Trimmed from the book: a little story about an old neighbour of mine… (his name has been changed)…
2004, or thereabouts
One night. Just after midnight.
I wasn’t quite asleep. My book kept falling from my fingers, doinking onto my chin as I dozed off, and Dickhead was deep in some wanker’s reworking of a homoerotic Greek battle. I was thrusting my big toes down the side of my socks to lazily pull them off without using my hands, when the doorbell rang. I popped open an eye and glanced at Dick. Late night bells, knocks and noises were Man territory right? Nothing. Nary a glimmer of cognition. Some spartans were probably charging an armoured mammoth with their cocks flapping in the wind.
I shut my eye and ignored it. The bell rang again. I popped open my eye, this time with a hinty exhalation. Nothing. Perineum Maximillius Vibrillicious, son to a slain king and dildo to a serpent’s gash, was probably avenging something mighty on a hill, his pecs shining with the crusted jizz of Achilles or something. I kicked my feet out of the bed with a sigh and went over to the window, always forgetting that you couldn’t see who was standing at the door if they didn’t step back far enough; they were always shielded by the porch gable. The bell rang again.
“Who the fuck is that?”, Dick popped a reluctant response out of his sagging bedmouth, never once taking his eyes off a passage involving olive-oiled Athenian whores, twin shishtas Donner and Kleftico, pole-dancing around bloody spears spiked into the newly-felled corpse of Ancient Greece’s last known lesser-spotted bald-twatted spearmint rhino or whatever.
Again, the ringing bell. I grabbed my dressing gown and pulled it on while huffing and muttering under my breath. “I’ll go then, shall I?”
I left him squinting emotionally over the bit where Socrates wanks off an argonaut with a pitta-bread and went downstairs to open the door. I was actually a bit too annoyed at the lateness of the visit to feel nervous about who it might be and for what. A small wondering flashed through me. “Wonder if someone’s topped themselves.” (It’s always there.)
It was Cornelius. The old dude who lived next door at 56. Totally alive. He stood in his grey dressing gown beneath which I could see the stripes of traditional pyjamas, his black skin silvery grey in the moonlight and his eyes like scorched lanterns. He looked like a Cayenne Jacob Marley come to tell me ghosts were on their way. Cornelius was from Guyana and spoke in a soft Jamaican twang with curious French serifs. I’d been making a bit of an effort with him lately as he always seemed to be outside his house painting something which didn’t need to be painted. His house was cladded and painted all sorts of greys and reds. It was vile, but impeccably vile. He was clearly very particular about it, and in his recent spate of touch-ups I had often stopped and chatted with him, our longest conversation being about half an hour on astrology while I was busting for a wee. He was a great believer in the controlling forces of the moon, and we talked of tides and how we might be controlled in some way by the moon what with being mostly water ourselves. It would have been a really lovely lunar conversation if I hadn’t been concentrating on holding in my own inner tide.
Cornelius had cute springy hair, but seemed perpetually sad like he was always suspicious that kids were about to jump out and throw bottles of piss at him. I hoped he hadn’t been broken by our country being mean to him. I tried to play a nice ambassador so he wouldn’t think we were all arseholes.
Despite our new front garden friendship, I can’t pretend I wasn’t surprised to see Cornelius standing on my doorstep at a little past midnight in his dressing gown. Holding a hammer. I wondered if he might have been sitting up pondering our cosmos chat and had had an extra thought to add. I thought he might ask me to take a walk and look at the moon with him, and amble his way through a beautiful monologue about life and the stars, of time and existence, walk into the middle of the street, pick up a stone from a pothole puddle and crack it open with the hammer, to reveal a cluster of crystal inside. That we would share a silent moment of inexorable wonder and, in an unspoken agreement, from then on each night meet under the lamppost at the witching hour and walk out along a silver ribbon of moonlight together. A dusky old man in pyjamas and a pallid robed girl, sighing for her father. Cornelius could be my new one! He could adop…
Ok. I was a bit thrown off my romance by the hammer.
“Hey, Cornelius. Everything ok?”
His eyes loomed at me like jungle fires. What on earth was wrong?
“What. Is that. Noiiise?” Every consonant was sibilant with his spittle which bubbled at his twitching lips.
“What noise, Cornelius?” I cocked my head slightly to show willing, but the night was silent.
“That noiiise. That bang-ing.”
I listened, and made an extra show of it in the hope it might assuage his vexation. He looked tortured. He looked like he didn’t recognise me. I wanted to point at the moon and say “Hey, Cornelius, remember the crystal? Come back to me.” My heart darkened. He was shaking, and the hammer was swinging in his hand by his side.
“Cornelius, I can’t hear anything.”
“Are. You bang-ing?”
“No, I’m not. I’m just about to go to sleep.”
His eyes widened and dragged to the side as he heard it.
There was nothing.
“Cornelius, where is it coming from? Show me, we’ll find it.”
“You are. You’re banging. Is it music? Tell me?”
“I promise, Cornelius, we’re making no noise at all, we’re reading.”
“Bang-ing.” His eyes searched the floor. His lip quivered.
“Come in if you like, see if you can hear it in here.”
He stood rooted to the spot, staring at the threshold like he had not been invited into anyone’s house for years and that it might be a trick.
“Come on Cornelius. We’ll find the noise. Show me.”
I stepped back, back into my flat and up a stair to show him it was ok.
He gingerly stepped forward and into the house, like he thought I might have scattered a line of voodoo salt at the door which would set him aflame.
I walked up the stairs, hoping he would follow me and not just take up residence as a disgruntled statue in the hallway. He slowly followed. As we walked up the stairs I tried to break the surreal awkwardness of drawing a man in his pyjamas into my flat in the middle of the night by giving him a sort of audioscope tour of the place.
“So, this bit would be presumably next to your stairs, then this bit would be your upstairs hallway, and…”
“It’s coming from the back, I can hear it.”
“Okay – so down here is my kitchen, is this where you mean?”
I led him to the kitchen. His eyes darted around it like he was trying to stab fireflies with invisible lasers. Invisible fireflies. Inaudible noise.
Dick had shuffled down the hallway to see what was going on.
“Cornelius can hear banging and we’re just trying to figure out where it’s coming from.” I tried to explain without betraying Cornelius by doing a too-obvious eye-widened ‘help me’ signal.
“I can’t hear anything.”
“No. Neither can I. Cornelius, there’s nothing here.”
Cornelius was peering at the wall that adjoined his and resisting the urge to swipe things aside to get to it. He looked defeated.
“Can you still hear it?” I wondered if the noise had abated since he’d come in.
He didn’t want to say no, I could see the struggle in his face as his eyes confided that the ears weren’t reliable, but his mouth pinched stoically in the way of the word “N…”
His eyes widened again, the whites of his eyes butter yellow in the harsh kitchen light, trails of roadmap red creeping in at the corners. He looked tired. He looked like he painted everything clean in the day then sat up to be nightwatchman over it. He needed sleep. I knew that look.
“Ok, well, I’ve got an early start, so, er, I suggest if we can’t solve it tonight we wrap it up, yeah?” Dick grunted his way back to bed.
I stood looking at Cornelius who showed no signs of having even noticed he’d had been there.
“Cornelius, can you still hear it?”
“Is your microwave on?”
“No. Look. It’s off. Look – I’ll unplug it.”
I pulled out the plug, then as a consolatory measure switched off all the plug sockets around the kitchen. My stomach flipped at the thought of explaining to Dick that the clocks needed resetting on the microwave and oven. I opened the window to indicate there was nothing coming from out there too. Then I shut it. He hadn’t even seen me do it.
“Is it still there?”
He just stood there, his face pulsing like minuscule bats were flapping beneath it. I wrung my hands and shifted my feet to try and hint I was all out of suggestions.
“I don…Cornelius, I don’t know what to do.”
His helplessness was agonising. But I had to get him out somehow because he was lost in something that hours of joint puzzling would never wrest him from.
“Ok. Let me come back with you – show me where it’s coming from. Cornelius? Come on. Let’s go.” I tried to usher him with my body.
He eventually came with me. I led him all the way down the stairs, into the hallway, putting on both latches and pulling the doors to, out into the garden, around the fence, and came to a stop in front of his door. I felt vaguely ludicrous being outside in my dressing gown and pyjamas but didn’t have time to time to develop the embarrassment. He opened his door and I followed him inside.
It was immaculate. It was like a museum of the 70s. It smelled of paint and that strange stale smell that hoovers get when the bags are nearing full. I glanced through to the lounge – it looked like no one ever went in there. If I could have scratched at a corner I could have peeled off a film of cellophane from the whole room. Browns and mustards and golds. The dining room door was shut. Down the hall the kitchen, as briefly as I glimpsed it, had those little touches that showed it had once been a woman’s room, but that the woman was now gone and the man was trying to keep it all exactly the same.
I followed him up the stairs, where the condition of the place changed. The wallpaper was faded and peeling, there were patches of plaster peeking through in the corners, and the doors were scuffed and dirty. It was narrow up there. I felt hemmed in. I was standing in my nightwear in a strange man’s house. Don’t let it feel odd, Daisy. Not yet. Wallow in the weirdness once you’re out, but for now stay focused.
He led me into his bedroom. I swallowed some spit down to stop my throat from clagging.
Oh. Sweet. Jesus.
There were crucifixes everywhere. There must have been five or six on each wall, banged up in haphazard disarray. Some were gold-painted plastic with little droopy-necked Jesuses and some were puritan wooden crosses. Almost all were wonky.
I swallowed hard. I don’t know why that room should have been more chilling displaying the worldwide symbol of goodness, purity and martyrdom than without, but it set my heart flapping like a trapped pigeon. Glowing portraits of Satan would have been only slightly more unsettling.
I breathed deep and reminded myself that Cornelius was perfectly harmless, that he was distressed, and I was there to try and help him.
“There it is!” He was victorious, his eyes pierced me as he suddenly stepped back into the moment. There was no noise. Nothing. Just the ticking of a clock on the wall.
“Can. You. Not. Hear iiit?” He was livid with me for asking again.
“Cornelius, I’m so sorry, I can’t. Point it out to me.”
He darted over to the alcove beside the fireplace, which must have been where the microwave in my kitchen was. My heart leapt with hope. It tallied with where he thought the noise was in my place. We might find the noise, if it’s there. My eyes followed him over and I took in the rest of the room.
There was a single bed, with a bedspread pulled so tightly over it I think it would have cracked if you’d sat on it. A bedside table with a lamp and a tiny alarm clock. The crucifixes. A wall clock, ticking. On the mantelpiece was another clock, ticking. On a nearby shelf was a pristinely set row of ancient bottles of aftershave, lotions and balms. On another shelf another clock, ticking.
Bloody hell, the room was reverberating with all the off-beat ticks. How could he stand it? Surely this wasn’t the noise he was talking about?
I looked at him – he was prodding away in an alcove with shelves built in which had been covered by a hanging brown blanket.
“It’s here. Bang-ing. Can you hear it? It’s going wheeeeeee. Wheeeeee. Wheeeeeee.”
He squeezed his eyes shut as he pitched his voice up to demonstrate what was clearly not a banging noise but a screeching, and I stared at his greyblack face and felt a crippling combination of pity and fear.
“It’s going wheeeeeeeeeee and it’s driiiv-ing me mad. It’s driiv-ing me maad.”
His eyes opened wide and found me, implored me. I dragged my eyes from his over to the door to see if it was still open, and as I did I saw that the alcove shelves were stuffed tight with blankets and sheets. The fireplace was stuffed tight with blankets and sheets. The other alcove shelves were stuffed tight with blankets and sheets. This man had tried to soundproof his room. There was no sound but the ticking of those infernal clocks. But he did not mean the clocks. He was scratching and scrabbling around the wall like a maddened rat. I hate that my self-preservation kicked in in such a cliched way when this man was clearly distressed and had absolutely no interest in me as a woman with recessive parts or as a recipient of violence, whatsoever, but an ice passed through me and I knew I had to get out. I was standing in my pyjamas in a room so searingly sad and odd with a man also in his pyjamas holding a hammer past midnight on a school night. I needed to live, but more than that I needed to sleep, because I had 9D in the morning and they were little cunts.
“Cornelius. I am so so sorry, but I really cannot hear anything. I must go to bed, but please let me know if you can still hear it tomorrow when I get in from work and I promise you we’ll get to the bottom of it. Maybe my hearing’s just rubbish.”
He stood staring at the floor.
“Cornelius, I know it’s hard, but try to get to sleep and we’ll talk tomorrow. I promise.
I moved away, down the hallway, down the stairs and to the front door, by which point I had stopped panicking. If he had wanted to stop me, he would have by now. He was suddenly behind me as I opened the door and I stood on his step and smiled back at him.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, Cornelius – okay?”
He nodded distractedly and flicked his eyes up and down the street with his usual suspicion and closed the door without a word. The hallway light flicked off.
I went back into the flat, shut the doors, fastened the deadbolt, and went back to bed.
“Did you sort it?” Dick mumbled from behind his book.
“No. I went into his house and couldn’t hear a thing. Do you think he’s mad?”
“No, but you are. You could have got raped.”
“He was distressed, not horny. It was horrible. I didn’t know what to do – there was no noise at all.”
“Well, just don’t go in there again, and don’t let him in here, and it’ll be fine.”
And that was that. He went back to Aphrodite firing olives from her minge into a minotaur’s mouth, and I went to sleep, eventually.
I didn’t hear from Cornelius the next day. I rang on the bell after school, but there was no answer. A few days later I had a note through my door telling me the banging was back and to call him. I called his landline and he was mildly abusive to me, saying he wished I would stop torturing him. I tried my hardest to convince him that there was absolutely nothing my side causing a noise, but he wouldn’t believe me. I suppose it was easier to think I was behaving maliciously than to think he was going a bit mad. It hurt, but I had to leave it there. There was nothing I could do.
I saw him only a few times after this, pottering outside his house, but he never busied himself like he used to, and saying hello was always strained and sad. No more talks of constellations or the moon. I got the same suspicious looks reserved for strangers.
Since being back, next door but one, I have never seen him. I guess he’s still there. There’s still his awful gaudy cladding, still his net curtains. But I’ve never seen him go in, and I’ve never seen him come out. And I’ve never seen a light on when it’s dark outside.