THE WRITER’S LIFE
As I’ve written this, I’ve realised how almost indistinguishable some of my fantasy can be from real life. The surreal and out-there sci-fi aside, I’m a horror writer. I deliberately write a lot of fiction to be life-like, to draw the reader in, and I write much which is fact within my stories. This took as long to write as it did to find the end, then it was just like giving a statement to the police.
“Hit me with your rhythm sticks…”
I’m trying to work out how guilty I should feel about the death of my associate. I’m trying to calculate my level of responsibility for his demise, my reasons to be cheerful.
Whether friends or enemies, your proximity to your next-door neighbour is dictated by masonry. Mine and me didn’t always bring out the best in one another. While we shared many common interests in film and music, our politics were poles apart.
My neighbour was a caricature of himself, representing much of what I’m opposed to. A more engaging character might have been a good debating partner, but his views on life nevertheless had a place in his head.
He’d seen active service and was a damaged man, like so many others thrown into social housing with little support. Over time, I became that reluctant crutch. He was schizophrenic, sometimes needing my help and often resenting it later, after he’d had time to brew on whatever mixed in his head, and with no-one else to blame it on, he’d go next door.
I became adept at judging his intent at the doorway, then gradually skilled at guiding him either in or away. Nevertheless, I could never judge his mood before I answered the door.
So although we’d become begrudging friends, every visit brought a fear of the unknown, which all humans share. I’d never know what awaited me as I opened my door. Sometimes its was a tirade about the way I’d looked at him a week ago; other times a random meandering through a day out he’d returned from; and sometimes he’d bring me a gift (the last one was a welcome addition to my David Bowie library).
In daily encounters and a chapter which spans over three years, I couldn’t move away, and latterly I wouldn’t want to. He never confided in me, because he didn’t have the vocabulary or capacity to express himself. He really needed more than me for help.
Sometimes he’d fill my doorway three times a day, bald and with a belly, somewhat phallic and unable to coherently vocalise himself. Then he might not need anything for a few days. I’d enjoy the silence while wondering what was brewing, and how and when it would be served. Sometimes it would be to borrow some sugar, but always with an agenda. He was as paranoid as me.
There were four of us in this old building, all divorcees, ex-offenders, addicts, or a cocktail of the three. Mix that in with the mental problems which men keep to themselves when they keep themselves to themselves, and it can become quite volatile. Although there were no serious physical exchanges, there was much verbal and psychological torment. As the main recipient of the former, part of the guilt in my mind is my instigation of the latter.
Some of the confusion was how he thought little of encroaching on my space for his own reason, yet he respected my existence. He was a paradox. He knew I’m nocturnal and would always wait until he heard me plodding around before troubling me with requests or unsolicited advice. That being said, I sometimes sensed he’d need me as he made frequent and unnecessary visits to the communal hallway outside our flats (bedsits) without knocking.
There’d be times when I’d hear him around my door, and I’d snore. Invariably I’d then wake to a note on the door, asking me if I could do some shopping for him. Despite being aggressive when he was out under his own steam, he was as anxious as me about going out, even locally. But he never thought to ask what was wrong with me. Instead, I’d get the blame and have to give a refund for anything I wasn’t able to get and had substituted. The balance of gratitude would be restored when he’d returned from one of his drinking days and procured me a gift (it was a tobacco tin before the Bowie book).
The last note was on an electricity bill envelope, scrawled in green highlighter (he had a writer next door, but never asked for stationery):
Have to stay in. Doctor’s orders. Chest infection. Give me a knock if you go to Tesco.
I didn’t knock as I wasn’t going to Tesco that day. Nevertheless, once he heard I was up, he was at my door:
“You going to Tesco?”
“No,” I replied, “probably tomorrow.”
“Fucksake. Why didn’t you knock?”
“Because you said to knock if I was going to Tesco, and I’m not. But I’m going tomorrow.”
That was typical. That’s the clash of logic in a door slammed in your face. He didn’t need me to collect medication, just to do his shopping. Always happy to in the past, it’s always been on my terms; when I go out, then I’ll attend to his will; but I won’t submit to his whim when I’m not going out anyway. Now I don’t have to worry.
He got one of our other neighbours to get his orange juice that day, so he survived the night. The next day, he went to Tesco himself. I’d told him the day before that I was going that day (the day after), but judging by the number of shopping bags he returned with (four: all 5p carrier bags, as he never used his own bags), he was planning to stay in for a while. I asked him if he’d remembered sugar.
“Oh, for fuck sake.”
Don’t worry, I said. I was going round there today anyway. I told you.
So I got him some sugar. He came to the door, took the sugar and went back inside, bolting the door behind him. I didn’t mention the inside bolt before, because you get used to the sound of it over three years; the clink from within a cage. I’m pretty sure that’s the last time I saw him breathing.
This all happened just over a week ago. After that, I had a day out with my kids in London, returned home and expected a knock at the door. When it wasn’t forthcoming, I watched TV, played some poker, then slept.
The next three nights were good for banking sleep. I was uninterrupted, by footsteps around the door; unburdened with the lack of notes; and enjoying the blankness.
On Thursday I was up even later than my usual nocturnal hours. I’d stored up some sleep and found myself still awake at 6am. I’d watched a couple of films and was playing poker, when I heard a noise. I can’t come up with the onomatopoeia, because it was neither a thump nor a crash. It could have been the drunken thuds I often heard from next door as he moved furniture around at any hour, sometimes waiting for me to wake up (because he needed my help in his own mind), or the coffee shop downstairs placing empty chairs at tables.
When there’s a power cut, it’s impossible to get white noise from my fan. In the event of such a breakdown, I have a portable DAB radio which also picks up FM broadcasts. Just like the nest of bees on an old TV set, the hiss of the radio contains the noise of the original Big Bang which gave rise to us all, connected by quantum apparatus inaudible to the human ear.
As a result of previous trauma I have a narrowed oesophagus, which means I’m prone to choking. Because of this, I manage my diet and I know how to perform the Heimlich on myself (use the arm of the sofa in place of someone else’s fists). Because I’m a heavy smoker, I’d find it easy to detect a choking cough over a smoker’s, or one with a chest infection. I’d heard nothing to alarm me from my neighbour.
I was in a place of peace. If he wanted me, he’d never hesitated to call round in the past. By the same token, when he wasn’t at my door, I wouldn’t disturb whatever he was brewing up next door. Better to wait for a bullet to find you than hit it with a hammer, when it’s in someone else’s place and it has your name on it. Best to just wait it out.
After a while the silence which you’ve grown used to becomes more disconcerting, because of the peace which it brings to an island of reflection.
It was on Saturday that I sat on my quiet beach, almost ready to welcome a fascist invader on my shores; one I’d repelled so many times when ideologies had clashed in the doorway. One I’d retreated from, closed the door on; one who’d done the same to me; a man I’d wished dead in my head, like he’d told me to my face in not so many words.
You know the ending: He’s dead. I’m telling this and you’re writing it down. I’m writing and you’re reading.
I phoned the landlord. Long story short, he came round on Sunday. Even longer story shorter, he needed a witness if he broke into the flat (bedsit) next door. First he knocked.
“Do you not think I’ve tried that?” I wondered.
There was no answer, so the landlord tried his key. The door was bolted from the inside. My paranoid neighbour was almost certainly in.
When people find dead bodies in squalor in films, they normally recoil at the door. There was no smell, other than that of my neighbour having been a smoker. I’d only called the landlord because my sense of hearing was wanting, somehow my neighbour.
An extraterrestrial lay there, grey and cold. On discovering such a thing. One might also call the appropriate emergency services, police and ambulance. It’s another paradox that the ambulance is picking up someone beyond help, and that the police have to attend; and that police have to respond to a corpse, but an ambulance as redundant as the body needs to be there. Such are the intricacies.
“Is the patient breathing?”
“No. He’s dead.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s cold and grey…”
And so on.
All the while, a government strangles public services so that the underclass has to take care of its own.
There were no sirens, no fanfare. I sat outside with the landlord, mainly smoking. The paramedics arrived first. Unsurprisingly to all present, they declared a death on the block.
The police were next, questioning all but the paramedics about who’d seen whom last. I was the last one to see him alive and the second to see him dead.
The two police officers’ ages almost certainly didn’t add up to mine. One of them said this was his first. At least I knew those youngsters had support in their friends and colleagues. I’d just lost my nearest tormentor but my closest friend.
The police gave me a moment to wish my colleague a safe journey, once he was in his bag. He was on a stretcher, destined for the local hospital. I wondered aloud what they might be able to do for him.
No body removal is complete without comedy potential, and this story is made complete by the undertakers banging the head of the deceased on a door post.
And then he was gone, just that patch on the floor where he’d laid for however long before we found him.
I don’t know how long he’d been there waiting. If my concern had arisen sooner, while I was enjoying some peace, perhaps I might have saved him. If I’d not attributed onomatopaeia to elsewhere, maybe I’d have gone to his door to see if he was okay. If I’d listened beyond the doorway, I might have heard him calling.
Often, after I’d closed my door in his face, I’d mutter something inaudible, just to get the last word. Once I’d wished him dead. I’m sure he did the same as he shut the door behind him.
Inter-personal space is a very tricky thing to define, and to negotiate outside a social democracy. Dealing with this has played with my mind. Blurring it is a coping mechanism. There are three of us living here now, all leading solitary lives on the fringe of society, and unlikely to know if the others are in trouble. The room next door will be host to someone else I don’t really know. No-one knows much about people in social housing anyway. The greatest human fear is the unknown.
Look out for your neighbour. Break down their door if you have to, even if you may not be welcome. I’ll just keep keeping myself to myself, on the edge of humanity. Only he’ll know if I killed him by not doing enough.