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I’m not sure exactly when I first noticed her. I’d moved into the flat in December, squeaking in just before everything shut down for the holidays, spending Christmas Eve unpacking boxes in the kitchen, drinking the whiskey my sister Erin had given me. I don’t think I even looked at the window then, let alone through it.
Maybe it wasn’t until late January, when I ripped the old slatted blind down, that I really looked out of that window at all. It’s huge, tall, reaching all the way from the counter up to the high ceiling. And this being a Victorian mansion block, it looks directly onto my neighbour’s kitchen window, across the narrow courtyard inbetween.
Sometimes I was aware of light spilling out from it, but when did I first see her? I don’t remember. But by March, I’d seen her enough to know I’d recognise her in the street if she walked by me. Not that I’d be sure of saying anything to her. This is London, for fuck’s sake. No one says hello, randomly, on the street, neighbour or not, unless they want to get arrested or sectioned.
But yes, I knew what she looked like. From the waist up, anyway. Dark hair, always pulled back in a knot at the nape of her neck. Dark eyebrows, big eyes, elegant neck and shoulders. Elegant is definitely the word I’d use to describe her. And tiny. She looked tiny inside the frame of the huge window.
I also knew that she ate like a bloke. That is to say, she often stood in front of her fridge and ate directly out of it. I knew that because I could see her doing it, when her light was on, when she hadn’t drawn her blind down the window. And when she ate, she licked her fingers in a way that looked equally at odds with her elegant appearance.
All of this I’d observed in an idle sort of way. Until one day in late March that’d been particularly hard at work. I’d spent most of the shift trying to treat a teenager who’d come off his motorbike and landed on the road breaking his pelvis and arm, but he’d been resistant and abusive beyond belief, yelling at the nurses, not even calming down when his terrifying (to me) mother had arrived.
If that hadn’t been difficult enough, an ancient couple had come in, the husband in respiratory failure, his wife stroking and kissing his head and hands, whispering to him, trying not to cry in front of me as I explained how unlikely it was he’d make it through the next twenty four hours.
For some reason, it’d really got to me that day, and as I left the hospital after midnight, I’d walked home instead of taking the bus, hoping a brisk half hour in the cold would shake off my depressed mood.
I’d walked into the flat without turning on any lights, gone straight through to the kitchen at the back, turned on the tap and filled a glass with water. I was gulping it down, still standing at the sink and staring out of the window when her kitchen light snapped on and she walked into view.
Not wearing very much. Thin little straps over her shoulders and a delicate neckline. But to be honest it was her hair that caught my attention. No longer tied up at the back, it was tousled around her face and down below her shoulders.
Like a madman, I smiled to myself at the idea of pushing my hands through it, making her look even messier, and at the same time, was gripped by the fear that she could see me. What would I look like? A man standing in the dark in his kitchen, staring at her semi-clothed state? I was trapped, not knowing whether to move or not. Could she see me?
I watched as she cupped her hand under the tap and drank from it, tipping her head right back, as if she was swallowing something more than just water. Pills maybe. I wondered if she was taking sleeping pills. Her light snapped off, and I was plunged back into full darkness.
The next time I see her, she’s outside, digging out the dead plants from the big terracotta pots in her garden, wearing an old pair of jeans, a scruffy jacket, her hair tied up, but a bit wild, tendrils of it blowing about in the sharp wind. Before thinking it through, I open my back door, stand on the step and call out to her.
‘Hi there. I’m Declan.’
She straightens up – as tiny as I thought she’d be – and scowls.
‘Hi. You’ve just moved in, haven’t you?’ she says, sounding more friendly than she’s looking. Bit of a cut glass kind of accent.
‘That’s right. Just before Christmas.’
‘Oh! Longer than I thought. Where does the time go?’ and she produces a small smile.
I shrug and smile back.
‘It’ll be summer, next time we look up,’ she adds, banging the trowel on the side of the pot. ‘Are you much of a gardener?’
I wonder if my mouth is hanging open. Now that I’m getting a longer look at her, I can see she’s maybe a bit older than I thought. There is some grey threaded through her dark hair, and fine lines splay out from the corners of her arresting eyes. But that notwithstanding, I’m bahis firmaları taken aback at how much my insides are growling for her.
I pull myself together – how long have I been gaping at her?
‘Uh – not much of a one, no.’ And then I focus, cast my eyes over my own square of back garden. ‘But I’ll at least tidy it up a bit,’ I say, indicating the broken shed, pots, and half of a kid’s bicycle that litter it. ‘If it’s not pissing down I’ll do it sometime over the next few weeks. Take it all down the dump.’
‘Do you know where it is? It’s not far from here, but perhaps you know that already?’
‘No, no I don’t know much about this area. Only just moved here for work. Maybe you can show me where it is. If you’ve stuff you need to get rid of, I could take that too.’
She raises her eyebrows almost imperceptibly at this and I get the distinct impression she can see my gambit for what it is.
‘Mmm. That’d be useful, actually.’ And then; ‘Where do you work?’
‘At the hospital,’ I say, and gesture at the t-shirt I’m wearing, one we’d had printed for a charity run we’d done last weekend, me and the other runners from A&E. She’s scowling harder now.
‘Oh. Right. I can’t read that from here,’ she smiles more widely. ‘Still not reconciled to wearing glasses. Ridiculous of me, I know.’
I see much more of her that week. For a couple of evenings, I’m home when she gets in from work. I see her walking into her kitchen, pulling a bag off her shoulder, her dark coat down her arms, walking out of view and then back again, coatless, then out of view for longer, reappearing in an oversized white t-shirt. Opening the fridge and eating from it. I click my tongue at that.
And find myself wondering what it is she does for a living that she’s not coming home from work until nine in the evening, looking that tired. Then I’m on shift at the hospital for the rest of the week, and I don’t get home until the wee hours of the morning.
I’m drinking water at the sink when it happens again. Her light flicks on and she’s standing directly opposite me, drinking from her cupped hand, throwing her head back to swallow. Sleeping pills, I feel sure now. Can she see me, standing here in the dark?
The next night, to remove any doubt, I turn on my own kitchen light before standing at the sink to fill my glass with water. As I’m turning the tap off, her window fills with light and she walks into view. Yes – already holding something in her hand which she palms into her mouth, then cups her hand under the tap, lowers her head to drink from it.
As she straightens up, she sees me. I raise my hand in what I hope isn’t a creepy greeting. What counts as creepy, I ask myself, as she raises hers in return? It’s got to be past one in the morning, and I’m staring at my neighbour in her nightdress as she shoves pills down her neck. I’m just wishing her hair was loose around her face again, like that first time. So that I could be pulling my hands through it. Maybe it’s that thought which tips it over towards creepiness?
The next night when I get home at the same time, her kitchen light is already on. She’s sitting at a table, staring at something. A laptop, perhaps. Head in hands. Then not – something startles her. She grabs at something, lifts a phone to her ear, stands up and paces around the kitchen, nodding her head, talking, listening, looking controlled, but if I was a betting man (I’m not) I’d say that this was a very stressful call.
Perhaps it’s the time I’ve spent watching relatives making these kinds of phone calls from the waiting rooms and carparks of all the hospitals I’ve worked at, but I know the signs.
I continue to watch as she paces about her kitchen, passing in and out of my view until she halts, the call finished. Her arm drops down to her side, her other hand passing across her face.
Spooked, I flip my light on. When I turn back she’s standing at her window and raises her hand to me. I raise mine in return, then watch as she raises just her index finger in a ‘wait one minute’ gesture. She moves out of view, then back, holding two glasses in her hands, lifts them up to me, tipping her head.
I consider this to be the universal way of asking someone to join you in a drink, but does this translate to one thirty in the morning, from one kitchen to another? She raises them again. I don’t have to move much to reach the bottle of whiskey from where it sits on the counter. I hold it up, thinking she probably won’t be able to see exactly what it is without her glasses, but she nods and gestures that I should come over.
All of the gardens at the back are linked by a narrow path that runs around the mansion block and out to the street at the front. I’m wondering whether this is really happening or not as I thread my way through my gate, then her gate and down her garden towards her back door, but yes – there’s her door, wide open, lighting up the steps.
‘Hi,’ she’s standing in the door frame, in jeans and a big t-shirt, no shoes.
‘Hi,’ I think kaçak iddaa I’m grinning like an idiot, but it’s too late now to aim for cool. I step inside, her kitchen almost the same layout as mine. These mansion flats were built to the same pattern, after all. I’m curious that neither a laptop nor phone are anywhere to be seen. She’s cleared it all away in the short time it’s taken me to walk through our gardens, stashed somewhere the other side of the kitchen door. Which is firmly shut.
I hold up the bottle.
‘Do you drink whiskey?’ I ask.
She examines the label. ‘Mmm. I do when it’s this quality,’ and holds out the glasses for me to pour.
‘Cheers,’ she replies.
I watch her throat as she swallows, imagine pulling her hair down out of that knot, teasing it around her throat and collarbone. I take another drink from the glass to distract myself from those thoughts, cough a little as it catches.
‘Difficult day?’ I ask, aiming for nonchalance.
She closes her eyes ever so briefly. ‘You could say that.’ Opens them again. They are grey. Clear and grey. ‘What about you?’
‘Not too bad tonight,’ I shrug, trying not to remember the young, frightened, single mother in severe mental distress snatching at her baby son as he was carried off by the social worker, the self-employed builder who’d fallen off his ladder and had no feeling below his chest, the four grown daughters fighting over their mother’s Do Not Resuscitate order.
‘I’m not sure I believe you,’ she smiles at me.
‘How about you? What do you do, anyway?’
‘Me? Oh, nothing interesting. Work in a boring government department.’ She waves her hand dismissively.
I know she’s lying. Boring government departments don’t have you on the phone at this time of night.
‘I don’t even know your name,’ I say.
‘Have you lived here long, Margot?’ I’m looking around the kitchen as a way of stopping myself visualising what she looks like with no clothes on.
‘Mm, almost ten years. I moved here after we divorced.’
There are no photographs, no postcards, no ticket stubs, receipts, money-off coupons – none of these are in sight, none of the detritus you’d get in a run-of-the-mill kitchen. And now she mentions a divorce, I look at her hands resting on the table. No rings. No earrings either. No jewellery whatsoever. I shift in my seat.
‘And you? I don’t see a wife, but – a girlfriend?’
I sit back. ‘No. The last one – well, it ended a bit messily. It’s why I took this job here. To get away from it.’
‘Ah. Sounds difficult.’
I nod. ‘It’s ok now there’s two hundred miles between us. And, realistically, her and my best mate always did have more in common with each other. Another?’
I lift the bottle, pour another generous measure into both glasses.
‘This is very nice whiskey indeed,’ she smiles over her glass. ‘I see now why you drink it.’ And then she turns a little pink. She’s been watching me, I think to myself.
‘Tastes even better when you’re sharing it,’ I reply.
I’m almost certain she’s not wearing a bra under the t-shirt and I’m getting more and more distracted by the thought of what I’d like to do with her breasts, how her hips might move and bend beneath me. I shift around on the chair again, knock the table and the bottle tips. We both grab for it at the same time, her hand closing over mine.
I can’t tell if it’s her touch or the throaty laugh she releases that’s more compelling, but I’m sure she keeps her hand on mine for longer than strictly necessary.
‘Clumsy. It’s why I was never going to be a surgeon.’
‘My father had hopes for me to be a surgeon, following in his august footsteps. Sadly, I disappointed him in that respect.’
‘He was a surgeon?’
She nods, tells me his name, and my eyebrows shoot upwards. Not just any old surgeon.
‘Yes, he invented various new surgical techniques,’ she waves that hand again, deliberately vague, downplaying it.
‘I’m not in that kind of league.’
‘Thank God,’ she exclaims, treating me to another of her throaty laughs. ‘Might mean you’re not a complete bastard bordering on the psychopathic,’ and laughs again.
I could get addicted to listening to her.
‘There’s hope for me yet, then,’ I joke.
‘Yes. I’d say so.’ It’s truly arresting, that look of hers. Those clear grey eyes looking into mine. And then she releases me, looking down. ‘But I should probably get some sleep. Some of us have to be at work by seven thirty,’ and when she looks up again I can see that the adrenalin of whatever emergency had dominated her evening has drained away now.
‘I’m still planning on taking some stuff over to the recycling plant at the weekend, if you’re interested? I can take whatever else you have if it fits into my car.’
‘That’d be great.’
‘Sunday? I finish this shift Saturday night, so – sometime around lunchtime?’
‘I might even cook you dinner, if you have time for that?’
She looks surprised.
‘You kaçak bahis don’t eat well enough,’ I say, pointing at her fridge and watching her face as she realises what I’m telling her. I’ve been watching her.
That pink blush is rising up her neck again. I’m bending down and pressing my lips to it before I’ve really thought it through, expecting her to push me away. But she doesn’t. I feel her pulse through my lips, hear her breath catching in her throat.
‘Well, goodnight, Margot,’ I murmur and walk out of her back door, through her garden, then mine, and into my own kitchen. By the time I’ve done that, her light is out, the window black.
I’d watched him unpack boxes in his kitchen, drinking what looked like whisky, perhaps brandy. Dark, and out of a bottle, anyway. He had the look of someone who wasn’t delighted to be moving in somewhere new. The way he held his shoulders. The mechanical way he’d unwrapped plates and mugs and saucepans.
I’ve seen many tenants move in and out of that flat. Usually young couples who at the first hint of marriage or pregnancy had moved out to somewhere with more bedrooms, a bigger garden and a longer commute. I speculate what’s brought him here to this part of London.
It doesn’t take me long to understand that, whatever he does for a living, it’s shift work. There are times I see him rubbing his hair, shirtless, clearly straight out of bed, mid-afternoon, and others when he’s coming home from work, dropping his coat on a chair, standing at the sink drinking water.
And yet others when he’s coming back in after a run, looking gratifyingly sweaty, leaning up against the kitchen cupboards, pulling his watch off his wrist.
Does he know I’m watching him? I know he watches me. I’ve seen him, standing in the dark. The first time I’d jumped out of my skin. And then he’d turned the light on in his kitchen and for some reason I’d found it comforting to know he was there, had been honest enough to show himself.
We were in the middle of a crisis. I can’t really say what I do for a living. But it was a situation as bad as any I’d experienced. On the brink. I’m not much of a sleeper anyway, but I was resorting to sleeping pills to just get a few hours in a night. Feeling him there, opposite, watching me as I swallowed them down, it was as if I had a guardian angel. Ridiculous thoughts, really, but I indulged them. It’s one way to cope with the intense stress of times like this.
That, and imagining what he was like when he was sleeping. The way these flats were designed and built, our bedrooms are next to each other, a single party wall separating them, a shared chimney stack between us. It was a diverting thought, where his bed was positioned, whether he slept on his back. I laughed at myself for even thinking about it. I was sure to be perhaps fifteen or twenty years his senior. But – what’s the harm in a bit of fantasy?
And then he’d stood on his back steps introducing himself to me in that warm voice, taking me by surprise with his friendliness. Perhaps he needs to wear glasses too, I’d thought to myself. I know I can be mistaken for someone much younger – from a distance. But once someone gets a good look at my face, there’s no denying my age. And whatever was I thinking of?
And yet, filled with the electricity of forty-eight hours-worth of desperately tense negotiation and waiting, I’d raised two glasses to him from my window that night in March, not thinking it through at all. But seeing his tired face, his mussed hair, fresh back from his shift at the hospital, I saw someone with a similar need to wind down.
That he’d brought his own drink with him – a very nice Irish whiskey – was a bonus. That he’d sat opposite me making me feel as if he wanted to undress me – well now – that was even more unexpected. And delicious. It’s been a very long time since I’ve felt a man look at me like that. He’s so tall he’d had to bend really far down to kiss my neck, his scent flooding the space between us. I’d breathed it in as deeply as I could, hoping he wouldn’t notice. It was as much as I could do not to moan.
And then he was gone. I’d watched him turn his head towards my window as he walked back into his own kitchen, my light off, hiding me.
I hadn’t slept brilliantly. A long shift, a windy night battering the windows, the thought of today – all of this had made sleep elusive. So I got up early and started to prepare the food for later, wondering if she’d even taken my offer seriously. We’d not seen each other since that night. Well, ok, I hadn’t seen her since then, but I have to admit it’s possible she has seen me. We watch each other, we’d confessed as much over the whiskey. But her flat has been dark, empty, as if she’s been away. Perhaps she’s still away.
I survey my progress. I’m cooking something I can sling in the freezer if she doesn’t turn up. To stop the anticipation getting too much, I focus on domestic chores. Laundry, tidying up the piles of books that litter almost every room, throwing out-of-date food out of the fridge – all the things that don’t get done inbetween shifts. I’m taking the rubbish out to the bins outside my front door when she calls my name.