She ran down the drive in her bare feet and dressing gown. Her hair was whipped up by the wind, the strands flowing out behind her. Her small soles slapped the tarmac. She felt the slice of her flesh on the stones, but she didn’t care. She had to keep going. There was a wild expression in her eyes, the kind that’s only seen in the utterly terrified. Her dressing gown came loose as she ran, spreading out like wings. She focussed on getting away from the house. She focussed on the man. He was dead ahead, and she was going to run into his arms. He was wearing reflective gear, and he had his arms outstretched, waiting for her. She allowed herself one brief moment to glance behind her for a final time. When she turned back towards the man, she felt the heat on her skin, still tingling, still smouldering. Her small body folded into his arms, and she was safe.
Chapter One - Hannah
Cavendish Street is like any other residential road in the suburbs. It appears a little worn at first glance, but when you really scrutinise the place, you start to notice how much strength there is beneath the surface. The terraced houses are old and Victorian. The pavement is unyielding. There are tough faces staring out from behind the panes of glass. A few roads down looms a cold copse of trees on the outskirts of a wood. The streets are bare on the way into the small shopping area. There’s a dirty, run down park with a single swing in it.
In the summer months, the smell of roast dinners floats down from number 68. The residents of Cavendish Street open their windows, letting their flavours out into the muggy air. My mouth waters as I poke at the plate of oily noodles resting on my knees. But worse still, the smell of beef gravy brings back memories I’d rather forget, of a different time and place, where I had an oak table and a white table cloth and laughed until my abdomen cramped. Then comes the sound of Edith Clarke’s phlegmy cough and I’m back at number 73 with chicken stir fry on my lap, and a radio play about farmers blaring out in the background.
The road is narrow, so that the houses almost lean over the pavement. Tall and sturdy, they stand like judgemental parents, with their large windows offering a peek into the lives beyond brick, shaming you into glancing swiftly away, rather than lingering on the pot plants and ornaments, or whatever TV programme is on; glimpses into the lives of others. The front door is in the living room, and it opens straight onto the pavement. I often sit on the sofa and watch the joggers go past, meeting each eye, daring them to stare. The back door opens into the kitchen. Beyond that, you’re forced to share a garden with your neighbour. Good old Edith, with her milky eyes and smoker’s cough. She keeps the whole thing tip-top while I sip wine on the door step. She potters and fusses around, adding garden gnomes to her ever growing collection, telling me about the gossip from the other houses—72 has been sold, and the paperwork is in motion, the couple at 65 are divorcing, there are rumours he had an affair—while her old bones shuffle along, veiny hands clutching the watering can.
Edith’s husband died before I moved to Cavendish Street. She’s lived here all her life and likes to tell me about it. When George was alive… Before all those foreigners moved in… I never used to lock my door, y’know. I knew everyone on the street by name. Everyone. I smile and nod and tell myself that it’s good to listen to another human being. I spend so much time on my own that there are days where I don’t even speak aloud. So in these fleeting summer months, I force myself to sit outside and listen to whatever Edith has to say, whether it’s generational racism or a boring story about her trip to the doctor’s. But today I can’t even face Edith. My hands have been shaking all afternoon, and the noodles slither off the trembling fork before reaching my mouth. My thoughts are black. Everything is something to be afraid of: the slight niggle in my calf is a blood clot, the heartburn is a heart attack, the headache is a brain tumour. I have to place down my fork and take a deep breath. In and out, in and out.
“Hannah, you are not dying,” I say. There, I spoke today. It was to myself, but I spoke. “There is nothing wrong with you. Eat your noodles.”
Cavendish Street is more than the place I live, it’s my whole world. There was a time when the whole world was my whole world, but I stopped going abroad years ago. Gradually, my world shrank smaller and smaller until the end of the street felt like a marathon. And it’s not something I consciously changed. It just sort of happened, like a habit I re-routed. It’s so easy to stay in now. I can order anything online. I work from home. I have a treadmill and a bike in the spare bedroom that serves as my office (they gather dust, but I have them for the times I begin to panic about having a stroke in my forties). There’s only me so the bills are inexpensive, and I can make a living writing articles and editing stories for clients. It’s not so bad, really. I have a trip to the Co-op on the days where I feel up to it, when the world doesn’t seem to be imploding on top of me and pushing me down until I can’t breathe.
I sigh and stand up. The noodles will have to go. I’m too wired to eat. I scrape the cold, congealed mess into the bin and rinse the plate under the tap. The water spurts out twice before flowing, which I should get fixed but never feel like arranging. I don’t like people in my house. I hate the gas men who appear unannounced, waving their lanyards in my face and calling me love. I hate the sound of knuckles on the door, and the people who ignore the doorbell or my polite request for visitors to use the back door. The letterbox jars me on the days I’m not expecting mail-order books or catalogue bras. The loud thunk has my heart pattering beneath my cardigan.
There’s too much noise in this place. The radio is off with a click from my jerking finger, then the window is slammed shut, trapping me in a house that smells like soy sauce and oil. At least it blocks the sound of the baby crying three doors up.
I need a distraction from this creeping anxiety. I know the warning signs now. I know to watch out for the waves of panic and the dark thoughts, but what I don’t know is how to stop it for good. So I turn back to the kitchen, pour a finger of chilled vodka into a tumbler, and turn on the kitchen taps to finish the washing up. The vodka is gone before the sink is full of water.
Pan scraped, plate cleaned, cutlery placed on the drainer. I’m not a natural cleaner, but the chore is familiar and reassuring. My shoulders drop a little as I’m drying my hands on the tea towel. But then there’s some commotion outside that catches my attention.
For the last month, all Edith has talked about is the potential new owners of Number 72, the house directly opposite mine. You’d think that no one ever bought or sold a house on Cavendish Street, but the small two-up-two-down houses are in great demand in the ever inflating property market. Small families with a middle income move in. Two to five years later, when the second or third child comes along—or either Mummy or Daddy gets a pay rise—they move out. But for some reason Edith is obsessed with this house.
No, it’s not some reason, there’s a very specific reason and I know what it is. It’s because the last owner died. It was sad really, the old guy was in his seventies and had a heart attack sat in his arm chair. His name was Derek. He’d always seemed like a kind man, even though we didn’t really talk. Every now and then he would wave to me through the window, and he used to chat to Edith on his way to the Co-op. It was his son’s family who found him. The whole family—including two children under ten—walked in to find a three day old corpse sat upright on the antique velvet armchair.
I shudder. If Derek had died anywhere else I probably would have seen his body and called an ambulance. But his grey head poking up above the back of the armchair was a normal sight for me. He could have been having a nap, or watching television. I don’t spend a whole lot of time in my living room, I’m usually in my office on the other side of the house, otherwise I might have noticed that he hadn’t moved. The whole thing shook me up. I still feel guilty. I often peek into that house—which is empty and redecorated—and wonder if I hadn’t been so caught up in my own problems that I might have spared the family that last trauma.
But then, sometimes our problems aren’t so easy to set aside. Sometimes they cling on to us, filling us up until we can’t see anything else.
I shake the thoughts out of my head and move into the living room. Edith will be pleased, because finally she can stop speculating about who will be moving into 72, and actually see for herself. The thought of her net curtain twitching makes me smile. I imagine her pretending to polish the window sill ornaments so she can get a good view.
But who am I to judge, because I stand there gawking myself.
The removal men are in blue overalls and they hop up and down from the lorry in large work boots. Box after box is taken in through the doorway, and I can’t help thinking of those boots trampling all over Derek’s house, over the spot where he died. Another wave of guilt-fuelled panic washes over me, but I force it back down. A woman hops out of the house, weaving around the removal men, and opens a four-by-four parked behind the lorry. Hah! Edith won’t be happy about that. She’s always complaining about her daughter not being able to find a parking spot. Another large vehicle on the street will make the situation even worse. Then I remember my own car parked outside my house, the one that hasn’t moved for over a year, and I realise that more hints about me selling it will fly my way.
The woman is petite, moves on her tip toes, and smiles at everyone in her path. I get that jolt of female jealousy. That pointless competitiveness that makes us compare ourselves to others. She’s far prettier, far slimmer, and seems altogether nicer than I am. But even still, there is nothing too remarkable about her. She doesn’t dye her hair; it’s a mousy brown rather than a highlighted blonde. She’s wearing jeans and an oversized shirt, though what I expect someone to wear when moving house, I don’t know. It’s not exactly going to be a ball gown. Her head disappears into the car, and she appears to be rummaging around on the back seat. As she’s half in the car, with her backside sticking out, at least two of the removal men hazard a glance in its direction. I actually make a strange noise of disgust, like I can’t believe that those men are ogling her. But then I realise they aren’t really ogling her. They didn’t say or do anything. They just checked her out for a second. It’s me. I’m jealous. When was the last time a man looked at me like that? I don’t remember.
The man I presume to be her husband, or boyfriend, strides out of the house. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt, which is stretched across a muscular chest. It’s not the kind of body I find attractive on a man, it’s too wide, too bulgy, like the kind built from extensive weight training. His skin has a red tinge to it, and his hair is cut into one of those fashionable “wedge” styles that footballers have caught onto. A strange hooligan form of smart 50s cut. He grabs the woman around the waist and drags her back. I take a step back, surprised by the almost aggressive action. She kicks out her legs, squirming in his arms, and my heartbeat quickens with a sort of voyeur anxiety. But then he puts her down and she spins around and slaps him hard on the arm. The guy laughs—I can hear the laughter through the window—before flicking her on the shoulder. I let out a long breath, realising that the two of them are being playful. For a moment I smile along with them.
But it’s not my joke to laugh at. I move away from the window, suddenly aware of how intrusive I’m being.
I’m about to leave the new owners to unpack without my rubbernecking, when a young girl steps out from the house. The sight of her makes my stomach lurch. She’s around twelve, maybe thirteen years old, and she walks with a stiff back. Her hair is long, and dark—almost black—and flows over her shoulders and rests down her back. She stops walking, stands on the pavement with her back to me, and then turns slowly towards my house. The panic rises up once again. I clench my fists and let out a little gasp. I want to move away from the window but my feet stay planted to the floor. The girl is pretty, but she has a serious face. For a brief instance, I feel protective when I think about all the people who will tell her to smile more, who will pinch her cheek and say “you’re pretty when you smile”. I shake my head and force those thoughts away. She’s not my child to be protective about.
Slowly, the girl raises one hand and waves at me. I back away from the window and shut the curtains.
Chapter Two – Laura
I thought the grin was going to freeze on my face. Shutting the door and saying goodbye to the removal men is at least some relief, but now I’m stuck with a house that’s a mess, and all our stuff packed in layers of bubble wrap. My arms ache, my legs ache, I’m filthy and sweaty.
“I’ll call a pizza, babe,” Matt says.
It’s all right for him, he loves all this. He loves the excitement of moving somewhere new. The man can never settle in one place. This is our third home now, the second since April came along. Every five years we end up moving, because Matt gets those itchy feet again. I keep telling myself that if we move house, he won’t use those itchy feet to run off, and at least then I’ll be keeping my family together.
“We don’t know any of the local places,” I point out. I move around as I speak, banging cutlery into drawers, stuffing packaging into bin bags.
“There’s always a pizza hut nearby. We’re not that far out of the city,” he replies, trying to cover the note of irritation in his voice, but failing as always. I’m the negative one who drags the atmosphere down. At least that’s what I’m told.
“Where’s April? She should be helping us.” My voice sounds squeaky. I’m trying so hard not to let my thoughts darken my spirit, or at least not to let Matt see it.
“I said she could unpack her clothes.” Matt sees my shoulders sag, and puts his mobile down on top of a box marked “living room stuff”. “Hey, come here. Come on.” He opens his arms out wide and gestures with his fingers. I let myself fold into his arms, but not before I put down the tea towel I was holding. “I know you’re stressed, but it’s for a good reason, the best reason. It’s a new start for us.”
A new start. A new start. That’s just repackaged speak for change. A change where we move into a smaller house and Matt quits his job. I sigh, and try not to think about it, pressing my face into his chest. It never used to be so bumpy. A little over a year ago Matt thought he was too fat—even though he wasn’t, he had a little late-30s spread developing, that’s all—and started going to the gym. It became some sort of obsession, until he decided that he wanted to quit his office job and set up as a personal trainer. I encouraged him, of course. He’s my husband; I want him to be happy. But it put a lot of strain on me and my job. I’m the provider now, the person who pays all the bills. Matt’s job never brought in a lot, but it allowed us a comfortable buffer. It meant we got a holiday every year and new clothes when we felt like it. The problem was, we carried on with the new clothes and the holiday after Matt quit, and every month he had a new lead or a potential client, but somehow it never worked out.
“We’re going to be happy here,” he says. “We’re a family.”
When I move my head away, I hear the sound of quiet feet on the stairs. April is coming down. She moves too slowly for a thirteen year old girl. She should be hopping around, dancing and bright like the girls in her class. But she’s nothing like them, and that’s something else I have to worry about.
“April, come and help me in the kitchen. There’s lots to pack away.”
Her dark hair appears around the door first. Then there are shoulders and a head. She blinks at me, not responding, still half hiding behind the door. She always reminds me of a fairy or a fawn in a Disney film, nervous and jumpy, likely to take flight if you get too close.
“April?” I say, in a voice that has a slight warning to it. “You need to help us unpack. You can’t just stay in your room all day.”
“Why not?” she asks, twirling a naked foot over the kitchen floor. Brand new flooring, as Matt has reminded me three times today. The recent renovation was one of the many aspects of this house that attracted us—mainly Matt—to the property.
Matt ruffles her hair and leans in close to her ear. “Because the monster in the wardrobe will get ya!”
I half sigh, half smile. He treats her too much like a little girl sometimes, but I must admit that it’s nice to see April smile. She slinks around Matt and towards me, the smile being replaced by a more pensive expression. I worry about her odd, thoughtful expressions, but then I worry a lot about April. Like I worry about the way she has more of a relationship with Matt. I’m at work all day, often coming home late in the evening. Matt is at home all day, and now with the summer holidays in full swing, he gets to spend all day with April. How can I compete with that?
“Do you like the new house, April?” I ask, softening my voice. I pass her an unwrapped plate and gesture to the appropriate cupboard.
“I guess,” she replies with a half-hearted shrug.
“You’ll love it once we’re settled,” Matt says, grinning. He leans on the breakfast bar—brand new—and taps the surface with his fingers.
“How come Dad’s not helping either, eh,” I say, trying to make a joke but hearing it fall flat to even my ears. “Come on, get your arse over here and put those pots away.”
Matt salutes me with gusto, and says, “Aye, aye, captain. Cor, your mum’s a right stickler.” The “right” inflecting with his Northern twang to sound more like “rate”.
I watch the two of them start unpacking another box and know that I should be happy. Not everyone has a beautiful family, a good career, and a few half decent friends. Some people live alone with none of those things, not even a healthy body. But that happiness is as nervous as April herself, and, like the fairies in a Disney film, it can’t be coaxed to the surface if it doesn’t want to emerge. I stand there smiling, but all I can think about it is how it doesn’t seem real. And that unsettles me to the very marrow of my bones.
“What about that pizza then?” Matt says. He’s busier poking April in the side than he is helping with the unpacking.
“Hmm?” I mumble.
Before Matt can speak, the doorbell goes. I frown at Matt before putting down an unpacked bowl and moving into the living room. I’m not particularly happy about how there’s not even a hallway between the living room and the front door. I hate how it opens onto the street, it feels too intimate somehow. But once again, I swallow my concerns. Matt said I’d get used to it, so maybe I will.
An elderly woman stands on the doorstep. The incline of the street, and the way the houses are a little raised and set back makes me feel like a giant compared to her tiny frame.
“Hello,” I reply.
She lifts a casserole dish with a tea towel covering it, and smiles through lipstick stained teeth. I take the dish from her, trying to arrange my face into an expression that resembles gratitude.
“I’m Edith, I live at 75. I wanted to welcome you to the street,” she says.
I lift the tea towel and examine the contents. There are a few unappetising buns piled up inside the dish. I try not to grimace at the dry texture and flat appearance.
“That’s so kind, thank you. I’m Laura, my husband is Matt, and we have a thirteen year old daughter called April. I’m sure we’re going to be very happy here. It seems really friendly.”
“Oh it is,” she says, almost with some force. Her face is made up, despite the deep crevices, which gives her a slightly ridiculous and almost creepy appearance. I can’t stop staring at the mascara clumping in the corner of her eye, or the way her lipstick trails off at one side. “At one time I knew the name of everyone on this street. It’s still friendly, but the community isn’t quite the same. We used to look after each other, you see. That’s how it was in them days. It’s a shame really. If things had stayed the same, I doubt Derek would have died like that.” She wrings her veiny hands together and purses her lips.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise there had been a death. Was he a friend of yours?” I ask, wondering how quickly I can get the conversation to end without appearing rude.
“Lovely man, he was. Salt of the Earth. Would have done anything for you. It weren’t right, you know. A man like that shouldn’t pass away and no one notice for three days. I was with my daughter at the time so I couldn’t know, but her across the street didn’t even notice. Too busy in her own life, I reckon. She’s the selfish sort.”
My eyes flick towards the house directly across the street. I could swear that I see a quick flash of movement, but whatever it is disappears as quickly as it appeared.
“You mean… he died in this house?” I say, suddenly horrified.
“In his arm chair, he was,” she continues, either ignoring or not noticing my discomfort. “Right in front of the window. How she didn’t even see him I don’t know. Ended up that his family found him three days later when they came to bring him his shopping. Awful it was.”
“How terrible,” I say, feeling my muscles tense up. It really was terrible. The whole story made my skin crawl. I felt a sudden dislike for this woman coming to my house on our moving in day and telling us such a horrific story. I wanted her to leave, to get away from us.
“Well I’d best be getting on,” she says. She coughs into her fist, and I hear the sound of phlegm on her chest. “This sunny weather is wonderful, but it means even more watering the garden.” She tuts and rolls her eyes. “Of course her next door never does any gardening. She just sits there with a bottle of wine and watches old muggins here get on with it. Welcome to the neighbourhood.” She leans forward and grasps my arm with her claw-like hand. “We watch out for each other here now. We learnt a lesson when Derek died. No one should be going through all that and not get help.”
My mouth opens and closes like a vacant fish as I struggle to find an appropriate response. But before I can, Edith has scuttled down the front steps and is across the road, moving pretty swiftly for an old woman. I imagine she’s made of the toughest stuff, forged by wartime spirit and childbirth and mining husbands and everything else those Northern women are made from.
“Bye,” I say, before backing away and locking the door.
“What was all that about?” Matt asks.
I hold out the dish. “One of the neighbours brought us these.”
Matt gives me an I-told-you-do smile. “See, nothing bad happens in this street. This is our perfect new start.”
I smile. If I keep smiling, maybe I’ll believe him.
Chapter Three – Hannah
I’m not sure how it happened, whether it was gradual or sudden, but now I blend into the house like a piece of background furniture. Pets and owners start to resemble each other if they develop an over-attached relationship. Well I’m like that with my house. The walls were once a light shade of cream but they appear to have faded into an almost grey colour that matches my skin. I chose brown curtains when I first moved in, and it’s only now that I see the mud colour of my hair and eyes. Even the furnishings—which I chose in different shades of purple and mauve—are the same colour as most of my clothes. There’s a haphazard, untidy feel to the place, the same sight I see when I examine my messy waves of curls in the mirror.
We’re both a little bloated, a little cluttered, and out of fashion. We’re both unkempt and slightly dirty. Neither of us live up to our potential. We’re a little uncared for. A little sad. That’s how an estate agent would describe my house to potential buyers “It’s a bit sad right now, but with some updating it could be very homely.” And that’s how a pimp would describe me. “I’m not gonna lie, she’s a bit sad and long in the tooth, but show her a good time and she’ll come round.”
The thing about working from home and not having anyone to live with, is that you think about these things. You think about all sorts, from uplifting visions of the future where you get your shit together and everything works out, to the absolute worst scenario where everything goes wrong, to imagining your own death—the mundanity of choking on a peanut or falling down the stairs, to the absurd home invasion by a serial killer—but most of all you dredge up old memories that you try so hard to keep locked away. And it’s this that keeps me up at night and wakes me up before the sun begins to rise.
That’s why I end up checking my Fiverr account at five in the morning. Edith’s coughs told me she was up by six, so I decided to make myself a strawberry and banana smoothie and switch the fan on. I check the thermostat on the wall and the temperature is already 20 º. I open the window, and sit down on the sofa with my laptop on my knee, checking to see if I have any more clients on Fiverr. My account states that I’ll edit and proofread short stories for £30, and I can get quite a few done in a day. I have one story to finish but I’m putting it off. The thought of finishing it makes me tense.
I have one rule when it comes to choosing the stories I proofread—they can’t contain violence or horror. I can’t stand reading stories with blood and guts in them. It triggers a stirring within me, an emotion that I would much rather keep buried. But I let one slip by, a story about a predator stalking a little girl, and every time I try to read it, I feel the same dark panic seeping through my veins. Then the flashes of disturbing memories come; snapshots into a past I’d rather forget.
My body is coiled up tight this morning, so I put the laptop aside and stretch my legs by walking around the room. There’s movement across the road. The Mason’s are up. I know all their names now, thanks to Edith. It didn’t take her long to go snooping over there. The husband is Matt Mason, but she doesn’t know what he does, not yet. The wife—the pretty woman with mousey hair—is Laura, and their thirteen year old daughter is April. Pretty name that, April. The kind of name that sounds good for a young girl and an older woman. So many parents choose cutesy names for their children without thinking of what it would be like for them as an adult. I guess these are the people who start using their middle name, or shorten their first name to a more appropriate nickname. I’d always been a bit jealous of the kids at school who went by their middle name. They were more grown up to me. But, no, I had the most mundane of names—Hannah. A palindrome. A safe bet. You can’t tease a silly nickname out of Hannah Abbott. It’s too boring.
As I’m reaching the dregs of my smoothie, and am considering picking up the stalker story again, I hear a noise that sounds a lot like shouting. With it being so warm this morning, I’d opened the living room window, and now someone’s argument is seeping in along with the still air. The voices are deep and angry. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it, I move closer to the window, drawing back the curtains and letting the low sun light up the dreary room. The voices are coming from the house across the street. Inside, the Masons are yelling at each other with complete abandon. I can just make out the shape of their bodies. Laura stands in the centre of the room while Matt paces around her, his large, bulky man-shape prowling like some sort of beast. I’m immediately intimidated by him, by the fury in his voice, and the way he eats up the room with his presence.
Laura speaks, and I can hear the tears in her voice. There’s a high-pitched hint of hysteria (a term I hate, but that best describes the desperation and anger mixed in her voice). I take another step towards the window, listening as closely as I can. I make out “you’re not listening, we can’t, we can’t.” Soon after, Matt storms out of the house with a duffel bag over his shoulder. I step back, ducking around the curtain so he won’t see me. He runs a hand through his hair, shrugs his shoulders, and stalks off up the road, not even bothering to get in the car.
It’s Laura who slams the door behind him. She disappears from the living room, probably into the kitchen. I’m about to move away from the window and shut the curtains so I can pretend that I didn’t intentionally try to overhear someone else’s argument, but there is movement from the top floor of the house. I look up to see April Mason standing in the window. I feel sorry for her then. She’s awake and could have heard the whole argument, seeing as most likely the entire street heard it. She stands there in patterned pyjamas and long black hair, and she waves to me. After a brief hesitation, I wave back.
When I move away from the window, I can’t help but feel shocked. The Masons are so different to what I’d imagined. I think of Matt Mason putting his thick arms around Laura’s middle and Laura play-hitting his shoulder. How can the same couple be screaming and slamming doors the next day? It makes me wonder whether we can really know a person, and really understand what goes on behind closed doors.
They had another fight this morning. I thought about hiding, but then I heard the door slam, so I knew Dad left. I think the fight was about me, because I kept hearing my name. It started off with them loud whispering, trying not to wake me up. Then Dad was shouting and Mum was crying, and I started to get afraid again. I hate it when they fight, but I hate it more when Dad gets angry. I hate it so very much that it makes me cry. I cry and I try not to think about it, try not to think that he does to me and Mum.