyes and listened, trying to hear the sound of the intruder her mother would have heard, if she had been alive when he entered, and nobody would ever know.