© Susan Howe
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The Beast Next Door (a short story)
The neighbours’ front door slammed with such force that his mother's photograph fell off the shelf.
Gerald shuddered, closed his eyes and sighed. He knew what came next. He rolled his wheelchair nearer the party wall and listened.
There it was. No dramatic sobs or screams, only the subdued moans of a woman with nowhere to turn. He yearned to jump over the low fence that divided their gardens, take her hand and lead her out of hell. Just as well his legs were next to useless. He might cause even more problems for the frail, bruised creature he imagined cowering less than an arm’s length away.
He knew the routine. The grunt of the van as it mounted the kerb and dropped back into the gutter, the stumble of the leather-jacketed driver up the overgrown path, a can of Special Brew dangling from one paw. Then came the part Gerald dreaded. A thud and curse as the man fell indoors, followed by raised voices, the thump against the wall, a cry of pain. He could almost tick them off a list. Finally the noisy exit, after which Gerald held his breath until he was comforted by sounds that informed him that, once again, she’d survived.
He didn’t, couldn’t, call the police. Previous dealings made him reluctant to draw their attention and he knew the victim could easily become the villain, the informant a pariah.
She was in her late twenties as far as he could tell. On the rare occasions she emerged during the day, she kept her head down and her fair hair pulled over her face. Back a few minutes later clutching a small bag of shopping, she held her key ready for a swift re-entry. Gerald longed to speak to her, to reassure her he was there - and that he knew.
He shook his head and gave his attention to the plants on his table. His part-time carer, Michael, had brought him a small bag of compost and he’d spent most of the afternoon potting his seedlings and setting them in neat rows on wads of newspaper.
Gerald planned, with Michael’s help, to put a display outside his door and to hang a couple of baskets from the canopy above. He had no idea how long they’d last before they were vandalised; not very long if the new bus shelter outside his flat was anything to go by. But he’d give it a try, because it was his fervent prayer that the beauty of nature could cleanse the soul and win over those who would destroy it.
Gerald found peace in plants. His years as a Council gardener had been the happiest of his life. He missed the peaty smell of wet leaves and chrysanthemums, and the shrill laughter of schoolgirls as they took a shortcut across his newly mown grass. But after the incident that caused the loss of his position and confinement to a wheelchair, he couldn’t get that kind of work any more. He tried to believe that each phase of life brought new opportunities, and he always had his memories, like selected video clips, to fall back on whenever he felt sad.
He wheeled back to the wall and concentrated, screening out the soothing clicks and hums of his own kitchen. The clatter of pans on the other side reassured him and he exhaled. Normal life had been resumed.
The days lengthened and Gerald’s plants thrived on the windowsills of all four rooms. In spite of almost daily interruptions from next door, he was content. His previous tenancy had become impossible due to the numbers of vandals and thugs who had made it their life’s work to torment him. Time and again he had phoned the police, who’d done little or nothing to help. Maybe they were too frightened of the mob themselves to come to his aid. Social Services had eventually persuaded the Council to relocate him and he’d dreaded the idea of going through it all again, somewhere new.
Social Services had eventually persuaded the Council to relocate him and, to his relief, it seemed a relatively safe area, mainly populated by pensioners and single mothers who congregated around the mini-mart and chippy on the corner. If he craned his neck he could see a graffiti-smothered bench, occupied in the mornings by old men. In the afternoons the young mothers sat and smoked. When Gerald’s window was open he could hear them cackling at each other’s stories, drowning out the cries of their children. By six o’clock it was vacant, but the amount of litter scattered around demonstrated its pivotal place in the community.
Although he’d lived there for five months, Gerald hadn’t ventured out of his flat as yet. He relied on Michael and his cleaner, Sandra, to bring supplies. Sandra was a big-boned, middle-aged woman who, he gleaned from her monologues, had seen everything. She had no time for the government, the law, the church, the youth of today and the population in general, and Gerald felt completely safe in her company. She whipped round the flat twice a week, leaving the fridge full and the impression that she’d been there longer than she wished. Her cheery, “See you Thursday,” seemed to linger in the walls, but he could never persuade her to stay for a quick cup of tea.
His great love after gardening was cooking, and he ate well. Not for him the tasteless mush of Meals-on-Wheels. He liked to prepare everything freshly, stripping away the outer layers of vegetables, boning and dicing meat with reverence and precision. Gerald didn’t mind eating alone but these days he had to be careful. The pounds were piling on and the wheelchair was beginning to chafe his sides. He looked forward to summer salads, homegrown in a trough fixed to the outside windowsill. He didn’t hold with plastic windows but the tipping-style of these was useful. Perhaps you had to move with the times. Apart from moments of fulfilment in the park, he didn’t like to look back. It hadn’t all been good.
Gerald knew spring had arrived before he opened his eyes. His bedroom curtains, flimsy things Sandra had bought on the market, could do little to curb the exuberance of the sunlight as it challenged him to face the day somewhat earlier than usual. Michael would be along later to help him into his sit-down bath. Meanwhile Gerald was hungry. He pulled the wheelchair alongside and shuffled into the seat. His extra weight made it a laborious process and he was sweating by the time he was comfortably arranged.
He drew the curtains back and blinked as light penetrated the room, highlighting every scuff
and mark, changing swirls of dust to glitter. There was a movement outside and he looked up, shielding his eyes against the unaccustomed glare. The woman from next door was pushing something through his letterbox. He swung round and bowled out into the hall. By the time he’d got his door open she was back outside her own, tousled hair providing camouflage.
“Hi,” he said, wanting to stop her, just for a second, from disappearing.
She hesitated, twitched a hand, and slipped inside her flat.
Gerald sat in the doorway for a moment, feeling the gentle warmth of the sun on his face, then reversed and looked inside his mailbox. It was only a bill wrongly delivered. He tossed it onto the pile with a stab of disappointment. He shook himself. What else could it have been? They’d never met, never exchanged a word, but he knew more about her life than she’d ever guess. It gave them a connection, whether she knew it or not.
As he prepared and ate a perfect poached egg, Gerald thought about his neighbour. It seemed wrong for a young person to be so isolated. At least he had daily visitors and the freedom to go out if he wanted. And maybe he would now that spring had arrived. His confidence grew as the months passed without incident. Meanwhile he wondered what he could do to improve the woman’s life without incurring the wrath of her partner.
The Beast, as Gerald named him, left around eight each morning and returned some time after six. At weekends he emerged at noon and didn’t come back until Gerald was asleep. Whatever happened after that was blocked out by earplugs, a habit that he had formed when forced to sleep in close proximity to an inveterate snorer. In the mornings he listened at the wall for signs of life and had, so far, been rewarded for his trouble.
Now they’d had contact, his perception of her had subtly altered. As he disinfected his worktops, Gerald considered his options for offering the hand of friendship. By the time Michael arrived he’d formed a simple plan.
“I’d like to give my neighbour a present,” he told his friend. “To thank her for bringing my mail.”
Michael raised his eyebrows, then shrugged and smiled, adding that he thought it was a harmless gesture. He knew nothing of the fights next door; a secret Gerald harboured with a nagging guilt.
Gerald took down the strongest plant from his windowsill. It was a sturdy variegated geranium and would soon produce an abundance of vibrant red flowers. He repotted it in a clean terracotta pot and wiped every trace of soil from its powdery surface.
Handing it to Michael for delivery, he gave instructions for feeding and watering then took his position by the bedroom window to watch. Michael knocked and waited. He cocked his head and knocked again. After another minute he smiled and leant forward, out of sight. A moment later he reappeared, no longer holding the pot. Gerald’s shoulders relaxed. She had accepted his gift. A bubble of pride rose in his chest as he wheeled into the hall to meet Michael, an image of balmy scented evenings with his neighbour drifting before him.
His smile faded as Michael entered, a frown puckering his forehead.
“Is she all right?” Gerald asked, as panic replaced pleasure.
“I’m not sure,” said Michael. “I couldn’t see her properly. She was hiding behind the door.”
“Maybe she isn’t dressed yet?”
“Mmm.” Michael rubbed his chin. “She seemed afraid to show herself.”
“But she took the present?”
“Not exactly. I left it on the doorstep.” His frown deepened. “Something isn’t right.”
There was a long silence while each man assessed his position.
“Let me know if you see anything unusual, will you?” Michael said at last.
Gerald nodded. There wasn’t much else he could do.
Gerald heard the rattle of the van, the door slamming, and raised voices. Successive thuds, a crash and a scream lifted the hairs on the back of his neck. His hands, resting on the arms of his chair, began to tingle and shake. The door banged again and there was silence. He sat for a few minutes, picturing the scene next door, with his hands over his face. It couldn’t be allowed to continue. His right hand crept towards the phone, a few inches away on the worktop, came to rest on the receiver, then shrank back, trembling. They wouldn’t listen to him.
A thump on his front door jerked his heart into frantic activity and he wheeled slowly into the hall, staring at the chipped paint, not quite wanting to know what was on the other side. Another knock, weaker this time, spurred him on and he opened the door just a crack. A weight against it forced him back as the young woman fell inside and lay, crumpled and bleeding, on the floor.
He recoiled, swallowed and licked his lips.
“I’ll have to ring the police,” he said, more to himself than to her.
She groaned and tried to lift her head.
“No, please,” she whispered. “I’ll be all right in a minute.”
Wincing, she slowly pushed herself into a sitting position against the wall and he saw her properly for the first time. Although her cheek was swollen and her lip broken and bloodied, it was possible to discern fine, even features beneath the mess. He reversed into the bathroom, reappearing with a clean, damp facecloth that he offered to her with an encouraging smile.
“Jay doesn’t mean to hurt me,” she croaked, turning her face towards him but not meeting his gaze. “He just gets jealous. He loves me really.”
Gerald didn’t reply. He wondered how she could be so stupid. She didn’t look it, not at all. But you could never tell what made people sink so low. He’d learned long ago that things weren’t always what they seemed.
“I’ll make some tea,” he said.
While Gerald busied himself with cups and biscuits, she pulled herself up onto her feet and tottered towards the bathroom. When she reappeared much of the blood had gone and he could see the extent of the damage.
“You should go to the hospital,” he said. “You need stitches.”
She took her tea and smiled, flinching as her wounds stretched.
“You’re nice,” she said.
He held out his hand. “I’m Gerald.”
A sudden hammering on the door startled them and hot tea slopped over Carly’s hand. She whimpered in pain, wide eyes turned in the direction of the noise. It grew in volume and intensity until the flat shook and his plates rattled in the sideboard.
“It’s okay, I’ll go,” she said. “It’s not your problem.”
He put out a hand to catch her but she slipped past and opened the door. He laid his rolling pin across his lap and wheeled himself into the hall behind her, hoping a witness would temper the beast’s fury. To Gerald's astonishment, the figure filling the doorway was a picture of contrition. Tears rolled down his grimy cheeks as he pulled his girlfriend into his arms and cradled her against his chest.
‘I’m sorry, baby,’ he murmured, over and over, into her bloodstained hair.
Gerald looked away, concentrating on the red smears along the wall.
Carly turned and gave him a thin smile as Jay ushered her past him into the chilly night air.
“Thanks, mate,” he said to Gerald, wiping his face on his sleeve. “Won’t happen again.”
“I sincerely hope not,” Gerald replied.
As he was shutting the door, the man turned and stared at him, head tilted, eyes narrowed.
“Hold on a sec,” he said. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so.”
Gerald closed and locked the door, fetched some hot soapy water and washed away all traces of the visit.
He didn’t sleep well that night. Images from the past mingled with streaks of blood and the terror in those innocent eyes. He itched and scratched, sweated and writhed, until his throat burned and he was wringing wet. Switching on his lamp, he gave up any attempts to sleep and pulled himself into his wheelchair. He drank two glasses of water, made some cocoa, and turned on the television. It was rubbish at that time of night but he let the sound and movement wash over him until the horrors in his head slipped out of focus.
Michael found him dozing on the settee when he arrived. When Gerald declined his bath and exercise routine he left, promising to call round later.
The night had taken its toll. Gerald’s stomach churned as he slumped on the toilet, doubled over with cramps. His back ached and his legs throbbed from hip to toe. He took some painkillers and lay on his bed, listening to a solitary robin on the fence that divided him from his neighbours. There was no sign of them today, for which he was grateful. Eventually, as the medication took effect, he fell asleep.
It was dark when he awoke and there was a thundering inside his skull. He peered into the gloom at the clock on the chair. Six thirty five. Gerald realised the pounding wasn’t inside his head at all, but a persistent battering on the front door. Fear gripped him and he lay still, concentrating on the clamour of voices outside and wondering if something had happened to Carly. He sat up.
He switched on his lamp and manoeuvred himself into his wheelchair. The banging doubled in volume and his heart raced to the beat.
“Wait a minute, I’m coming!” he shouted, and there was a pause in the rhythm.
Gerald opened the door to see a small crowd, fronted by the Beast.
“I know who you are,” Jay roared, exuding outrage from every pore.
People behind him bobbed up and down, trying to catch sight of the neighbour they had never seen in the flesh. Carly’s face, peering out from the back, was white and pinched and she looked close to tears.
“You’re that nonce! That piece of shit who jumped little girls in the park.”
The crowd blurred and swam before Gerald’s petrified gaze. This couldn’t be happening. They said he’d be safe here. But, deep within, he’d always known it was only a matter of time until he was discovered. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face.
“That kid’s dad had the right idea when he mowed you down. Any decent bloke would’ve done the same! It makes me puke to think you’ve been in here alone with my Carly. If you’ve touched her...”
Raising his fist, Jay turned to the crowd for approval and it surged forwards.
As the Beast bore down on him, bloodshot eyes blazing, Gerald saw the look that Carly must have seen so many times. A joyous stab of kinship quivered through him, followed by a profound peace that relaxed his body and smoothed the worry from his brow.
When the blows finally came he glimpsed her frightened face, her questioning look. Is it true?
He nodded gently and closed his eyes for the last time as his wheelchair was upturned, he fell backwards, and his head hit the bedroom doorknob. In the moment before he lost consciousness he ached to let her know that she’d never been in any danger. Not from him.
He’d always liked them much younger than Carly.