The Woman Next Door – Cass Green

Cough, snif , sigh. Snif , sigh, cough. And so it goes on. Mary, at the next terminal, is a veritable one-person orchestra of bodily sounds. It must be something to do with her size. She’s constantly spilling out of herself, like there’s someone bigger trapped inside. She’s not the only person I’m finding distracting today. The old chap opposite, Jacky, I think he’s called, apparently believes an Adult Education course on Essential Computer Skills – in a library – is a suitable place to eat his lunchtime sandwiches. I can clearly hear the click of his jaw as he masticates bread, cheese, and pickle. The reason I know so much about the sandwich is because he is scattering a confetti of the contents over the keyboard. You would think that his advanced years would have brought a little more wisdom about this sort of thing. He is possibly like many of the elderly and doesn’t really give a stuff anymore what others think. I quite envy that. I clear my throat and turn my attention back to the screen, where I ‘scroll’ down the pages of the Mail Online. It’s all depressing: stories about immigration; teenagers heading off to join ISIS; and politicians telling the usual fibs.

But I enjoy knowing the correct word for what I am doing. I am now a woman who ‘scrolls’, ‘downloads’, and ‘surfs the web’, among other things. Oh yes, Terry, you didn’t think I had it in me, did you? The point is: I will no longer feel inadequate when I see people tapping away at computers, as though they belong to yet another club I am excluded from. I can do this now, too. Although heaven knows whether I really shall bother. I look around the library, glancing at the big clock to see how much of the session is left. A couple of teenagers across the way have managed to cover a whole table with their belongings and, like the old man, are openly eating lunch. One of them has some sort of fast food and the fatty, savoury smell tickles my nose and makes my tummy give a little growl. I would never eat anything like that, but breakfast does seem a long time ago. I think about lunch – a ham sandwich perhaps, or an omelette – and picture my kitchen.

Bertie will be a big scruffy comma in his bed, gently snoring. The clock will tick with a dull thunk, which has always been a little too loud. Or maybe there just aren’t enough other noises to balance it out? This sort of thinking will get me nowhere. I can feel one of my funks coming on and I must fight it. Maybe I will bake a cake when I get home. Something complicated, which involves skill. It could be my own small celebration for reaching the last lesson of the course? I certainly deserve a pat on the back for sticking with it. It’s fair to say I had a shaky start, mainly because I didn’t enjoy the patronizing attitude of the tutor, Alice, an Antipodean who looks about twelve yet always reeks of cigarette smoke. She has a slightly seedy appearance; her small fingers are adorned with chipped, grubby-looking polish and her dark blonde hair has been put into those horrible dreadlocks. Why on earth a white girl would do that with her hair is anyone’s guess.

They’re piled on top of her head every which way giving her the appearance of a young nicotine-stained Medusa. She speaks in a cheerful lilting way that is a little too heavy on the question marks. And she never seems to wear a bra so her small bosom jiggles about like a pair of tennis balls under the vest tops she favours. She was patient enough when I struggled at the beginning. I’ll give her that. It didn’t come to me easily at first. I had a tendency to lift the mouse off the table while trying to master it. When I explained, once, that I was trying to move the cursor ‘up’, she actually said, ‘Aww, bless?’ Bliss. I was stunned! You would think I was a child or a little old lady instead of a healthy woman of just 62. I said, ‘Young woman, I suggest you show a bit of respect.

’ That told her. Since then, she still does the annoying laughing thing, but her eyes are always sliding off somewhere other than my face. No, I’m not sorry this is coming to an end. I only took the course to get myself out of the house, and I am not going to be making friends with any of this lot. Most of them are much older than me, and the woman nearest my own age – who goes by the name ‘Binnie’ – isn’t really my class of person. She catches my eye now, then looks down again. No doubt she took it personally when I turned down her suggestion to ‘go for a cuppa’ after the class on the first week. I said, ‘I’m afraid I don’t really drink tea,’ which was a bit of a white lie, because I do in fact drink it a great deal! But she is one of those women who positively exudes her maternal bounty like an aura. I’ve heard her going on about ‘my daughter’ and ‘my newest grandson’ to anyone who will listen. She even, if you can believe this, has a tote bag with ‘World’s Best Grandma’ and a giant picture of a gurning infant on it.

She is one of those women entirely defined by the workings of her womb. I know that, if I had taken her up on her offer, the ‘cuppas’ would barely be on the table before she would be saying, ‘So Hester do you have children?’ Why do women ask this question so readily? It’s not as though we talk about the intimate workings of our bodies in any other context. It’s a very personal question and I have never really found a comfortable way to field it. I want to reply, ‘That’s none of your business’, but I’m aware that would be a little rude. No, she is not really my sort of person. My mind drifts back to my baking plan and I muse on what sort I could make. A nice lemon drizzle, or a rich fruitcake perhaps. But the gloomy feeling I have been trying to hold off is descending now, falling around my shoulders like a dank shroud. I know what will happen if I embark on a baking project. I will have a couple of pieces of whatever it will be and then the rest will just sit there, wasted, drying out, until I throw it into the wheelie bin.

I can’t give any of it to Bertie. It’s very bad for dogs to have sweet things. They can get diabetes and heart disease just like we can. If I was like Binnie over there, I expect the cake would last five minutes before sticky-fingered little ones were cramming pieces into their mouths like hungry birds. It really is so unfair. All of it. ‘Are you all right, Hester?’ Hister. I look up. Alice is peering directly into my face, for once, with an expression of sugary sympathy. Glancing around I become aware that several of them are looking at me now.

Binnie’s eyes are wide, and Jackie has paused mid-munch of his sandwich, his bottom lip glistening with grease and hanging slightly open. So many eyes. All on me. ‘Yes, why on earth do you ask?’ I bark a short laugh but it sounds entirely unnatural. Alice hesitates and then actually puts her grubby little paw on my shoulder. I look at it until she takes it away. She clears her throat. Blushing (rather prettily) she says, ‘It’s just that you seemed to be, um, muttering something? I wondered who you were talking to?’ My tummy seems to flip over and my breath catches so I have to cover it up by pretending to cough. I can feel the heat creeping up my throat and flooding my cheeks. Oh dear God.

I have finally started talking to myself? What am I doing? ‘Hester?’ she says again. I stiffen my spine and meet her gaze full on so that she is then the one who is blushing. I gather my handbag from where it is resting next to the computer monitor and rise to my feet. ‘I am quite well, thank you,’ I say. ‘I think I’m going to go home now.’ ‘Oh, okay?’ she says, in that annoying singsong voice. ‘It’s just, we’re all planning to go the pub? You’re very welcome to join us?’ I can’t think of anything I’d like to do less. I can just picture it. Alice, all full of fake bonhomie; the oldies getting squiffy and promising loudly (and falsely) to keep in touch. No.

I’d rather stare at my uneaten cake and find out what’s on Radio 4. Yet it stings. It’s the, ‘You’re very welcome to join us’, thing. It wasn’t, ‘Oh no, Hester, you have to come to the pub! It wouldn’t be the same without you!’ Ha! It’s like I’m an afterthought. And now my silly eyes blur and kaleidoscope Alice’s face in front of me. But I still have my pride. I have achieved what I set out to do. I have learned how to use a computer. I am finished here. ‘No thank you,’ I say and then the lie just slides out of my mouth.

‘My daughter and grandchild are visiting later. I have things to do today.’ ‘Oh?’ Alice seems to chew the word and then the bright smile is plastered over her face once again. ‘Well, I hope you have a lovely time with them? It’s been great meeting you?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure,’ I say, before walking quickly away towards the exit. I catch Binnie’s eye, and I can see her look of surprise. I expect Terry is laughing in his grave. MELISSA As the stylist cocks the mirror to show her the back of her hair, Melissa can’t help picturing a shavenheaded teenager in a Moscow bedsit. ‘Looking gorgeous, don’t you think?’ says Susie. Melissa nods and forces a tight smile. They say the best hair comes from Russia, and this type of blonde is worth every penny of the £400.

If only she could get rid of the lurid Gulag imagery. ‘Those’ll see you right for another six weeks or so,’ says Susie, with a kindly squeeze of her shoulders. ‘Great, thanks Susie.’ But it’s hard to feign the enthusiasm she knows is expected. The whirr and blast of hairdryers and the tinny thud of the background music have anaesthetized her into a kind of stupor. She can’t even quite remember what she and Susie had been talking about during the endless hours she has been sitting in this chair. She feels somehow bonded to it. Her reluctance to get up prompts Susie to speak quietly into her ear. ‘Why don’t you finish your tea before you go?’ she says in her soft Geordie accent. ‘Boss likes to get people out the door, if you know what I mean, but you’re all right for a bit longer.

My eleven o’clock hasn’t even arrived yet.’ Melissa murmurs her gratitude as Susie bustles away and reaches for the delicate china teacup cooling next to the jumble of brushes, scissors, and tongs in front of her. The cloth pyramid of camomile tea has a greasy shine to it and the liquid is tepid and almost slimy as it slips down her throat, which feels scratchy. She coughs experimentally and begins to fret. It would be the worst time to come down with something. She could picture herself croaking miserably at people over the music of the party. There’s some zinc and vitamin C at home. She’ll dose herself up with them later. Looking back at her reflection, she runs a hand through her hair, turning her head this way and that. She takes care not to snag the tiny plugs woven into her own thin, expensively dyed tresses, which now hang in glossy waves the colour of butterscotch, wishing yet again that she didn’t always do this.

Wonder about the provenance of the hair, that is. Surely there’s nothing wrong with it? It’s no different from the Bio Gel that adorn her fingers in a colour she is told is ‘French Nude’, although Melissa thinks her fingertips look a bit creepy. Android, almost. She wonders what percentage of her is now artificial. But the extensions feel different. She pictures some poor pretty girl losing the only asset she has so that a rich woman thousands of miles away can enjoy the weight of it on her shoulders. All too easy to picture the grubby transaction involved in selling your own hair. It is as she is musing gloomily on this that she feels a strange prickle of unease, like there has been a ripple in the atmosphere, a tiny, fizzing depth charge deep in the primeval part of her brain. She frowns and looks around. Someone is watching her.

Melissa turns her head sharply to look at the main window. It is slightly steamed up and the displays of flowers – ugly spiky things that she privately detests but which are presumably deemed stylish – obscure the view a little but she can see a swatch of High Street outside. People drift or march past the window. It’s a perfectly ordinary day in North London. Life bustles on, oblivious to Melissa. No one is looking in at her. Of course they aren’t. What was she expecting? Who was she expecting? She gets up crisply and walks to the desk to pay, her stomach still roiling queasily from the shock of thinking she was being watched. Her back aches and her bottom is stiff from hours of sitting. Susie seems to materialize from nowhere and, taking care not to damage her newly faked nails, Melissa rummages for her purse and then opens the small wooden box that has been discreetly placed in front of her, containing the bill.

Melissa knew that this morning wouldn’t come cheap, but still, the cost of hair extensions and styling, manicure, pedicure, and eyebrow threading, at almost £600, gives her a thrill of transgressive pleasure. She hopes Mark will choke on his coffee, as she pushes her credit card across the counter to Susie and looks for a twenty to leave as a tip. If he’s going to behave like one of those husbands, then she will be one of those wives. Outside on the High Street it feels like the contrast button on an old television has been turned up too high. Everything is too bright; nauseatingly colourful. Melissa feels the sharp pinch of a headache beginning in her forehead. She finds her sunglasses and pushes them onto her face a little clumsily, eyes greedy for the shade. A branch of Boots is just over the road and Melissa decides to buy some water and paracetamol before setting off home. Maybe she can head this thing off at the pass so she can enjoy the party later. The caterers will be almost finished now and all that needs to be done is to oversee the Ocado delivery, which is bringing the majority of the booze.

It’s a bit late, but they let her down yesterday, citing some sort of freezer catastrophe. She hopes the champagne will have enough time to chill for this evening. It is as she is crossing over to Boots that Melissa feels the crawling sensation again, like fingertips skittering across her skin. She is certain now that it isn’t in her head. She read once that it’s something to do with peripheral vision. Someone is definitely watching her. Melissa’s heart begins to thud uncomfortably hard as she whips around in a full circle, eyes narrowed behind her dark lenses. Someone has just been swallowed up by the doors of Superdrug but she didn’t see them clearly. The High Street is busy – full of normal people, gazing into phone screens, yanking irritable children along, or, in the case of the few old people dotted about, ambling painstakingly with shoppers or small decrepit dogs. No one is staring at Melissa.

Goosebumps scatter across her arms and she shivers, even though the air is close and heavy. A car alarm shrieks nearby and Melissa flinches. The air feels soupy, with traffic fumes mingling with the cigarette smoke wafting from a doorway, where a young woman’s head is bent over her mobile, apparently having a furious conversation at low volume. At the far end of the High Street, near the library and fire station, Melissa can see a figure who looks familiar. It takes a minute to realize it’s her next-door neighbour, Hester. She is a fussy, annoying little woman who was constantly in Melissa’s face when she first moved into the street. Hester was far too interested in how Melissa was bringing up Tilly, and although she had occasionally helped with babysitting, she was more trouble than she was worth. Melissa managed to slip free of her attention and the last contact they’d had was earlier this year. Melissa couldn’t remember the details because it happened bang in the middle of the Sam thing. Something to do with recycling, or parking.

Melissa is in no mood to see Hester just now. She has enough to worry about. Even though it is only a ten-minute walk home from here, she hurries over to the taxi rank and climbs into the first available car, catching the appreciative look tossed her way by the driver. As she leans forward to give the address, she feels warmed by the attention and thinks about what he sees: a good-looking, well-groomed woman of means. Someone he could only ever admire from a distance. And if he’d known her back then? She doubts he would have allowed her in his taxi. She is unrecognizable now. Surely. Melissa settles back in the seat as the car pulls away and tries to think calming thoughts. No one is watching her.

No one is following her. No one knows. Her mobile trills, making her jump a little and she inwardly curses herself for her jumpiness. ‘Babes, it’s me.’ Saskia’s husky voice pours into her ear like warm oil. Despite having been educated at an elite girls’ boarding school, and growing up riding ponies and skiing, Saskia’s diction wouldn’t be out of place at a gathering of Pearly Kings and Queens. Her Mockney affectation sometimes irritates Melissa, but she is also one of the warmest people she has ever met. She laughs like a navvy and can infect Melissa with a dose of humour when she is otherwise unable to feel it. Her loyalty during the Sam episode will never be forgotten by Melissa. Saskia knows all too well what it is like to be cheated on, and the father of her teenage son was sent packing a few years previously.

‘What’s up?’ she says, stifling a yawn. The idea of lying down on the scuffed, smelly seat of the car and taking a nap feels worryingly tempting. ‘Not much,’ says Saskia. ‘Just wondered if you need any last-minute help? I know you have caterers in but I’m about if you need me.’ ‘That’s really sweet, Sass, but I think I’m all sorted.’ There’s a brief silence before Saskia speaks again. ‘And has there been any change of heart …?’ Melissa sighs. ‘Nope. He claims it’s “totally unavoidable”. Can you believe him?’ Saskia groans and then Melissa hears the suck and pop of her cigarette.

‘Fuck Mark,’ says Saskia. ‘I’m going to be there to make sure it’s the best damned party ever. Nathe is coming along and he can be your barman or something.’ Melissa smiles. ‘I can always rely on you.’ ‘Love ya.’ Saskia hangs up. The car has been stuck in a jam for the last few minutes and Melissa cranes now to see what is going on. ‘Some sort of hold-up, is there?’ she says to the driver, whose eyes are now framed in the rearview mirror as he looks back at her. ‘There’s a lorry that was fannying around unloading something at the back of Asda, but it looks like we’re moving now.

In a hurry?’ Melissa nods and then turns to the window. She has no interest in chatting through the rest of this journey. As the taxi hums back into movement again, the driver doesn’t attempt any further conversation. They turn down leafy streets where the houses are set back from the road. Several of the houses have original stone sculptures on the gateposts, and when Tilly was little she loved what she called the ‘stone piggies’ that stand sentry at Hester’s gate. Melissa swears under her breath as she sees the other woman walking just ahead. Hester has managed to get back before her. Not prepared to risk being stuck with her on the doorstep, Melissa switches on a smile for the driver. ‘Could I ask you to pull over just here?’ she says and she sees his rectangular gaze, harder now. ‘Sure,’ he says.

She spends some time pretending to look for money, until she is sure Hester is safely inside.

.

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