The policewoman bent down and picked up a single item of mail from the heap on the mat. It was about life insurance. Her hand, even inside its leather glove, felt icy; the coldest winter for fifty years, so they said. She checked the addressee: H Morey. No title, she thought. Not even the full Christian name. Luckily she wasn’t alone. Her two male colleagues had already gone in. They were being chivalrous, not because she was a woman but because this was her first Discovered Alone.
There was no smell. Usually in these cases there was some kind of stench. She had been prepared for it, but there seemed to be none. She had been told it wore off after a while. A longish while. She didn’t want to see what she knew she was about to see, but there you go, that was the job. Best get on with it. Christ, it was cold today.
H Morey had not started off as a corpse. Long ago H Morey had been a person, of sorts. She had lived in this house alone and had avoided, as far as it was possible to avoid, the neighbours. There was a balance to be struck, however. You had to talk to them once in a while so as they didn’t get worried and start calling in Social Services or Age Concern. The key to being a hermit was to appear to be moderately sociable, be seen sometimes. Exchange the odd word about the weather. Dredge up a smile from somewhere. That necessary shield.
It had been all right when the old people were next door. She didn’t like them, but then nobody did. They had few friends and therefore few visitors. There was the loud daughter once a week, the one you could hear as clear as day through the kitchen wall. The one that parked her car in front of H Morey’s house and took a short cut across the lawn when she went back to it, car keys jangling. Everything she did made a noise. Big woman, she was; top-heavy, like most round here. And very occasionally they had lesbians. These came in pairs, obviously. H Morey assumed the lesbians had also been prison warders, like the neighbours, since on television they always seemed to be. Brutish looking, shaven-headed women. Also top-heavy. She didn’t care about them being lesbians but they did make such a racket. And they brought dogs with them, which also made a racket. Their dogs barked at the neighbours’ dog and the neighbours’ dog barked at them. It was pandemonium, but the next morning they would all go off somewhere, together but in their separate cars. Some sort of holiday that often lasted for months. H Morey savoured their absences.
The old people had been hard-faced. She imagined them beating their prisoners with little vicious truncheons, and giving back as good as they got in verbal abuse. She was frightened of them but grateful that they left her alone. Occasionally one or other of them came out on the decking – usually it would be him. If she happened to be outside she would treat him to a wince of a smile. He would grimace grimly in return, and then either or both of them would go back indoors: a Chinese wall. It worked well enough.
She always felt self-conscious in her garden because it wasn’t private. Their decking was high and raised them up three foot or so, so her six foot fence panel was useless except as a wind-brake. Six foot was the maximum height, though. The grass tended to get long because she put off mowing it for as long as possible. Then of course it was a struggle. To begin with she went out regularly, proud of her new garden and hoping to maintain it despite her lack of gardening skill, but after a while the eyes on her, the possibility of being viewed from a bathroom window, say, worried her too much. She took to going to bed early and getting up early. Sometimes, in the early dawn, she went out to prune the roses or water the poor hydrangeas in their tubs. At this time of the morning the dew still lay and all the spider’s webs were wet, draped across the leaves. Sometimes the hydrangeas went thirsty. It was too much for her, those eyes.
And then the new people came. The old people disappeared abroad, possibly with the daughter, possibly with the lesbians, it didn’t matter – to start a new life in the sun, he said, when they coincided on the decking. He didn’t let on where. She wondered where abroad could be that sunny. Africa, possibly. She couldn’t imagine the prison warders in Africa. She worried about the new people. Perhaps it will just be one person, she thought: one quiet person. Perhaps it won’t be a family; perhaps not dogs or children, just some lone old woman like me, or a lone old man. Old people were easier to talk to, when you had to. Old people liked her.
The new family arrived with many white vans. There were many men, all with their shirts off. They said Fuck a lot. They guffawed. There were many women, also. There was a fat blonde one who smoked cigarettes out on the patio, and cackled. Why must human beings laugh all the time, and why were their laughs so ugly? She could not work out who was going to be living here, there were so many of them. Later the fat blonde one spent a day there ‘doing the garden’. The prison warders’ garden had been perfect as far as H Morey was concerned. Fat Blonde cut down the tree that was dead-looking all year but came out with a mass of orange berries in the autumn. H Morey had looked forward to those. A splash of colour.
H Morey had enjoyed the neighbours’ garden more than her own. From behind the bedroom curtain you could look down into it – the palm tree-thing, the orange berries, the tiny greenhouse at the end with its rows of seedlings and stacks of unused buckets, the bird house nailed to the tree that no birds ever went into, but it had looked right, where they had put it. They had worked on the garden together, the old people. Sometimes the dog would be out there, playing with its squeaky toy. Sometimes you could hear the squeaking late at night and then you knew the dog was out on the decking, getting its late-night airing.
The new family had children who thundered up and down the stairs. They played the music from Disney films, very loud, in their bedrooms. It was confusing, who the children belonged to, how many there were and why they weren’t all there all of the time. Were they his, hers, or a product of them both? To H Morey it seemed important to know but she didn’t know, couldn’t know, never would.
Sometimes there was a little girl, who whined in next door’s kitchen and kicked a ball about and then kicked it over H Morey’s fence and subsequently came round to collect it, looking surly. Sometimes there were teenage boys. These rode mountain bikes about on the decking and the reverberations seemed to permeate H Morey’s house. There were heaps of what looked like washing-machine drums out on the decking. The old ones had kept everything neat, the wooden patio chairs and table varnished every year. The new ones removed the wooden furniture and installed a green sun-lounger, a portable silver barbecue and an outdoor ashtray. Groups of them came and they cooked sausages and the vile meaty smell drifted in through H Morey’s kitchen window.
They played loud music which could go on for hours, but not always. It was worse, in a way, the way it could just start up and you didn’t know when. They played it at top volume, and then they laughed a lot, and then they said Fuck a lot and had arguments that involved running around on the lawn and screeching. H Morey learned to bear it. She fished out her old MP3 player – people used phones for that nowadays, she had heard, but she didn’t know how. She put the little plastic buds in her ears and turned it up as loud as she dared without damaging her hearing. After a while she left the buds in all the time and walked round all day in a sea of long-forgotten folk music and half-remembered pop. She rediscovered Leonard Cohen. She wondered why she had ever downloaded that Madonna one, though it was quite good.
There seemed no point in checking, after a while, whether the noise next door had stopped. When they started one of their parties she took to her bed, at seven, or eight, whenever they started the racket. She fell asleep with the music in her ears and woke at three, four or five in the morning to find the battery flat and next door silent. Blessed darkness outside. There were bats in the dusk but this time of the morning nothing, not even the hedgehog. She wandered around the house in her dressing gown, doing the housework she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on later, when they were awake.
She adapted in all sorts of ways, tried things out – things that would make it tolerable. She realised she could change her hours permanently. She would become nocturnal – no, that wasn’t the word – crepuscular. Creeping crepuscularly through the dawn and the dusk, like a cat. She fed the stray cats, but only in the dawn and the dusk. She peered sideways out of her kitchen window, checking there were no humans out on next door’s decking, and then she would scurry out, with plates on a tray already filled with food, but carefully. How awful if she tripped down the step with a clatter. How unbearable if they knew she was outside.
One day they cut down the tall shrub on their side of the fence panel. Now there was no privacy at all. Washing up at the kitchen sink she would suddenly find herself observed by one or more fat and cigarette-smoking persons; sundress-wearers, laughers-at-nothing; smelly-sausage-gobblers. She hated them now.
Then they parked one of their huge vans across her driveway. She had had to say something about that or he would start doing it all the time, taking it as his right. It wasn’t that she needed that bit of space outside but it hemmed her in, it blocked her exit. Panic rose in her at the thought. She couldn’t bear it.
He had been surly, like the daughter. Then the woman had come round about something or other. She had been surly too, but no ‘words’ were had. H Morey could not remember any of their names, next door, though she had been told them, once. They remembered hers, of course. Pinned down like a butterfly, she thought. Netted, gassed, skewered and pinned in a case; on permanent display. She wondered, sometimes, if she could find a way to die. One that wouldn’t involve any actual suffering or knowledge of what one was doing. But of course, a dead butterfly is dead already. No room for manoeuvre.
The policewoman was glad to get out. Natural causes, the bloke in the white suit said. Been there for years, probably, on the sofa, quietly falling apart. It hadn’t been so bad; more like dust that still had a bit of a shape to it. She shivered. The frost was beginning to melt, just a little, as the sun rose. There was a flask of hot tea in the van. She was so looking forward to it.
(Apologies: this is at least twice as long as recommended for a blog post, but I wrote it in one three hour session and there seemed no point in splitting it arbitrarily into instalments. Tiny bit gruesome – sorry about that too. And about the rude word, but it did seem necessary, for this story.)