The following story was published by Fylde Brighter Writers in their 2010 anthology Out of Season. Again, I’m indebted to them for their support and encouragement.
The man slid on the sparkling tarmac, grabbed at his car and steadied his feet. Serves you right, Hatch thought. If you’re going to put the rubbish out in slippers and jogging bottoms you deserve all you get. The man brushed a sparkle of frost from his sleeve, lifted the lid of his bin and dropped the black polythene sack in with a clink. His dressing gown cord trailed behind like a pantomime cat’s tail. Number 12, Hatch called him; Number 12 because in six years of living here Hatch knew nothing about the man. They’d never exchanged a word. Number 12 stroked his chin and glanced up. Hatch stepped back, letting the curtains fall back into place. Number 12 began to line the bins up so each sat at a perfect right angle to the road, following the gentle curve of the Close. Number 12 was particular about his bins. He employed a hygiene company to jet-wash them. Once a month a kid in a mesh baseball cap and faded jeans would hose and spray out the insides trailing a snake of soap and foam into the sewers.
Number 12 inched his way up the drive clinging to bin, then car, then porch, his legs slipping and buckling on the frost like a new-born foal. Hatch sniffed and blew his nose into the fold of his handkerchief. AH was stitched into the corner in lavender thread. The handkerchief was off-white, like putty or chewing gum, through repeated washes. Threads had come loose where he’d handled it, bunching it in his fist or wrapping it around his fingers. He stiffened at the sound of a shout on theLondonroad. Despite the bitter cold Hatch would often leave his window open an inch or so to hear the sounds in the Close. A tinkle of bottles and a shout drifted from the council estate; a drunk stumbling against the empties in someone’s porch. A car crunched into reverse. Hatch closed his eyes and breathed in the cool air, imagining streams passing through his nostrils and cleansing his lungs the way they taught you in meditation. His nose twitched. There was a faint smell of mothballs from the lubricants factory and a trace of diesel from the railway.
Number 12’s door opened. A saxophone drifted on the chill air. It was an instrument Hatch despised; a sleazy sound best forgotten from the 80s. People spoke of the 1980s with great affection, like they wanted a return. For Hatch the decade had been a waste. He’d spent his days filing at Fitch & Fitch and his lunch-breaks trying to make chicken cup-a-soup dissolve, watching lime-scale scum floating in spirals on the bone-white surface.
Next door’s cat slunk across the block-paving. Hatch hissed through his teeth. The cat paused mid-stride, strolled on, its head held high. It was a mangy ginger beast with sticky clumps of fur and a sagging, bald belly. It had a canary yellow collar poking from folds of fat and fur. Mister Tim it was called. It belonged to Love’s Young Dream at number 16. Love’s Young Dream held hands everywhere. They wore matching bobble hats and hooded tops with American colleges on them. Hatch had seen them in the supermarket cafe sharing banana milkshake, sucking noisily through straws like star-crossed teenagers.
Hatch opened the brass clasp on the chest at the foot of his bed. He rummaged blind beneath bedding and spare toiletries. He felt the hard contours beneath the cotton sheet and pulled the gun free, testing its weight in his palm. For a plastic replica it was fine. He shook out a handful of pellets and dropped them into the clip, snapping it into place. He swung to face the bathroom mirror, half-crouched like James Bond, his arm outstretched for balance. He tucked the gun into his waistband. The street was empty. The green diodes on his alarm clock blinked in the mirror. It was twelve minutes past one. A crisp packet drifted along the gutter. A gust of wind swept it up and spiked it in a hawthorn bush. Hatch took aim using the window frame to get steady. A distant police siren came in bursts on the breeze. Hatch squinted, lined up and squeezed the trigger.
The pellet pinged off the tarmac and into the border. The cat pawed at its neck and yawned. Hatch steadied himself and lined up his next shot. The cat’s tail straightened as it squatted. Hatch gritted his teeth, let his shoulders drop and squeezed.
The cat squealed and shot into the privet. The porch light came on next door, a faint yolk like the interior of a fridge. Hatch let the curtain fall back. The cat had scratched and shit where he’d planted his bulbs. He cursed, pushed his window to gently, clicked off the bedside lamp and dropped to his knees. He poked a finger through the curtain and watched. A freight train rattled through, causing the bedposts to tremble against the plasterboard. It was almost two when Hatch went to bed.
Hatch plumped up the pillow and packed it down round his ears, his face pressed into the warm mattress. He screwed his eyes up tight. There was a faint drone from the Close. He got up, pushing his toes into his tartan slippers, and pulled back the curtains. Although it was bitterly cold and jewels of frost clung to the tips of branches the winter sun had crept over the rooftops and burned a line through the white icing on the block-paving. Hatch framed his eyes from the glare and sighed. Mid-life Crisis was fiddling with a radio controlled racing car, twisting a tiny screwdriver into its base. He wore wrap-around sunglasses, three-quarter length shorts and a powder blue surf T-shirt. Mid-life Crisis lived alone. Last summer his wife told him she was leaving. She’d told all the guests at a Bank Holiday barbecue. He’d filled an old tin bath with ice and bottles of Stella. Someone had rigged up a basketball hoop and there was a giant paddling pool for the women to cool their feet. The men, paunchy and lobster-faced in the late afternoon sun, were chucking a mini rugby ball about and chanting songs. Hatch had been trying to ignore them. He’d turned up his Hooked on Classics CD, knowing Mid-life Crisis hated it, and dropped the kitchen blinds in defiance. He was checking house prices in the local rag when an argument had started, the silence alerting him. The guests sipped cider and made small talk. Mid-life’s cheeks burned crimson as his wife pointed and shouted. She slammed the gate and walked off jangling the keys to his Alfa.
‘I’ll take the car for starters,’ she’d shouted.
He’d followed her. He was wearing an apron with a woman’s curvy silhouette and bra and knickers on it. It looked ridiculous, adding to his humiliation. He was clutching a bottle of German wine by the neck. Hatch thought he was planning to brain her with it. She’d said something and Mid-life had slumped to the gravel. He’d sobbed into his hands. He’d sat there for hours and drained the bottle, gulping greedily and shivering. Hatch fitted his new lens and took dozens of shots. He still wore the bra and knickers apron.
The car span on a slick of grease, flipped and turned over. Mid-life Crisis tutted, picked it up and inspected it. The engine droned like a hairdryer. Hatch drew his curtains. Mid-life sensed the movement and looked up. Hatch yawned and stretched his arms high above his head. Further along the Close the Compulsive Shoppers emerged clutching hemp bags. They’d retired early and owned two cars, a holiday home and a camper-van. Hatch envied them their time and their money. They could learn classical guitar, sail theAtlantic, write a novel or start a charity. Instead they spent their days browsing the shelves of the supermarket for last minute reductions on bagels or flapjack.
Janice lived in the end house. She was wearing the woolly hat with flaps like spaniels’ ears. Her husband worked away on the rigs. Hatch thought her dowdy and plain. She was the type of woman you’d find squeezed into an olive quilted waistcoat feeding strays at a kennel. She’d be grateful for the hungry licks on the back of her hand, desperate for any affection. She pushed her bike to the edge of the drive, swung a leg across the frame and pedaled. She wore a thick fleece jacket with a St Bernard on it. Hatch had seen her at the library. She borrowed historical fiction and, sometimes, crime. Hatch thought her taste gory. He preferred his crime psychological. She’d folded and pressed a carrier bag into the little wire basket on the handlebars. She’d be shopping for fruit. She grew all her own veg on an allotment by the M6. Hatch had seen her bike propped against the park railings. There were water melons, cherries, dates and grapes in brown paper bags. She’d stepped out of the ladies’ and caught him looking into the basket. He’d panicked.
‘You get your five-a-day don’t you?’ he’d said.
She’d continued to stare after him as she cycled off down the road. He was sure the story had been passed round. Janet knew everyone. She carried brown string and a craft knife and had a knack for fixing things.
Hatch thought about Church. He could always start going to church. He sliced the crust off the loaf, setting it aside for Mrs Blackbird. She’d hop along the fence-top shortly and tilt her head. I’m hungry! Hatch was the only one to care about the birds. Without his fat balls and nut-holder they’d starve to death in these parts. His was the only property with a lawn. The rest had ripped the turf up within weeks of moving in. Grass had been replaced by boarding and concrete and bark and gravel and limestone and block-paving. Try pecking the worms out of that Mrs Blackbird. Nature wasn’t getting in the way of low maintenance and an addiction to Sunday mornings at B&Q.
He cut two more slices, spreading a thick wedge of cream cheese across them like a builder pointing bricks. Church was no good. He’d tried it a few years back. A bloke called Phil, who wore a machine knitted sweater with a prism of light design, had grinned at him with filmy teeth and offered orange tea. The sugar hadn’t dissolved when Hatch was being asked to support the roof fund and give up his Sundays. He’d walked out of the first writers’ workshop unable to care about poetry that didn’t rhyme. Frosted footballs and cross country runs had put him off sport for life. He was at a loss. He took the hankie from his pocket and clutched it, rubbing his thumbs over the initials she’d stitched.
‘You’ve tried to get on,’ he said, ‘it’s not as if you haven’t tried to make friends.’
Hatch bit his lip. First sign of madness, they said. He took the lens cap off, setting it down on the windowsill. Mid-life Crisis pulled up, jumped out of his car and tugged the peak of his baseball cap down. He took a bulging carrier bag in each hand. Bottles clinked and chinked inside.
‘That’s not the answer,’ Hatch said.
Leaves rustled in a vortex where the wind funneled into The Close. A leaflet offering deals at a new pizzeria flipped and snagged, pressing flat and soggy to a gable wall. Hatch fiddled with the shutter speed and fired away. So much rubbish. When the Close was built they’d planted bushes as a barrier from the main road. In summer there were flecks of lilac and lavender and the turf was spotted with dandelions and daisies, but in winter the bare branches were a giant trap for cans and bottles and free-sheets and crisp packets. The grass was patchy and sodden. There was nothing left for him here, but he lacked the resolve to move. He sniffed at the hankie. Moving would close a chapter on Anna.
Hatch flicked through the channels and downed the last of the French brandy, a sore throat his excuse. He rinsed the glass, unwilling to take another clean one from the cupboard, and filled it to the rim with tap water. He went downstairs to set the thermostat when he heard the bin lid drop shut. It was recycling day tomorrow and Hatch had set his blue bin out on the block-paving. He pressed his nose to the frosted glass, peering through a gap where the glass was clear. There was no one out there. He turned the porch light off and went up to bed. Hatch cleaned his teeth, swilled out his mouth and spat against the enamel. He’d folded back the bedsheets and jumped in, tucking himself up. He stretched across to the bedside table and kissed Anna’s photo.
‘Goodnight my love.’
There was a scrape outside, like plastic dragged on tarmac. Hatch sat bolt upright. He got out of bed and peered through the curtains. There was no one there. Hatch squinted. It could have been a trick of the light, but he was sure something had been fixed to his bin lid. It couldn’t be a council leaflet at this time and none of the other lids had anything on them. Hatch took his dressing gown, pushing his arms into the sleeves as he ran down the stairs. He unlocked the door, pressing his knee against the stiff lock, and stepped out into the porch. All the houses were in darkness. He stared at the bin at the end of his driveway. An envelope had been dropped on top. Hatch looked up at the bedroom windows in the other houses. They were in darkness with no sign of movement. The windows were shut. He took the envelope, tearing it open. Inside was a pile of photographs in black and white. Hatch began flicking through them. His heart pounded. He gripped the bin. They were photos of him. Hatch mowing his lawn. Hatch returning from town with shopping bags. Hatch washing his car or pruning the privet. He dropped the photos on the bin lid and rubbed his forehead. There was a shot of Hatch watching from his bedroom window, his body obscured by the shine of the double glazing. There was another smaller envelope tucked inside. He tore it open. A piece of white card had a message scrawled on it in marker pen.
IT’S NOT FUN IS IT, BEING WATCHED?
Hatch stared up at the bedroom windows in the Close. All were in darkness. There wasn’t a flicker from the curtains.