The Open Curtain
The trees were waving in the wind. Alison almost waved back. She didn’t feel silly. She felt good. Happy. For the first time in years, Alison Walker felt truly, gorgeously, stupidly happy.
Alison was looking at the view from the bedroom window of her new home. The trees she saw were growing in a ravine beyond the far end of the garden. They were downhill of the house and just short of a hundred metres away, but close enough to be heard through the open window as they swayed in the evening breeze. The susurrations of their million leaves were like the soothing shush of a mother.
At the thought of the word mother she sighed, and the moment was gone.
Alison was an only child. Her mother, Marjorie, had passed away a few months ago. A too beautiful woman when she was young, Marjorie had suffered from early onset dementia for many years. Marjorie had endured her illness quietly. She didn’t take much looking after. Alison had arranged for an agency nurse to come once a day to check her over and to give herself a break, but it wasn’t hard work caring for Marjorie. It just took all of her time.
Alison was in her fifth decade. She was a pretty woman, auburn hair, slim, with an attractive smile and a throaty laugh when the occasion arose. In her middle thirties, she had become the full-time carer for her mother, and that had put paid to any worthwhile personal life. There had been a couple of boyfriends before then, but nothing serious. One of them had told her that she looked like Audrey Hepburn with curves, which she felt was slightly insulting to both herself and the star. This boyfriend had hit her once, a few weeks after the curves comment, because she wouldn’t do what he asked. She hit him back, harder, drew blood and never saw him again. Another boyfriend had tried to persuade her to move in with him but Alison didn’t want that, not with him, anyway. There had been others, too, but none worth remembering. When they learned that she had to look after her mother, the boyfriends lost interest and moved on. Most of her friends had moved on, too. They’d either married into new lives or moved out of town or simply dropped her when she became difficult to know because of her mother. She didn’t mind. She was happy in her own company.
She did feel that she was missing out on something, though. It seemed for a while that life was happening to her, not for her, and it took a long time for Alison to realise what it was. It was a home. She wanted a home of her own.
When her mother died, within weeks Alison had sold the place she’d lived in all her life. It was a big old house in a good part of town, but it was where both her mother and her father had died and she didn’t want to live in that place. She wanted somewhere new, a place of her own, where she could live her own life.
The house she found was an old detached Victorian villa in a quiet location at the edge of the city. It was at the end of a cul-de-sac with only a few other houses nearby and nothing at all behind it apart from the wooded ravine and acres of moorland beyond. In the morning, the sun rose on the left side of the long, wide rear garden, and it would slide across the whole of the sky to set on the right side in the evening.
Her new home itself wasn’t anything like as big as the family home had been. She hadn’t wanted something too big to manage. What she wanted was somewhere with nooks and crannies and hidden places, quirks to make it interesting, and this house was full of them. It wanted a bit of care when she moved in, some basic maintenance like roof slates replacing and gutters and downpipes mending, but the plumbing and the building itself were sound. The only thing it really needed was a rewire and some sympathetic decoration.
Alison worked out what she wanted and then paid an extortionate amount of money to get the work done as quickly as possible. The family home had already been sold for a not very small fortune by now, and the contents sold off or put into storage, so for a few weeks she stayed in a hotel near the new house while the work was carried out. As soon as the last workman left the building, the removal men arrived, bringing all the furniture that she’d chosen to keep plus a few new treats that she’d bought while she was waiting to move in. Alison gave the men lists of contents for each room and let them get on with it. When it was done, and the men were all gone, she walked round every room in the house, listening to the echo of her own footsteps. Each room gave her a growing sense of elation.
She had her home.
She needed nothing more. Everything was in place. Now, in this room, her bedroom, in her house, Alison looked out and smiled and waved again at the trees at the end of her garden. Her garden.
The sun was going down and the shadows were stretching across the lawns and the shrubberies, shading over the pond and the rose garden and the little folly at the far end. She turned and looked around the bedroom. The paintwork and wallpaper were just right for the house, elegant and understated. Her new bed and wardrobes were modern interpretations of the type of furniture that would have been installed in the house when it was first built. Alison wandered out on to the first floor landing and turned again, enjoying the sight and smell and feel of everything around her. She saw the broad wooden stairs that led up to the attic, and she felt an urge to see what the garden looked like from up there.
The attic was huge. It had become a storage vault, filled with unopened boxes containing all the unsorted things from the old house. Alison looked around the room. It was dusty and in need of renovation, but there was time for that. She had all the time in the world for projects like that. Here and there were relics from previous occupants, things in corners and containers that she didn’t recognise that would take time to discover and assess and evaluate. She was already smiling at the prospect.
The attic ran from the front to the back of the house, with floor to ceiling windows at each end. On either side were gables inset with smaller windows providing light for the middle of the space. Alison walked to the far end of the room so that she could look at the back garden and beyond. Below her stretched the garden, with the ravine sprawling beyond it, and, farther out, the hazy purple hills of the moors. Small flashes of light twinkled from cars travelling on distant roadways across the land. Drifts of woodsmoke rose from remote farmhouses. The golden stain of sunset was spreading across the sky. Even through the cobwebbed dirty windows, the scene was one that enlarged her heart with happiness. She stayed and looked at it for a long time.
When she finally decided to go back downstairs, Alison walked along the other side of the attic, examining things as she passed them. Most things had been wrapped and put in boxes. She came to something she didn’t recognize. It was an ornate brass and marble lamp standing on a container beside the gable window. The lamp was still plugged into an old socket. She stood for a moment, debating whether or not to risk trying the switch. Through the window beside her, she could see the house that neighboured hers to the east. She saw a window on the level below and realised that it must be a bedroom. The curtains were open. A man was in the room, sitting at a desk, his back to her. There was a computer on the desk. He seemed to be watching a movie. Alison felt uncomfortable, intrusive and prurient, and she turned away.
The lamp was something left behind by previous owners. It was dusty and the shade needed cleaning but the jade green marble base was beautiful. Alison decided to try it. She bent down and pressed the switch and the bulb glowed, it’s thin filaments throwing off a surprising amount of light in the darkening space. As she stood up to admire the lamp, out of the corner of her eye she saw movement.
The man was standing at the window now. He was looking up at her. He was staring at her. Before Alison had a chance to think about what to do, the man pulled the curtains together in a quick, savage motion.
The man was youngish, in his thirties, perhaps, and stocky, with blond hair. He had been wearing a tee shirt and shorts. He had small blue eyes and a round, child-like face. The look on his face had shocked her. His teeth had been clenched and bared. He had been snarling at her.
Alison’s heart was hammering at her chest. She switched off the lamp. Evening gloom filled the attic. She stood looking at the closed curtains of the other house for a while, not sure what to do. There was no more movement in the window. After a few minutes she picked her way through the darkness and made her way back down the stairs.
The sun warmed the world early the following day. Alison took her breakfast toast and coffee out on the patio. A riot of bird life filled the trees and bushes of the garden. It was already bright. A lazy sun hung low in the eastern sky. A pair of blackbirds ran along the borders of the lawn, halting, pecking, and running again. Somewhere on the other side of the house she heard a car start up and then drive slowly away. Dogs began barking. There was a floral scent in the air, though she couldn’t name the fragrance or identify its source. She felt the smile from yesterday spread over her lips again. When she tasted the coffee, her mouth filled with pleasure.
Alison looked out at the garden. It had been well tended in the past but it was looking overgrown and neglected now. Ideas of what she could do with this long green space began to form. She already had dozens of projects in mind for the house itself. She would have to find someone to help her with the garden. There was a file in the kitchen with some notes from the estate agent and the previous owners. Perhaps there would be something in there. She stretched her arms and yawned and smiled. There was no rush. She decided to enjoy the moment. And the coffee.
The patio was flagged with broad York stone. Alison slid out of her sandals and got up and walked barefoot to the edge of the patio, feeling connected to the land with each cool step. She had a cup of coffee in one hand and a slice of toast in the other and felt somehow decadent. She imagined herself standing here in thirty or forty years time, doing the same thing, feeling the same fullness, smiling the same smile. There was no question that she was ever going to leave this place.
It struck her then that this was where she would die.
The thought froze her in the moment. Her vision became unfocused and she felt as though she were drifting away, out of herself. The understanding that this would be her last home took hold of her and she became aware of everything about the house, of everything around her, the bricks of the walls, the cherry trees, the lilac bushes, the sense of being observed.
A beech hedge on her left screened the garden from its neighbour. In full summer leaf, the hedge was thick and almost impenetrable, but some sections were thinner than others. Through a patch in the lattice of branches she saw the silhouette of a figure. Alison remembered the man at the window last night.
“Hello?” she said.
There was no response. Alison turned and placed the coffee cup on the table and called out again.
“Hi, there,” she said. There was no answer. “I’m Alison. Your new neighbour. Could we talk, please?”
Alison squinted at the thin patch of hedge but the figure had gone. The absence just made her more tense. She still had a sense of being watched. In spite of the warm morning sun she shivered. She called again.
The only answer was birdsong. She gave up and went back into the house.
There was some paperwork to complete with the solicitor this morning. After breakfast, feeling refreshed after a shower, Alison walked out on to the gravelled forecourt where she’d left her Mini last night. A sad concrete circle surrounded some wilted plants in the centre of the forecourt. She stood and looked at it for a moment, and another project took shape in her mind. She blipped the key and the indicators of the Mini flashed. As she opened the door, she heard a thin, broken voice.
Alison looked up and saw a small woman with grey hair and greyer skin waving at her from the end of the drive. There seemed to be hardly any flesh on the woman’s bones. Her teeth were made huge by the lack of substance surrounding it.
“Hello,” said the woman, “I was hoping to catch you. I’m Gloria. I live here.” The woman pointed what looked like a talon at the house to the west of Alison’s. “Welcome to our little corner of the world.”
Alison crunched along the gravel and stretched out her hand. The hand she received was like a bird’s wing, thin and fragile and weightless.
“Hello, Gloria,” said Alison. “That’s very kind of you. My name’s Alison. Pleased to meet you. And thanks for the welcome. You’ve made my day, and it isn’t much past breakfast.”
The woman smiled, and then laughed. Her laughter was awful, a crackling wheeze that appeared to diminish her. When she stopped laughing, she seemed to have become even smaller.
“Breakfast,” said Gloria. “I remember that. Overrated, if you ask me. I haven’t had breakfast since… oh, I don’t know.” She paused, wrinkling her nose. “I’m not sure when I last ate anything, to be frank.” She paused again, and looked at Alison. Her eyes glittered like blue diamonds.
“I’m dying,” she said.
Alison was still holding the woman’s hand. It nestled in her own like a small creature. There was too much skin, and what there was seemed thinner than paper. Alison could see liver spots and ligaments and wiry lines of blue and red veins. She fought an urge to shake free.
“Oh, god, Gloria,” she said, and then she blanked. “I don’t know what to say…”
Gloria chuckled. “Don’t worry about it, love,” she said. “Eight years ago, the doctors told me I had the cancer. Gave me six months. Either they’re stupid or I’m a miracle. I don’t care which. I’m still here.”
Alison laughed, too heartily. She still didn’t know what to say. Gloria released her hand and rescued her.
“Anyway, I just wanted to say hello,” she said. “You get on your way now, Alison. You must have lots of things to do. I’ll be here when you get back. Just come and give me a knock and I’ll put the kettle on. I’ve lived here since forever, so I can tell you all about Muriel and the history of your new home.”
Gloria nodded. “The woman who used to live in your house. Older than God, she was. Made me look young. Deaf as a post, blind as a bat, and mad as a hatter. We used to compare cancer notes to cheer ourselves up.”
She bit her lip and shook her head. Alison saw that there were tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry I didn’t meet her,” said Alison. “She sounds like a good friend.”
Gloria nodded. “She was, she was,” she said. “Not like that funny bugger over there.” The talon pointed to the house to the east. “Hasn’t spoken to anyone since he moved in three years ago, that one,” she said. “Not a word, to me or anyone else around here. I tried once, just like I did with you. Caught him as he went out. He just looked at me. Just stared, as if it was me that was being odd. Drove off and didn’t say a thing. I’ll stand most things, but not rudeness, so that was it for us. I’ve never tried again, and nor will I. Sod him, the arsehole.”
Alison laughed again. The laugh this time was genuine.
“Gloria,” she said, “you’re fabulous. Glorious, even. You’re right, I am on my way to a meeting as it happens, but I will drop in when I get back. I will. And I’ll take you up on that cup of tea. I promise.”
She climbed in to the Mini and watched as the old lady scuffled away home. They waved and smiled at each other. Alison started the car and rolled it towards the road. When she reached the end of the driveway, Alison looked left and right to check for traffic.
In the house to the east, she saw a window being shut.
The meeting with the solicitor didn’t last long. Alison came away with a folder full of names of people who might be useful. The list didn’t include a gardener, so Alison decided to ask Gloria. She picked up a bottle of wine as a gift. She had second thoughts about a bottle of wine and went back and got a box of chocolates. She got as far as the car before thinking again and going back for a bunch of flowers. She decided to let Gloria choose which she wanted.
Gloria chose all the gifts. She insisted that Alison open the bottle of wine and the box of chocolates. The wine went into mugs and the chocolates into a bowl so they could share them. The flowers went into a huge glass vase that Gloria couldn’t lift. By the time Alison left, it was getting on for five in the afternoon and she was feeling sick and drunk. Gloria had insisted on opening a second bottle. Gloria had been talking the whole time, but Alison couldn’t remember a single thing that she’d said. She knew one thing, though. She wanted to grow old like Gloria.
She dropped her keys in the front porch. The folder of names was under one arm and she was holding a bag of shopping with the other and the keys fell out of her hand as she tried to push them into the lock. Alison swore and bent unsteadily. She picked the keys up and then dropped them again. She swore once more, loudly this time.
Alison turned at the sound of the voice. There was nobody in sight.
The street in front of her was empty. At the west house, Gloria’s front door was still closed, just as she’d left it. She could see no one at the east house. The doors and windows were all shut, and the curtains and blinds were drawn against the evening sun. A dusty black Ford Focus sat on the drive. Alison looked around once more. She shrugged, and bent to pick up the keys. At the edge of her vision she saw a puff of smoke drift up from the far side of the Focus.
Alison stood up and looked at the car. It was parked sideways on to her. All the side windows had been tinted an impenetrable black. She couldn’t see inside the cabin. As she looked, the engine started and the car rolled down the drive and on to the road. It paused in the middle of the road, brake lights on, engine running. The front and rear windows hadn’t been tinted so Alison could see into the car now. She saw the driver from the back. It was the man from the previous evening. She saw his face reflected in the rear view mirror. He was wearing sunglasses, but she knew he was watching her. The brake lights went off and the car drove slowly away down the road. She saw the car stop and then turn to the right and disappear. Alison looked at the east house. She stood there for quite a while. When she walked back into her house, she was completely sober.
The following day, Alison phoned a few of the names from the folder. Some of the people she called came the same day, some the day after. She told them what she wanted and asked for quotes. A few of the quotes were outrageous, and Alison told them so. She also told them that they were trying to take advantage of her, that they had picked the wrong woman for that, and not to bother contacting her ever again. She accepted the quotes that were reasonable from the companies that could complete the work soonest.
The first thing she had done was fencing. Tall, sturdy wood fencing, running all the way from the front of her drive up to the ravine at the end of the back garden. Alison had it installed on both sides of the house, partly to appear even-handed, partly as preparation for the day when Gloria was replaced by someone as yet unknown. Alison explained to Gloria what she was planning in advance of having the work done. Gloria just wheezed in delight. The fence masked the beech hedge completely.
The next thing she had installed was a marquee. The one she chose was the solid, permanent kind, mounted on a big metal frame. Alison had it erected over the patio. The sides were left open so that she could see from the dining room through to the garden at the back of the house. On the evening that it was completed, Alison walked out on to patio. She was carrying a glass of wine. She patrolled under the marquee, looking up and round at various points. The canopy hid the doors and windows of the neighbouring properties, which meant that nobody could see her. She sat at the table and smiled and drank. The wine tasted good.
Over the next few days, Alison had broad Venetian blinds put in every window. She had all the door locks changed and the alarm system upgraded. The last thing she had installed was a video surveillance system.
On the morning of the day after the last work was completed, Alison wrote a letter.
‘Hi. My name is Alison Walker. I’m your new neighbour. I’m sorry if I’ve upset or annoyed you in any way. I assure you that it was not deliberate. I’ve made some changes to my house to ensure that you have your privacy again. I trust that you will also respect mine. It seems that our relationship has got off to a difficult start. I would be more than happy to try to put that right over a cup of coffee. Just let me know when and where.
I look forward to hearing from you.’
Alison thought for a moment and then added the words ‘Kind regards’, and signed the letter. She sealed the envelope and took it round to the east house and posted it through the letterbox. After she’d posted the letter, she walked straight back home. She didn’t wait for anyone to open the door.
That afternoon, Alison needed to go into town to meet her accountant. Checking her handbag as she stood on the porch steps, she saw the movement of a curtain at the east house. She stood there for a moment, not looking at the house, looking instead along the street in front of her, deep in thought. After half a minute she walked over to her car and got in. She started it up and drove away without looking back.
Her accountant wasn’t boring. He was an old friend of her father’s, a little fat man called Tony, and he was one of the world’s naturally funny people. Everything he did and said made Alison laugh. His office was in an old building on the High Street in the city centre. Every time she walked into the office Tony was standing at the window, looking down and smiling. He liked to watch the people walking through the little square outside and to wait for the funny thing to happen. A funny thing always happened when Tony looked out of his office window.
Alison walked in and was beckoned to his side. She came and stood and watched with him. She was already smiling.
“Nothing’s happened for ten minutes,” he said. “It’s overdue.”
They stood together for a few more minutes. Alison didn’t have the patience that Tony had. She was just turning away when he caught her elbow and pointed.
“Here we go,” he said.
A woman wearing scruffy, unmatched clothes walked into the square. They both knew the woman by sight, though neither of them had ever met her. Tony had named her Vera, and he had imagined a whole life story for her. He had decided that she had a golden heart, a discarded sense of propriety, and an overwhelming affection for cider. They both liked Vera. Something funny was usually happening around her. She always carried a hiking backpack that seemed to be full of her life. They’d seen her walk past the office one day with the shins of two legs of lamb protruding out of the top. They were both at a loss to work out how Vera was going to cook them before they realised that the legs were not for eating. They were currency.
Vera sat down on a bench in the square. A young man wearing a collar and tie under a shapeless jacket was sitting at the other end of the bench. He was wearing Beats headphones and reading from an iPad. He was oblivious to the arrival of Vera. Vera looked at the young man. He didn’t notice her. She slid closer to him, and then closer still. A puzzled look appeared on the man’s face as he read. Tony chuckled and guessed that an unfamiliar perfume had reached the man. The man raised his head and almost jumped off the bench when he saw Vera beside him. He stood up. Vera threw her jacket open and said something to him. He shook his head, and then shook it again and began to walk away. He stopped once, patted his jacket pockets and looked back. Vera was already finishing his sandwich by then. The man kept walking.
Alison and Tony were laughing out loud.
“Classic move,” said Tony. “The way she covered his sandwich with her jacket. Genius.”
They stood and watched Vera eat. Alison looked in the direction of the disappearing young man. Across the square, she saw another man with blond hair and a round face step back into an alleyway and out of sight.
Alison stopped laughing. Tony noticed the look on her face.
“Everything all right, Alison?” he said.
Alison was still staring at the alleyway. There was no sign of the blond man.
“It’s nothing,” she said, finally, and turned away.
Their business was conducted in a sombre mood. When it was concluded, Tony took hold of her hand. Alison couldn’t remember him ever touching her before, though they must have shaken hands many times over the years. She looked at his soft, fat fingers. She was surprised to see that his fingernails had been manicured.
“What is it, girl?” he said. “What’s the problem? And don’t tell me it’s nothing, because it isn’t nothing. I can see it isn’t just by looking at you. Tell me. Maybe I can help. You know I will if I can.”
Alison looked into his watery little eyes. She saw the concern there and knew that he was being sincere.
“I don’t know, Tony,” she said.
“Don’t know what?”
“I don’t know if I should involve anyone else. I’m not sure there even is a problem. It might be me being stupid, imagining something bad when it’s actually a simple misunderstanding. I think I might just wait to see how things turn out.”
Tony let go of her hand and leaned back in his chair.
“Talking about it can’t hurt, can it?”
Alison looked at the window. It had begun to rain, and thin streams of water were running down the glass. A memory of her father came to her. He had brought her here once, to this office, many years ago. She had sat and waited while the two men discussed Frank’s business accounts. Frank hadn’t trusted many people, but he had trusted Tony.
She took a deep breath and began. She told him all about the man in the east house. When she’d finished, Tony stood up and looked out of the window again. He wasn’t smiling this time.
“Are you sure it was him earlier? Out there, in the square?”
“Fairly sure, yes. I mean, as sure as I can be from a brief glimpse.”
Tony nodded. “That moves it out of odd neighbour territory. Right, leave this with me. I’m going to spend the rest of today finding out about him. Tomorrow I’ll talk to some of my people to see what they can dig up. When we know what we’re dealing with we’ll know what the next steps should be. Okay?”
Alison sighed. “Yes, thanks. Thanks, Tony.”
“Just a couple more things,” he said. “Do you have a name for this chap?”
She shook her head. “Gloria would know, I think. I could ask her.”
“No, don’t bother, Alison. If he’s lived there as long as Gloria says he has, he’ll be on the electoral register. I can find him on that.”
“Okay,” she said. “What was the other thing?”
Tony paused before answering. “Do you have anyone that can stay with you tonight?”
Alison raised her eyebrows. “Really?” she said.
“For company, Alison, that’s all. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about here. My gut feeling is that the man is just a bit of an oddball. If the letter you sent him doesn’t ease the situation, I’m sure we can do something that will. And hopefully piss him off while we’re at it. Yes?”
She laughed and nodded. “That would be good,” she said. “And I’m sure I’ll be okay on my own. The house is pretty secure, now. I can look after myself.”
“Yes, Frank told me about the boy whose lip you split.” Tony smiled. “Must be in the genes. Your old man was just the same. Never backed down from anything.”
Alison’s face warmed. She looked out of the window.
“I’m going to get off now,” she said, rising from her seat, “before the rain gets any worse. I had to park a couple of streets away because of the roadworks in the town centre. Looks like I’ll get soaked if I don’t go now. Thanks again, Tony. You’ve been really kind.”
“Wait ’til you see the bill before you say things like that.”
They both smiled. There would be no bill for this work, and they both knew it.
Outside, the day had darkened and the unexpected summer rain had already got heavier. Alison hadn’t brought a coat. She dodged along the pavement, trying to avoid people and puddles and to keep under whatever cover was available. Her best linen jacket was soon sodden and ruined, along with her brand new sandals. She reached her car and jumped in, cursing. She took off the jacket and threw it on the back seat. Rain ran from the bedraggled strands of hair that clung to her face. She knew she looked a mess. The vanity mirror set into the sun visor showed a wet and angry woman.
The mirror also showed a figure standing behind the car.
Twisting round in the seat, Alison peered out of the back window. The light was gloomy now, and the windows of the car had begun to mist up on the inside. She couldn’t see anything. She squinted through the condensation but there was no sign of him.
She opened the door and got out. The rain hammered down on the car roof. Rivers of rainwater ran down the gutters of the street, gurgling like a drowning man, carrying litter and muck along with it. Alison barely noticed. She stepped up on to the car sill and looked all around the area, searching for the man. He was nowhere in sight. The car park was in a small square surrounded by shop entrances and side roads and alleyways. He could have slipped into any of them.
Alison was drenched now. People hurrying past were looking at her. She realised that the rain was soaking her white blouse, making it cling to her, revealing her. She was suddenly bone cold. She stepped down on to the ground. As she turned to get back into the car, she saw a black Ford Focus emerge from a side road. It slowed as it cruised past the wrought iron railings that surrounded the car park where Alison stood. She glared through the rails as the car accelerated slowly away and out of the town centre. Red tail lights glared back at her.
The evening was uncomfortable. The rain stopped but the temperature rose, making the air heavy and humid. Alison couldn’t settle in front of the television. The programmes all seemed irritating, inane and pointless. She left them playing to an empty living room to give her the comfort of voices. She wandered around the house, not wanting at first to admit to herself what she was doing. When she tried the back door for the third time, she had to face it. She was checking that the house was locked up tight.
Upstairs, she went to the bedroom window, looking over the garden and patio from above. The rainclouds were clearing away now, scudding by like chased wild creatures in the darkening sky. A crescent moon flickered in and out of sight behind the clouds. Alison began to unwind, despite the sticky heat. Everything was secure. There was nothing to worry about. She could relax. A picture of a glass of very dry Sancerre came into her mind, and she smiled.
Beyond the far end of the garden, she saw a light flicker.
A trickle of sweat ran down between her shoulder blades. She stared hard into the black mass of trees and shrubs. The light had been brief, like someone switching a torch on and off. The glow had been masked by a bush, but it had illuminated the wet leaves of the plant like a filament in a lightbulb. Alison stood unmoving, watching the space where the light had been for several minutes. Nothing happened. Nothing moved.
She walked through the rooms on the east side of her house, studying the neighbouring property from the windows each bedroom. All the curtains in the other house were closed. The place was in darkness. She moved to the front of her house and looked out of the window. The Focus was parked in the driveway.
Alison walked downstairs and into the kitchen. She picked up her mobile phone and looked up Tony’s number. Scrolling down the list of names, she saw the time at the top of the screen. It showed that it was almost ten o’clock. She put the phone down. As she stood thinking, she heard a door slam. She hurried into the reception room at the front of the house. In the street outside, a pair of red tail lights receded into the distance. She ran into the hall and pulled the door open and stepped out on to the porch. The Focus was gone.
Even knowing that the man had gone out, sleep wouldn’t come to her that night. Fitful dozes were all she could manage. Every creak and settlement in the house came at her like a shot, leaving her tense and watchful all the time. She went to the bathroom in the early hours. On her way back, she checked out the driveway next door. The Focus had returned. It made no difference. She was already on edge, and she stayed that way the whole night.
Coffee was all Alison could manage for breakfast in the morning. She felt wiped out. Sleep had never been a problem for her before, but the lack of it was. Her head felt full of nothing. She could barely form a thought, let alone hold on to one. She sat in the kitchen, looking out at the damp grey dawn outside, feeling as miserable as the day. Weak sunlight began to break through the clouds. Catching sight of her reflection in the shiny black oven door, she let out a shout of exasperation. Standing, she slapped her face with both hands. She felt herself wake up.
After a long shower, she got dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. It was after nine by now. Keen to find out what he’d been able to discover about her neighbour, she called Tony’s office. The phone just rang and rang. She redialled but got the same thing. Alison realised that it was Saturday. After a short internal debate, she called his home number. The phone was answered immediately by Rene, Tony’s wife.
“Hi, Rene,” she said. “It’s Alison Walker. Is Tony there, please?”
She heard the sound of a sob, and a clatter as the phone was put down on a hard surface.
“Hello?” said Alison. “Rene? Are you there?”
There was no answer. Alison heard voices, male voices, and footsteps.
“Hello? Who is this?”
It wasn’t Rene speaking. It was a man.
“Hi,” she said. “It’s Alison Walker. Is everything alright?”
“Who?” said the man. “Oh, I know. Alison. Frank Walker’s daughter, yes?”
“That’s right. Who are you?”
“I’m Derek,” he said. “Tony’s eldest. Remember me? I suppose not. It’s been years since we saw each other. Anyway, listen, Alison, I don’t want to seem rude but could you call back some other time, please? We’re waiting for a call from the hospital.”
“Yes,” said Derek. “There was a fire last night at Dad’s office. He got trapped inside. Bloody fire doors were blocked by a wheelie bin or something. They got him out but he’s been badly affected by smoke inhalation. He’s in intensive care right now. We’re just waiting for the call to say we can go and see him. So, if you wouldn’t mind, we’d like to keep this line free. Hope you understand.”
Without waiting for her to answer, he hung up.
Alison didn’t move. She stood, holding the phone, looking at the screen. When she did move, it was to walk down the hall to the front door. She yanked it open and stepped out on to the drive and turned to face the east house.
“Bastard!” she howled.
The clouds were clearing. The sun was breaking through. The morning was warming, the birds were singing, and the driveway was empty.
Alison drove back in to town. She wanted to see the damage to Tony’s office. She parked in the same car park as yesterday and walked to the High Street. Red plastic safety netting had been strung across the side of the street where Tony’s offices were. She stood in front of them and looked up at the window where she had been standing with Tony yesterday. She remembered laughing with him. She remembered his bright little eyes.
There was a row of shops below the office. To the side was an alleyway providing access to the rear of the shops. She looked down the alley and saw an industrial dump bin pushed over on its back, its contents spread across the floor behind it. In the wall facing the bin, a fire door hung on one hinge. The inside surface of the door was black with smoke. Three men in fire service uniforms were looking at the scene and making notes.
Alison turned away from the scene. Behind her stood the blond man with the round face. He was looking straight at her. He was smiling.
“Alison, isn’t it?” he said.
She didn’t respond.
“I’m your neighbour,” he said. “From number twelve. Jeremy. Jeremy Warburton.”
He held out his hand. Alison looked down at it, and then looked up again. She didn’t take his hand. The man drew it back, and his smile faded. An awkward, uncertain look appeared on his face. He cleared his throat.
“I was planning to pop round today,” he said. “To say hello or whatever. I should have done it ages ago, I know. Sorry about that. I’ve been a bit wrapped up in myself, I’m afraid. I’m a writer and I’ve just got to the end of my latest book. It takes over my life when I get to that stage. I can’t do anything else until it’s finished. Nothing. It’s stupid, really, I suppose. Anyway…”
He paused. His voice was smooth and even, educated, confident, with a London accent and an odd nasal quality. Alison’s heart was bouncing around the base of her throat, filling it and making it impossible for her to speak.
He looked up at the smoke-streaked building. When he did, he squinted. The corners of his eyes squeezed up and his nose wrinkled. His upper lip rose above his teeth. He looked like he was snarling.
“Mess, isn’t it?” he said. “I saw the fire engines last night, as it happens. Had to bring my cat to the emergency vet in town. She’d got out into the woods again and into a fight with something, a fox I think. I heard her mewling in the dark, in all that rain, so I got out my torch and parka and went and found her. Her leg was in a terrible state. Anyway, I brought her down to the vet and saw all this going on. Didn’t hang about to gawp, of course. I was on my own mission of mercy, and I hate rubberneckers. Don’t you?”
Alison felt herself nod, as if someone else was operating her.
“I got your note, by the way,” said Jeremy. “I’m not sure why you think I’m upset but I’m certainly not. I think the changes you’ve been making are wonderful. It’s about time the old house had a bit of a spruce up. It’s looking marvellous. I suppose I’m going to have to do something about my place now, aren’t I? And the other neighbours. We’ll all have to keep up with your standards, won’t we? Even the Black Widow.”
He saw the puzzled look on her face.
“Mrs Mayer. Gloria, the old fossil on the other side of your house. My mother told me about her before I moved in. Warned me, I suppose. She’s had four husbands, and every one of them died in odd circumstances. Left her minted though, so they say. Mother said I should keep well away, and so I have. No skin off my nose, is it?”
Alison dropped her head. “No, I suppose not.”
“Sorry?” said Jeremy.
She looked up again. “I said, I suppose not.”
“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m a bit deaf. If I can’t see your mouth, I’ve no idea what you’re saying. These things are pretty useless.”
He tapped his ears. Beneath his overlong blond hair, Alison noticed a flesh-coloured device curled behind each of them.
“Comes in handy sometimes, though. I can pretend to hear or not hear as I choose. I get away with murder, sometimes.”
Jeremy smiled at her once more.
“I was in that office yesterday,” she said, pointing upwards.
“Were you?” he said. “Bloody hell. I was in this area myself yesterday, in the post office across the square, sending my manuscript off to the publishers. We’re always so close to it, aren’t we? Death and disaster, I mean. There but for the grace. For whom the bell tolls. All that stuff. Was it someone you knew? The man who died.”
“Yes,” she said. “I mean, yes, I know the man who owns the office. He isn’t dead, though. He’s in intensive care.”
“Is he?” said Jeremy. “Well, he’s very fortunate, then. The building was just full of smoke when I saw it. Didn’t think anyone would survive that.”
He looked up again.
“I’m on my way to visit him now, actually,” said Alison.
“Right,” he said.
“Well,” she said.
“I’ll catch you later, then,” he said. “Yes?”
“Maybe, yes. I’ll call on you. Okay?”
He nodded. They both set off walking in the same direction.
“You parked in the square?” he said.
“It’s a bugger to get out of there sometimes. I park round the back of it. Much easier.”
They reached a pedestrian crossing. The road was restricted to taxis and public transport. Buses were passing by in both directions in front of them. They stood side by side, waiting for the lights to change. Jeremy turned his head towards Alison.
“Goodbye,” he said.
Something was bleeping.
The ceiling was made of grey square panels. The panel in the centre contained a fluorescent light strip. It was switched on. The light hurt her eyes. She closed them again.
Her nose felt blocked, but she could smell chemicals, familiar ones like bleach, and unfamiliar ones, medical ones. She could smell other things, too. She could hear footsteps and voices and the bang and clatter of objects being moved and doors opening and shutting.
Her tongue felt huge, and her mouth tasted horrible. She swallowed. The swallowing felt wrong. Her throat was dry. She could feel something at the back of it. It made her gag. She tried to get up.
She couldn’t move.
She tried to speak, but the words in her mind stayed there. Nothing came out of her mouth.
She opened her eyes. The room was small, with a window and a door in the wall to her right. A curtain rail ran in a U shape above her. The wine coloured curtains were drawn back. Looking down, she could just see the rail at the foot of the bed. Looking up, she could see the metal framed bed head. A bag full of clear liquid hung on a drip stand that stood beside the bed. A tube ran from the bag and along the bed and up to her nose.
Perhaps she slept.
When she opened her eyes again, a woman was standing beside her. A nurse.
“Hello, you,” said the nurse.
The nurse picked up a cloth from a bowl and continued her work. She lifted Alison’s leg and wiped it clean from the groin down to the toes. Then she picked up a towel and dried her. When she had done, the nurse put the bowl and cloths on the side table and looked under the bed covers. She picked up a chart from the end of the bed and examined it and wrote on it and hung it back on the bed. She saw that Alison was still watching her.
“Alison?” said the nurse. “Are you awake?”
She came to stand beside her and bent down to look into her eyes. She hurried away. When she returned, a doctor was with her. The doctor was a small woman with thick black hair. She bent over Alison and examined her, lifting each eyelid and shining a light into the eyes.
“Hello, Alison,” said the doctor. “My name is Asha. Doctor Sinha, if you prefer. You’ve been asleep a long time, Alison, but it looks like you’re waking up now, which is wonderful news. We’ve been looking forward to talking to you.”
The doctor turned to the nurse and said something. The nurse left the room. The doctor sat down beside the bed and took hold of Alison’s hand.
“Alison, I don’t know what you remember, but you have been in a rather bad accident. You were hit by a bus. It caused some damage to your brain. What that means is that, at the moment, you’re paralysed. You can’t move at all. We suspect that you’ll have other problems, too. Speech impairment, for example, and we’re not sure what else. What we don’t know is how long any of these things are likely to last. Some of them may be permanent, I’m afraid, but we just don’t know anything for certain right now. What we plan to do is to give your body a chance to recover with a range of treatments here in hospital. What we’ll also do is assume that you can hear and understand us. We’ll keep you informed of everything we’re doing, so that you know we’re working hard to get you well again. Okay?”
Alison heard a bleeping noise. The doctor looked at the monitors above her head.
“I can see you’re getting a little upset, Alison. That’s to be expected. It’s a lot to take in. I think the best thing to do now is to give you some time to absorb all this news and come back in a little while.”
The doctor stood up and smiled and walked away.
The monitor bleeped for a long time.
Doctor Sinha was there again when Alison woke up the next time. Sunlight shone into the room and gilded the side of the doctor’s face. She was holding her wrist, taking her pulse. She put it down and made a note on the chart board. That was when she saw that Alison’s eyes were open. The doctor sat in the chair beside the bed and smiled at her.
“Hello again,” she said. “I hope you’re okay this fine day. So, today’s news is that we’re trying to get your body into a rhythm, Alison. We’re going to wake you at regular times to help you begin to get back to normal. I’ve just given you a shot that’ll keep you awake for a while. Try to explore your body now. Think about your fingers and toes and arms and legs. See if you can make them do something. Okay?”
“Good girl,” said the doctor. “I’ll be back soon.”
When she stood, she pulled the curtains back. Through the open curtains she saw that he was standing there, hands clasped in front of him, smiling. He had been listening. A look passed across the doctor’s face.
“I forgot to tell you, Alison,” she said. “You have a visitor.”
The monitor above the bed began to bleep. Jeremy looked at the doctor. She smiled back at him.
“It looks like someone’s happy so see you, Mr Warburton,” she said.
“Yes,” said Jeremy. “It’s sad, really. I’m only a neighbour but I’m pretty much all she has now. Her parents are dead, and she’s an only child. The only other people that I know were close to her were her accountant and her other neighbour, and they both passed away recently, too. I’ve got plenty of time on my hands now, though. I can be here most days, if you think it would help.”
“Oh, I’m sure it would, Mr Warburton. Any sort of stimulus would be good for Alison at the moment.”
Jeremy laughed. “That’s the first time anyone has called me stimulating, doctor. Ever.”
The doctor laughed in return. She waved to Alison as she left.
He turned to face her. He was smiling.
Alison looked at Jeremy and a memory flew into her mind. She remembered standing at the edge of the pavement. She remembered his goodbye, and the way he grabbed the belt of her jeans a second later, as though he was pulling her back, not pushing her forward. She remembered the sound of her head breaking, and the taste of her own blood, and the strange antiseptic smell high in her nostrils.
The bleeping became more insistent.
Jeremy walked up to the bed. He stood beside her, still smiling.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
Jeremy bent down and looked into Alison’s eyes. Sitting on the bed, he took hold of her hand. She couldn’t stop him. Alison realised that anyone passing now would be able to see nothing but his back. He leaned forward. She saw that the skin of his face was soft and over-washed, with small flakes of skin resting loose on the surface. His face was above hers. His breath smelled of chocolate.
Slowly, he licked her lips.
She knew then that she would get better. It would take time, and hard work, and there would be pain, but Alison knew that she would recover and become strong again, and that she would find him.
She would find him.
First published July 2020 on Medium – The Open Curtain