The building is old. It smells a little musty from every aspect, every corner. Dust settles on vertical windows and mould creeps into not-quite-right-angled corners. It creaks and sighs. The building is split into flats. Doors face forwards and sideways and backwards. Letters are put in holes. Fragile connective strands hang, taut in the air. Two, three, four, five, six flats. One is underneath. One is forgotten. Inhabited by silence, except the odd mouse you hear if you go to check the gas meter in the basement and put your ear to the letterbox. Maybe two mice. No point in one mouse squeaking alone; everyone needs someone to communicate with.
Mice in One. Listening. Inquisitive. Ears cocked, squeaking at the sighing.
A girl in Two. Trendy, pregnant, alone. Slamming doors indicate visitors. Doors slam and the building creaks. Ceilings shake. She shouts, “I don’t love you anymore. I can do this alone.” Sobbing. Kicking. Screaming.
Four people in Three. Closing their ears. Someone else will call the police. They drink wine and the children drink organic juice. Organic juice means they are cared for. The shop assistants look impressed as they buy it. They can get babysitters at the last minute, if they feel like taking some cocaine from the stash under the cupboard behind the curtain. Looking at the sea, sighing, pretending to be deaf.
A man in Four. He looks at porn. Sometimes porn he thinks he shouldn’t look at. Legal, but too close to the bone. He is fifty-six. He is alone. He cries. When it’s over, he angrily strips the sheets and feels guilty. He washes sheets. The washing machine rattles and the floors shake. The building sighs, but not in judgement. If he tilts his head inquisitively as he climbs the steps, he can see through the window of Two. He feels ashamed, alone, depressed, dirty. He tries not to look. It’s not easy. One day she might thank him, if he sees something and breaks down the door. He thinks it is her he heard screaming.
A policeman and his wife in Five. They want a baby. At least, she does. She too looks through the window of Two, as she climbs the steps. She does not pretend not to; if Two can’t be bothered to close her curtains, then she must want Five to see her caressing her swollen belly and cleaning broken glass off the floor. The only time Five couldn’t see Two was when Two’s windows were boarded up. “Don’t go down there,” she had whined to her husband, the night she heard the faraway screaming and the shouting and the smashing. “Don’t leave me, she can sort herself out. Fuck me.” That always worked. He had fucked her, the headboard squeaking like mice, banging the wall, chipping the paint, slowly, reluctantly, and the building winced. He grunted but he didn’t come. She didn’t know he was fresh from fucking the probationer in the car.
The bloke visited Two again today. The restraining order didn’t restrain him. He thinks it’s pretty cool. Romeo and Juliet. Montagues and Capulets. Never let it be said that he is not a romantic. He knows he can be kind to her, if only she would STOP letting him go.
Six is up for rent. Restraining order keeps the bloke away. What a lovely view, through the freshly cleaned window. Not ideal for a family, too many stairs. Would the Asda delivery man carry the shopping up there? Ninety-eight steps. Never get the wardrobe around those corners, but does it matter? What a lovely view.
One is not up for rent. Needs fixing and pest control. If it was up for rent, the bloke would move in. He used to live in Six; that’s how he met her. Picking up post off the floor. Small talk. Big talk. Love, cohabitation, disaster. He is not allowed near her now, but he could break down the splintered, sharp door of One. Live with the mice and underneath Two. Staring at the ceiling staring at the floor. He would be able to hear if she had any visitors pinning her gently to the bed. The thought makes him angry. Nothing stopping him moving into One, though, is there? Squatting. Nobody will know. Six years and squatter’s rights. Or five? Or four? He can’t be sure. Word on the street goes round. Squatter’s rights don’t exist. A myth, or history, he can’t remember. He can’t Google because his smartphone screen is cracked. Dropped it, drunk, stamped on it. Voice activated dialling works if he depresses the Home button for long enough and shouts in an accent. That’s how he contacts her. Sometimes he plays a game. Ring. Ring ring. “Hello?” Hang up. Ring. Ring ring. “Hello?” Hang up. Once, he did this four times in a row. But now she knows, because he had spoken. He still phones, she cowers, the room shrinks, nobody answers.
Now it is summer. It is meant to be, but the weather makes everyone talk. They laugh. They say, “Bloody British weather,” shrug off their kagouls and dry jeans on radiators. The building swells and shrinks, and the smell of warm washing powder emanates from radiators in every flat, except One and Two. One can’t get the gas connected. Or the electricity. He washes in warm water at the sports centre, before the swimmers come in. He gets his post sent to Mum’s and collects it once a week. She doesn’t mind if he signs on from her address. She will do anything to make him happy. She buys him food and cries when he says she can’t visit him. “But I’ll visit you, Mum. You don’t need to see my little flat.” Casseroles and chocolate cake and cups of tea. He doesn’t drink anymore, which is a relief. Buys his coke from organic guy in Three. When he was thirteen, he told his Mum he wanted to go away to live with his Dad. His Dad was cool; he wore jeans and waistcoats and smoked joints. His Mum bought him a bike and some fags, so he stayed.
Two can’t afford to keep putting the heating on. She is saving money for the baby. Eight days left and she has a hundred and eighteen pounds. It’s cold, despite the month. She lives in one room with one blanket. The room feels larger when it’s cold, and the draughts rattle her through the window that looks out onto the steps. She plans that when the baby is born, the baby called Eva or Sonny, she will put the heating on all day if its skin feels cold. She will put it in its Moses basket, feet at the end so it doesn’t wriggle under the blanket. On its back. Forehead thermometer every two hours, just in case. When its skin heats the top end of the green section on the thermometer, the heating will go off. Nobody will judge her. She is only seventeen, but she will bathe her baby twice a day.
She doesn’t need a pram. She wants the baby close to her skin. Under a jumper, or in a sling, so she can see it breathing. Feel it breathing. She can’t understand why people face babies away from them. Strangers coming at them, smiling, gap-toothed, staring. Baby needs Mummy’s face and Mummy’s heart.
Five are not all at home. He went to work. She doesn’t know that he doesn’t work anymore. Leaves in his white shirt and black trousers, returns in his white shirt and black trousers. He says he has a locker at work. Epaulettes, hat and jacket in it. Safe. A week now. He told her he is doing day shifts this week. Ten till six. What happens next week when he is meant to be working nights? He was suspended on full pay, investigation pending. Pretended he was on leave. Six weeks it took. After two weeks, he told her he was stressed. Took his sandwiches to the park when he said he was at the doctor’s getting signed off. He couldn’t pretend to be stressed forever, even though he was. Stressed because he was not stressed. Soon she will notice they can’t afford anything. She will notice the letters down the back of the fridge, turning at the corners, dried and pointed, grey with damp from the wall. Creeping and contaminated. Name and address in black. Red lines poking under the envelope window. FINAL DEMAND. The water will go and the electricity will go and her dream will go. All because he got caught fucking the probationer in the car.
Right now, he is eating his sandwiches on a park bench. He is under a raincloud. It’s a shame that his favourite view is the sea; he can’t eat his sandwiches by the sea. She will peer from the window and there he will be and the game will be over. He hasn’t considered the local press. They jump on the police, ever since the police failed to catch the man who tried to touch up children in the play park. The police are shit. Still on the run. The police are fucked. Fucking paedo. The police are corrupt. Look at this one! He fucked a probationer in a police car. Spunk on the seats. Fired. Eating sandwiches, staring unblinkingly at his second favourite view. Water gone. Electricity gone. Life gone.
Three are out. Not all of them. The adults are out. They’ll be back by nine. Their niece will babysit. Sixteen. She will text her boyfriend and tell him that she wishes she was with him instead. She will eat biscuits while she texts him filth. She will stare at the wall while thinking of adjectives. She will notice the painted cracks they thought had been hidden.
The adults went out because they wanted a meal. A silent meal. Their food is piled high, garnished with something that can’t be eaten. No noise from the mouths of babes. Babes who climb from their beds wanting a cuddle. Time thieves. Independence thieves. Shoo them back. If only we had a nanny. A nanny in the daytime to show them pebbles from the beach and get paint on her skirt. A nanny at night to let the adults have their beauty sleep. Ugly inside. Look at the children’s beautiful faces. Let his hair grow. Buy him red trousers. She can wear tights and a swishy skirt and people will coo. They are so beautiful. So beautiful. So demanding.
It’s the next day. Two hadn’t noticed him watching. Didn’t know he had been watching for a week. Planning a cliché. “If I can’t, no-one can.”. But she had felt a bit on edge. Put it down to tiredness. Baby had been heavy and pressing down on her pelvis, making her ache. Head engaged, she couldn’t sleep. Excitement and weariness. When she had opened the door, at ten past ten in the morning, she expected the postman. Not the bloke. The last thing she expected was to be stabbed.
Five had seen him watching her. The bloke. Five had seen the bloke three or four times in the same week. Emerging from the basement, feral. Unkempt. Weeds from the ground staining his white shoes, tainting a blank canvas. Anger in his walk. Disjointed hips, perhaps. Side to side to side, swinging shoulders, chin in the air. Too big for his boots, the little runt. Today, sunny-at-last today, Five saw him again. Marching with purpose. His police nose twitched, then he remembered he had to pretend to go to work. None of his business, right? He pretended he had no time. Sandwiches had to be eaten. Swans and pigeons waiting for crumbs. Looking. He could see glistening in a waistband. Reflecting. Could be a belt, sun glistening on a belt. But that walk. That bloke. That watching. A knife? Five walked to the park.
The adults in Three nursed hangovers. They had been late back last night, bunged the niece an extra twenty, like that made it ok. This morning the beautiful children made noise and the adults held hands over ears. She looked at the beautiful children, then looked out the window. Saw the window frame first, spotted with mould, taking over. She saw the bloke she had seen before. The bloke who had made Two scream. She rolled her eyes. Focused again. He was walking, swinging his arms. She saw his hand, his hand, his hand, his hand, a knife. Saw a knife. No. He wouldn’t. Probably visiting. Unpacking baby stuff. Opening boxes. She suppressed her panic.
Four feels ashamed, dirty, unworthy, loathed, unloved, detested, marginalised, ostracised. He is a bad man. Still, that doesn’t stop him looking through the window of Two when he comes back from the shop. He had seen running, a man running. Not a jogger. Perhaps a crime. It ties together when he sees her lying there. Holding her stomach. Eyes open. Terror. Fright. Fear. Hatred. Panic. Love. Blood. He has his keys. He opens the first door. It lets him in. Barges through the second door, which relents on the third attempt. Stems the flow of blood. Whispers words. Comforting words. Strokes her head. It will be ok, yes. The baby will be ok, yes. Don’t worry, my love. Don’t worry. Fumbling fingers, stemming blood, dialling for help, stemming blood, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Sirens and voices and machines.
Five is in the park. His wife is at home. He doesn’t know she finds out today. She sees the police, police she knows. Scene guard. She’s part of the police family, you see. Been to Christmas parties, flirted with Inspectors, worn glittery dresses and gold boleros. She is pleased to see them. Inquisitive. Is someone else’s life ruined, she asks. I can’t say, they say. Bad news about your husband, my love. You still together. Yes, yes, we are. You’re a better woman than I am, Mrs. Why is that, then. No philandering man would ever put his slippers under my bed again, certainly not, no. A probationer too. A shame. Lost his career and hers too. I’m so sorry.
They stemmed the blood, cut out the baby, heard it cry, rested it on her. She is prone, unconscious, but they think she will stay alive. They will look after her. Her mother will travel down, break the silence, take her back home. She will add Four on Facebook and say thank you when she feels better. A knife in the gut is never not going to hurt. It still twists, but she is full of hearts and flowers and her soul sings as she hears crying in her sleep.