© Stephen Carver, 2015
I first cultivated something like a friendship with Billy, the lonely old boy upstairs, because he reminded me of my dad. But the longer I lived in that little ground floor flat the more he reminded me of myself.
The low-rise flats were red brick and post-war, and I had grown up in one just like it myself, with the same narrow hallway with bedrooms in an inverted ‘T’ shape at one end and a heavy door topped with a single panel of frosted glass at the other. Looking towards that baleful entrance, a tiny bathroom and kitchen sprouted off the hall on the right, a living room on the left. The flat above would be indistinguishable from this one, only with stairs leading up from the front door at right angles to mine, while I had a slanting space beneath not much use for anything but hanging coats. I was not sure how long Billy had been there, but he felt as permanent as all the other fading fixture and it was difficult to imagine him ever living anywhere else.
The flat was not a home I would have chosen, but the way things were going I was lucky to get it. I’d been going slowly out of my mind in boarding houses ever since I lost my job and my girlfriend got so sick of my moods that she threw me out. It was only the lobbying of a sympathetic GP that got me moved up the council list as an emergency case, the emergency being the likelihood of my imminent self-murder. For a single man with no dependents and on the dole to get anything was nothing short of miraculous, although location and condition must have been a factor, even in these troubled times, while its reputation, my new neighbour couldn’t wait to tell me, also preceded the place.
‘That bloke downstairs kept bloody dogs,’ he said, having flung open his door to greet me as soon as he heard the woman from the housing office fumbling with the key.
I got the impression she had heard it all before. ‘Still with us, Mr. Barrington?’ she said breezily, nonetheless trying to get the key into the ancient lock with some agitation, like someone in a horror film.
‘Big bloody things,’ the old man continued, leaning on an old wooden walking stick until it creaked, ignoring the woman and blasting me with breath that stank of cheap beer, roll-ups and supermarket crisps. Green plaster walls shone dully behind him, while the stairs twisted away into the shadows beyond a window like an arrow slit in a castle wall. Everything about him was grey, his hair, his complexion, his eyes, and his choice in knitwear. ‘They didn’t know the old fool was dead until them dogs started howling and someone complained to the RSPCA,’ he said gleefully, adding, ‘that was after they ate him.’
‘Now you know that isn’t true,’ the woman snapped, finally getting the door open, ‘and you’ve got to stop spreading that nasty rumour and putting people off.’ The flavoured atmosphere that started to creep out was even less appealing than the old man, damp and mildewed like the still air of a cellar, overlaid with the sickly, rotten taste of undisturbed decomposition. ‘For goodness sake,’ the woman continued, ‘you’d think you didn’t want any neighbours.’
‘I don’t,’ replied the old man, speaking to her but looking at me. We left him framed in his doorway and I followed the woman inside. She flicked a light switch ineffectually several times and sighed. Either the power was off or the bulb had gone, and the rippling glass of the door she’d rapidly closed behind us was as useless as a porthole when it came to letting in natural light. With a kind of desperate idealism, she bustled through the door to her right and entered the tiny living room, moving quickly to the old, metal-framed window and opening all three casements.
‘That’s better,’ she announced, breathing deeply.
I wasn’t so sure. Dust as thick as falling snow danced and flurried in the spring sunshine in front of stained wallpaper that might have been fashionable forty years ago. Jagged Artex on the ceiling similarly suggested a makeover in the early-seventies, but the place was otherwise un-modernised. There was an ancient gas fire, and a grey, patterned carpet with a disturbingly large stain on it. ‘Is that where the previous tenant, sort of, you know, died?’ I ventured.
‘Oh, I don’t expect so,’ said the woman. ‘People always pass away in hospital, don’t they?’
Not around here, I thought, not in the middle of nowhere, which was where we were: a short street that pretty much constituted the council part of the village, stuck on a main road with nothing else for miles but flat bloody fields. All that could be said in its favour was that it was at the end of the row, so there were only neighbours on one side to worry about, and the old man above.
She had me over a barrel though, and we both knew it. This was not a viewing but a fait accompli. ‘Take it or leave it,’ she said with her eyes, ‘because we won’t be offering the likes of you anywhere else.’
Whether or not someone had died in here it smelled as though they had, the carpet releasing vapours like a fox rotting in a hedgerow. The plaster was sticky with nicotine, there was black mould in the bedrooms, dog’s piss up the walls and a shit-ring in the toilet. ‘I’m sure the place’ll clean up lovely,’ I said.
Thankfully the other lights worked and the water was on. As I had no desire to spend another night in a doss house (while without transport and only one bus a week I’d have no easy way of getting back here again), the woman said she didn’t see why I couldn’t just take possession there and then. This was no great hardship. Aside from a few books and records stashed with friends, I was carrying pretty much everything I owned in an old army rucksack along with a bedroll I hadn’t dared leave back at the B&B. I gambled on finding a shop or a chippie, which fortunately I did, and spent my first night there in a sleeping bag on the floor of the smaller of the two bedrooms. I couldn’t face the old bed in the other, though I’d taken a dusty blanket to cover the window. I had slept in an almost identical room as a child, tucked in the inside corner and looking down the hall towards the door, never quite able to bear being shut in. Having assumed the same position, I was oddly reassured by the telly booming from above and the clack of the old man’s stick upon his floor and my ceiling, invariably followed by a coughing fit, a profanity and a flush.
Thus installed, I set about getting my life back together. I did not miss the old one so much. The house I had left was not my own, and the woman I had shared it with was better off than me and clearly settling for less. The job I had lost was nothing special either, just warehouse work. It was only my horror of unemployment that made me so upset when I got the bullet. It was just another dead-end job in a succession of dead-end jobs, minimum wage survival work that you did until it stopped before starting again somewhere else. I’d been getting my hands dirty all my life and it wasn’t about to change now, and at least so far I’d avoided wiping arses on zero hour contracts or slinging burgers, which was what generally passed for employment in my home town.
Although the flat had not been cleaned it had been mostly emptied by the council. There were a few sticks of furniture left, presumably deemed worthy of salvage, like the bed, a flat-pack wardrobe, and an old fold-down dining table with a couple of chairs. I burned these in the back garden along with all the carpets, polishing up the scratched Marley tiles as best I could until I could find some rugs. I admitted financial defeat with the cooker and fridge and scrubbed them down with lighter fluid and bleach, along with the kitchen cupboards and the bathroom fittings that I would also never be able to afford to replace.
It was this impromptu bonfire that initiated communication with the man from upstairs. When he appeared at the rusty garden gate I assumed a complaint was in the offing but instead he just rolled a fag and said gruffly, ‘You decided to take it, then?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘not much choice.’
‘Oh aye?’ he said, but left it at that.
‘Was it true,’ I said, ‘what you said about the other guy that lived here, when Mrs. Dunn was here?’
‘Stuck up cow,’ he said, again lapsing into silence.
I threw another bit of dining chair on the fire and then added to the carcinogens by rolling a fag myself. ‘You were just winding her up, then?’ I said, hopefully.
‘He was always noisy,’ he replied instead. ‘He couldn’t do anything quietly: bloody dogs barking all hours, him shouting at them, doors banging, loud music…’ He was clearly getting quite distressed re-living the disturbances. ‘Them other ones over there are alright,’ he continued, nodding towards the neighbouring flats, ‘foreigners, I think, keep themselves to themselves. They won’t miss him neither.’
‘Neighbour from hell,’ I agreed. ‘Do you know what he died of?’
‘Drink, I reckon. I hope it bloody well hurt, whatever it was.’
‘The main thing is he’s gone now, ’ay,’ I suggested supportively.
‘Yeah,’ he said, with a ghoulish relish, ‘shat out.’ I let it go while there was still some ambiguity. ‘Are you noisy?’ he said.
‘Not me,’ I said, truthfully. ‘I’m all for a bit of peace and quiet.’ I’d shared a lot of houses in my time, and if you’ve half a brain you learn to co-exist peacefully. I liked to read, have a bit of old music in the background. You don’t have to thrash Jacques Brel or Scott Walker to get the benefit.
‘Good,’ he said. He gestured towards the old brick shed next to mine with his stick then, and added, ‘There’s a few bits in there you might use if you’ve a mind to, I’ve no use for them.’
‘Cheers,’ I said, warily, wondering what I was accepting and if he’d notice if I had to burn whatever it was as well. ‘Can I have a look now?’
‘It’s open,’ said he, ‘help yourself. You can take what you want, only leave the tools.’
I was too poor to look a gift horse in the mouth so I checked it out. The shed was dry and packed with old furniture, dusty but better than I had, with a selection of ancient gardening tools piled in front of it that I carefully stacked against the outside wall. There was even a half-decent single bed with a mattress protected by bin bags taped together. ‘That was left over from the old house,’ he said, by way of explanation. ‘I’ve no room and I can’t sell it, but I can’t bear to see good stuff go to waste. If a young fella like you can make use of it, though, I’d be happy to get some of the shed back.’
I had the bed, a couple of leather armchairs and a utility wardrobe, all of which I managed to drag inside by myself, despite his insistence that he could help. There were some nice bookcases as well but I didn’t want to take the piss. He flatly refused any suggestion of payment, claiming instead that he was lending the stuff to me until I got on my feet. I managed to press a couple of ounces of duty-free tobacco onto him, subsequently topping him up when I could. He was independent, and though he no longer drove he still did his own shopping, slogging resolutely to the local one-stop or the garage metro on the main road. His garden was getting away from him now though, and, without any discussion, when I tidied mine up I took to doing his as well. And on that basis we became quite friendly, although only on the doorstep. We never saw the inside of each other’s flat.
Being quite handy I soon re-decorated, and new paint and fresh coffee boiled in pans for hours eventually dispersed the animal stink of neglect and decay. I was so far from anywhere that I was permitted to sign on by post, but every couple of weeks I’d take the bus into town to buy my hooky fags off the market and look around the charity shops. With the old boy’s furniture as my foundation, I patiently built up quite a nice place, a bit at a time, bartering to get the larger items delivered and carting everything else back on the bus. By the end of Autumn, I even had a telly and an old PC. Nothing matched, but with a few pictures up it was feeling more and more like home. I pulled an old bike out of a skip and did it up, and managed to get a job in cycling range, working on an organic cider press on a farm run by some middle class hippie. There was always something needing fixing there, so as the season turned he decided to keep me on. I was too far out to have many visitors, and I didn’t have many friends left anyway, but I liked my own company and a steady wage meant an Internet connection so I wasn’t short of entertainment.
When Christmas came around I decided to buy Billy upstairs a bit of a present. It was clear he had even fewer people in his life than I did mine, in fact I don’t think I’d ever noticed a single caller that wasn’t trying to sell something. I had no one else to buy for; my parents were long dead now and I was an only child. I’d lost track of all the cousins, while my remaining mates were either too cool, useless or cynical to even exchange cards. My initial intention was to just get a good single malt, as it was plain he liked a drink as much as a smoke, but the time of year made me sentimental. As I’d never been able to adequately repay his kindness when I moved in, I put together a bit of a hamper, mostly stuff from Aldi, except the whiskey, which was a good one, and took it round on Christmas Eve.
He was positively choked, bless him, the wave of emotion inexpertly disguised as a reaction to cigarette smoke, for I never saw the man without a fag hanging limply from his lips. I went along with it and tried to hand him the box, but instead I was invited in. ‘I’d never get that lot upstairs, mate,’ he said over his shoulder, laboriously dragging himself up by the bannister as if his legs were made of wood.
‘You should’ve gone for the flat downstairs,’ I said, once again thinking of my dad, who forsook the family terrace for a sheltered bungalow once his legs went.
‘What, and live in all that shite,’ said he, adding, ‘don’t take that wrong.’
‘I won’t,’ I said, chuckling, ‘on account of it being Christmas an’ all.’
‘Good man,’ he said, ‘now come and have a drink.’
The place was and was not what I had imagined based on the state of the shed. Instead of the expected hoard, there was a tidy kitchen in which I was instructed to leave the box, before being guided into a neat if dusty living room in frozen seventies décor, minimally furnished and bearing traces of a wife long gone in the form of empty vases and pottery figurines on the mantelpiece. There was a framed photo of two beaming pensioners on a wall unit that otherwise displayed dozens of videotapes, one of which was a younger version of my companion, the other a buxom old dear with Rita Hayworth curls going grey at the roots.
‘My Elsie,’ he said, catching me looking. ‘She already had cancer when that were taken, though we didn’t know it then.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said uselessly.
The telly was still on and he turned it off apologetically, sinking into an old armchair facing it across the room. He was delighted with the whiskey, and I was directed to find some glasses and sort out the drinks, after which I sat awkwardly on a small sofa that matched his chair but was much less worn. The gas fire was off and the room was freezing. There weren’t any Christmas cards.
I had my drink neat while he took a little water with his. The alcohol did its work, and gradually we relaxed into the situation. It was also a relief to be in the company of another smoker. He asked me what I was doing on the big day and I realised I didn’t have an answer. ‘Not working,’ I said in the end, which was basically it. I mean, Christmas is for families isn’t it?
‘There’s some good telly,’ he said, ‘brandishing a heavily annotated Radio Times, ‘that’ll do for me.’
‘I don’t know what’s on,’ I replied honestly. ‘There are so many channels now I can’t keep up.’
‘Oh, I’ve got it all worked out,’ said he. ‘There’s White Christmas on BBC 2 in the morning, followed by the Alastair Sim Christmas Carol on Channel 5 – I love that, though it’s the computer-coloured one which is a bit nasty – The Hobbit’s on ITV in the afternoon before the Queen’s speech, then it’s the Bond film, and after teatime the latest Pirates of the Caribbean is the big film on BBC 1, then it’s Morecambe and Wise. Then there’s always a ghost story late on BBC 2, that new Hammer one with Harry Potter in it, and if I can stay awake Steptoe and Son Ride Again is one Channel 4 in the small hours. That’ll keep me busy till I pass out, then there’s a Bergman retrospective on BBC 2 on Boxing Day.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I said, ‘I live next to Barry Norman.’
‘Me and the missus liked our films,’ he said. ‘I don’t do much else nowadays. I’ll keep the telly on for company, and pretty much watch anything ’cepting the news and them bloody reality shows, but I love getting lost in a film. I don’t care if it’s old or new. Sometimes I see something what come out in the last few years and I think Elsie would’ve loved that.’ He looked at the photograph wistfully. ‘We did all out courting in flea pits,’ he added, ‘and kept going to the pictures in Norwich right up until she got ill. Then we got this Freeview thing so she could keep watching movies. My daughter bought a DVD player an’ all, but I still like the old videos.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I said, ‘I still have records.’ Then it hit me. ‘I didn’t know you had a daughter,’ I blurted out. I’d never seen anyone go near his place accept Meals on Wheels, and there wasn’t a photograph in evidence.
‘Tina,’ he said, ‘she’d be about your age I reckon. We fell out about something stupid after her mum died, that was fifteen-odd years ago. I can’t even remember what it was about now. We never did get on though. It were my fault, I was always at work. She didn’t much like the pictures, and without her mum there was nothing really keeping us together. She was always a bit of a rebel as well. We did nothing but fight until she left home and I don’t think she ever forgot that.’
‘I could look her up online,’ I offered, ‘you know, Facebook.’
‘Don’t bother, son,’ he replied quietly. ‘I tracked her down once before, the old-fashioned way, but she didn’t want to know me. I’d rather leave things a bit open, you get my meaning? Perhaps she’s thinking about me tonight, perhaps not, and the amount of drugs she’s been on I don’t know for sure as she’s still alive. Let’s just leave it, alright?’
‘Understood,’ I said, ‘now let’s have another drink and see what’s on the box.’
He checked his notes and enthusiastically suggested Kelly’s Hero’s. I nipped downstairs to get a bottle of wine so I didn’t waste his present and we got quietly pissed until I excused myself at the end of the movie, not keen to overstay my welcome or end up getting too close.
‘Cheers, son!’ he called after me, as I let myself out. He had more stamina than me, because when I crashed out shortly afterwards I could hear one of those epic Italian Westerns thundering away overhead, reminding me as ever of the security of going to sleep as a kid with the sounds of my parents’ telly out the front.
I was vaguely aware of the scheduled viewing over the next couple of days, as I celebrated a long weekend off from labouring by doing very little of anything at all. I had a few treats in, and at Christmas you’re allowed to start drinking in the morning so after a lie-in I whiled away the time on the computer or in front of the telly snacking and keeping the world warm and fuzzy. I considered the pub, but in much the same way that Bill had told me the night before that he never took up the offers of church and charity to spend the day with ‘other old farts,’ preferring his own company and a good film, I decided I couldn’t be bothered. Our television audio synchronised at various points as we watched the same movies, but he kept going well after I retired. The next day the voices from upstairs were mostly foreign, which was Billy getting into the Bergman marathon. I spent the day shooting zombies.
Things got back to normal after that, and when I went to work at the freezing crack of dawn on the Monday I could hear that Billy was still on his visual bender, time and sleep cycles having very little meaning when you don’t work and live alone. The last time I was unemployed I became as nocturnal as a hedgehog. ‘Go to bed!’ I called up at his window playfully as I got my bike out but he didn’t hear me.
It was an uneventful but exhausting first day back and I went to bed early with a book. These old flats are cold, with no heating aside from the fire in the front room, and you have to keep a candle burning in the bog at night in the winter to stop the toilet freezing. Despite two duvets and sleeping in a hoodie I woke with a shivering start in the dark before the dawn, roused by a noise upstairs rising above the usual ambient murmur of Bill’s television. He was probably watching another western. I still slept in the small room, just as I had as a kid, and thus had a view through the open doorway down the narrow hall to the front door. As I came round, I realised there was a pale face pressed up against the otherwise black, frosted glass panel set in the top of the door, a recurring childhood nightmare made real. I watched the distorted features in the window, my heart pounding, and it stared back at me. After a moment of icy terror, I realised that it was Bill. My bunny-in-the-headlight stance relaxed, and I stumbled out of bed oblivious to the shock of the cold night air.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I said, blundering down the hall and wondering what was up, ‘you scared the shit out of me.’ I hit the light and unbolted the door.
There was no one there.
My eyes searched the dark, deserted doorways and our shared bit of drive onto the road. A single streetlight shone out through a halo of mist, revealing not a soul. I looked to my right, into the shadows of the passageway to the sheds and back gardens, but aside from calling my neighbour’s name hesitantly, I lacked the nerve to go down there without a light. I never much liked those backyards at night, and didn’t hugely enjoy sleeping on the ground floor. I reasoned that if Bill had locked himself out he would still be on my doorstep, otherwise perhaps there had been another problem, but not one so pressing that when he realised I had gone to bed he decided not to knock at the door. I quickly dressed and tried his doorbell. I heard its hollow ring upstairs, eerily loud in the silence of a country night, but he didn’t come down. I decided to get a torch and have a quick look around in case he was wandering about somewhere, but when I went back into my flat it dawned on me that I could hear rolling news from the TV upstairs. Didn’t he hate the news? It didn’t sound like one of those reviews of the year, either, just the usual doom, gloom and celebrity bollocks. This wasn’t a good sign. I considered phoning the law, but I knew there was only one car covering all the villages between Norwich and Dereham, and if there was some sort of emergency it’d be all over by the time they got here, especially on Christmas week. Just for once I was going to have to take charge of a situation. I decided to break in.
These were old, draughty doors fit plain to the frame, so as long as they weren’t bolted or double-locked you really could slide something flat into the jam and open the latch. I used a penknife. The stairs were dark but there was light under the door at the top and the TV was still on. I found the light switch and then called upstairs. There was no answer so I went up.
He might have been asleep in his chair, if not for the vacant look in those dry and fading eyes, and the ghastly blister across his mouth where his final cigarette had carried on burning between his lips, its ash scattered down the front of his shirt. He had gone, seemingly quite quickly and peacefully, while watching the telly. There was an unfinished drop of the creature by the overflowing ashtray on the coffee table, and the Radio Times was open to the night before last, with large circle drawn in biro around the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was a long film and I hoped he’d got to the end of it, although he’d probably seen the Alec Guinness version anyway.
I left him as he was, wiped off the light switches and door handles with my handkerchief, and then went home and phoned the police, explaining that I was worried about an elderly neighbour. They turned up within the hour and broke in much as I had done. I made coffee and they asked me a few questions about Bill while they waited for the doctor to turn up, and that was that. I sat up for the rest of the night smoking while they took him away. In the morning I painted over the inside of the window in my front door.
After the New Year, Bill had a public health funeral that I had to ring all around the bloody county to find out about. I took half a day off to attend the ruthlessly short and secular service, at which I was the only mourner. When I returned home there was a strange car in the drive and the door to Bill’s flat was open. There was someone moving around inside.
The car was too tatty for council, and it was too soon for new tenants – the flat had yet to be emptied as far as I could tell – so I had a pretty shrewd idea of the identity of the visitor, unless, of course, the place was being burgled. ‘Hello?’ I called up the stairs speculatively.
Unlike the last time I had done this, I recalled with a shudder, I received an immediate and unequivocal response. ‘Who the f— are you?’ demanded a shrill female voice, its owner clattering down the stairs to confront me.
She was a woman in her middle years but she dressed younger, her short skirt and sleeveless top unsuited to the time of year and revealing far too much tattooed flesh. She was grasping a plastic carrier bag stuffed with what appeared to be old paperwork. I could see an open and official looking envelope poking out at the handle. There was a cardboard box at the foot of the stairs filled with bottles, including the whiskey I’d donated, with what looked like an old photo album jammed down the side.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, rather nervously, ‘but are you Tina?’
‘Who f—ing wants to know?’ she said, as if addressing a bailiff.
‘I live next door,’ I stammered, indicating my doorstep. ‘I knew Bill…’ I realised this didn’t mean anything and shut up, rather embarrassed.
She glared at me. ‘Did he leave anything with you?’ she finally said, with no attempt at even minimal social graces, ‘a letter for me or anything?’
‘No,’ I confessed, adding, ‘sorry.’
‘F— him, then,’ she said, picking up the box and stomping towards the car, a dented white hatchback with black stripes along the side. She’d left the front door open, so I assumed she was coming back, but after stashing the booze in the back she got in the car and started the engine. I ran over and hovered by the driver-side window. She gave up and wound it down. ‘What?’ she said, as if tremendously put out.
‘Are you not taking anything else?’ I asked, adding, ‘I mean, it belongs to you. I could help you move the big stuff, if you wanted.’
‘Do I look like I can carry any big stuff?’ she said witheringly, lighting a fag. She thought for a minute, smoking. ‘You seem alright,’ she finally conceded. I returned what I’ve been told is a boyish smile. ‘I don’t want any of his f—ing old shit,’ she continued, idly tossing a small key fob at me which I failed catch. ‘Have what you like, just post the keys back to the council before the end of the month.’
I was trying to thank her when she reversed straight out onto the main road and shot off as if pursued by armed police. I stood there like a man left at the altar, looking at Bill’s front door and wondering what to do next. As we were basically talking a lot of old furniture, I assume she didn’t view it as worth the bother of trying to flog. I was still skint enough to consider it though, but when I got upstairs I suddenly had no desire to hang around, even in daylight. The telly was bigger than mine, though, so I grabbed that, and, feeling safer outside, I finally availed myself to the nice bookcases in the shed. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have minded.
The council came and skipped everything in due course. I had a quick rummage, but there wasn’t really anything worth having. It didn’t look like a lot for a whole life: some old clothes, a few books, chipboard furniture and a load of pre-recorded videotapes that even the charity shops didn’t want anymore. I imagined my own possessions in a similar situation. There wouldn’t have been a lot of difference, just vinyl instead of video.
I tried not to think about the empty flat upstairs, or the noises I sometimes thought I heard up there, but what bothered me the most at night was the absence of the television blaring from above. I found I couldn’t sleep without it, and took to leaving mine on all night instead, taking some comfort from the muted soundtrack emanating from the living room, although it wasn’t really the same.
Eventually, someone else moved into the upstairs flat, and they made more than enough noise, none of it, unfortunately, soothing. There was a woman, not unlike Bill’s daughter in age and appearance, only with hair dyed black instead of blond, and a couple of young-ish boys with close-cropped hair who spent most of their free time booting a heavy leather football against my garden fence. All this was mostly to the accompaniment of deafening pop music and the constant barking of some sort of bull terrier that also shat all over the drive.
The woman tried to awkwardly connect a couple of times when we met on the doorstep, but I didn’t want to make friends, let alone anything else. People like her draw you into their world and needlessly complicate your own with debt problems, ex-husbands, savage family feuds and babysitting. I politely kept my distance and heard her refer to me as ‘the poof downstairs’ more than once when she discussed her life loudly and at length on her mobile.
The kids quickly sucked all the joy out of the garden, and I took to drowning them out with headphones until they knocked the footie on the head when it got dark. Things usually went quiet at about eleven on a school night, while on Fridays and Saturdays the family caroused into the small hours. There was nothing I could do about this, and little chance I was ever going to earn enough to be in a position to move. I could complain to the council, but that would almost certainly achieve nothing other than outraging the neighbours and most likely escalating their activities from pathological insensitivity to downright malice. I drank more and ruminated on my options for escape, plotting imaginary murder while still greeting them with a frozen smile when we bumped into each other outside. They seemed pretty happy to lord it over the country mice, and were clearly dug-in.
After a few months of this, things degenerated further one night when one or both of the boys decided to have a TV party just after two in the morning, the violence of the volume rattling my windows like a distant nuclear detonation. This was closely followed by the mother shouting, ‘Turn that f—ing noise off!’ from the main bedroom.
‘I ain’t f—ing done nothing!’ I heard from the room above my own, as I lie there seething and the older boy, judging from the voice, railed against the injustice of false accusation.
‘I ain’t telling you again, you little c—!’ bellowed the woman, after which the TV shut off suddenly.
Lovely, I thought.
This pattern continued for several nights in a row, the dialogue above becoming more colourful with every incident while the dog went mental. Eventually they took to chaining him in the back garden, a place he clearly preferred to the flat as I don’t recall ever seeing him go inside again.
After a particularly bad Friday night, the woman paid me a visit, all smiles and forced civility, which I reciprocated. Thankfully, she came to the point quite quickly. ‘Have you been having any problems with your wiring?’ she said, still on the doorstep as I’d not invited her inside.
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘It’s a bit old, but it’s fine. Why, are you?’
‘Well, yes, quite frankly,’ she said, her tone much more moderate than her usual voice. I was reminded of the pantomime accent my mother would affect when talking to one of my teachers. ‘The bloody telly keeps coming on in the middle of the night,’ she explained breathlessly, clearly embarrassed, ‘you might have noticed.’
‘Yeah, I do sometimes hear it,’ I agreed.
‘I thought it was the boys,’ she said, ‘but they were both in with me last night and it still bloody did it.’
‘That is strange,’ I said.
‘The thing is,’ she continued, ‘I called the council about it this morning, about how old-fashioned the fittings are, you know, the lights and the wall-sockets. They didn’t much care so I took some pictures on my phone.’ She pulled a large, flat mobile out of the back pocket of her jeans and started swiping through screens. ‘Have a look at them,’ she said, handing me the device.
I angled the thing so the sun wasn’t on it and started flicking through a series of close-ups of paint-encrusted sockets and switches, and long shots of equally ancient light-fittings and boxed, external wiring. ‘Some of mine are still made of Bakelite,’ I said absentmindedly. She looked baffled so I returned my attention to the pictures. She’d taken one of a cracked sidelight on the far wall that had faint burn marks fanning away from it across the plaster, indicating a previous explosion. It was above an armchair, the top of which was in shot, along with what looked like the silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders, the rest of him presumably sitting in the chair. ‘What’s that,’ I said, feeling suddenly cold, ‘some kind of shadow?’
‘That’s what I thought,’ she said nervously, ‘but I had the flash on and it was natural light, so there shouldn’t have been any bloody shadows.’
‘Could it be yours?’
‘I ain’t that bloody big,’ she said indignantly.
It was obviously a trick of the light, albeit a slightly disconcerting one, but it occurred to me then that I might, just for once, have the advantage. I peered once more at the image. ‘Shit,’ I said, ‘I think that’s Billy, the old boy that lived up there before you.’
She turned as pale as a prisoner about to receive a lethal injection. ‘What happened to him?’ she whispered.
‘He died,’ I said, adding, ‘upstairs.’ She fumbled for a fag while I carried on. ‘No one knew he were dead,’ I continued, ‘until we heard his dog howling. By then, of course, it had eaten most of him…’
‘F—!’ she said. ‘That lying bitch said he died in hospital.’
‘Mrs. Dunn?’ I said, to which she nodded. ‘She always says that,’ I added.
‘You mean we’re not the first?’
‘Oh no,’ I said cheerfully, ‘only most folks don’t stay all that long.’
That night the usual show was accompanied by several high pitched screams and a lot of thumping about. I heard the family thunder downstairs, the door slam, and the car start while the boys ran through the passage and collected the dog. They left most of their stuff, and I didn’t see them again. Each night, nonetheless, the TV came on at just after two in the morning. It bothered me much less than had the new neighbours, and with them well and truly gone I slept with no more care than a baby.
This was a pattern that was to repeat several times throughout the summer. People would move in, and then back out very quickly, reporting funny shadows and, on one occasion, the apparition of an old man with a livid frown and sunken eyes standing in the doorway of the living room. Household pets would not tolerate the place, and even the goth who particularly requested that she be housed there did not last the first night, running instead screaming from the building to phone her mum to come and get her from the safety of the main road. The last ones I saw in person were a Mediterranean-looking bloke with a dog and a pregnant woman in tow, who stood silently on the doorstep with Mrs. Dunn from the council. I came out and did my bit while the husband was upstairs. The mother-to-be took it all in with wide eyes while the dog growled at the staircase.
But I needn’t have bothered. The gypsy-looking guy was out of there soon enough. ‘We no want it,’ he told Mrs. Dunn. ‘Something live up there already.’
Eventually, the word got out and they stopped coming. The flat upstairs was cleared and the power shut off. Despite a notable lack of council house provision in the area, it has remained empty ever since. Once I was sure the place had been abandoned, I used the keys I still had and took Bill’s telly back upstairs, along with one of his armchairs, running an extension lead out the window and back into my flat. It was the least I could do. It turns on earlier in the evening now, usually around eight, and goes off just after two. I mostly hear old movies, and never the news or one of them bloody reality shows. Sometimes there’s the clack of a stick upon the floor, followed by a cough, a muffled profanity and a flush.
Mrs. Dunn’s still with the council, and our paths cross occasionally when I have to go to the housing office. The last time I saw her I was enthusiastically relating the story to a little chav in the waiting room whose number was ahead of mine. He was desperate for a place to live, but as soon as Mrs. Dunn called his name from her office door he jumped up and emphatically cried, ‘I don’t care where you put me as long as it ain’t next door to him.’
Her eyes found me and I offered a cheery wave. ‘Honestly, Mr. James,’ she said, ‘it’s as if you don’t want any neighbours.’