Stereo's twin channels
Shortish short story, 982 words
“You’re so damn calm,” she said, moving her brand-new suitcase nearer the front door. “No, that’s giving you the benefit: calm can be noble, placid’s better.”
He said, “I don’t want you to go.” Ravishing, that was it. “But I’m not such a fool as to stop you.”
“Perhaps you should.”
“That’s bollocks. Worse, it’s conventional.”
She laughed harshly. “Conventional! You read too much.” Now she glanced angrily at her watch. “What are your plans? You don’t have to tell me.”
“Sell the house.”
“Far too big for one. Or for two. Buy a semi, get a nest-egg.”
She caught the dying fall. “And…?”
The light in the hallway had a Tiffany shade. It caught his attention, perhaps for nothing other than that she’d bought it. He spread his hands, “Memories. Good memories.”
Briefly she was still.
He was left looking at the door that closed behind her. The stuttering in his throat gave way to tears. Not wanting to move he dried his face on the door curtain.
IT TOOK months, perhaps because he didn’t really want to sell. Semis, he discovered, carried signs. A trampoline in the back garden, a BskyB dish, both enemies of tranquillity. What swung it were fortyish neighbours who lacked dogs and children and who garaged their Audi at night. Crankily he’d taken against couples who filled their garages with cardboard boxes and unwanted furniture.
More time passed, including two weeks in a motel. Then he moved in. With only himself to please he could triangulate his easy chair with his two Quad loudspeakers. One Sunday, having seen Number Fifty-Four drive away together, he played Bruckner and Ives at full stereo. When the Audi returned at seven he switched to chamber music with the wick turned well down.
He nibbled fruit as he listened; meals had become erratic. When Bartok’s fifth came to an end he heard argument through the dividing wall, she sharply monotonous, his voice rising and falling, lurching, it seemed, towards defeat.
That meant they must have heard the quartet. Would the next step be complaints? Life without music was unthinkable and he’d move if necessary. But perhaps it would be worth talking first, to test their reactions.
The man appeared jowly and probably laid down the law in pubs. The wife he had never seen close-up but she had to be more congenial. Monday she was hanging out washing and he walked towards the fence, his mind unprepared, not even knowing her name.
“Er, I say.”
She shrugged as if irritated.
“I’m Paul Cazalet. Your… neighbour.” He flamed with embarrassment at having stated the obvious. She went on picking pegs out of a basket hanging from the washing line. He said, “I thought I’d introduce myself. And there’s something else.”
She stopped what she was doing but remained in the centre of the lawn. He said, “These modern houses. The walls are so thin. I played music last night. Did I disturb you?”
She held a striped beach towel at odds with her fixed, discouraging expression. God! A matched husband and wife. When she sauntered forwards it wasn’t out of politeness but to scrutinise him as his wife had. To confirm his defects?
Close-up her angular face was hard and full of certainties. The curls in her dark hair were tightly contrived. No hint of friendship. “Isn’t it the other way round?” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
“You heard us.”
“I heard talk, true. It didn’t worry me. But the music might have worried you.”
“You keen on music?”
He nodded and she glanced back at his house. “Music a comfort?” she asked laconically.
He nodded again.
She shook out the towel as if talk were at an end. “We can live with what you play.”
“Live with? OK. But will it be a pain?”
“The lot that had your house were mad on sport. Telly on most nights. Sport, music – it’s all just noise. We’re used to that.”
“We’re not complaining,” she said, slightly irritated.
He still didn’t know her name. Not that it mattered.
But that was then. At midday the post brought a note from his wife about a shared insurance policy, a fiddling matter. But the curves of her handwriting were painful, evoking the last time in the hallway: seeing her dressed and groomed for someone else. That night, unable to sleep, he passed time idealising his unnamed neighbour’s appearance and manner, knowing what he was doing, knowing what it might lead to. Turning her brusqueness into moral strength, her coolness into sympathy, her tightly permed hair into proof she was sexually aware. Pure fantasy but fantasy was what he needed there and then.
On a hunch that evening he put away the Bartok and played a Schubert trio. Just that. No sound through the dividing wall but mid-morning the following day she knocked on his door, requiring coffee. Noise came in different forms! As he expected, his bedtime fantasy had disappeared completely. Her smoothed-out face had reverted to hollow cheeks and a narrow – now crimson – mouth. The imaginary warmth had cooled. There was only speculation in her brown eyes.
But not for long. Briefly she looked around at the shelves of CDs then finished her coffee quickly. “I won’t stay. No point at the moment.”
“At the moment?”
She smiled thinly. “You’re besotted with music. Convinced it will compensate. When you know it can't, well, we’ll see.”
He was appalled she was so far ahead.
“You seem bloody confident.”
“You’re so obvious. It doesn’t have to be with me, except I’m close at hand. And I’m not shy”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Why not try Hedda?”
Sheesh! He let her out, saying nothing. Saw the funny side later. But couldn’t see playing Schubert trios day in day out. Felt sure the Brahms sextets would be a goer.