Currently on sabbatical from my WIP, I’ve written a new ‘short’ story (short as in at around 8000 it’s less than 10,000 words, but not as short as I originally intended).
Here it is
“I lit the match, I lit the match
I saw another monster turn to ash.
Felt the burden lifting from my back.”
Instinct, a sixth sense, feminine intuition, call it what you will, but whatever it is I was certain the day Carl moved in next door, five years ago to the day, that my life was about to change. And not for the better.
I’d found my sleep prematurely disturbed around 9am on that sunlit Saturday morning in May by the guttural throttle of a car with one too many exhausts. Groggy from a hangover induced by too many gin and tonics the night before, I lurched out of bed. Dragging the duvet with me, I stumbled to the window and, in a well-practised move, lifted the flimsy venetian blind just enough to peak underneath it without been observed by those I was observing. The words of Simon, my work colleague and best friend since as long as I could remember, momentarily whispered to me as I peered through squinted eyes to the pavement below. “You’re like an old busybody Helen, always spying on people. What exactly do you expect to see?”
“Nothing, and everything,” was always my answer. Usually nothing, but it had become habit now. “You never know what you might see.”
And on this morning, I found my snooping finally validated.
The revving engine emanated from one of two cars which I saw parked outside below my front bedroom window. They were positioned back to back, both boots open, both half suspended over the kerb and one hanging across my own driveway.
Hunched over a tomato-red, souped-up 1989 Ford Escort, I saw Carl for the first time. No more than twenty-two years of age, his closely shaven head reflected the mid-morning sun. His baggy jeans hung dangerously low around his skinny frame revealing, not only the waistband of his underpants but, a typically English pale posterior. As he delved into the back of the Escort’s boot and retrieved something from the recesses, the too small, faded striped T-shirt he wore rode up his back to reveal a tattoo depicting crossed swords stamped just above the coccyx and displayed with pride.
Never a good sign.
A second man stood with his back to me between the Escort and an equally bright red, twin-exhausted Vauxhall Astra. Like Carl, he had the same low slung jeans which revealed too much underwear to be considered decent in public, but unlike Carl, his head was covered by a baseball cap, worn the wrong way round, no doubt to keep his pasty, freckly skin from burning in the sun.
Rooted to the spot, but being careful not to disturb the blinds any further, I watched Carl shift his eyes from side to side and then swiftly hand the package he had retrieved from his boot to the man in the baseball cap. Not wanting to draw any attention in the direction of my window, I hardly dared move as I tried to catch a glimpse of what Carl had in his hands. However, much to my annoyance, the second man, upon receiving the parcel, threw the package into the Astra’s boot and quickly slammed it shut. The engine of the Astra continued to turn over as the two men briefly exchanged fist bumps. The next minute the second man had jumped into the Astra and sped off, tyres screeching as he reached the bend at the top of the road and performed a hand brake turn before careering back past Carl, blasting the horn as he went. Carl began unloading various boxes from his boot but by then I’d seen enough and I released the blind’s cord blocking the morning sun and Carl from view. My bladder called to be emptied and I only had one thought as I flung off the duvet and made for the bathroom. Drugs. They’ve just passed drugs to each other. For fuck’s sake, my new neighbour is a drug dealer.
“You can’t assume that just because he has a skinhead, a tattoo and his jeans are halfway to his ankles that he’s dealing,” Simon had looked at me with that knowing smirk he has when I say something he knows to be utterly ridiculous.
“What about the twin-exhaust, made to measure spoiler and ‘phat’ subwoofers thumping gangsta’ rap music out day in day out?” I argued, slamming my coffee cup down as though it were my trump card. The liquid splashed over the side and dripped down the Starbucks logo and onto my hand, scalding my knuckle.
“Damn!” I shook my hand and licked the sticky liquid from around the cup. Simon rolled his eyes.
“It still doesn’t make him a drug dealer, just a dick who looks out of place in the suburbs.” Simon slowly sipped his cappuccino, taking deliberate care not to create a second moustache above his lip. “You know you really shouldn’t be so judgemental. You had the last one down as a private escort for crying out loud and I’ll bet she was just unlucky in love.”
“Woah, now hold on! She had a different bloke round that house every weekend!” I protested.
I’d been rather looking forward to having a new neighbour ever since the last one had decided to move on. Not that Marie had ever been a problem as such. Nevertheless her antics had caused me to partake in far too much curtain twitching than was healthy for a twenty-something single woman. The comings and goings of various ‘gentlemen’ each weekend had fuelled my curiosity far more than it should have done about a woman I only knew by name because I’d once taken a parcel in for her. Even that had aroused my inquisitiveness when I noticed the package was from Amsterdam. I couldn’t help putting two and two together and, in Simon’s words, “coming up with sex.” So when she had put the house up for sale last December, and then when the sold sign was erected in March, I can’t say I was too disappointed. Perhaps, I had thought hopefully, I’ll get someone living next door who doesn’t cause me to be such a snooping busy body and one who isn’t participating in solicitous liaisons for payment on the other side of the paper-thin walls. But now what did I have? A drug dealing chav with the worst taste in music anyone could possibly possess? Great.
I drained what was left of my latte and rested my chin on my hands. I stared at Simon as he dabbed his mouth with the paper napkin taking utmost care not to actually wipe with the Starbucks logo, his bright green eyes fully focused on the task. Simon Tahler, always so calm and in control and sensible.
“So what do I do?” I asked, hopeful of some wondrous words of wisdom from my stalwart.
“What you always do,” he replied without looking up. “Watch him.”
Weeks turned to months and as Carl settled in, so too did the rituals which would prove to slowly drive me insane. The loud music which vibrated through the walls at 1am some nights soon became enough to drive me up those very same walls. The fact Carl clearly had no social conscience in this regard only served to compound in my mind that my initial appraisal of him being a low-life, good for nothing, drug dealer was the correct one and that Simon was being, as usual, far too benevolent. Carl not only disturbed my sleep with his never-ending playlist of the worst rap music the world had to offer, but also felt it perfectly acceptable to drink cans of Heineken in the middle of the day on the street, whilst taking his car apart, gunning the engine and polluting the air with the same ‘music’ thumping through the subwoofers. Then, inebriated, he’d razz it around the estate – those twin exhausts spluttering and roaring into life, together with the bass emanating from the speakers contaminating what once had been a quiet street where would-be female escorts could go about their business undisturbed.
“You should report him to the police,” suggested Simon one night when I, at the end of my tether, had called him, desperate for someone to understand what I was having to endure.
“But how can I?” I moaned down the phone which was cradled between my shoulder and my chin as I shuffled closer to the window to get a better look at what Carl was up to that particular evening. “He’s my neighbour.”
“If he’s drink driving as you say, then you have every right, not to mention responsibility, to inform the police.” Simon sighed.
I could tell he’d be pursing his lips in annoyance. Carl was all we seemed to talk about these days.
“But what if he finds out it was me who grassed him up?” I was practically pouting; a child looking to a parent for the solution. “Besides which,” I gave Simon no time to answer with something sober and sensible. “They’d have to catch him at it red-handed, and you know how slow the police are to respond unless you’re being held at gunpoint. By the time they’d arrive, he’d be tucked up in bed fast asleep.”
To me there just seemed no practical solution without making the situation worse. The man had hit my life like a hurricane and there was nothing I could do.
“Did you get in touch with the council about the late night noise?” Simon changed tack, knowing instinctively when he was in a no-win situation with my lack of logic and reasoning.
“Hmmmm. I did actually,” I conceded. “Though how much good it’ll do, I don’t know. They’ve told me to keep a diary over the next month and if it continues then to submit it. They have apparently threatened him via letter that they will confiscate his stereo equipment if he persists in playing it at high volume after 11pm; seems they have the power to do that.”
“Well that’s something at least.”
“Oh I’m sorry, am I keeping you awake? I thought it was me who was suffering from sleep deprivation due to the fact it’s me who has a loon for a next door neighbour!”
“No you’re not, but Helen, there are times I feel as though I live next door to him, you go on about him that much,” Simon retaliated.
“Well that’s just -“ I had no words. I felt so tired from it all. From nearly a year of living next door to the most inconsiderate person I’d ever had the misfortune to happen upon.
I banged the receiver down and Simon, quite rightly I supposed, didn’t call or speak to me at work for a week.
“You are definitely going to have to report him to the police for this,” said Simon, as he surveyed the damage to my front lawn one Saturday afternoon a couple of months later. “It’s more than likely classed as criminal damage. Finally you might just get him for something concrete. You saw him do it after all, which makes you a witness.” Simon almost seemed relieved that this latest incident had happened.
The same niggling thought that I would still have to live next door to Carl if I reported him to the police, and what the repercussions might be, worried me greatly. I hesitated.
“Do you really think it’d be for the best?”
“Yes, Helen, I do. You can’t let him get away with it. Otherwise what’s next? He’ll only carry on, believing he is invincible and has the right to do as he pleases. No consequences. He has to know there are consequences.”
I knew deep down Simon was right. This time, Carl had left carnage in his wake. He had destroyed living things on my property. He’d crossed the line and made it personal. Yes, I thought. The bastard would get all that was due to him. The thoughtless act of thumping bass at midnight was one thing, mindless acts of vandalism on my property was quite another. My home is my castle. The anger welled up inside. I wanted retribution. For everything from the past year. I found myself incensed enough to snatch up the phone and finally take Simon’s advice.
I was pleasantly surprised, at the speed in which the local constabulary descended on my doorstep. It turned out that Carl Waters was very well-known to them and it seemed they’d had plenty of complaints about his musical midnight mischief.
“You see the damage he’s done?” I pressed on to the female constable who crouched next to the decimated dahlias, inspecting the ground.
“I suggest you take a photograph of the damage as evidence,” she said, as she took a notebook from her top pocket. “And you say he did this just a few hours ago?”
“Yes! And if it hadn’t have been for the fact I was coming down my stairs and saw him, through the glass in the front door, actually drive that clapped out heap of junk he calls a car over my garden, I’d never have believed it happened.”
“Right, well given that you saw it, I suggest we have a friendly word with Mr Waters and make it clear he offers to pay for your plants to be replaced so that this has to go no further. Does that allay your fears concerning talking to us Miss Shaw?”
“Yes… I think so,” I stammered and looked at Simon for reassurance. He glanced at the officer and fixed her with his piercing green eyes.
“I can assure you Miss Shaw, we will handle the situation delicately – given that you are neighbours,” the constable said scribbling into her notebook. “And please, don’t hesitate to contact us on this number should you have any more difficulties in the future with our friend Mr Waters.” She tore the piece of paper she had written on from her notebook and handed it to me. She returned the pad to her top pocket and gave Simon a small nod before retrieving her hat and leaving.
“See,” said Simon, unable to hide his smugness, once the PC returned to her colleague outside. “I told you there was nothing to be concerned about. He’d have not known it was you making calls to the police about the noise if you had have done so; she said everyone’s been doing it.”
“That’s as maybe, but he’ll know it’s me who’s made this one, for damned sure.” I looked out at my destroyed flowerbed and sighed.
“You had to do it Helen. He can’t be allowed to just carry on doing as he pleases, living just outside the law. He’s like the bully who never gets caught in the act or who everyone’s too scared of retribution to do anything about it. But you’re not at school anymore. This time he might just get some form of comeuppance, and it’ll serve him right. ”
Once again, I knew Simon was right, but knowing we had the moral high ground didn’t stop the knot which was forming in my stomach or the feeling of dread which descended on me that I’d just destroyed any hope of a peaceful life, once and for all.
When there was a knock at the door later that evening I knew who it would be.
Sure enough, Carl stood there, slouched on the doorpost as though he owned it. He smiled when I answered the door. Not a gesture I’d expected from someone I’d reported to the police that afternoon.
“Sorry about your plants,” he started. “I’ll pay for the damage.”
Admittedly it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated from a drug-dealing, drunk-driving, plant wrecking hoodlum but people can surprise you I supposed. Taken aback, I raised my eyebrows at him, unable to find any words. He made my skin crawl. His beady, black eyes bored into me. Why is he pretending to be so nice? There has to be a catch.
“If you like, I’ll buy some new shrubs and plant them for you?” He added, clearly thrown by my silent stance and he shrugged as he said the words. “Really, it’s no biggie.” A cigarette balanced precariously behind his ear and he jangled his keys to and fro between each hand.
“Oh, that’s er… good of you,” I heard myself say without a trace of sarcasm coming out. I inwardly cursed myself for being so Simon-esque about the whole thing. What I actually wanted to say was: “I should damn well think so, what the hell do you think you were doing driving over my lawn and flower beds you crazy lunatic?”
I didn’t have time to ask the question before Carl started rambling through some excuse of a story about needing to visit his mother in hospital in a rush and not been able to move the car which had been blocking his drive.
You’re lying, I automatically thought. Mainly because his eyes shifted from me to the road one too many times. You could have moved the other car. It’s your brother’s and he was at the house. I knew that much. However, as he’d offered to recompense me for the damage, and as I had to continue living next door to him I begrudgingly decided to let it go and said no more. Instead I nodded feigned sympathy for his fabricated sob story.
“So we’re good then?” Carl mumbled before he sloped off back towards his own front door, his jeans, as always, precariously hanging below his pelvis.
My weak response was in the affirmative. After all what else could I do?
I was woken abruptly at 4am by the sound of shuffling and scraping.
Blasted cats. I lay still for a few more moments listening.
Wait, that doesn’t sound like a cat.
The noise persisted. Annoyed at whatever had disturbed my sleep at such an ungodly hour, I tumbled out of bed and yanked at the cord of the blind, hoisting the venetians up in one swift movement.
I had to do a double take. It certainly was not a cat. It wasn’t even a fox.
Below my window, kneeling down on my lawn, a can of Heineken propped next to his skinny body, was Carl.
No, he couldn’t be doing what he was doing… could he? Uh uh. No. I must be seeing things.
I squinted and peered into the lamplight which illuminated the strange nocturnal scene before me.
No, I thought again. He’s not… planting flowers into my flower bed? At four o’clock in the morning? Surely not? I pressed my face to the glass and placed my hands close to block out the reflection from the street light.
The nutter! He is! He actually is.
I glared down at him through the glass, watching him open-mouthed. Gravel and stones were strewn everywhere. He rocked from side to side and whistled a tuneless tune. He didn’t appear to have any form of gardening tools with which to dig and instead scraped back the gravel covered compost with his bare hands. More gravel and stones flew into the air and it was then that I noticed a hole in the lawn. An actual hole in my lawn. Furious, I flung the window wide open and the warm night air hit me.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” I shouted down, completely unconcerned with the fact it was 4am and that someone might hear me.
Carl staggered to his feet and raised his can up to me as if to say “cheers.”
“I’m replacing your plants,” he smirked, evidently pleased with himself. “I said would.”
“That was fucking eighteen months ago!” I screamed at him. “You fucking nutter! Who the hell starts planting fucking flowers in the dark at four in the morning? I’m trying to sleep. For fuck’s sake.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” he slurred. “There’s no need to swear. I thought you’d be pleased.”
I was actually, for once in my life, speechless. Wait until I tell Simon THIS! I knew it. I knew I should have trusted my instincts. I knew he was a low-life, good-for-nothing from the first day I clapped eyes on him and this just proved it.
“Get off my fucking property!” I yelled and slammed the window shut before releasing the blind. I climbed back into bed, shaking, unable to even comprehend what I’d just witnessed.
I lay there listening, my heart pounding, until a few minutes later I heard Carl’s door lock click. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to return to sleep but it was no use. I was seething.
Eighteen months! Eighteen months and now he chooses to replace the plants! What kind of weirdo am I living next to? I couldn’t help but think that revenge is indeed a dish served best cold. Was this his idea of revenge or a joke?
I lay there turning this new development over in my head.
Here was my next door neighbour, in the middle of the night, replacing plants which he’d destroyed a full eighteen months before. It made no sense. I just couldn’t fathom what would possess him to this latest act of madness. Revenge, subtle and planned was all I could think had driven him to the act.
When I did eventually drift off to sleep my dreams turned to nightmares involving Carl knocking a hole between the walls of our houses and then taking possession of my half, declaring it as his own and me becoming his prisoner.
I woke again, wearier than I’d ever felt before.
When I went out early the next morning to survey the damage the reality of what I’d witnessed only became more surreal.
To begin with, Carl had not planted the flowers at all. Instead they were shoved haphazardly into the ground, roots exposed and stalks bent and broken. Most of the flower heads were either damaged or dead and others were covered in soil. On closer inspection, I deduced that these perhaps were not even plants which had been bought or acquired by any usual means. Rather, it appeared, they had been pulled up from elsewhere. A further investigation of the neighbourhood confirmed my suspicions. As unlikely as it seemed, Carl had uprooted plants from various neighbour’s beds and set about planting them in mine.
For the love of God, I am living next door to a complete and utter psychopath.
“Psychopath is a little bit strong don’t you think?” Simon said when I disclosed Carl’s most recent night-time escapades at work on Monday morning.
“Easy for you to say, you don’t have to live next door to the weirdo!” I perched myself on the edge of Simon’s desk and swung my legs back and forth, agitated. “Honestly. I can’t live next door to him anymore Simon! I don’t feel safe in my own home. Last month he could well have set fire to my house, and now this!”
I had woken at 11pm one humid night the month before to the sound of continuous banging emanating through the wall, accompanied by a flashing blue light glowing continuously through the flimsy bedroom blind. The blue light, I had discovered as I’d spied from my usual vantage point, belonged to a fire engine which had remained outside the house until 8am the following morning.
When a fire officer visited me later that day to inform me he’d need to check my loft for signs of embers, I couldn’t quite catch my breath.
“Your neighbour managed to set fire to the cavity walls which run through the back of your two houses and the side of your other neighbour’s house.” He informed me with startling gravity. “If the fire’s taken hold, it could spread as the roofs of all three properties are interconnected.”
It transpired that Carl had managed this feat after shoving a lit cannabis spliff in through an air vent in the outside wall along with spraying various aerosols through it, in an attempt to get rid of a wasp’s nest. The banging, I was told, had been a result of the fire brigade having to smash up Carl’s bathroom in order to get to the fire. A fire which had spread through the interior walls whilst he and his family, high on cannabis, had protested at the demolition of the bathroom. The incident had made me realise I should always trust my initial instincts about a person. What I’d seen on that first day he moved in, the shiftiness in which he had passed the package to his mate had told me all I needed to know about Carl. He did dabble in illegal drugs. I had been right. When would I learn to trust my own instinct?
And yet, despite this, despite the fire brigade knowing he had illegal drugs on the premises, still he remained unchecked. And now here he was, digging up my garden in the dark, in the early hours.
“So what are you going to do then?” Simon asked, tapping away at the keys, staring into the dim glow of the screen in front of him.
“I’ve decided, I have no choice,” I sniffed dramatically and paused for effect. “I’m going to have to sell up.”
Simon stopped typing and looked up. “Seems a bit drastic. I mean, you like it there. Don’t you?”
“Correction. I liked it there. Now I feel like I’m living in a war zone. When you think of everything that’s happened over the past few years. The constant loud music which, FYI, has started up again. The threats from the council clearly mean nothing to him. Not to mention the garden fiasco, the fire, and the continuous revving of his engine on my drive right outside my door. ALL. THE. TIME. Then there was that tyre slashing epidemic, which I’m still convinced he was behind. My nerves are shot Simon. I have to move. I just have to.”
“Can you afford to move?” Simon regarded me, looking deep into my eyes as though he was searching my soul for some other truth. And for the first time in all the conversations we’d had about Carl, I felt his genuine concern for what I was experiencing.
“No.” I shook my head. “You know I can’t. And even if I could afford it, I’d never sell the place.” I suddenly felt impotent. “Think about it. Who’d want to live next door to that? I’d have to disclose the fact he’s a psycho if someone asked what the neighbours are like. It’s the law isn’t it? I’d be done for if I lied. The situation’s hopeless.” I sank down into my chair and swivelled back to focus on the computer screen.
“I’m so sorry,” said Simon, coming over and placing his hand over mine. “I wish there was something I could do. I really do.”
“If I had another bedroom you could move in with me,” I said brightly.
“But you don’t,” he said and after holding on to my hand for a little longer than was necessary, he returned to his desk.
“No. I don’t,” I said. More’s the pity.
I resigned myself miserably to the fact that I really had no choice but to endure living next door to Carl. I slid out of my seat and took myself out of the fire exit and wandered over to the metal bins where the smokers would congregate soon for their scheduled, permitted smoking break, and slipped myself behind one.
And then I cried. For the first time I actually cried tears about the utter hopelessness of the situation and at how miserable it made me. Every day a living nightmare, never knowing whether that night I would get a full night’s sleep. Not knowing what carnage I might have to face next. Three years of living on the edge of my nerves had taken their toll and I sobbed for the simple fact of not knowing what to do next.
Voices, angry and visceral, deep and definitely both male, woke me from my slumber around midnight.
What now? More drunks coming home from a night out? I sighed, irritated at yet more sleep disturbance.
No. Not drunks. I looked down into the street from my usual vantage point through a small opening I’d made in the blind. To my horror, I could see Carl and another man circling each other in the middle of the road, like two wild animals marking their territory. Their words, though loud, were inaudible, and to my mind they were either obviously drunk or high on something or, more likely, both. I grabbed my phone, ready to call the direct line number I’d been given to the police after the plant debacle. Brawling on the street was definitely illegal. I made to dial the number when suddenly, Carl dived into his car and roared off down the street. I watched as he brought the Escort screeching to a halt at the top of the road before doing his trademark hand brake U-turn and speeding back down towards the other man who was caught, quite literally, like a rabbit in the headlights. The man jumped out of the path of the oncoming vehicle just in time and ran into Carl’s house, slamming the door shut behind him. Carl spun the car back onto the drive, neglecting to even close the door as he hunted down his prey.
My hand hovered over the dial, shaking, unsure of what to do next. They were no longer on the street. That changed things. Now it wasn’t a brawl in public. It was an indoor fight so what would be done? I heard crashing and banging emanating through the paper-thin walls and for the first time since Carl had moved in I feared for my own safety. What if I did report him now? What if he police came? Sure all the other incidents had been inconvenient or strange but this seemed…well, violent. Carl had never shown signs of violence before. If I reported him and he got off would he come for me? I hesitated the phone still grasped tight in my sweating hand.
I turned to head back into bed when I heard his front door scrape open again and I dived back to the window, peering underneath the gap at the bottom. The second man came running out of the house pursued by Carl.
A shiver slithered down my spine when I saw what Carl was carrying and I froze.
Slung low, swinging by his side, he clutched a samurai sword. I had to do a double take to be sure of what it was but there was no mistaking the distinctive curves of the weapon. Carl, pushed past his own car, slamming the open door shut and focused in on his quarry who staggered in the road. Carl brandished the weapon, a menacing stare throbbing in his black eyes and he stalked towards his intended victim. The second man stumbled and then laughed, goading Carl.
If this is a game, it isn’t funny. I shrank back in the darkness and dialled 999. This was no direct number, log a complaint kind of incident.
As I waited nervously for a response, I could only watch, terrified, as Carl lunged at the second man with the sword. With every swing the weapon glinted ominously in the low moonlight. I flinched, wondering if I was about to become a witness to a murder. I felt sick. I wanted to run out there and yell at him to stop it, but all I could see was my own decapitated head lying on the road. His adversary ducked and weaved in and out of every swing. If Carl hadn’t been so inebriated I had no doubt the guy he was attacking would be dead by now and I would be stood up in a court room in the not so distant future.
A male voice on the line suddenly broke my concentration from the unreal scene below me. I whispered into the receiver, petrified that somehow Carl would hear me.
But I needn’t have feared. Within minutes the police were on the scene and I watched with relief as Carl and the other man were carted off in the back of a Ford Mondeo, its silent blue lights blinking in the suburban night sky.
The police asked, as I shivered clutching a cup of sweet tea, if I was willing to make a witness statement in court. I wasn’t, and I didn’t dare tell Simon I’d been asked. What if I gave evidence and Carl was let off? The old question came back to haunt me. There were no guarantees. He wouldn’t know it’d been me to call the police this time. Anyone could have witnessed the scene, but despite that I wasn’t about to put my life on the line.
I didn’t see Carl for some time after that. It turned out he’d had his car impounded due to being drunk in charge of the vehicle and although he wasn’t forced to face a magistrate after the samurai incident, he had spent two nights in the police cells which I could only assume had given him some food for thought as once he returned home the disturbances subsided.
At least for a while.
October the following year came round, cold and blustery. The leaves had fallen from the trees sooner than usual and a carpet of golden brown now covered the long since recovered flower bed and lawn. Somehow, and I wasn’t sure how, I’d endured living next door to Carl for over four years.
It was a Friday night and I was due to travel to London the following day with Simon, meaning I needed to rise early to catch the 8:20 train. More than ever I needed a refreshing night’s sleep so I was relieved when I went to bed around 10pm to the sound of silence.
However, the peace was not destined to last long. The all too familiar ‘thump, thump, thump’ struck up from next door just as I was dropping off, promptly returning me unwillingly into the world. I tried to ignore the thrum of the bass but I knew there was every possibility it could continue until 6am. Perched on the edge of sanity, my senses heightened, I listened for the end of each track, praying that would be the last one. But the end never came. On and on the bass thudded vibrating through the floor and to my bed. I lay awake, a familiar anger bubbling inside me. Simon and I were due to pitch an idea for a computer programme we’d developed to one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country the next morning. The future of our business depended on it. To me, the contract could possibly mean the difference of being stuck next door to Carl for another four years or being able to up and move within months.
And yet, here he was, Carl, ironically about to ruin my chances of escape by simply stealing my sleep. If I couldn’t focus tomorrow on the pitch then we had no hope of winning the contract. Simon was the brains behind the operation but I was the salesperson. I had the gift of the gab when it came to dealing with hard faced business types but I needed to be fresh for it.
11:30pm arrived. My nerves rattled more than the wind through the venetian blind as I tossed and turned debating whether to confront Carl but the image of that samurai sword couldn’t be shifted and I procrastinated for a few minutes more. Ten minutes more and my seething anger won the battle over my nerves. In one decisive move, I stomped out of bed and reached for my dressing gown. A minute later I was out in the freezing autumn air banging on the glass of Carl’s front door. To my relief, his brother answered and, when I asked if it would be possible for them to turn the music down he was extremely apologetic and immediately went inside and the racket ceased.
Progress, I thought as I ascended the stairs back to my room. I slumped back in to bed and buried my head in the pillow, still infuriated at having had my sleeping time cut by an hour and a half.
Eventually, mercifully, thankfully, I dozed off.
A mere half an hour later I was woken by a voice shouting up at the window.
“Oi! Helen,” the voice shouted.
Hearing my name, I climbed out of bed and raised the blind. I couldn’t see anyone at first as the roof of the porch blocked my view. Then I saw the voice’s owner. I watched Carl stagger back into the glow of the street lamp, drunk and high as usual.
“What is it?” I shouted down, doing everything to show my irritation through my tone.
“Have you got a problem?” his slurred words were vitriolic.
“No,” I replied honestly. “Not anymore.”
“I hear you wanted us to turn down the music?”
“Yes,” I said tersely. “But you’ve done it now, so there’s no problem. Thank you.”
“Well you obviously have got a problem,” Carl continued. Lager slopped onto the ground and hissed as he lurched forwards again.
“No.” I said more firmly. “Like I say, I asked you to turn it down, you have. All’s fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to bed.” I closed the window tight against the bitter air and let go of the cord. The blind slithered back down into position blocking out Carl’s creepy face as well as the street light.
I clambered back into bed, my teeth chattering and shaken a little from the unexpected verbal altercation. The guy’s a complete nut job. What the hell does he mean “you obviously HAVE got a problem? Well yes actually, I have a problem. With you generally, but right now I just need to sleep.
I lay there for a couple more minutes, silently seething, and then there was an almighty bang.
A banging on my own front door.
“Helen! Open up!” Carl’s slurred drawl voice resounded through my letter box.
I pulled the covers up around me tighter. He’ll go away in a minute.
“There’s no need to be scared Helen, jus’ open up. I jus’ wanna to talk to you.” The image of the samurai sword flashed through my mind once more and a sudden terror took hold. I lay still and quiet, praying he’d leave but Carl continued banging his fist on the door.
I slipped one arm out from under the covers and hastily fumbled in the dark to locate my mobile phone. I dared not put it on for fear he would see the light. I needed the direct line number the police had given me but that was downstairs at the back of the house in a kitchen cupboard. What was I going to do? To get to the kitchen I’d have to walk down the stairs which descended to rest directly opposite the front door. How the hell was I going to get down the stairs without Carl noticing me? The house might be dark but the street lamp outside would almost certainly cast a light on me and give me away.
What if he breaks my door down? Oh God! What do I do? Think Helen, think.
I hid deeper under the covers with my phone and dialled Simon’s number as the knocking and shouting from Carl continued more persistently.
Please answer. Please, please answer.
The ringing tone cut out and Simon’s voice, albeit it sleepy and grumpy, had never sounded so welcome.
“I’ll come straight over,” he said. Give me twenty minutes. In the meantime, if you are able to call the police, do so.”
I grasped the phone tight in my hand and crept out of bed, praying I wouldn’t step on any of those floorboards which were prone to creaking. I heard Carl’s voice trail off. Now’s my chance. I padded to the top of the stairwell and crouched down.
I couldn’t see Carl at the front door and so quickly began to make my descent. But as I reached the bottom I almost let out a cry as Carl’s face suddenly loomed at me pressed up against the glass panes and he shouted for me to open the door. My heart raced and I felt as though I might stop breathing.
If only I had another exit out of this place.
He’d seen me of that here was no doubt. I sped through the lounge and into the kitchen, closing the door silently behind me and turned on the phone’s dim light. My bare feet on the cold lino caused me to shiver and I fumbled in the cupboard as I searched for the scrap piece of paper with. Upon finding it, with shaking fingers, I punched in the direct number to the local police station.
“Is he still there madam?” asked the woman on the other end of the phone. She couldn’t have sounded less interested if she’d tried and I felt my despair crowd me like never before. No-one is ever going to help me escape this man! I inched open the kitchen door and peered round it. Carl was no longer there. He’d disappeared and when I heard his own front door slam shut I hoped to the gods he’d given up and gone back to his drinking.
“Well, we can log a complaint for you madam, but as no actual crime has been committed there’s not much we can do for now. You say your friend is coming over, is that right?”
I confirmed he was but wondered now whether I’d ever feel safe in my own home again even if I had an armed guard stationed at the door.
Simon arrived exactly twenty minutes later to be greeted to jeers of: “Oh look, she’s got her boyfriend to come and protect her.”
I ushered Simon inside through the smallest opening I’d dared to allow as I inched open the door. Completely unconcerned, Simon eyed both brothers with his steely emeralds and said: “Why don’t you do everyone a favour and get in that car of yours and go drive it into a brick wall?”
He slammed the front door shut and locked it. Simon never slammed anything. I looked at him, slightly scared of what might happen next but secretly proud he had the gall to stand up to them.
Simon’s words evidently gave them the idea to think it was perfectly acceptable to then start up the spluttery engine of the 1989 Ford Escort at 2am and rev it repeatedly, whilst shining the headlights through the leaded glass in the front door. I slumped down onto the sofa and sobbed. The nightmare was never-ending. Simon came over and sat down next to me. He put his hand tentatively on my shoulder and then pulled me close to him and held me as the tears flooded out.
“I hate what he’s done to you,” Simon said, his eyes watery and his face serious. “But you can’t let him intimidate you.”
“Too late,” I said. “It’s too late.”
Despite not winning the pharmaceuticals contract, I decided to put the house back on the market for sale when spring came round. Things had changed on a personal level, and I knew the time had come to finally rid myself of Carl.
Simon, ever the voice of reason, expressed his concerns about prospective buyers and what we would have to tell them if they were to ask about the neighbours, echoing my own fears from the first time I’d contemplated selling as an option out of the nightmare.
“We’ll just have to risk the lie if they ask. But we can’t live like this anymore, you know we can’t. Besides, this place is too small for two of us. As cosy and lovely as it is, we need more space for our stuff.” I was adamant.
More space was only the secondary driver to my final decision though. In truth, I felt drained. Worry, anxiety and lack of sleep, which hadn’t subsided even with Simon moving in, had dominated my life for too long. Five years of living next door to Carl had aged me. I figured, selfishly, it was someone else’s turn.
Simon and I decorated every room with a fresh lick of paint and added a few new accessories here and there to help appeal to the widest demographic possible. There was nothing I hadn’t learned from watching endless house-doctoring TV shows.
Two weeks later we opened the house up for viewings, though I dreaded every time anyone made an appointment in case Carl would be around, blaring his rap music either from the house or from his car. Then they’d find out for themselves what my neighbour was like and be put off from buying. If the coast was clear, I was still on edge, hoping no one would ask about the neighbours, preparing to lie if they did, knowing I could be in trouble for doing so.
However, all my fears were unfounded. Strangely, ever since we’d decorated and prepared the house for sale, Carl had being conspicuously quiet. Did he know? Did he instinctively know I’d mention him if the issue of neighbours was raised and actually he was equally hopeful of seeing the back of me? No, Carl never thought past the moment he was in. What was I thinking?
The third person to view the house loved it and immediately put in an offer, much to my relief. She hadn’t even asked about the neighbours, apparently satisfied with what she saw during her viewings. Simon and I celebrated quietly with a bottle champagne. Together with the equity I’d made and Simon’s savings we could afford to make a move to a house we’d seen over the other side of the city. However, I couldn’t rest until the contracts were signed.
But nothing went wrong. Nothing. We hadn’t seen so much of a glimpse of Carl in weeks and I could only assume he’d gone on holiday. The day before we were due to exchange keys, Simon and I packed up our belongings, ready to move on to what I hoped would be a place where I could finally feel safe once more.
I held the steps to the ladder as Simon climbed in to the loft and passed down box after box.
“Are we leaving this old mattress up here?” he called.
“No, leave it. We’d only have to get the council to collect it anyway. The new owner probably won’t even notice. It’s shoved up at the back isn’t it? ”
Simon gave me a thumbs up.
“Oh, while you’re up there,” I called, “is the old bedroom blind anywhere? It’d fit perfectly in the new bathroom I think but haven’t seen it since we decorated. Did you put it up with the mattress and other large stuff?”
“Oh, no,” Simon’s voice echoed around the cavernous space above. His feet suddenly popped into view and he swung his muscular body down, pulling the hatch shut. “I er…broke the cord. Sorry. I took it to the dump with the old furniture and some other stuff which I needed to get rid of. I thought I’d told you.”
“Never mind. It was probably weakened from all those years of me pulling it up and down when I was spying on Carl!” I laughed. “Besides, it always was a bit useless at completely blocking out the light. We’re well shot of it.”
“Yes,” Simon agreed. “It’s better off in landfill.”
Today, May 17th, exactly five years to the day since Carl moved in, I am saying goodbye to the old house once and for all and I can’t help but reflect on all its memories, both good and bad.
“I hope the new owner never has the same trouble with Carl that I did,” I say to Simon as we load up the white van we’ve hired for the day. “I feel guilty that she might have to put up with that. It doesn’t seem fair and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I just hope he stays as quiet as he has been lately.”
“Oh I think everything will be fine,” Simon says in his usual nonchalant, self-assured way, and slides the final box into the back of the van.
A sudden uncomfortable, niggling thought, pushes its way to the forefront of my mind.
Trust your instinct Helen, you’re always right. I recall my own mantra.
“How can you be so sure?” I laugh. Sometimes I think Simon is just too confident about the future. He’d certainly had a quiet certainty we would end up together, not something I’d seen coming that was for sure.
“Let’s just call it instinct,” he says and kisses me before we climb into the van and leave the house for the last time.
I strap myself in and, as I cast one last glance at the two houses, I shove my own instinct to the back of my mind, hoping it won’t return to haunt me.