There isn’t much privacy in flats. I rarely speak to my neighbours, but I know their habits and routines. Above my bedroom is their kitchen. I know this because at tea time I stand on top of a step-ladder to be close to the ceiling so I can get snippets. The father, Jim, likes rugby league. The kids wind him up and sometimes he chases them around roaring like a monster. The mother, Anwen, tolerates this kind of thing but likes to bring things to order. The kids, Warren and Rebecca, watch television in the living room whilst the parents clear up. I can hear the dishwasher sliding open and being turned on, which cuts out the conversation. I do this from room to room.
Lately, on a Friday evening, Anwen’s sister, Sandra, visits for drinks and gossip, usually staying the night. Jim pops down the local and the kids go to their grandparents for a sleepover. I watch Sandra arrive if I’m not on the nightshift. Her car is a bit throaty and she parks it up, slams the door, and I get a glimpse of her walking hastily up the path to the front door. She’s about thirty five or so, blonde in a bun, all flowing colour and jewellery. She has her own key and walks quickly up the stairs and along the landing past my flat, up to the Macpherson’s place a bit more slowly and breathy. The door is already open as she walks into a hug and whoops of delight from Anwen. They spend a lot of time out on the balcony smoking, making it easy for me to hear them through my slightly open bathroom window. Three Fridays ago, I heard the balcony door open so took my place in the dark listening intently.
‘Well Sandra, have you and Robert decided where to go on holiday yet,’ asked Anwen.
‘Not yet. We’re not getting on at the moment,’ said Sandra.
‘Don’t tell me he’s still working every hour he can.’
‘It’s not that. He never wants to do anything,’ said Sandra.
‘Jim’s the same.’
‘You love Jim though. It’s obvious,’ said Sandra.
‘I do. And he’s great with the kids. Why don’t you do some things on your own if Robert isn’t up to it?’
‘Well, next Friday I won’t be coming over because I’m off to the Crown Hotel for a meal with the girls from work.’
‘The Crown’s in the middle of nowhere. How are you going to get there and back?’ asked Anwen.
‘I’ll get a return bus ticket. Last bus is about 11.30. Robert’s working. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.’
‘Well if you get stuck, ring us.’ said Anwen. ‘I’ll keep off the wine in case you need a lift.’
Sandra lowered her voice. ‘Thanks. Does that weirdo still live downstairs?’
‘Yes, not that we ever see him. It’s always quiet down there,’ said Anwen.
‘I always get the odd feeling that he’s listening to us,’ said Sandra, even more quietly.
Both fag ends were flicked, still glowing, into the courtyard below as the two women headed back indoors. The following Friday I was on the night shift until 11:00 and instead of driving to work I could get a return bus ticket and hopefully see Sandra. I work in an old rural signal box not far from the Crown and, if my calculations were right, Sandra would get on two stops after mine. I knew from previous overheard conversations that she had recently moved to the area and lived on the other end of town to myself, so would probably get off somewhere along the high street.
That Friday after work I took a short cut across the fields down to the main road and the bus stop. The bus came at 11:20 as expected and I sat at the back. Two stops later, Sandra stumbled aboard. She nearly teetered back into the road whilst paying the driver before heading up the bus grabbing at hand rails and swaying around as the bus lurched forward. I thought she might give up but she kept on going, finally slumping at the back on the opposite side to me. She had dark, smudged eye make-up, hair loose and long and she wore a flowing yellow dress with flat brown ankle boots. Quite lovely, her wrists were loaded with bracelets and her earrings looked like lightning bolts. Her dress was riding high and the low-cut neckline revealed awkwardly large breasts.
I looked out of the window feigning indifference, glancing over discreetly at polite intervals. She started making retching noises with her handbag open, trying to puke into it but nothing came out.
‘Sorry, fella. I’m drunk,’ she said.
‘It’s alright, we’ve all done it,’ I said.
The bus started to slow down for a stop along the high street and Sandra got up to leave, straining to her feet, grasping for her bag. I joined her, moving swiftly in front of her before walking slowly down the bus in case she needed a hand, turning to keep an eye on her. She kept missing the hand rails and fell, giggling, into an empty seat next to a disgusted elderly man with a flat cap. She cheekily tilted the peak of his cap forwards and kissed his cheek. I gave her my hand to get back up. She kept her hands on my shoulders until we reached the door and I took both her hands to get her to the pavement.
We started walking in the same direction and she linked an arm with mine enthusiastically. I could smell a mixture of red wine and perfume from her face, while her breasts danced along to a stumbling rhythm. She got chatty and told me she worked in the admin section of a parcel delivery service and had split up with her boyfriend that very day. I was asked over and over if I was a weirdo that preys on vulnerable women but I assured her this was not the case. She was convinced she’d had her drinks spiked and kept saying so. Eventually, after a few wrong turns, we found her place. We said goodbye at the gate, she thanked me and I started wandering off.
Within a few seconds I heard the contents of Sandra’s handbag crash across the pavement. I rushed back and found Sandra on her hands and knees trying to gather it all together. I isolated the keys and offered to open the door and Sandra invited me in for coffee or wine. We struggled up two flights of stairs with thin purple carpet up to her flat.
The flat looked tidy, bright and false. Laminated flooring everywhere. Sandra suggested I put some music on and get us both a drink, so I chose a CD by Ella Fitzgerald before fetching a half bottle of red wine and two glasses from the kitchen. She was laying on her back across the leather sofa, her boots off and dress running high. She focused and invited me to sit down at the other end of the sofa, reaching out to cover her legs at the same time.
‘I swear someone spiked my drinks.’
‘Maybe you just had too much to drink. You should go to bed and sleep it off,’ I said.
‘Don’t get any ideas.’
‘I’m not like that. You’re too drunk anyway,’ I said.
Sandra seemed to be drifting to the music and soon her eyes shut and head nodded. I turned the music off and waited until she was out of it. I located the bedroom, opened the door, removed a wash bag off the bed and folded the duvet over to one side before going back to scoop her up. She barely stirred as I laid her down, stinking as she was with the wine and the perfume mixed together all sour. I put the duvet back across and manoeuvred her gently into a sideways position in case she was sick.
Back in the living room, I fell asleep. It was a heavy nap and I woke up disorientated. With rucksack over a shoulder, I tiptoed to the front door. On a shelf was some unopened mail so I made a mental note of Sandra’s full name and address, closed the door stealthily behind and ghosted down the stairs out of the building. I got back to the high street and headed home, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Sandra and the way she’d linked my arm when we got off the bus.
The following week I rang a few parcel delivery companies asking for Sandra, using her second name. On the third call the woman who answered said she would put me through. I put the phone down and headed to the parcel depot later in the day and sat in my car where I could see the staff coming and going. I saw Sandra walk out of the offices at the side and head for her car.
She stopped at Asda on the way home and bought apples, decaf coffee, a tin of stewing steak and a loaf of wholemeal bread. I shopped at some distance and stood behind her at the checkout. She placed a divider between our shopping and I thanked her and was rewarded with eye contact and an inviting smile. She’d gone by the time I got out but I used the Sat Nav to get to her street, where I saw her heaving the shopping through the front door as I drove past.
Sandra turned up at the Macpherson’s on the following Friday as expected. I watched her arrive as usual through the gap in the curtains and stood near my front door to hear her breathy landing and stair climb, the whoops of delight. Soon she was outside on the balcony with Anwen and I was crouched under the open bathroom window.
‘How did your night at the Crown go last week? asked Anwen.
‘I was so drunk I could hardly walk. I’m sure someone spiked my drinks,’ said Sandra.
‘Did you get the bus home?’ asked Anwen.
‘Yeah, the last one. Some bloke walked me home.’
‘That’s dangerous, Sandra. You’re lucky he wasn’t some kind of nutter.’
‘I can barely remember any of it. He ended up in the flat,’ said Sandra.
‘Oh. My. God. You were drunk, you may have had your drinks spiked and you let a complete stranger into your flat. Madness.’
‘I know. He’d gone by the time I woke up.’
‘Who was he? What did he look like?’ asked Anwen.
‘I can barely remember. I think he had dark hair and a moustache. I’ve no idea who he was but he seemed friendly and concerned to get me home safe as far as I remember,’ said Sandra.
‘I’ll bet he was,’ said Anwen, lowering her voice. ‘Imagine if it was that bloke downstairs. He’s got dark hair and a moustache. The kids saw him a few days ago on the stairs. He asked them how they are getting on at school. Creepy.’
‘Don’t, Anwen, it doesn’t bear thinking about. By the way, the flat below mine will be empty at the end of the month. The landlord asked if I know anyone who might be interested. I don’t. But if you do, let me know,’ said Sandra.
‘I don’t, to be honest. Why doesn’t he put it in the Gazette?’ asked Anwen.
‘He has but asked me to let him know if I knew someone anyway,’ said Sandra.
The lit fag ends sailed past my window. Sandra and Anwen settled into a night of wine, Motown, laughter and the departure of Robert. I watched Sandra leave the next day at 10 a.m., before nipping down to the newsagents for a Gazette. Back home I made a cup of tea and opened up to the classified section. It was time to make a move.
PAUL BRADLEY lives and works in North Wales. He enjoys reading and writing short stories usually within the realist genre. A number of his stories have been published in anthologies and the small presses. ‘Signals’ is shortly to be published in forthcoming collection Tales From Where the Wall is Cracked (Bridge House).