Crooked Neighbours

Doris Woolley squinted and pawed in her large black plastic handbag for the Yale key with the piece of string tied to it that would let her through the front door of 70 Perloe Road. Her hands were clumsy in their thick black woollen gloves and her spectacles had misted because of the cold. ‘Drat’, she said. ‘Oh drat.’

Behind her swirled the snow. It was settling now on the branches of trees, on windowsills and railings, on the roofs of parked cars. Melted pearls arched her hair in the front where her scarf had slipped. All the way home from the library where she worked part-time Doris Woolley, with head bent, treading carefully in fur-lined boots with thick crepe soles, had thought of being indoors. She rehearsed lighting the fires and the oven and, best of all, putting on her fleecy slippers and making a cup of tea before preparing the evening meal. She had in her shopping bag a free-range chicken and some mushrooms; chicken casserole with mushrooms was one of the favourite suppers of her companion, Angela Hope. They often had half a bottle of wine with that. On Fridays, after the pet parlour closed, Angela went to her Scottish dancing class at the Mary Evans Evening Institute, so there would be plenty of time for the meal to cook slowly.

But Doris could not find her key to the outer door and the cold was making her sniff. She had never locked herself out before and it seemed like an ill omen. She resolved to be over-careful not to burn the stew. She always kept her keys tucked in the wallet in the side of her bag where vainer ladies keep a mirror. The key to the door of her flat and the key to her bureau that she always kept locked were both there but not the other – nor had it slipped among her handkerchief, purse, tortoiseshell comb and spectacles’ case.

Lights were on in the flat above but she hesitated to ring that bell. Terrible things went on up there, she was sure. More than once she had heard screams late at night and the sounds of glass breaking. Still, she could not stand on the doorstep in the snow all evening. She gave a timid ring and stood back looking up hopefully at the lighted window. Seconds ticked by with no response. Then the one called Felicity, the one she liked least, came to the window pulling a white diaphanous housecoat around her. Doris fleetingly saw her breasts and shoulders before averting her eyes from such an immodest sight. For some reason the girl did not now come down and open the door.

Doris stood bewildered. None of the other lights was on in the house. She supposed she could go to a call box and try to phone her friend, but it would take a good three-quarters-of-an-hour for her to get hope on an evening like this. With a tight twist of misery in her stomach she pressed both the other bells at the same time. On days when things went wrong she was a very lost lady. Then to her surprise she heard clattering footsteps on the uncarpeted stairs. That nice Mr Games from the top flat opened the door and stared at her with his wild eyes. He had a smudge of ink on his beard.

‘O Mr Games, good heavens, I thought you were out as your lights were off. I’ve done the most stupid thing and mislaid my key. I’m terribly sorry to trouble you.’

He opened the door wide for her and looked out beyond her at the snow that powdered the houses and danced down to the ground. ‘‘Tis bitter cold and no night to be lost in the wilds of west nine.’

‘No, it’s very late in March to have snow.’ She laughed from politeness and relief and came awkwardly through the door, shedding snow from her boots and her large bundled frame. She dabbed at the drip on the end of her nose with the side of her gloved hand. ‘I do hope I haven’t disturbed you. I did ring the other bells but…’ She was not sure how to describe the nature of her rejection.

Mr Games was already halfway up the first flight of stairs. He looked back at her, or in her direction anyway. ‘No disturbance, no disturbance at all. I was scarcely engaged in anything momentous.’ And he raced up the rest of the stairs, two at a time.

Doris thought that by his haste and manner and the ink stain, he must have been engaged in something momentous. ‘O dear,’ she said softly to herself then pushed her way past the large silver and black pram with the cat net that the Barbers kept in the hallway, gladly opened the door to her own flat and went down the ten stairs which she always counted. How nice it would be, she thought as Oats greeted her with his soft meow, to live alone with him and Angela in a little cottage by the sea, far from all strange neighbours whose lives she would never understand, and where the door was always open.

Angela Hope sat in the dining car of the Cornish Express facing the engine and Sylvia Elkin her newfound friend. She seemed to glow with newness all the way from her freshly set hair to her neatly brogued toes. Anticipation made her fidget inside her aquamarine serge trouser suit with embossed gold buttons bought that very morning on Sylvia’s account with Jaeger. She took another teeny gulp from her third gin and it, again read the menu, then looked for advice into those little bright brown eyes she was growing to know so well.

‘I like to be able to recognise what it is I’m eating.’ Sylvia’s forceful voice was more than the racketing wheels, the snow on the panes, the clinking of dishes.

‘Then how about the braised baby lamb?’ said Angela who was not usually droll, then giggled in appreciation of her joke and from the unaccustomed influence of gin.

‘Cheeky girl,’ said Sylvia in the fond voice laced with caution she used to her wolfhounds – with whom, after all, her deepest feelings had until now lain. ‘No my dear, don’t go near the fancy fare. Particularly not on a train. How can you cook anything decent on a train? Give me a plain bit of rump that’s merely winked at the heat and a few boiled potatoes and I know just where I am wherever I am.’ She fingered the badge in her frayed lapel that acknowledged her as past-mistress of the Highland fling, finished her Scotch and smiled. Angela faltered, for she liked a little culinary disguise. But Sylvia’s approval was not to be traded for a British Rail sauce. They ordered their unadulterated meat.

‘Only I’d like mine well-done please,’ piped Angela to the waiter.

‘You’ll kill the poor thing,’ said Sylvia with affectionate reproof.

They sat back in their seats. Sylvia Elkin, lucratively widowed without any tears, had since infancy been rich enough not to care. She always cut her own hair with the kitchen scissors and was never quite sure what happened at the back. Looking now at Angela’s flushed cheeks and dear little sailor suit she declared her, but not aloud, a positive pet. Vine House would be just the place for her. It would be a relief not to have to come up to London every week for Sylvia hated the city. ‘Give me the moors and a herd of cows any day,’ she was wont to say. She was so glad to have got the shop off her hands. After all, if you truly loved dogs, as she truly did, there were better ways of showing it than shaving poodles and anyway there were a hundred alternative little jobs for Angela at Vine. And when the fine weather came, as come it soon would, what fun they would have together. They would toil in the garden, explore all the coves in the boat, go bird watching on the moor, take the dogs and the Land Rover and sandwiches for rambles. Most pleasures are better shared, thought Sylvia, perhaps for the first time in all her fifty years. Of course there was the little nuisance about the poor friend – she had had to make Angela promise not even to think about that and it was forbidden to mention it now. Leave all that to me please pet, she had said. I know how to deal with people and their feelings. You’re being rather tiresomely naive. A letter of explanation and a cheque for compensation were in the post to the poor friend this very moment. Far better to make a clean break with these things.

Sylvia’s thoughts travelled on with mellow ease. Dinner was served as they crossed the Tamar and she ordered an accompanying bottle of claret. ‘Just pour’ she told the waiter. ‘I hate all that messing about. So he just poured.

‘I’m a little bit tiddly Sylvie,’ said Angela with her most abandoned giggle, not even minding the meat for staining her potatoes pink.

‘You’ll sober up when the night air hits you. It won’t be all beer and skittles living on the Cornish coast with me you know dear. Even before we turn in tonight we must collect the hounds from Miss Wood and stoke up the Aga. And it’s up at six you know. I like a body to earn its keep. Even my old mog’s a deft mouser and she’s twelve.’

‘Our cat Oats hides in the cupboard if he sees even a spider.’ Angela had blundered.

‘Well your new cat, Smudge, has got guts and common sense.’ Sylvia paused. ‘I don’t think it would be wise to have any more wine, pet,’ she added firmly as she filled her own glass and the train rattled on.

Angela’s urge was reparative. ‘It has been a day’ she said ‘unlike the rest of my life. I feel like a bride – my trousseau of clothes –‘ she gestured to the new tartan suitcase (Sylvia’s clan), ‘an unknown destination – the past all behind me. I can’t believe I won’t wake up in the morning in Perloe Road with Doris chinking the crockery and the smell of toast. – Not that I want to,’ she added hastily for Sylvia’s displeasure was always so easy to read. She was quit the frankest person Angela had ever met – such a zestful contrast to Doris, who just went quiet with that awful near-to-tears look and always insisted that things were her fault.

‘You’ll soon come down to earth pet,’ said Sylvia emphatically. ‘It won’t be an airy fairy life at Vine.’

Four hours later Angela stood on the hand-scrubbed flagstones in her new hallway, bravely befriending three wolfhounds and a parrot. A fox’s head with dead beady eyes stared at her from above the barometer, which registered snow. Sylvia had told her not to be sentimental about blood sports so she resisted an urge sorrowfully to stroke the head’s nose.

The grandfather clock struck midnight and all breath was opaque in the cold indoor air.

‘Rightie ho,’ said Sylvia, thwacking the nearest canine rump. ‘Action stations. Come on hounds – din dins and bedtime walkies. I’ll let you off lightly tonight,’ she called to Angela from the kitchen. ‘Just tuck Bosie up and draw all the curtains you can find, then straight to bed with some Ovaltine.’

‘Cheeky girl,’ said the parrot with familiar intonation as Angela shrouded it in chintz.

‘How at home I feel’ she felt as she hung up her swagger jacket next to Sylvia’s oilskin and slipped off her snow-soaked brogues. ‘What a marvellous house to be happy in,’ she thought with thrilled heart as she shut out the night from the sitting room with its deep brick fireplace and deep leather chairs and from the dining room with its long oak table and showcase of silver dancing trophies and from the dear little snuggery where Sylvia did her dogs’ meat accounts.

‘Sylvia,’ she whispered when finally they lay in identical twin beds with only a yard and a few floating teeth in a glass between them, ‘will it all work out – our giving up the shop and settling down here for ever, as it were? Will it last, this bubbly feeling that all is well?’

‘Of course, pet,’ lisped Sylvia, but thickly for she liked to be asleep by eleven. ‘I know what’s what.’ And soon there were snores.

For a long while Angela lay with her eyes opened to the dark listening to those snores and the sounds of the house cooling. She thought excitedly of the coming days and years, of the garden, the coves, the moors, the cliff top walks; and thought too, with ambling mind, of the grey flint stone house of her childhood with its hedge of brambles and dog roses and the orchard which blossomed in spring. All her thoughts were pleasurable until in the moments preceding sleep stark, sharply-coloured images came behind her eyes in rapid fire – of Doris sewing the kitchen curtains; of their dark little bedroom with the damp path that looked like de Gaulle, by the window; of the mirror on the mahogany wardrobe door that made one’s face look so swollen; of the sheet music on the piano, open as ever at Mozart’s sonata in G, Koechel 283; of detail after detail of their oh so poky little rented rooms; of Doris’s face crumpling when she told her she wanted to leave.

Then she slept, but only for an hour, and awoke with an alcoholic thirst and quick beating heart. Fearful of waking Sylvia if she searched for a tap, she took a couple of gulps from the glass by the bed. The taste was distressingly antiseptic. Doris still had all her teeth.

Doris Woolley turned the oven down low when it seemed her friend would be late. At nine o’clock she began to worry. At ten she phoned the Mary Evans Institute; there had been no Scottish dancing that night. She sat by the fire and tried to concentrate on the crossword. ‘The invisible worm’, was one across. The paper slipped from her knee as she stared absently into the room. She overwhelmingly wanted to be talked to by someone but whom? The Barbers would have given her a glass of sweet sherry and some reassurance but they were visiting relatives in Poole. She had already been a nuisance to Mr Games and as for that lot in the flat above – even now they were playing that awful music that sounded like cattle being slaughtered and the lavatory had been flushed three times in as many minutes. The front door went but it wasn’t Angela, she would never slam a door like that. There was laughter on the stairs and the sound of a girl’s pleased little screams. Three down… it was impossible. She went hurriedly up to Mr Games. A strange smell, like grilled bay leaves, lingered in the stairwell and only a faint light showed from under his door. She tapped then turned to go. He opened the door and stood sniffing. ‘The dreaded weed again,’ he said.

Doris faltered. ‘I’m sorry…?’

He laughed. ‘Down below – they’re smoking the dreaded week.’

The light in the hall went out. She saw into his room, which was candlelit and full of books and papers. A young man in white trousers lay sprawled on cushions on the floor, twirling what appeared to be a feather between his teeth. It was all so bewildering.

She blurted out her problem. ‘O Mr Games, what shall I do? My friend hasn’t come home and she’s more than three hours late. She usually goes dancing on Fridays but she didn’t tonight. I’m so afraid she might have slipped in the snow.

William Games pressed the time switch and shed some light. ‘My dear Miss Woolley,’ he said in his quavering voice, looking over the top of her head. ‘People are late for many reasons. Sometimes they meet a voice from the past and cavort and revel until the small hours. Sometimes they cannot escape from a mesmeric stranger until the tales of their lives have been exchanged. Sometimes… ‘

He paused. She felt foolish and unsure. ‘I was afraid she might have had an accident. But I expect you’re right and I’m making a fuss.’ She went down a few steps, then slipped, for the light again went out. Her ankle was ricked, but she hid this from him. ‘I really am most sorry for taking your time. I suppose three hours isn’t long – except that she didn’t go to her class and that makes it six.’

‘Chance figures large’ he said, ‘in this bizarre molecular dance called life. But be reassured, my dear, bad news travels fast, the good and mundane take a little longer.’ The boy’s voice called him. He gave his wild smile and was gone.

Doris stumbled down, regretting her appeal. That girl Felicity was on the next landing, now wearing tight denim jeans and a purple hat. The word NO was painted across her trousered bottom and she was thumping on a door and shouting ‘Let me in Randy. I’ve got the goofers.’ Doris scurried back to Oats and all that was erstwhile safe and hoped for the phone to ring.

She did not eat any supper, nor manage one solution to the crossword clues. The casserole congealed in its dish. She left the immersion heater on in case Angela wanted a bath, fed Oats, gave him some yeast tablets for his dowdy fur, put a hot water bottle in Angela’s bed and washed two of Angela’s cardigans. Then she sat by the fire and bound her pained ankle in an elastic bandage. She turned on her wireless and half listened through its crackling and her worries to the last twenty minutes of a play about a kidnapped diplomat, the news and weather forecast and market trends, part thirteen of the autobiography of a Serbian potholer, the shipping forecast, the closing headlines, the national anthem, the high-pitched whine that preceded silence. It was an evening like thousands she had spent before Angela so surprisingly moved in two years ago. Only the high-fidelity songs of love blaring from upstairs were new, and the way she now felt.

She wondered about phoning the police, but a remark of Angela’s stung repetitively in her befuddled head: ‘I must live in more style, Doris. It’s what one’s used to that counts.’ And in truth Angela was the youngest daughter of a colonel with whom she had lived in quite some style until his death from alcoholic poisoning three years ago. And even now she was only forty, the age when life is said to begin.

The phone did not ring or the snow cease. Doris drank cups of tea and dozed unpleasantly in a chair by the fire. The upstairs revelling stopped at three and all the house was dark. Tiredness made her feel that she was watching herself from an unsafe distance. Angela could not have come to harm for Angela’s life was charmed, yet shapes of disaster danced through her mind and all that was safe seemed lost.

The letterbox clacked as a clearer day dawned. There was a journal called ‘Quest’ and an airmail letter from Paraguay for Mr Games, an assortment of red-inked bills for Felicity’s floor and for Doris a letter written in bright blue ink, in a large looping vaguely familiar hand, which she hesitated to open because of the constricted feeling the sight of it evinced in her throat.

Dear Miss Woolley,

I am writing to you frankly, because frankly I don’t see any point in the other. I have sold the lease on the parlour because we weren’t attracting the right kind of dog, but of course I wouldn’t leave Angela up in the air, so I am taking her down to Vine where there will be much to occupy her. I always think it better to do rather than dither over these sorts of things otherwise one gets caught up in emotions and unpleasant things like that, as I’m sure you’ll agree. There’s no need to send on Angela’s bits and pieces as she’s got her washing things and I’ll buy her anything she needs anyway. Enclosed is a cheque for £200 being Angela’s share of the rent and expenses for the next few months. If you’d like a spot more just give me a buzz. I wish this snow would let up, it’s like living in the Steppes.

Sincerely,

Sylvia P. Elkin

The P stood for Primrose, which Doris was not to know. She hobbled into the bathroom and opened the cabinet. Angela’s sponge bag was gone and the depilatory she used on her chin. She hurried back to the front room and unlocked the bureau. The compartment for Angela’s personal papers was empty. ‘I knew it would mean bad luck, losing that door key,’ she said aloud. Very little else was gone. Surely she would need her clothes, her shoes. Yet Doris remembered her often opening the wardrobe and declaring, ‘How I loathe all these boring clothes.’

In a condition as near to anger as she would ever reach, Doris went out in her slippers and without a coat to post back the cheque. She did not enclose a letter. Then she made up her bed with an extra blanket for she felt very cold, stopped her ears with malleable wax plugs called Muffles, drank some hot milk and slept for ten hours.

Spring came, bright and cold. Doris planted blue and yellow pansies in the dark square of garden for false cheer, worked full-time at the library for a few extra pounds and assiduously avoided the neighbours. Once she bumped into Mr Games at the corner shop; he was wearing a long dark cape and dark glasses and buying five air fresheners and some fish fingers. ‘Did your prodigal counterpart return, penitent but safe?’ he asked in his flourishing way.

Doris felt obliged to smile, though with serious eyes. ‘Unfortunately she has been called upon to look after a relative in the country.’ The words did not sound true.

‘Ah, country matters. Let’s hope she’ll soon be lured back to the giddy metropolis.’

And once Mrs Barber came down with some chicken soup because she thought Doris looked pale. Her voice was patronising and her smile too sweet. And once the police called and asked questions about the people upstairs: Did they take drugs? Did they behave in a suspicious way? Did they disturb her unduly? Doris had not known how to answer their questions, and was relieved that Angela knew nothing of such distasteful things. ‘I hate living in such a common house as this,’ she several times had said.

By choice, Doris shunned the outside world. She double-locked the door of her flat at seven every evening, packed away all reminders of a shared life, battled with the crossword nightly and spoke the occasional phrase to Oats – who was unconcerned by developments at Perloe Road for the cat food still appeared on time. She darned the frayed cushions, shampooed the carpet, bought a new ironing-board cover and made all manner of household economies. She pleased no one but herself. It was as if she had always been alone, or as if being alone were more real than the other. She did not dwell on Angela’s motives or thoughtlessness, though at times the silence did seem wrong.

For her part, Angela fitted very well into Vine House and Sylvia’s life. It soon became unquestioned habit for her to get up at six each morning, have a quick whiz round with the hover and boil the breakfast eggs for three and a half minutes (‘whites hard, yolks runny’ – that’s how Sylvia liked them). She did the ironing, drilled little holes in the earth in the straightest of lines and planted lettuce seeds, staked back the roses and unruly blooms and with Sylvia took the dogs for morning alkies, afternoon alkies and bedtime alkies.

Each afternoon, however concealed the sun, they trudged along the cliff top path to Devil’s Cove where the tide swirled and the cliffs dropped sheer to the sea and the gulls circled and screeched. Sylvia always got a little spiritual in that raw place. ‘Ain’t it a picture,’ she quite often said, but Angela felt vertiginous.

Doris and Perloe Road were consigned to an unmentioned former life. The dogs’ meat man reminded Angela of Mr Games, but she did not tell Sylvia this. Nor did she mention that the lady in the haberdashery shop had been to primary school with Doris. Such trivia were secrets now. Sylvia told Mrs Carter, who was in bulldogs, that she had rescued Angela from the slums of London and Mrs Carter said, how kind.

Angela trudged up the garden path to Vine with a shopping bag full of surprises. The veins in her hands stood out and she pursed her bottom lip and blew little channels of breath over her hot, but not perspiring face. Weeks of constant sunshine had brought into bloom the regiments of flowers. Bees droned and a haze of heat hung over the well-mown lawn.

Today was Sylvia’s fifty-first birthday and all unbeknown to her, in Angela’s shopping bag were a large marzipan frog, a bottle of champagne, half a pound of smoked salmon and two lemons. How she would whinny when she saw the tea table laid with such a feast. ‘You extravagant girl, you,’ she would say.

Angela had put her foot down about afternoon walkies. ‘You must go alone,’ she had insisted. ‘I’m a little off-colour today. I think I overdid it with the prunes.’ And was obdurate, even when called lily-livered and a bit of a sissy. So Sylvia went alone, save for Andromeda, Gorgophone and Io, faithful at her heels.

The salmon lay between thin-sliced bread with severed crusts and the champagne was cold. Sylvia was more than an hour late and Angela’s worries grew. At six o’clock she wrapped the sandwiches in a damp napkin and nervously nibbled one of the frog’s legs. At seven she phoned Mrs Carter but there was no reply. At eight she heard with relief the sounds of the dogs scuffling at the back door. They were whining and agitated and she went down the path to ask Sylvia what was wrong. Sylvia was not to be seen. She called her name in her high little voice, but into the empty air. She gave the dogs their supper. They wolfed it and then sat by the back door and whined. She looked for Sylvia down by the harbour where the wind sang in the halyards of the holiday boats, then she followed the dogs up the stony cliff path in the weak evening light. The waves crashed against the rocks, the sea breeze chilled, and she thought of Perloe Road and Doris making toast and tea. At the apex of the climb the dogs stood still and cried. She made the sheer stare down at the always-churning sea. The rocks were sleeky wet and black in the shadows of the coming night. Perhaps they were soft and welcoming like a seal’s pelt. A fishing smack sailed back with its catch and the gulls as always called. She called into the wide space of Devil’s Cove but her thin voice drowned in the wind and sea. Gorgophone scratched in the stubbled grass at the cliff’s edge then pawed some imitation teeth. No unusual tracks disturbed the grass. No scarf or skirt shrouded the distant stones.

Angela scrabbled in her bag for the keys to Perloe Road. There they were in the little compartment with her library tickets. She wondered what Doris might have said about her to the Barbers and Mr Games. Of course it didn’t matter what the neighbours thought but one did have to live with them. There was that salubrious pet parlour in Hendon – one did miss people stuck out in the wilds like this. Four months would be as hours. She hoped the landlord would have done something about the damp patch in the bedroom and the noise that lot upstairs made. That nice Mr Games would be sure to joke with her. Dear dependable Doris, how delighted she would be to hear the key in the door. Angela would take her some champagne by way of celebration. She went down the dark cliff path wondering quite what to do with the salmon sandwiches. She could hardly eat them all even though she was most peckish. It was the sea air.