by Tim Major
O neighbours! If only we might speak!
Do you feel as I feel? Do you think as I think? Here we are, all crouching in our circle, so close to one another. It is maddening.
I see your people come and go. I hear snippets of their conversations. They are happy, your people, are they not? It is healthy, all this coming and going. But we remain rooted, facing one another implacably.
We are so young: sixteen this coming year. How many people have we had between us?
Recently I have paid less attention to your people than to mine, I confess. But in those early days, in those first glimmerings of consciousness, I was empty and I watched you all with intense fascination. There seemed so much to learn, and the opportunities for my education so few. Your people hurried to and fro — on what errands I had no way of imagining — and when they returned they appeared so grateful to see you. I came to distinguish between adults — more direct in their routes across our cul-de-sac, bustling into the cars on your driveways — and children, who dallied and bickered, whose movements were a joy to me. The children belonged to the adults and the adults belonged to you. When your people were nestled within you I gazed at the sky and the fields. I tested the radius of my attention, peering as far beyond my walls as possible. I perceived the disturbances of animals in the long grasses and swooping above me, I saw trees bending with the force of an unseen hand, I saw the rust-coloured roofs of the village that is tied to our cul-de-sac by an umbilical lane. I called out to you. I beckoned to your people. I was alone.
I was unoccupied.
My first people came a year later, following a smattering of visitors who declared me too large or too expensive or characterless. Their names were Anton and Beverly Grieg. They joked about show homes and the plastic fruit that still filled the wooden bowl beside the sink in my kitchen, but they were happy to have arrived and I was happy to receive them. More than happy! I embraced them from the moment they removed their shoes and padded inside me. Perhaps you remember the too-large white lorry with its rear end awkwardly jutting into our cul-de-sac, blocking three of your five driveways. Anton and Beverly Grieg set to filling my rooms with their furniture, their friends, their conversation. How they talked! Beverly was a lecturer at the university in York. Anton had once been her student and was, if anything, more passionate about learning than his wife. They talked of books and Francis Bacon and the governance of Britain and jazz music and the preparation of food and desire. These were the elements of their world, but they taught me about mine, too. They described the stars in the night sky, patterns hitherto unnoticed by me but suddenly, spectacularly, clear. They named the plants that encircle the lawn of my garden; they defined the willow, ash, and pine trees. They lifted tiny creatures in their cupped hands so that I might better see them.
It wasn’t only their teachings that provided my education. Two radios — one in my sitting room, one tickling and buzzing in my kitchen — were rarely turned off. Anton and Beverly Grieg watched documentary films and news reports. Through them I was given the ability to see far beyond our cul-de-sac and I came to appreciate the enormity of the world.
Anton and Beverly Grieg occupied me for four years, four happy years. When they announced their intention to leave I struggled to hide my disappointment, my window frames creaking with the ache of mourning. However, I allowed myself to dream. I watched your people come and go, the great numbers of them within each one of you. I dreamed of a family of my own.
I was disappointed. Evie Rattle was a solitary figure, content to spend her time alone. That might not have been a disaster, I told myself at the time. Mightn’t we become all the closer, she and I, for the lack of other company? But she confided in me no more than in any human. She was absent for long hours each day, returning only in darkness and retiring quickly to bed. Worse still, she rarely watched television or listened to the radio, so my absorption of information was dramatically curtailed. Her work was as a laboratory technician — of what nature I still do not know, though the spines of the books on my shelves spoke of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. For a time, with my youthful lack of context that might allow me to distinguish between real and make-believe, I suspected her a witch.
Evie Rattle stayed with me for only a little over a year, thank goodness. Did you hear me when she left, o neighbours? It was with only the merest trace of guilt that I called out to you, hooting with triumph.
Then there were the many years spent with my most recent occupants, Piotr Brzezicki and Tom Grace. Though you may have thought me unchanged, judging solely from my exterior, inside I became a riot of colour, filled with mismatching furniture, colourful artworks, and plastic trophies of their favourite television programmes. How I loved Piotr Brzezicki and Tom Grace! And I know that you loved them too, all of you — how could it be otherwise? Their joy in the pursuits they loved and in having found one another was infectious. Every day I awoke with renewed delight in seeing them happy. And they spent so much of their time with me, both pursuing their careers whilst burrowed inside me; Tom playing recordings of music as he tapped at his computer keyboard, Piotr listening to radio news broadcasts as he illustrated children’s books, bent forward over a tilted board. I spent the days lazily shifting my attention from one of my bedroom offices to the other and back again, constantly unearthing new details to be savoured. At night I watched them sleep until I myself slumbered.
And yet your people felt differently, did they not? I noticed it from the start. Your people watched from their windows, the adults ushering the young indoors when my people appeared together at my doorway. For so long I understood nothing about sexuality and the limitations and rules that your people perceived about it, and when I did I wished I did not. I only knew that Piotr Brzezicki and Tom Grace were happy — so happy! — when they were safe together within my embrace.
I was despondent when they began discussing their plans to leave me. When they yanked their trinkets and trophies from my shelves, their banners and posters from my walls, I felt myself sag. I felt myself no longer a youth. I felt myself settle into my foundations and, worse, begin to show my age. I watched from each window in turn, trying to keep my people in sight as the two lorries backed noisily from the cul-de-sac, followed by the tiny car containing my Piotr Brzezicki and my Tom Grace.
I sat alone for months.
I cried out, but none of you paid me attention, full as you all were with life of your own.
It is wrong to be presumptuous. One does not need to be human to understand that wonderful things will never occur to those who expect wonder. I learned this not from the television or the radio or the spines and tiny print of books; I learned this from my experiences with those that I have loved.
I did not presume, and yet they came.
Carly and Marie and Oliver Scaife.
Marie Scaife is the oldest. Her hair is white at the crown and that white will creep inexorably down, I am certain. There are lines on her face that converge into arrowheads that point to her eyes, which are full of sadness and pride.
Carly Scaife celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday the day the family arrived. Marie — her mother, though Carly has never referred to her as such — set a cake on a plate on a pile of packing cases that first evening, and Carly struggled to blow out candles embedded in it, and it was all I could do to stop myself from flinging open my windows to let in the wind to help her and to demonstrate my delight at having them within me.
Oliver Scaife is an infant.
He is all I have ever wanted.
He is small and incapable of much. He arrived strapped to Carly’s chest and wailed. I whistled through my chimney in conversation. He is hairless and rarely opens his eyes. Marie says he is three months old.
Have you seen them, o neighbours? Have you seen them? I would send them to be witnessed by you, if I were not so reluctant to let them out from within me. Send your people instead and they will provide their reports. There has never been anything so wonderful in our cul-de-sac as Oliver Scaife and his mother and her mother.
I am watching you. For now I am content to let my people stroke at my insides and murmur at one another. I am hesitant of intruding upon them in these early days.
A change within oneself prompts other ways of seeing the world, does it not?
O neighbours, are your people as happy as I thought? They come and go often, but my ability to scrutinise, from my position here at the mouth of our cul-de-sac, is limited. They squint at the sky as they emerge from you. Their cars and bicycles buzz noisily from your driveways. When they return they hurry in.
Number four, your people have attracted my attention for so long. Five people, including three children! And yet the eldest only scowls as she stares around at our cul-de-sac, her hands upon her hips. The other two squabble and hit each other as they are pushed into their car seats by one or another of your adults. They are all tired.
Number two, are you as alone as I was with Evie Rattle? You have only one person. He wears a black suit and walks briskly out of our cul-de-sac and briskly back in. There are so many long hours in between.
Number five, I know there are people within you; I have seen your lights turn on and off and I have seen black shapes at your windows. But who they are is unknown to me. They do not look out at our cul-de-sac. Do they speak? Is it wonderful having your people with you constantly? Or is it agony?
Number three, I see that you have new people too, a man and a woman. Their overalls are spotted with paint. It must be a delight to receive so much attention. I am certain that your hopes are high of their loving you. Send them to meet my people, won’t you? Perhaps, vicariously, we may be friends. From the little I can see of your rear garden, it requires their attention.
Number six, have your people remained with you too long? That infant who was once so adorable is now almost an adult. His parents are wrong to leave him alone with you for such long periods. He has the face of somebody one should not trust.
Carly Scaife is learning, just as I am learning. She is not yet confident with Oliver Scaife. She struggles to feed him from her breasts and he struggles to get what he wants out of them. She listens to broadcasts on a mobile telephone wired up to a speaker in my master bedroom; the broadcasts instruct her to sleep when the baby sleeps. She tries but she does not sleep when Oliver Scaife sleeps; when he sleeps she kneels in her bed, leaning over the wall of his adjoining crib to watch him breathe. He is content when he is like that, but the only time I have seen Carly close to contentment is when her child is sleeping upon her chest while she sits on the wide sofa in my sitting room and she is watching comedies on the television and never once laughing.
The family have been with me for over a week and yet it is only now that I realise that we are alike, she and I. Carly Scaife is a mother and so am I. The infant began life within her, just as this family are within me. She holds him tight.
Carly’s hair is cut short. Marie remarks on it often; it seems that the hair was longer until very recently. To Marie this is significant. Carly wears floral-print dresses and black leggings. She says she can no longer wear contact lenses, which means she must wear glasses in order to see. I sympathise. My attention sometimes wavers and often I wish I had more clarity of vision. Within my walls it is often dark and, while I do not yearn for my days spent with Evie Rattle, it is difficult to focus on more than one person in more than one room at a time. When Oliver is asleep I feel compelled to watch him.
O neighbours! I know what I said, but they are drawing me into myself. I have barely looked beyond my walls these last few days. You might all have disappeared and I would not know it.
Carly sometimes cries herself to sleep. Marie does not seem to understand her fully. She offers to help placate the infant, but Carly rebuffs her and keeps the bedroom door tight shut. What Carly needs is an embrace. If her real mother will not provide it, then I will.
Oliver Scaife likes to look at patterns on the wall. I angle my windows just so, to catch the sunlight and make shadow patterns of leaves above his crib. He thanks me for it, I am certain he does.
Marie Scaife is also a mother. But she cannot remember what it is to hold somebody within oneself.
One week after they arrived, Marie left the house on foot and was absent for an entire day. Carly and Oliver crept downstairs. Carly shifted the coffee table aside and stood in its space and whirled Oliver around and around above her head. Oliver did not laugh or smile, but he stared at her and then he twisted his body as she held him. It was difficult at first to know whether the contortion spelled delight or disgust, but then he looked up and around him — at me — and he spread his arms as if to say, “Is this not magnificent?”
When Marie returned she was driving a car. She parked it on my driveway, crunching its handbrake to prevent it from sliding back down the incline and into the turning circle of our cul-de-sac. She entered me and then backtracked, coaxing Carly to stand beneath the overhang of my porch. Carly held the infant and gazed at the car.
“I’m not getting into that,” she said. “Oliver’s not getting into that.”
“I’ve had it checked over,” Marie replied.
Carly glared at Marie until she closed the door, hiding the car from her. I shifted my attention outside: was the vehicle so bad? I glanced at the cars belonging to your people, the cars perched on your driveways, humming and cooling in the evening air. They all look alike to me.
“We might need it if we want to get away,” Marie said as they ate pasta at the kitchen table, hours later.
Carly glanced at my door, at the invisible car beyond.
“We need money,” Marie said. “I’ll get a job.”
Carly bent to fuss over Oliver in the basket on the floor beside the table. Then she rose, ate a mouthful of food, and nodded.
I do not know what employment Marie has found for herself, and I find that I do not care. Only occasionally does she take the car from the driveway. She is gone for long parts of each day and I am better able to relish spending time with Carly and Oliver.
My doorbell rings. It startles me — I have been watching Oliver in his crib and so has Carly. She is humming a melody that I find very beautiful.
I struggle to tear myself away, but then I shift my attention downstairs and outside before Carly’s feet have touched the carpet of my master bedroom.
I watch the boy standing on the doorstep warily. It takes several moments before I recognise him; people look altogether different up close. Number six, he is yours, is he not? His wild, long hair pushed under his cap is unmistakable. On the front of the cap is written in blue text SO WHAT?, which is a reference to a composition by the jazz musician Miles Davis.
He scowls and pushes my doorbell again. I try to stifle the sound. There is a child in here, asleep.
Carly edges toward the door slowly, slowly. She glances several times at the staircase and the trailing, invisible rope that connects her to Oliver in his crib. I am capable of metaphor, o neighbours.
I consider jamming the door, holding it fast.
Carly is quicker than me. Even as it appears she is having second thoughts, she yanks at the lock and pulls open the door. It stings like a wound.
“Yes?” she says in a voice that is not quite level.
The boy pushes back the peak of his cap. When I last paid him any attention he suffered from acne; now I see that it has cleared. He reeks of confidence.
“Kieran,” he says. That is his name. “From across the way.”
He gestures over his shoulder with his thumb. Carly tilts to see past him and so do I. I was right: number six. Number six, you sent him and I will hold you accountable.
“What do you want?” Carly says. She sounds very tired.
“My dad said we should say hi sometime.”
“Where’s your dad?”
“Work. Summer holidays, but not for him.”
“You’re on your own?”
“All right, then.”
Carly and I are so close that my anxiety transfers to her.
“So you’ve done it,” she says. “You’ve said hi. And hi back at you.”
“So do you know anyone round here?”
“No.” Abruptly, Carly shudders. I see it and Kieran does too.
“If you want, I could — ”
Kieran stares at her and Carly reaches out a hand. She holds the brass knocker that is fixed to the centre of my door. Her grip is tighter than I would expect; it hurts.
“Want me to wash your car?” Kieran says.
Carly looks at the car as if she has never seen it before. “No.”
“I wash everyone’s car. Everyone in the cul-de-sac, I mean.”
“It’s new. It doesn’t need a wash.”
“It’s grubby. There’s sand in the air came from the Middle East on the wind.”
Kieran shrugs. “That’s what my dad said. Middle Eastern sand. Gets your windscreen proper filthy.”
“Seriously. Kieran, was that your name? I don’t want my car washed.” I see something in Carly I have never seen before. A hardness inside.
Carly splutters. “For a car wash? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“It’s what everyone pays.” He waves an arm to gesture at you all, o neighbours, as if it proves something.
“No. Off you go now.”
Kieran grins and I do not know what it means. His eyes leave Carly’s face. He is looking at her body and now I know what the grin means.
Carly presses my door closed and Kieran’s head tilts, trying to keep her in sight through the narrowing gap.
Carly stands looking at the door. She shakes her head and then pads upstairs, following the rope back to Oliver, bundling it in her fists as she climbs.
I see her safely up, then I turn my attention back to the boy outside. He slinks back to you, number six, but within moments he returns. He is carrying a bucket and a sponge.
I raise myself from the sag of my foundations to see as far from my walls as possible.
That village at the end of the lane. How many roofs can I see — twenty? Thirty? The sunlight multiplies the number of surfaces that are visible to me. How many people do they shelter in total? A dizzying amount.
The people of our cul-de-sac so rarely encounter one another, but I understand now that this is not usual. People are not relegated to their family units. Any of them might speak to any other. Once free of their wombs, they are capable of travelling anywhere, and perhaps they do, every day. I look at you all; I consider the six of us sitting in our tight circle. We are so close and yet we do not speak. Perhaps our indifference has affected our people.
Beyond the village there is more life and movement, more and more. An aeroplane is a distant speck.
On the mantelpiece in my sitting room is a painted wooden doll. Carly shows it to her infant and then pulls its upper half free of its lower half. Inside is another doll, and inside that another and another.
I dream of a life free from my lumpenness and my rootedness. But I am a mother and I understand my responsibilities.
The boy was right about the sand on the car. Now that he has dragged his dirty sponge across its bonnet the copper-coloured streaks are clear to see. But the dust has been disturbed and nothing more. The car looks far worse than it did before.
Even after finishing with the car Kieran must have been watching and waiting. The moment that Marie appears at the mouth of the cul-de-sac he emerges from you, number six. He follows Marie along my driveway. She notices him only as she is struggling to locate her keys whilst grappling with a holdall that threatens to slip from her forearm.
“Is your daughter in?” Kieran says.
“I hope so.” I think Marie is trying to hide her being startled by him.
Kieran moistens his lips with his tongue: a grotesque action. He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it. After a pause he says, “She owes me twenty pounds.”
Marie turns to face him fully. She folds her arms and her holdall knocks heavily against my doorframe. “Don’t be so silly. What for?”
“Is she all right?” Kieran says, quickly, as though he has spoken before he is ready. He tries to look past Marie.
“She just needs peace and quiet. She’s a mother now. We don’t want visitors.”
Kieran gives up. He nods at the car. “I’m all finished. Twenty quid. We agreed.”
Marie’s expression is unchanging as she surveys the mess on the windscreen and bonnet. “Wait there.”
She plods inside and groans as she deposits the bag in my hallway. She calls out for Carly, who I know is upstairs in the nursery that Oliver uses only for play and not for sleep. I do not follow her. Instead I wait, watching Kieran, making sure that he does not step over my threshold. Number six, what have you inflicted upon us?
I sense raised voices — o neighbours, do you suffer from these same uncomfortable vibrations, even when your attention is elsewhere? — and then Marie is clopping down my stairs again. She strides to the door brandishing a twenty pound note.
“We both know it’s extortion,” she says.
Number six, you should be ashamed. Kieran smiles and takes the money. He demonstrates no remorse. He tries again to see inside. He is looking for Carly.
“Go home now,” Marie says. She closes the door and I sigh at the healed wound. My attention rises to my upper floor. Carly is standing in the nursery at my window. She is gazing down at Kieran as he lollops away. Oliver rolls ineffectively on a playmat behind her, unable to turn himself onto his front. Carly lifts both her hands and her fingertips graze my glass.
Oliver Scaife keeps us all awake. He squeals and snorts and rattles the bars of his crib. Even when he sleeps his breathing is as loud and abrasive as the pipes that lead from my boiler, which have been maintained inexpertly and shudder when anybody showers.
Carly’s attention to the task of placating Oliver wavers. Sometimes she hushes and soothes him, leaning over his crib in her nightdress or, more often, hefting him to lie like a sack upon her while she is cradled by pillows in an awkward half-sitting position. Sometimes she remains lying in her bed and pulls one of the pillows over her head. I understand this impulse. We all love Oliver, but why won’t he quieten? When will this stop?
At this moment she is walking up and down in the darkness of her bedroom, bouncing Oliver Scaife in her arms. She tells him that she will do anything for him, but he grumbles whenever she pauses and then his grumbles swell into splutters and then piercing howls. It is too dark to determine whether his eyes are closed, or whether hers are.
I think Carly may be weeping. The holdall that Marie was carrying is now in the bedroom. It bulges with its contents and I fear that Carly may be intending to slip away from me. My wish that there were some way for me to help reminds me that there is somebody else in the house, after all. Where is Marie right at this moment? I shift my attention across to her bedroom and peer at the bed. The covers have been thrown off. There is nobody here or in my bathroom.
It is with a sense of excitement rather than anxiety that I scour my other rooms. She is not upstairs. A thought occurs to me and I am not ashamed of it: perhaps I am more a mother to Carly than Marie is.
I find Marie in the dark at the foot of my stairs, an area that some of my previous occupants designated an entrance hall but which the Scaifes have made a dining area by means of putting a mahogany table here. They seldom use it; they almost always eat sitting at the pine table in my kitchen, almost always one at a time, one of them washing dishes or cradling Oliver while the other chews food.
Marie is walking slowly alongside the dining table, up and down its length and then up and down again. She is wearing a dressing gown but I can see her day clothes underneath. Occasionally she glances at my staircase. She can hear Oliver’s shrieks, I am positive. Can she also hear Carly’s sobbing?
O neighbours, I do not want to say that I hate Marie.
Something happens. It is Marie’s sudden spasm that alerts me, rather than the sound itself. She freezes and cocks her head.
I am upstairs in an instant.
Carly shouts, “Stop!” And again: “Stop!”
She means Oliver and his howling, but Oliver does not stop it. Even in the dark I can see the black O of his mouth, a hole wider than his head ought to allow. The sound he emits is more than mere sound. I am blinded by it.
Marie clatters upstairs. She pauses outside the door to Carly’s bedroom.
“I’m here,” she says, so quiet that I wonder whether she really wants Carly to hear.
I am inside watching Carly. In the darkness I see her head snap up. She faces the door but does not speak.
Oliver continues his shrieking.
“Can I do anything?” Marie says outside the room, shifting her weight from foot to foot, an itch upon my floor.
Carly’s head drops again. She speaks to Oliver in a softer, kinder voice: “Stop, now.”
Oliver stops, now.
After that squall of sound the silence seems like deafness. Carly comes to a halt at the foot of her bed, beside the holdall. I cannot see her expression, whether there is triumph or only relief.
Outside, Marie watches the door. Her face, I can see. Her eyes gleam with wetness. She rubs her cheek again and again, as if she has been slapped. She turns and creeps away to her bedroom. She leaves the door ajar and climbs into bed. As soon as I see that she has fallen asleep I swing the door closed slowly and she flinches only slightly at its click.
It is after ten o’clock when I rouse myself. Do you wake early, o neighbours? Do you even sleep? When I am unoccupied I am capable of sustaining myself with infrequent naps or a constant doze. But a family of three is exhausting and I find more and more that when they are sleeping I must sleep also.
Marie must already have left for work and Oliver is snoring in his cot. For a moment I panic at not finding Carly close by. She is not in my bathroom or my sitting room or my kitchen. I spread my attention wider. I peer into my garden that, so far, the Scaifes have not explored, then, in desperation, beyond. Then Carly shuffles somewhere and I find her.
She is in my smallest bedroom. There has been a desk and a chair and nothing more in here since the day the family arrived. Now there is a computer with a folding screen upon the desk and Carly is sitting before it, circling her index finger on its black surface. Her feet are tucked beneath her on the chair, which rotates slightly with each of her movements. She is humming that same song as before. I think of Tom Grace and his joy at hearing music. Perhaps later I will send a surge of electrical power to the rarely used stereo in my sitting room, and perhaps that will operate it, and perhaps Carly will take to listening to music too. There is little that I desire nowadays, but I desire music.
I look at the computer screen and see images of bright-coloured things. These are pictures of toys, like the ones that litter Oliver’s playmat in his nursery. He shows little interest in them. He prefers clutching at Carly’s necklaces or watching the play of light on the grey bars of my radiators. On the computer screen I see dolls and animals and cubes and twisted wires strung with beads. Carly is deliberating over these pictures, clicking on one and then another as she hums her song.
When Oliver wakes Carly goes to him. She lifts him and then holds him under his armpits and pretends that he is walking downstairs, tickling me as she scuffs his feet on each of my steps.
She feeds him at her breast while she sits on the sofa and — joy! — she turns on the television and together we three watch a documentary programme about ceramic artists. Then she assembles a lunch for herself; it occurs to me only now that it is rare for her to eat during the daytime, when Marie is absent. She eats a little of the salad leaves and tomatoes, but afterwards she retches into the sink.
Then she carries Oliver to my back door and she throws it open and it is not so much like a wound as a cleansing. I pull the breeze inside, tousling the hair of the two of them, tugging the air along my walls and ceiling and floors. I gasp at first and then I sigh in contentment.
They leave. It is not so terrible; I can see all parts of the garden. Although I cannot feel any sensations it is almost a part of me, in the same way that Carly’s short hair is part of her — do you feel the same, o neighbours? The discomfort is only in my mind, a fear that having gone this far they might stray further. But Carly deposits Oliver on his back under the shade of the willow at the garden’s eastern edge, and then she lies upon the grass herself. I watch from my windows, first at ground level, then above.
I think of Carly watching Oliver asleep in his crib and I am terribly tired and I feel that if I could, I would cry.
In my swoon it is difficult to tell how much time has passed. Carly and Oliver re-enter and I welcome them back with all the warmth I can muster. When Marie returns I snarl at her, but she does not react. Her attention is fixated on Carly, who descends my staircase dressed entirely in black.
“Are you okay to watch him?” Carly says. She means Oliver.
Marie watches Carly with her eyes narrowed.
Carly laughs. “You look like you’re going to say, ‘You can’t go out looking like that’.”
She goes to the utility room beside my porch and fumbles until she produces a pair of shoes. She has not worn shoes since she arrived, and these are not the pair she was wearing that day. They are bright orange, sickeningly vivid against the black of her leggings and her long-sleeved top.
“Where are you going?” Marie says.
Carly stands and looks down at her outfit. “To the opera, obviously.” I clench with anxiety before I recognise that it is a joke. “I’ll be twenty minutes. Thirty, tops.”
She pushes her way past Marie and through my front door and she sets off at a sprint.
Carly is absent for forty-seven minutes. Marie frets as much as I do. She moves from window to window, watching as the sun drops behind you, o neighbours, and then when Oliver wakes she is occupied with pushing toys towards him where he lies on the playmat and pleading with him not to cry. He squeals each time she tries to come close. Who can blame him?
She and I both rush downstairs the second my front door slams.
Carly is soaking wet. I did not realise that it has been raining. She is panting heavily and she is grinning. When Marie stumbles into the dining room carrying Oliver, I notice her expression of revulsion. Is she so old that she cannot remember the delight in physicality? For an awful flash of a moment I feel that Marie and I are alike — static — but I push the thought away.
Carly wipes a hand across her mouth. There is a sheen of sweat on her face. She is unimaginably beautiful.
She reaches out for Oliver. Marie seems reluctant, but Carly tugs the infant free. He settles upon her neatly like a sheet upon a bed.
When Marie speaks her voice cracks. “Were you safe?”
“Did anybody see you?”
Carly hefts Oliver onto her shoulder and carries him back upstairs. He is asleep even before she lays him in his crib. She tiptoes to the bathroom, a mere shadow in those clothes. She hums as she peels the outfit from her body. I hum the same melody to myself as she showers and I watch her, wondering what it must be like to be so alive.
Oliver Scaife cries throughout the night.
I edge my window open to let the breeze stroke Carly’s cheek. I miss her terribly when she is asleep. O neighbours, do you feel the same about your people, your favourites among them? Perhaps mothers are only ever complete when they are with their children.
All the pleasure of yesterday has gone. Oliver’s night-time mewling has left Carly desolate again. Is it any wonder that when he wakes — my breeze has inadvertently roused him too — she scurries out of the bedroom and downstairs?
“You go to him,” she snaps at Marie. Marie has the sense to obey.
Later, after breakfast, Carly says to Marie, “Don’t go out.”
“I have to work.”
“Don’t leave me here with him.”
“You’re his mother.”
Carly leans upon the kitchen table. She gazes down at Oliver in his wicker basket. “I would never hurt him,” she says.
Marie hesitates, then rises and stands before her. Carly tries to look past her at my garden.
“Why did you say that?” Marie says.
Carly doesn’t answer.
“Go to work. We’ll be fine.”
“First tell me why you said that. Why you said, ‘I would never hurt him’.”
Carly scoops up the basket from my linoleum floor. “I’m just tired. Go on. Go.”
Marie checks all of my doors and windows before she leaves the house.
An hour later my doorbell rings. Oliver is strapped to Carly’s chest and for thirty minutes she has been walking in circles in the front room. At first she told Oliver again and again that she loved him but her voice lowered and lowered in volume until it became only a shush. I have been trying to distract myself by watching documentary footage of an auction on the television, but Carly’s circles have been drawing my attention and I do not know what to do. I am happy about my doorbell ringing because it rouses Carly from what almost seems like sleep. She goes quickly to my front door. Perhaps she is grateful too.
“Who is it?” Carly whispers, without opening the door.
“Delivery for Mrs Scaife?”
Carly scowls. “Miss. Or mizz.”
They wait, Carly inside and — I check — an obese man in dungarees outside.
“I’ll need a signature, miss.”
Oliver shifts on Carly’s chest. He is asleep. “I’m feeding my child. Put the signature thing through the letterbox?”
The delivery man lifts the letterbox. He is holding a bulky electronic device. “It won’t fit, miss.”
Carly’s jaw clenches. She yanks the door open and I wince. She holds out a hand for the device. The delivery man glances at Oliver, who is beginning to stir, and then relinquishes it. Carly scribbles upon the screen of the device with a pen attached to it with a cord, then hands it back so quickly the man almost drops it.
“Right,” he says. “Back in two shakes, then I’ll pop them wherever you want them. There’s a whole lot of them, isn’t there?”
Carly looks the obese delivery man up and down. Then she moistens her lips, which makes me think of you and your odious Kieran, number six.
“Just leave them outside,” she says.
“Can’t, miss. Not with the value of them. I have to show they’re in their right place and take a photo.”
“You’re not coming inside,” she says, and I could not love her more.
Oliver emits a tiny cry. The delivery man looks at the infant and then at Carly and he takes a step backwards. “All right, miss. All right.”
Carly presses the door closed and takes a deep, ragged breath while the man returns to his absurd red lorry parked on the kerb of our cul-de-sac. I watch as he heaves each bulky box from the tailgate and into the lee of my porch.
Across our turning circle I see you, number six, and I see Kieran at your kitchen window. He watches me with undisguised interest, but I am watching him right back.
I had not even noticed that I had a phone. When it rings I scratch around, trying to locate the itch.
Carly answers it. The phone is in the cubbyhole beneath my staircase, where Anton and Beverly Grieg placed a drinks cabinet they opened only when entertaining guests, which contained only bottles of gin.
She listens attentively. I strain to decipher the hum in the telephone wire: nothing. I watch Carly’s face.
“Come,” she says. “Please come.”
Marie is making her way downstairs, showered and dressed after her day at work. I force each step to emit a loud creak as she descends.
Carly replaces the handset carefully and turns to face Marie.
The suspicion comes upon me slowly.
I am a mother. I care for all of my children. But one of them in particular requires my careful supervision. Carly is at risk. From what, I do not know.
But what I do know is this: Marie is not capable of protecting her.
Carly is protecting Oliver and I am protecting Carly. Marie is protecting nobody. Marie does not belong here.
I have another suspicion. A question.
Is Marie really Carly’s mother?
They share the same surname, but that could be a ruse. It is only visitors to the house — removal and delivery men, an obnoxious estate agent — that have spoken the name Scaife. I spend many hours examining one woman’s face and then the other. They share no physical characteristics that I can see. Marie’s face is a lattice of creases; in another context I might describe it as kindly. Those arrowhead lines that point to the corners of her eyes suggest a life of laughter, but she has never laughed that I have seen. It is another ruse.
Carly’s face is a wide, pale circle. She has no creases despite the torture that Oliver puts her through each night. She might never grow old. Her front teeth are bent inwards slightly, as though she has bumped them on something hard.
Take him away, number six. We have no time for your people.
Kieran knocks again, louder.
Upstairs, Carly crosses my landing to look out of the window and down at my porch.
She covers her mouth with a hand. She watches your Kieran, number six, as unflinchingly as I watch him. Then, hurriedly, she turns away and goes to my bathroom and vomits into the toilet bowl.
Kieran finally stops his knocking. He turns and runs a finger across the bonnet of the car.
After dinner Carly excuses herself. Marie coos at Oliver in the sitting room but he is happier without her intervention, stretching his little arms toward my fireplace where the painted wooden doll sits on its mantelpiece. Perhaps he is imagining himself free of her. I watch Marie intently, ready to shriek if she tries anything untoward.
When Carly returns she is wearing her black clothes again. She has already put on her shoes, which are an even more nauseating colour than they were yesterday. They are filthy with mud as red as copper.
“No,” Marie says.
“I need to,” Carly replies. She grips my doorframe at the entrance to the sitting room. She rolls her neck and it clicks.
“You mustn’t. Please. There must be something else.”
Marie has risen to her haunches. Oliver rolls onto his side but I will not let him injure himself on the hearth. Carly glances at the infant but she does not move from the doorway.
“If you cared, you wouldn’t stand in my way,” Carly says.
Marie presses both her palms to her face. I imagine touching that crenellated surface and it is all I can do not to shudder.
“I care,” she says in a voice full of fatigue.
“I’ll be quick, I promise. I know where I’m going.”
Marie scoops up the infant, ignoring his squeals. She holds him before her, presenting him to his mother. But it is only to allow Carly to kiss the boy on his forehead.
Slowly, Marie shakes her head. “No. Don’t be quick. Take your time, do it properly. Go as far away as you need to and be careful.”
Marie sleeps downstairs in a wing-backed armchair that she shifted from my sitting room and into my dining room.
When Carly returned Marie and I scrutinised her: was her mood improved? She was exhausted and covered with copper-coloured mud and bark. I followed her upstairs and watched her undress and shower and feed Oliver and slip into bed, cooing at her infant asleep in his crib. When I turned my attention back to Marie she was already in the dining room with the lights so dim and her body so slight that the large chair might as well have been empty.
Piotr Brzezicki loved to watch fiction on television. Before that time I had been accustomed to documentary films and at first I was startled by these visions of the world outside, of outlandish creatures, dizzying animated illustrations and arguments upon arguments. Tom Grace did not enjoy crime fiction, so Piotr and I watched these types of television programmes together when Tom was busy working or sleeping. In these television programmes everybody has a secret and one can only look away once the most important secret has been revealed.
Television has taught me one thing: the ways in which humans can create obstacles to other humans’ happiness are too numerous to count.
I have dwelt upon the themes of these crime stories. I believe I have an idea about what may be happening here, within me, right at this moment.
I believe that I am a sanctuary. That Carly is here to hide from something outside, something from which only I can protect her, and of which Marie is aware and afraid. I have seen stories on television about people who hide away from their enemies or even their lovers. They change their names and they hide for days or months or years.
Here is my reason for believing this: even in the dark of the dining room I can see the thin black pole that is propped against Marie’s chair. I am convinced that it is a rifle.
I watch Carly pick her way carefully past Marie sleeping in her chair.
Upstairs, Oliver stirs softly.
It is just before dawn and it is raining outside, heavier than it has rained in weeks. The water slops against my roof and it is funnelled through my guttering, an almost unbearable prickling.
Carly searches the room beside my porch and retrieves an indigo waterproof coat and waterproof trousers that crinkle as she pulls them on. Marie turns her head toward the sound but does not wake. Carly hops from foot to foot as she squeezes into lime-green Wellington boots.
Oliver splutters. Carly looks to my staircase but does not approach it.
She pulls open my back door and she is in the garden.
I beg her not to go any further. There is something out there and she must not go out alone, not without warning Marie, much as I dislike the old woman.
She cannot leave me with Marie and Oliver.
It is difficult to make Carly out through my windows smeared with rain. Her silhouette twists unnaturally as she makes her way away from me across my lawn. She stops at the picket fence that marks my boundary. I sigh with relief: surely she will turn back.
With some difficulty, she clambers onto the fence and then drops down onto the other side.
The wind grows stronger, tossing rain at me, and I howl through my chimney.
I watch as the spindly speck that is Carly crosses the lane and pushes through a hedgerow, beginning to plod through the cornfield opposite. I watch until she passes the point where the trees obscure my view.
I have two contradictory thoughts. One is that she must be kept safe. The other is that she must not escape.
I know it is the rain, but I feel that I am weeping.
Perhaps Oliver hears me. He bellows and rattles his crib.
Marie — stupid, careless Marie — finally wakes. She looks at my window, at the rising sun and the rain, and she grabs for the gun. She blinks and finally recognises the sounds that Oliver is making and she staggers upstairs. She bursts into the bedroom still holding the rifle and I hammer my windows against the frames — watch what you’re doing, you oaf! Then she runs from room to room, searching for Carly, but Carly is gone and perhaps she will never come back and it is all Marie’s fault.
When Marie has finally convinced herself that we are alone, she returns to the infant. She hovers with uncertainty, looking from Oliver to the rifle and back. Finally she props the weapon against the bars of his crib. She carries Oliver downstairs — he kicks and shouts — and attempts to warm a bottle of milk in the microwave whilst holding him, then attempts to feed him. He yells and casts around and looks up at me, pleading for my help.
An hour passes before Oliver falls into sullen silence. In my sitting room Marie wrestles him into a hammock chair made of cushioned fabric and wire. She presses the chair down to set it bouncing and then she joins me in looking out of my window into the garden.
We watch, both worried mothers. At this moment I do not hate her at all.
We are so absorbed we do not hear my front door opening. When I hear a sniffling sound from outside the sitting room, I hurtle away to find Carly bent on the doormat, waterfalls streaming from the shell of her coat. She picks something up from the mat. It is a piece of notepaper, folded once. She unfolds it and reads it — I strain to see past her, but her coat makes her bulky and obscures my view — and then folds it again.
She glances out of the window at our cul-de-sac.
Marie catches up with me. She comes to a stop in the dining room, horrified at the vision of Carly in her gleaming wet shroud.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Carly says. Then, “I need your help.”
Marie tries to speak, fails, then clears her throat. “Anything.”
Carly points at my front door, which hangs slightly ajar. Outside, barely protected by the porch overhang, the boxes that the delivery man put there are disintegrating in the rain. Some of the cardboard has ripped and fallen away entirely.
“Help me bring these inside,” Carly says.
The boxes contain toys and books and clothes. The largest cardboard box, the one that was ripped even when it was outside, is the size of a coffin and contains another box that is so heavy that Marie and Carly struggle to bump it up my stairs. It is a toy chest with a heavy, padded seat that is also a hinged lid. Its sides are decorated with colourful illustrations of dinosaurs and trees.
For most of the night Oliver is inconsolable. Carly sings to him and pleads with him and strokes his bald head and his back and his stomach.
“I’m doing all this for you,” she says softly, again and again.
For the rest of the night, for hours until just before the sun is due to peep above your rooftops, o neighbours, Carly is in my third bedroom, the nursery. It is black dark. There is a cot in here, larger than the bedside crib, but Oliver has never slept in it. In the darkness Carly kneels before the toy box. I cannot see her face but I can hear her stop-start sobbing and I can make out her hands wiping at her face again and again. I do not know why, but I find it revolting.
Before she returns to my master bedroom she carefully places all of the new toys into the toy chest.
“Perhaps it would be best for all of us if he were dead,” Carly says at breakfast.
She is gazing down at Oliver in his basket.
Marie stares at her and Carly says nothing more.
In the silence I replay Carly’s enunciation of the phrase as best I can. Her tone was almost neutral, but was there a slight emphasis on ‘he’?
I wake in a panic.
Carly reaches my staircase in the dark before I have collected myself and before I am ready to help. One of the steps halfway down has long caused me problems and I fear that without attention it will only get worse. Its loud creak echoes from my walls and I curse my age.
In my dining room Marie springs up from her chair.
Carly continues her descent.
“Stop,” Marie says hoarsely.
“Or what?” Carly replies. Her voice sounds slurred. She is dressed in her black clothes again, which have not been cleaned since yesterday. I notice that her face is already smeared and dirty. How has that happened? The last I saw her before I fell asleep, she was kneeling again before the toy box.
Slowly, uncertainly, Marie raises the rifle to point at Carly. I am transfixed and unable to do anything to intervene.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Marie shakes her head. “I’m not kidding. You can’t do it this way.”
“Because you’ll be found out.”
“There is no other way. You don’t understand.”
Marie shifts the arm holding the rifle to wipe at her eye with a dressing-gowned shoulder. Like me, she is half asleep. Perhaps this is only a nightmare.
Both women turn their heads. They are looking upstairs.
“He’ll grow up,” Marie says. “And then he’ll be able to look after himself. It won’t be as long as you think. You’ll see.”
“I hate him.”
“No, you don’t.”
After a few moments of silence Marie says, “I do understand, though.”
Until now Carly’s attention has been only on the weapon, as though she has been judging her moment to escape. Now she looks at Marie’s face.
“I was just the same as you,” Marie says in a weary tone that makes her sound even older than she is. “I guess it’s a family thing.”
In the morning Marie says, “I won’t go to work today.”
“You don’t need to hang around here.”
Marie is thinking what I am thinking. Carly wants Marie gone so that she can leave the house again, and when she does she will leave Oliver alone. I am afraid. I cannot care for Oliver on my own.
Marie shakes her head. “I’ll go out. I’ll get more for the toy box.”
Carly’s foot stops its rocking of Oliver’s chair. She and Marie watch each other and I do not know what to make of it. Is it a secret, Carly’s night-time crying at the toy box? After their encounter last night Carly went directly to my unused nursery. Marie remained in her chair downstairs, the rifle on her lap. If she went into the nursery it must have been when I finally fell asleep myself.
“You will?” Carly says. Her eyes shine.
“If that’s what you need.”
Abruptly, Carly is crying.
When Marie returns in the afternoon she goes directly upstairs and places two orange plastic carrier bags beside the toy box. They remain there until night when Carly enters the nursery in darkness. I cannot see into the bags, but Carly coughs and cries and swallows noisily as she rifles through their contents. She does not open the toy box until just before she leaves, an hour later.
Marie does not dress for work. She stays downstairs in her dressing gown and casts glances at my staircase.
The phone rings and she answers it. She waits only a moment — barely enough time for the caller to make an introduction — before she speaks.
“Don’t you fucking dare,” she says.
Carly is singing to Oliver. I recognise the song, which was one of Anton Grieg’s favourites: ‘Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief’ by Hoagy Carmichael.
I prefer Carly’s rendition. Her voice is very beautiful.
I sway to her singing and I let my attention spread beyond myself. Today it is wonderfully sunny outside. O neighbours, you look like palaces sparkling golden! The village at the end of the lane is an island in its cornfield sea, its spires the tallest trees. It is possible to be content with so very little.
I am enjoying looking directly upwards at the sky. At first it appears steel-coloured, but the more I look the more I am able to see the speckles of stars and even the pale apparition of the moon. Every so often I shift my attention back to Carly, to her lips forming the words, to Oliver pressed tight against her chest as she dances. She is holding him too tight.
She is pressing Oliver tighter and tighter to herself as she spins towards my window. Oliver lets out a muffled cry.
She will harm him like this.
I remember Carly’s words. Was that yesterday, or longer ago?
Perhaps it would be best for all of us if he were dead.
The threat is not out there in the golden sunlight.
O cul-de-sac! Send help!
We all wait nervously for the day to end. We all fear the night.
Marie and Carly speak only to arrange their meal and to soothe Oliver.
Carly goes to bed early. She kneels in her bed, watching Oliver in his crib. I beg her to be kind.
Downstairs, Marie does not sleep or even sit in her chair. She holds the rifle in both hands and paces up and down the length of my dining room. She looks out of my front window, peering into the blackness, and then my window that faces the void of the garden.
I do not understand why she is looking outside. Is Marie wrong about the nature of the threat, or am I? Whose maternal instincts are the stronger?
Marie checks her gun and presses her nose to the glass.
She sees something out there, before I sense it myself. O neighbours, what is it?
I pray that it is an animal, a fox. But it is not.
It is a human. It is standing at the picket fence in my garden.
Marie turns from the window to look up at my staircase, but she does not move from her position at the window. If she will not warn Carly, then I will. In a flurry I race upstairs.
Carly’s bed is empty.
I search for any sign of her. She is not in the nursery. The toy box is open and toys are strewn on the playmat and spilling under the wooden cot. Inside the toy box I see a collection of long struts that gleam white in the moonlight. They are bones. Hanging from them are ragged scraps of meat that are copper-coloured like the soil on Carly’s clothes. I realise now that it is not soil but dry blood.
Carly must be here somewhere.
I dart from room to room, struggling and failing to turn on my lights.
All I can think about are bones and flesh and blood.
Carly brought in that toy box. She filled it with something unspeakable and she forced Marie to help her carry it inside me.
Back downstairs Marie moves from window to window, watching and clutching the rifle.
I cast my attention outside. Whoever is out there has moved closer and has almost reached my walls.
“Carly!” Marie cries suddenly. She spins and clatters upstairs. She and I scour my rooms.
Where is Carly?
I push downstairs into my kitchen, my sitting room. I am certain Carly is here somewhere. She is moving somewhere, her bare feet tapping at my carpeted floors. But if she is here, she is a shadow among shadows.
I realise that Marie has stopped moving and I fear for Oliver. But Marie is not standing beside his crib; she is at the other side of Carly’s bed. She is reaching for a piece of paper that sits upon Carly’s pillow.
It is not folded now.
If we peer closely Marie and I can make out the words handwritten upon it.
I know it’s crazy, the note says, but I think you’re in trouble and I want to help.
And: I’ll come after dark on Sunday night.
And strangest of all: Kieran
It is Sunday night and Kieran is in the garden.
With a start I realise that Oliver’s crib is empty.
Marie and I move in synchronicity. We career downstairs, my boards creaking to match Marie’s strangled cries.
There is another sound: something snapping.
And another: that same stop-start sobbing I heard when Carly knelt before the toy box. Or perhaps it is not sobbing but something wet and awful.
I think of those times that she left me and I realise now that she was not seeking escape.
I roar with the horror of it.
Marie hears me. She jerks and the rotten middle step of my staircase cracks and gives way and she slips. I try to catch her but she bounces and then her neck twists and her head strikes my bannister and then she bumps down my stairs, turning and turning and coming to a halt in a heap on my carpet.
I was wrong.
My rear door, the door to my garden, is closed, but a chill tells me that it has been recently open. Outside I can see nothing.
I try to push my awareness beyond my walls, twisting, like Marie’s neck twisted, to see back towards myself. It is agony.
But I do see something.
It is crumpled on the paved area outside my rear door. At first I perceive it as a heap of fabric. But there are limbs, too. Bones and flesh and blood. I see a forearm and the meat has been picked clean off. I see your Kieran’s face, number six, and he is never coming home.
Carly is a hunter.
She must be here somewhere.
With a jolt I realise that I am empty for the first time in weeks.
I flail around and find Carly at the foot of my driveway.
Even from behind her I can see, from the way her arms are angled, that she is carrying Oliver strapped to her chest. I hear his faint gurgle and I know that he is unharmed.
“I’m doing all this for you,” I hear her say.
He is under no threat.
And neither is Carly.
I was wrong.
I tell myself that this is not my doing. Carly and I are both mothers and we are responsible only for ourselves.
But I also know this: while we have our children, we will protect them as best we can.
Barefoot, Carly strides away from me without looking back. Her head swings from side to side as she looks around our cul-de-sac, gazing at each of you in turn.
…aaaaand welcome back. That was O CUL-DE-SAC by TIM MAJOR, and if you enjoyed that, he’s popped up over at PseudoPod before in episode 735, THE SLOW KING; or, of course, you could grab a copy of the collection this story was taken from, “And the House Lights Dim” from Luna Press Publishing.
One of the fun aspects of an autistic brain–and I mean that sincerely, not ironically–is how much emotion and empathy you invest in inanimate objects. Toy Story was traumatic for validating that my toys really were upset with me for throwing them out. And so this, with a home as an active character? Yeah, I buy that completely. I always say goodbye to my house if I’m going away for a few days. And that sense of the home gathering us in to protect us from the outside world is… well, in the past 12 months I’ve changed jobs to be working from home, my wife has left work due to disability so is now at home, and we’re just in the process of starting homeschooling for one of our children to better meet his needs, so he’s going to be… at home. It feels like our house is drawing us all in where it can better protect us, like a deep inhale to pull us in and hold us close. I hope it takes as much care of us as Number 1 did here.
About the Author
Tim Major’s love of speculative fiction is the product of a childhood diet of classic Doctor Who episodes and an early encounter with Triffids. His recent books include Hope Island, Snakeskins and two Sherlock Holmes novels, The Defaced Men and The Back to Front Murder, plus a non-fiction book about the 1915 silent crime film, Les Vampires. His short stories have been selected for Best of British Science Fiction, Best of British Fantasy and Best Horror of the Year. Find out more at www.cosycatastrophes.com