LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR
I should never have moved here, thought Denise. She eyed Rab from her ground floor window. Using the pavement as leverage, he inched his bum slowly along the street, slurring some illegible tune that might have been Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World. Occasionally he pointed up and shouted,
"'Hat's ma boay."
Denise lit a cigarette. The place seemed alright on the surface but scratch just a little and who knows what cesspit lies underneath. The mirror on the wall showed her face flushed, her glasses askew and her eyes had that wild staring look of the possessed. She reminded herself to take slow and regular breaths. Most of it was done now. She lifted a black marker and wrote Cutlery on the box nearest.
Over twenty-four hours had passed since Mary Anderson first came to the door. Denise could hardly believe the cheek of the woman. She'd get more sleep on a building site. Day after torturous day Denise had to endure the Anderson's thumping around in the flat above, like an aerobics class in lead shoes. The screaming started at eight when Billy and Peter got up for school,
"Fuck off maw ya big fat cow."
"Shut it or ah'll belt ye."
Most kids waved goodbye to their parents in the morning, these two gave the two-fingered salute. Denise wondered how it was possible to survive on a vocabulary of, 'naw,' 'fuck off,' and 'shut it or ah'll batter ye,' but here she had the living proof. The banging techno lasted most of the day when the little cherubs skipped school, so it was impossible for Denise to remember her own name, let alone work on her honours project. Finally, there was the dad's drunken bawling at night, just to round the day off.
She'd tried the tactful, neighbourly approach first, several times knocking on the Anderson's door asking politely to keep the noise down. Her requests were always met with illegible grunts and confused stares,
"Mary, d'ye hear noies?"
"Naw, dunno, whit noies?"
On the one occasion Mary Anderson did consent to lower the volume, she asked, almost in the same breath,
"They net curtins, c'n ah borrow 'm, j'st t'ah git noo wans?"
Denise handed them over thinking it was a small price to pay for peace, which of course, she never got and when she asked for the curtains to be returned, received from Mary Anderson, a stare as vacant as the dead. One sunny afternoon, after the fourteenth replay of The Venga Boys, Denise scribbled a desperate note - I live downstairs, I'm NOT DEAF! - and shoved it through their letterbox. She even felt slightly embarrassed afterwards, afraid it would worsen relations but there was nothing: no response, no change in the Andersons behaviour, like they'd never read the note at all. In her better moments Denise thought it pointless to be too hard on them. To be held responsible, a person had to evolve a degree of social skills and the Andersons were clearly evidence of what happens when evolution goes wrong. Still, she must have been nursing some futile ray of hope because when Mary Anderson chapped the door and in her barely decipherable nasal tones asked,
"'nees, awrite t'watch th'two furbit? Gote tae g'oot, no b'long."
Denise heard herself say,
"Well..." Before she'd finished, Peter and Billy barged through the door, Mary shouting,
"Y'z betta fuckin' b'have."
"Fuck off maw ya big whore."
"Aye, see ya later, ya cow."
Billy scrambled to shut the door in her face, Peter giggling with delight at his brother's antics.
So, Denise found herself in her living-room, with the two little shell-suited creatures of evil staring at her from beneath white baseball caps, Reeboks scuffing the carpet.
"Gote a Playstation?" said Billy, fingers drumming the arm-rest.
"No, I don't play computer games. You can watch the telly."
Billy tutted and looked round the room. At thirteen, he was the older of the two, features darker than his brother's fair freckle-dusted complexion. Peter, at eleven, still carried a youthful chubbiness while Billy looked lanky, still growing into his hands and feet.
"How about some nice juice and biscuits?" said Denise.
"Aye," piped up Peter. Billy scowled at his brother,
"Don't be a fanny. Gote any fags?"
"No, you're too young to smoke," said Denise. Billy looked at the floor,
"We'll huv that juice then." She smiled with relief and returned holding a beaker of blackcurrant and some Hob-Nobs.
"Cheers fanny," said Billy, blowing a chimney of smoke rings in her face. She scanned the room for her bag, and saw it lying upturned, contents strewn on the opposite chair. Peter had her mobile in his hands,
"Gimme back that bag," she said and laid the juice on the coffee table, "and the cigarettes."
"Thoat ye'd nae fags," said Billy.
"The phone...now!" she lunged towards Peter and he launched it high over her head. It cracked against the far wall then bounced back landing straight in the beaker of juice. A fountain of purple liquid splashed the carpet.
"Ooops," said Billy.
The stains were still there, even after yesterday and today's scrubbing. Denise frowned at them then gathered herself at the thought she'd never have to set eyes on the Andersons or this place again after tomorrow. She went into the bedroom and gazed at the grafitti, Denise sucs coks, in black marker on her bedroom wall. Of course, it was at least five hours before Mary Anderson had returned half-inebriated, to collect her precious bundles. Denise didn't wait for excuses,
"They're not here," she said.
"Whaur've (hic) the'gaun?" Mary swayed in the doorway. Denise noticed a sliver of kebab sauce on her chin,
"I just couldn't hold them for five hours," she said, "short of locking them in there was nothing I could do. They bolted about an hour ago, said they were pissed off hanging round here. I wouldn't worry, they'll probably be back soon."
Mary seemed satisfied,
"Wee bastards," she said.
Last night Denise slept little, and this morning, arranged a removal van to come the following day and take all her stuff into storage. It was useless anyway; trying to study while the Brixton riots went on upstairs. She'd only moved here because the housing association were practically giving the flats away; the cheap rent meant she could devote herself full-time to the honours year of her environmental management degree. Instead, the experience turned into an environmental disaster. Her head still hurt from the day before. The boys had run wild round the flat, pulling books from shelves, mauling her ornaments. Billy found a canister of lighter fuel in the kitchen drawer and proceeded to press the thing into his mouth, puffing on the gas till his face looked like a big purple berry and Denise was afraid his blood vessels would burst,
"Stop that, you'll kill yourself," she shouted, thinking she should just let the little brat explode his own brain. Instead she tried to prise one of his arms away from the can but he struggled, all the while his eyes locked on hers like they were about to pop out of his blue-veined head. He broke free then propelled the can at once with force so that it bounced off her temple, almost breaking her glasses. A black wave hit her and she nearly passed out. Billy burst out laughing. Peter joined in, starting to buzz the gas himself. She lifted her hand to where a lump was forming then, head pounding, retreated to the bathroom and locked herself in. It was the only place she felt safe. She could hear their footsteps, giggles and whoops of delight outside the door but dreaded going back out. She sat on the toilet, finding comfort in the rhythmic motion of rocking back and forth. After about fifteen minutes, a faint smell of burning wafted into her nostrils. Reluctantly she peered out. There was graffiti scrawled over most of the walls; 'Yung teem on toor,' 'Maw yer a cow,' 'Rangers FC,' and the obligatory cock and balls, drawn in markers she used for highlighting points in her coursework,
"Please god, no," she whispered through clenched teeth. While Billy was busy gobbing into the kitchen sink, she hurried along the hall. Her bedroom door was ajar, the smell of burning stronger and she could hear the rustle of paper and crackle of flames from inside. She entered and saw Peter perched on the floor, at the edge of her blue, Persian rug, happily ripping sheets from her course folders, hours and hours of carefully constructed essays and diagrams going up in puffs of smoke. The ashes floated in the air like nuclear fallout. Her heart plummeted and did not stop. When she woke up this morning, she could still feel it dropping.
About half and hour ago Mary Anderson returned. Billy and Peter still hadn't come home, she said, and Denise was the last person to see them,
"You'd better come in then," said Denise, unhappy at the intrusion; she had too much to do before tomorrow. Mary waddled through the hall on her short dumpy legs, crooked lips twisted in a worried expression.
"Excuse the mess," said Denise, "I'm doing a bit of redecorating. I'm sure they'll be alright. Boys will be boys and all that."
"Ah'll need't'phone p'lis. C'n a' yaiz yer phone?"
"Sorry, it's been disconnected and my mobile's a bit waterlogged but before you go, I've go some nice curtains you might like to have. I was just going to throw them out anyway." She guided Mary into the bedroom.
Rab put a new slant on being legless. He could manage all the way from the pub, three streets away, to his house using the bum leverage method. Growing impatient, Denise had to stop herself from running out and dragging him inside, but she didn't want to be seen by anyone. She watched until he inched his way up the stairs of the close, then peered through the spy-hole while he treated the residents to his version of Danny Boy. Just as his arse aligned itself with her hallway, she opened the door,
"C'moan Rab," she said, hooking an arm under each of his oxters, "Mary's in here."
"Shtoap it, NAW," he slurred, "gaun hame."
"There's naebody up at yours. Mary's in here; she wants tae see ye."
Rab wasn't up on events. When he got into this state it usually meant he had a win at the bookies and was gone for days. Denise braced her legs and heaved his bulk backwards into the hall.
"Fuckin' cow." Saliva drooled from his lips, "gaun hame, lea' me."
"Rab, don't be like that noo. Mary says ye've tae come in. They're a' in here, Mary and the boys."
Once his feet were over the threshold, she shut the door, then continued dragging his lead weight towards the bedroom. Occasionally he broke into Flower of Scotland. She propped him against the bed and kicked aside the fringed Persian rug. Fragments of her project, burnt at the edges, wafted out. A metal ring was attached to one of the runners. She pulled and a large section of floor creaked upwards. The wailing from below started immediately. She peered down into the pit. Billy, Peter and Mary looked like chicks in the nest, their mouths opening and closing as they squawked,
"Let us oot ya fanny," said Billy.
"Ah'm gonnae rip the heid aff yer shooders," said Peter.
"Y'll g'dun fur this. Ma Rab'll be back soon, he'll bust ye," said Mary.
Denise's laugh was hollow. She brushed back a strand of brown hair,
"Rab canny even walk. He doesn't know where he is, never mind you," she shook her head then, like she'd almost forgotten said,
"Don't go away noo, ah've brought you a present."
Rab was slumped forward, asleep. Sweating and panting, she hauled his boozy carcass to the edge of the pit,
"Heeereee's Rab!" she said and rolled him over. He landed with a thump and an,
"Ooya basta'," then promptly passed out again. Denise smacked her hands together.
She didn't know where the pit had come from or why it was there. It was more of a hole than a cellar or room. About three metres in depth it was easy to get down but you needed ladders to get back out. It was too cold and damp to use as a study area and there was no mains supply. All that had been down there when she moved in were some planks of wood, rusty nails and cigarette ends. Now it was home to the Anderson family. At least for the next few days, or till somebody came to their rescue. If things got bad they could lick the condensation off the walls and the flabby body of Mary would keep them going for months. Denise felt more sorry for the rats, having to endure the Andersons for company.
It had been easy to lure the boys down there. She remained a dead calm at the sight of Peter and the destruction of her last year's work. She brushed it off, nice as nine pence and called Billy, then, with the promise she brewed her own alcohol in the pit, they practically dove in head first. She assured Mary the curtains were down there and that her two sons had simply fallen in by accident. The important thing was to get her to stand at the verge so, with one deft nudge, she would totter over like Tweedledum. Mary Anderson had never been so obliging.
If she had any sense, thought Denise, Mary would solve her hunger and family problems in one go by devouring the rest of her brood over the next few days.
Rab Anderson started to snore and Mary was hitting him on the back,
"Wake up Rab y'basta'."
"Fuck off ya fat cow," he said, rolling over.
"See if he's got any fags," said Billy.
Denise went to the kitchen and returned with two bottles of water, a loaf and a packet of digestives. She threw them into the pit and put her hands on her hips,
"Ya wee slapper, let us oot," shouted Mary, teeth bared.
"Ah'll kill you ya wee fanny, let us OOOTTTT!" Billy tried to spit upwards and Peter threw his Rebok. It impacted with the trap door just as Denise slammed it shut.
During the night their screams and shouts, though muted, were still audible from beneath the rug. She'd slept in the living room last night with the radio turned on, the drone eventually soothing her to sleep. She did the same this time and managed to get a few hours. In the morning, with the volume up full, she continued her packing, dancing and singing loudly to songs she liked.
"You don't mind loud music do you?" she said when the removal men arrived, "it helps me focus doing stuff like this."
The two guys shrugged and paid no attention, but when she posted the keys through the letterbox, radio still blaring inside at full volume, she guessed they thought she was a bit strange,
"You've left the radio on hen," said the fatter guy,
"Oh don't worry," said Denise, "the batteries will run down....eventually."