Artwork by Tim Judd. fb.me/Quillhook
I see it for the first time on New Year’s Day.
I only get up at two pm, and even then it’s with a crawling, plodding sensation that I haul myself out of the bedroom. I’m musty and warm smelling in my pyjamas.
The lie in wasn’t even necessary. We were in bed by half midnight, stayed up long enough to watch the fireworks and the concert in London, and then turned it off as soon as it seemed polite to do so. Polite to whom, exactly, I’m not entirely sure. We were on our own, neither of us could be bothered to go to a party. I suppose we didn’t want to offend the performers in London.
I feel disconsolate and miserable. Not at all how one is supposed to feel on New Year’s Day, if you believe all the advertising. A hangover, mild but sharp and acidic at the edges, is oozing, insidiously, around my body. I prepare two mugs and teabags on autopilot, fill the kettle and switch it on.
I wait, while the water boils, wondering when this started, this way our lives have seemed to go, whether there was a starting point for it, or whether it just grow, like mould, spreading slowly across our lives. In the end I conclude I am probably too tired to care. I plod across the room, pointlessly, and stare for a while out of the window of the flat. Down in the car park, shoppers are exiting vehicles, or returning to them, laden with multiple bags-for-life, which they only picked up today because they forgot all the others they already have at home, shoved under the stairwell or under the sink. What a dismal life those bags must have. Perhaps I will be reincarnated as one. Perhaps I already am.
The thought, rather bleakly, makes me smile. Then the kettle boils and I am back on autopilot, turning to plod my way back across the flat to pour it into the mugs. So I almost don’t see it. That first day. The house.
It’s a little house, a flat really, a bit like ours in shape, only it seems somehow smaller, as though it’s been mathematically scaled down. It’s up at eye level to our flat, which is on the fifth floor, and it looks like it’s been built on the flat roof in the corner between two other buildings, at the back of the shops in the parallel street. I don’t why it catches my gaze at all, really, just a flicker of something new in the corner of my eye. And I don’t think I remember it being there before.
Must have shot it up recently. They build them fast now, these new places. Polystyrene and cardboard. In the blink of an eye.
I shrug and turn back to the tea.
I regret it every year. Going back to work the day after New Year’s Day. It’s too rushed, it’s too much. The world should understand this. We should all be off work until at least the 7th. Some of us need the time just to recover from Christmas. And everyone needs time to recover from New Year. It takes one whole night to recuperate each lost hour of sleep. Isn’t that what they say?
The realisation that we were not, in fact, up all that late on New Year’s Eve does not serve to cheer me.
I am exhausted. Spent. By eleven I feel as though it is time for a lie down. After that every email seems an insulting imposition, every deadline impossible, my to do list interminable. I re-enter the flat, drop my bag on the floor and sit down next to it, still in my coat and shoes. I put my head in my hands. It throbs. Then I start to cry.
When I have finished, I stand, like an old lady, straighten my back and, finally, remove my coat and shoes. I am surprised to have found the energy within me to sob with quite such vigour and bitterness. Cleansed, the skin of my face feels tight and dry. It’s just work. That’s the trouble. I forgot it was so difficult. I forgot the rush of panic at the start of each new task. I forgot the constant interruptions, the hum of the lights, the glare of the computer screens, the screech of the telephones. I took too much time off over Christmas. It’s just that. It’s just that it’s harder than I remembered.
I walk into the bedroom and peel off my work clothes. Then I hesitate, shivering a little, and pull my pyjamas back out of the laundry basket. I can wash them tomorrow.
Alex is working late so I fix myself dinner from leftovers in the kitchen. Even the leftovers are looking a little sparse and I know I’ll have to go food shopping tomorrow. The thought, for some reason, worries and gnaws at me. I feel hassled and scratchy and I boil the kettle, pacing the flat. On about the third pace, I remember and I go to the window. There is a light on in the new flat, the one on the roof across the carpark.
A light! Someone must have moved in. That was quick.
That was really quick.
It’s dark out there though. Might just be a reflection.
Alex and I get up and eat breakfast cereals out of cardboard packets and I vaguely wonder whether the packet itself would taste any different. I go to work. I feel hot and irritable and tired. I go shopping. I come home. Alex is in tonight but he’s on the phone to his parents so I wander into the kitchen with the bags-for-life and unpack them on autopilot, shoving the new bags with the old ones under the sink. I bought a couple of easy pasta meals for us to warm up tonight. I’m too tired to cook and anyway, even if he did it, I’m too tired to talk. Besides, it’s Wednesday and we always watch Frantic Housewives! It’s not great, but it can be a bit addictive, and it doesn’t require you to use your brain. With the advert breaks it can take up the best part of an evening, especially if you watch the omnibus which includes the Monday episode. We always watch the omnibus from Monday. Even, sometimes, if we’ve watched it on Monday.
Facebook has sent me an alert to look at photos from ‘this time last year’ which in fact include a lot of Christmas photos which I must have uploaded out of sync. There’s the obligatory Christmas dinner grinning photo, while the table groans beneath the weight of the food. And that ridiculous hat which my father insisted on wearing. On impulse, I find myself looking behind the people, at the view out of the window. The new flat wasn’t there then. Must have gone up this year.
Mildly curious, I flick through other photos on my phone, looking for anything taken in our flat, with a view out of the window. There aren’t very many, the odd selfie, birthday events, that kind of thing, even a couple of photos of things in the flat, something I’d bought new or something we were trying to sell. But they span the full year, more or less, between them. And in none of them can I see the little flat.
But then, I don’t take many photographs. Perhaps Alex has more.
I go into the bedroom, just as Alex comes out. He kisses me, perfunctorily, and I tell him about the pasta meals.
“Great!” he says. Alex is easily pleased.
He skips off to warm them up and I take off my work clothes. Then I pause. There are figures in the new flat. People moving about. Two of them. I strain my eyes to see more but the light they have on is less bright this evening and it’s raining, so the window is smeary and blurred.
“Ready!” shouts Alex and I hear the opening bars of the Frantic Housewives! theme tune. I put on my pyjamas and we sit down to eat.
I go to work. I come home. This time I go to the window straight away, before Alex is home, before I’ve even taken my coat off. The new flat is lit brightly and the evening is clear. There are people in the flat. I get the impression they’ve only just got home too, because they’re greeting each other and taking off coats, she’s kissing him before she’s even taken her shoes off. I turn away.
“Hi” says Alex from the door.
“I’ll put the kettle on.” I say.
Later, when we have eaten and are back on the sofa watching the TV, I sneak another look out of the window. The couple in the flat are eating popcorn. Maybe they’re watching something scary because it looks like she’s all huddled up close to him, and I think he might be holding her hand. She’s got brown hair, and she’s wearing it down so it falls in gentle waves around her shoulders. She’s about my height, he’s just about Alex’s. She’s slim but curvy. He’s blonde and clean shaven.
There is something unsettling about them. Something familiar.
Neither of them are in their pyjamas.
If going back to work is hard after Christmas, the taking down of the decorations is worse. Every year I wonder whether it was worth putting them up in the first place. There is something deeply depressing about the dismantling of Christmas, like an acceptance that the remaining six months of winter will continue without remedy, that the fun was brief and fleeting, and now is over. Tinsel covers everything but where it seemed, before Christmas, to sparkle and glint with stored up gleefulness and the promise of mischief, now it sticks to everything with static determination and grimaces under the stark new light. The twinkly lights no longer twinkle, and only cling to each other in fear and tangle themselves into impossible knots.
I feel frustrated and angry. I bash at the crockery and scrub unnecessarily hard at the sink. I pour boiling water on the sticky marks where we fixed the paper chains with a sense of irrational cruelty, as if to punish the windows and the doors and the walls for ever entertaining such pointless frivolity.
Alex is quiet and slightly nervous. He tries to be useful but in absent ways, he climbs up to wedge the Christmas tree back at the top of the wardrobe and takes out the bins because I’m in my pyjamas and there didn’t seem to be any point in getting dressed.
In the new flat, the other couple are also taking down Christmas decorations. Which seems odd given that they moved in after Christmas and I don’t remember there being decorations before.
But somehow, they’re on their knees by the tree, removing baubles and angels and stars together. She is wearing a smart, close fitting, red jumper and a pair of dark blue boot-leg jeans. Her hair is piled up on her head, out of the way, but it’s brushed and shiny.
I decide to clean the whole of the window, just so it matches the clean part where I scrubbed off the sticky mark.
They are never going to get the tree down before midnight at this rate. They seem literally to be examining each decoration as they go, laying it carefully in a box. When she starts to remove the tinsel he grabs the other end so that she has to run around and round the tree to remove it until she ends up in his arms.
I snort and go to change the water.
When I return they are back to removing the baubles, still laughing.
It wasn’t that funny.
He picks one up and throws it at her. She ducks. They laugh. She throws one at him. He throws another. They have a full blown bauble fight. There are baubles all over the floor of their flat.
I get up from the window, a little too hurriedly, and I don’t look at them anymore.
When, finally, I can’t find anything else to clean, I encounter Alex in the hallway. He’s been to the shops to get milk.
“Is there anything you need me to do?” he says, and the nervousness in his face and the hesitancy in his voice makes me want to pick him up like a child, and enfold him in my arms. But he’s not a child. And my hands smell of bleach.
“No, don’t worry.” I say, a little stiffly, “go and relax.”
“OK.” He hesitates a little, and then turns towards the lounge.
There is a bauble on the floor, behind the door. We missed one.
Then I pick it up and throw it at him.
When I get up in the morning to make the tea, the new flat is in darkness. They must have gone out. Church-goers probably. They’re about that sort of type.
I stand for a while, staring at the flat and trying to ignore a sense of disappointment. For a minute I think she’s in there, looking back out at me, but it’s just my reflection. I stand for a bit longer, kettle cooling behind me, then I go back into the bedroom, where a sleepy Alex is just coming to, and start to rummage in the wardrobe for that smartish red jumper I used to have.
“Are you OK?” he asks.
“I’m fine,” I say, a little sharply, and there is a mixture of tension and burgeoning excitement in me which has no real place and no real explanation. I make my voice softer and brighter. ”I thought we could go out for brunch.”
We sit in a café, and we drink filter coffee and orange juice and we talk and sometimes we laugh. I am a little amazed at us. I can’t help thinking that we must look so happy. That it must seem, to others, who don’t know any better, as though everything is fine. I try to run through in my mind the reasons why it is not, but it doesn’t come easily to me, and I keep being distracted by what Alex is saying. He looks better outside the flat. His face seems more animated. I remember that there is a dimple on his left cheek.
Unfortunately, when we finally return home, the flat seems to smell musty, despite all the cleaning, and I feel a sense of deadening almost as soon as we walk in the door. I think perhaps I allowed myself to think that a brunch date would change everything, but whatever we found in that café didn’t quite make it home. I resist a strong urge to run back there and refuse to leave.
We shuffle about and watch a bit of TV. I try not to watch the other flat, but I can’t help noticing that the couple are in now.
We go to bed early. It’ll be Monday tomorrow and the familiar dread in the pit of my stomach is beginning to gnaw at me. Anyway, we’re a bit at a loss. We can’t think of anything else to do.
The couple in the flat go to bed when we do. I see them walk into the other room. They seem to go everywhere holding hands.
I lie in the bed on my back and I stare at the ceiling. Alex’s sleepy heat makes me too hot on one side, and I’m too cold on the other. It’s dark and silent, other than the occasional gurgle in the pipes and, after a while, Alex’s gentle snores.
I think of the couple in that flat.
Probably they are having sex.
I decide, for some reason, very vehemently, that we are not going to eat cereal for breakfast today.
I boil us a couple of eggs and we eat them with soldiers. The coffee is instant, and the yolks are hard but we scoop them out diligently in small yellow lumps and I feel a little bit hopeful. A little bit civilised. I don’t look at the couple in the other flat.
Ha! They’re probably looking at us.
The thought cheers me and I sit up a little taller. When we leave for work I kiss Alex goodbye.
In the lounge. Where they can see.
Work is the same. Only worse. I am there for barely an hour before my resolve breaks, and my back humps and I bite and chew at the skin around my fingers until they bleed onto my keyboard and I have to wrap a tissue around my thumb so I don’t mark the paperwork. I spin through the day in a dizzying whirl of rising panic, I am not in control, I can’t keep up, I will never get it all done and if I do, it won’t be done properly. Every task I try to complete is diverted by a question, or a phone call, or an evil little box in the corner of my monitor, telling me I have a new email. A little exclamation mark at the corner to mark it urgent. Red like the blood at the tops of my fingers.
I feel like a string drawn so tightly I might snap.
By the time I get home I am scratchy and miserable. The explosion which seemed so eminently possible at work has been kept at bay for the working day, only, it seems, to be unleashed at home. I march through the door and I’m already looking for something to release it.
I walk into the lounge. Alex is standing at the sink, washing up. He turns to greet me, a smile on his lips which fades a little when he meets my eyes. I look beyond him, out of the window. In the other flat the woman enters. She walks straight into the man’s open arms.
I am overwhelmed with hatred for both of them.
Alex walks towards me. The hairs on his arms are dark and flattened with water. He is dripping soap suds liberally onto the floor. I take a breath so I can mention it but there’s a blur in my eyes and a scratch in the back of my throat so I can’t speak. When he gets close, ready to kiss me, quickly, in greeting, I can’t seem to lift up my face and so I sort of lean onto him, stiffly, hands at my side. He puts his arms around me. They are wet and warm. After the warmth of the water wears off, the places on my back which were wet feel cold.
But it’s better, somehow.
The yolks are perfect this morning. If only everything could be resolved so simply. I try to think something bitter and cynical about it, but I feel a bit soft around the edges. And the coffee is filter. Alex picked some up yesterday and I spent time carefully measuring it out into two individual cafetières, which I remembered we had at the back of the cupboard. I think one was ours and one was in the flat when we moved in but I washed them both really carefully so I think it’s alright.
I clip clop to work in my heels instead of trainers. I have trained my hair into some sort of chignon. It isn’t perfect but it looks OK. I hold my head high and I try to pretend I am capable and efficient, like a woman in a film.
I manage, just about, to keep up the act for the day, though it wobbles a little here and there. It feels a bit false, but it does takes the edge off. When an email comes in I squash the panic and respond calmly and coolly, the way I imagine a person might if they could cope with the pressure. If they were good at it, even. It sort of works, though it’s a bit of a rollercoaster, and I’m tired by the end, from the continual battle to maintain the illusion. But I do feel a bit happier.
“You’re so good,” says someone admiringly, when I bash out a report in record time. It’s not the first time someone at work has made a remark to this effect. But this time I don’t assume they’re lying because they think I’m a bit slow. I try, a little clumsily, to digest the compliment.
“Oh,” I say airily, “I guess you just ‘fake it till you make it!’” and she laughs as though I am making a joke. It occurs to me that work have never known any different. The thought mystifies me. But I readjust my posture. And I only chew my fingers twice. Just for a bit. When I forget.
I get home. I think about tidying the flat, but Alex is on the sofa reading a paper and I sit down next to him and we read it together.
I glance at the other flat. They are also on the sofa, though I can’t see their faces.
“Ha!” I say fondly, “they’re just like us.”
“Who?” says Alex.
I take him to the window, “There, you see? That flat they built recently. The couple who live there.”
He screws up his face and squints. Then he tries again, cups his hands to the glass and peers. He looks confused.
I feel a cold tug of something in my stomach.
Wednesday used to be the worst day. Neither the beginning, nor the end of the week. Enough time gone for us to be tired but not enough to bring with it the promise of weekend freedom.
Today, though, I have made some plans. Wednesday is ‘hump day’. Put it like that and it sounds like something to celebrate.
I announce to Alex over our mushroom omelettes that we are going out this evening, to the coffee place below the block of flats, which does wine and live jazz on an open mic in the evening. We used to complain about the noise. Today, we are going to be down there making it.
“What about Frantic Housewives!?” asks Alex.
He looks pleased.
We go to work. My chignon is neater today and I have painted my fingernails. Every time I look down at them, clattering across my keyboard, they seem like the fingers of somebody else. Somebody better. I don’t bite them so as not to chip the varnish. It took me two hours. It’s been years since I’ve done it. There are some wobbly bits at the edges. I allow myself to bite those just to keep them tidy. But no more. Oddly, now I have permission, I don’t feel the need to bite so much.
We come home. I get changed. I wear a skirt and some boots. I look young. Or younger. I look a little bit cool. On the way out I sneak a quick peek out of the window. The woman in the other flat is sitting on the sofa. She looks tired. Somehow, this makes me feel uneasy.
“What woman?” says Alex.
I don’t answer. I just take his hand.
When we get back, mildly light headed and giggly, the man is also sitting on the sofa. They sit very primly, one at each end, the remote control between them, staring blankly at something on the TV.
They look bored and unhappy.
I will admit it. I am tired by now. But I keep it going. We eat miso soup for breakfast, the way they do in Japan, just to be different, and it doesn’t take a lot of preparation. I find some old green tea bags to go with it and we laugh about how pretentious we are, sitting here pretending to be cultured.
Work is just the same and I feel my new sense of cool warming a little at the edges, fraying here and there from the effort, but I manage to hold it together. I imagine, again, that I am a person in a film. It works, but it’s different. Partly because, already, my ‘act’ is becoming less conscious, but also because there’s something else.
A creeping sort of feeling, as though I really am being watched.
Either way, I perform. I have so many crossings out on my task list I can barely read the few things I still have left to do. And my inbox is filed and categorised and under control.
I practically skip home. I whizz up a dangerously ambitious dinner and use every pan we own. When we sit down to eat, we discover that it’s rather over spiced.
“It’s really nice,” says Alex, “only I can’t quite decide what it tastes like, it seems to have all of the flavours in it at once.”
I’ve done it wrong. There is a little twitch in me, as though something is getting ready to wake up and pounce. But I ignore it.
“I know,” I say, “I think I got carried away.” And, just like that, we laugh.
After we’ve finished Alex starts the washing up. I watch him a moment, thinking of the hair on his forearms, darker and flat from the water. Then I stand up and pull him away from the sink.
We go into the bedroom. We have sex. I’m surprised. I’d forgotten how nice it was.
The other flat is in darkness.
Perhaps they’re asleep.
Or they’re watching us.
I’ve got that Friday feeling. Anything goes.
I head out for an early morning run. On the way, for no reason at all, I remember that old advert for Crunchie bars. I stop in at the Tesco metro and buy two.
“It’s Friday!” I trill at the bemused shop assistant, “It’s Crunchie!”
That’s not quite how the advert went, but it doesn’t matter.
As I let myself in to the block of flats, something makes me pause and look up, to the place where the new flat is. I can’t see it so clearly from down here, but I’m certain there is a sudden movement, as though someone had been at the window, but drew back, quickly. I go in, rather hurriedly, and lock the door behind me. I don’t take the lift though. I run up the stairs.
When I get to the flat Alex has made us a fry up.
“Friday fry up!” he says excitedly.
“That’s the spirit!” I say fondly, and lean across the table to kiss him. I knock the ketchup bottle over. We laugh about it.
I don’t think about the couple in the other flat again, but when I do happen to glance up I see they are at the breakfast table.
They are eating cereal. It looks like they are arguing.
I kiss Alex goodbye, slipping the Crunchie bar discreetly into his bag as I do so. I gently dissuade his suggestive fumblings with a promise of a repeat performance tonight.
I keep my promise.
Afterwards, we do the dishes together, flicking soap suds at each other and giggling like school children. Then we make popcorn and snuggle up for a film. I feel like a filmstar myself.
The woman in the other flat is wearing her pyjamas. At one point, I think I catch her eye because she drops her gaze suddenly and stares at the floor. I feel sorry for her. She seems a bit lost.
We get up early and go out for a day walk and lunch at the pub. We get enjoyably merry on red wine over lunch, then get absolutely soaked in the rain on the way back.
When we run in, muddy and breathless, we head straight for the kitchen, laughing and trying to beat each other to the hot chocolate. We leave a trail of muddy footprints in our wake. They perfume the flat with woodsmoke and new grass.
We look ridiculous, hair plastered to our faces, and we decide to take a selfie for posterity. We stand in front of the rain at the window, and we pose with hot chocolate and silly grins.
I hold up my phone. Suddenly, in the screen, I see the woman in the other flat. She is standing at her window, holding a cloth, and she is looking straight at us. Her hair looks as though she hasn’t bothered much with it and there are stains down the front of her pyjamas. Cereal I think, or tea. My smile falters and, for a moment, I almost drop the phone.
The look on her face is stricken, desperate. She is gripping the window with one flat palm as though she cannot escape it.
As though she is trapped.
I take the photo.
But when I look at the image, she isn’t in it.