"The Neighbours"

It was their first home together, a simple two up two down, and its walls were turning out to be thinner than they might have expected.

'Do you think we should say something?' she whispered.

'No,' he said at last, because it was dark and a shake of the head wouldn't do. And if they did decide to say something there could be no avoiding that it would be up to him. Although, and he could not help extrapolating his reasoning into an imagined argument, it would probably be more effective if it was she that knocked on the door. If there was violence in the air, and it could not be ruled out, it would be more likely allayed by a woman. A man on the other hand...

'Hopefully they'll settle down soon. And there hasn't been any...'

'Any what?' She knew what he meant but she wanted him to say it. She didn't want this played down. She wanted the stakes to be out there to confirm her disposition, which was to intervene.

'Hitting,' he said, 'or whatever.'

'If there was hitting, we'd call the police.'

We? he thought. Of course, again, she meant him. It would be his job.

'Hopefully it won't come to that.'

But he could not help hoping, if there was action to be taken, that it would come to that. Calling the police might mean a late night but it seemed far preferable to a confrontation, especially as they had not seen their neighbours yet and did not know exactly what they were dealing with. They lay still, hardly daring to breathe while they waited for what would come next from behind the wall, which she could have touched from her side of the bed. He had read somewhere that the male of the couple tends to sleep on the side from which danger is most likely to appear. Looking back over the different beds they had shared, the dozen or so rooms they had slept in together, he saw that this was almost always true. It was never discussed. He seemed to take the side nearest the door as a matter of course. Now, as she rolled over towards him, rolled away from the wall, he wondered whether he was on the correct side after all.

There was no more noise. After a brief hesitation, he let her in. They folded themselves into each other in the way that they had been elated to discover could send them both to sleep and thought in their optimism that they would do every night for the rest of their lives.

These neighbours of theirs - all they had to go on were little signs, like the washing that had appeared on the line over the tall wooden fence, underthings out there for all to see, hers capacious and blowsy, his well worn and washed out to a uniform grey, but both sets co-existing in a version of intimacy, like the weary outcome of a truce. They made further deductions. His string vests marked him as a certain age, and maybe a certain type...but she put up with him, and he had no objection to her buying new things although he would not be persuaded to let her do the same for him.

All the yards behind their row of houses were tiny, with barely space for anything beyond the washing line, especially in the ones that still retained their outside toilet (mostly long since disused and now only good for storage or for plants that required special attention). There was a spot against the back wall of each house which caught the sun at a certain time of day. In theirs a bench remained from the previous occupants. It was completely out of sight and they had already started to sunbathe there, wordlessly gravitating towards the spot for the same few minutes each afternoon, to strip off and absorb this peculiar little blessing (and feel shortchanged on cloudy days). Did their neighbours have something similar, they wondered, and if so, could they have made the same daring use of it?

This dusting of harmony was not quite all-encompassing. They were in the process of making the adjustments, the trade-offs necessary to living together. She was coaching him in the use of bookmarks as an alternative to leaving her books face down wherever he'd happened to stop reading, and he was still wondering how to raise the subject of her hair in the shower – currently he was toying with the idea of letting the point make itself by waiting until it caused a blockage. He had already been unsuccessful in his suggestion that they agree to put kitchen things back in their assigned places, she being affronted not so much by his encroaching on what she considered her territory as by the way he had said it – a certain want of lightness which seemed to him the inevitable result of the agonising he had done over how it was to be broached. It would be a while before he could bring it up again and in the meantime, as with the hair, he had resolved to let her endure the frustration of missing utensils in the hope that she would come to his conclusion herself. He had, however (in post-coital generosity), agreed to pay more attention to the after sex wipe-up, although she had not as yet begun to feel that this task was properly shared. She ironed his shirts (which he privately thought unnecessary) and he stroked her hair (which was the colour of dark flame edges) for up to an hour at a time, and she sometimes dismayed him slightly by saying this was the deepest physical pleasure she could think of.

'Maybe,' she said now, 'they do this every night.'

'Surely not.'

'Well they have so far.'

They were both silent for a time, contemplating this particular hell. Eventually he said, 'We could sleep in the other room...if it's bothering you.'

The other room was smaller but the bed position, which was the only one possible, would mean him taking the side nearest the wall, this also being the side from which danger was most likely to appear. She thought about this as she pushed herself in against him.

'It doesn't really,' she murmured. 'They'll quieten down. They always do.'

    © MMXX by Angus Gaunt.

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