‘The problem with you is you don’t do anything.’
A man’s disembodied voice cuts in through the doorway. The comment lands with a thud on the threadbare carpet. Sam sits inertly on an orange upholstered couch dreading each passing moment, while dust motes dance in a slice of sunlight pouring in through a crack between the faded curtains.
Sam hasn’t done anything to offend anyone: she has done nothing, which is the very problem. Day and night are her only markers as she continues to sit in the front room with arms and legs splayed across the settee, watching through the window as the world rotates on its axis, everything diurnal. Her dark eyes are wide as saucers, staring at the street like those domestic cats that sit in front of lace curtains.
Do cats ride in the back of cars? Sam wonders. Something she saw suggested so. A lone man had left briskly through his front door, jangling car keys between his fingers during a fast-fading dusk with a cat following closely behind. She assumed it was his cat. This dark smudge, a small shadow padding silently behind his heels unlike any dog. A shrill voice of a woman came calling after the man and cat. Sam had presumed he’d left without saying goodbye or had forgotten to take something with him, like an umbrella. They dropped out of sight, then she heard a car door slam shut.
The comings and goings of other people’s lives play out continuously through the windowpane. Each day a host of unnecessary encounters and occurrences goes on outside, which makes Sam’s mind swim with fear and wonder at the endless possibilities. What is happening out there? She couldn’t imagine. Best not try. Nothing bad can come of not trying.
Sometimes Sam would hear a recorder playing through the walls. In terraced houses, vibrations can travel three or four doors down. Right now a tune is being blown that sounds nostalgic and old, maybe medieval, or even – a sea shanty! But she mustn’t get herself excited, otherwise she’ll get wet and soak through the settee like last time, when Uncle had gotten upset.
He had picked up the polished brass desk lamp and swung it over his head as if to plunge it into Sam. Luckily, the cord had pulled taut at the plug, defeating him. The poor lamp was slammed back down onto the dark wooden table in the corner of the room. Uncle’s jaws were clenching and unclenching in a miraculous motion, like his teeth were grinding pearls. He smoothed down his scalp with a lank, pink palm and left the room, looking directly through her.
The last thing Sam wants is to aggravate him. She remembers how he used to call her his Little Angel, when he still had a full head of hair and life behind the eyes. But as the years flew by, she fell from being a joy to a nuisance. People say she should have landed on her feet by now and done something extraordinary with her life, probably. There is nothing stopping Sam except Sam who feels like she is drowning in a wobbly jelly middle. When her uncle’s flat feet tread their way up the carpeted staircase, her body turns hollow. As the bathroom taps run ferociously, she goes limp.
She keeps telling herself to get up, seek help, move on. As time rolls on mysteriously, she is constantly tired and afraid she can’t change. It’s the way she is built: far too fragile and sensitive to light, amongst other things. And when they hold the annual street party she feels a deadening weight of realisation that she has wasted yet another year of her small, innocuous life. The neighbours start setting up festivities outside: hooking bunting over fences; cars mounting pavements with boots wide open showing off weird wares inside. Flimsy tablecloths flap in the wind held down by coin-laden biscuit tins.
‘Cupcakes for a pound! We’re raising money for cerebral palsy.’
Each neighbour is expected to keep their front room open during the annual event to hone a sense of community, but really, it’s a ruse to allow people to nose about in other people’s business. Uncle gets himself into a cleaning frenzy over the street party. Sam picks up her legs to stay out of the way of the hoover.
‘You sit here doing nothing. Expecting everyone to manage their lives around you. You’re filthy, you are! Want me to suck you up?’ He points the end of the nozzle at Sam. ‘You’re not even sorry. Go on, tell me what you done today?’
‘I … had … a stomach ache.’
‘You don’t work. You’re not worth anything. You don’t even pay for food.’
‘I don’t eat it either.’
‘Where the hell’s this stomach pain come from then?’ Uncle snaps. ‘I see you eating the biscuits; they’re slimy afterwards. You disgust me.’
Sam drips a little from the end of her nose.
‘Guests’ll be round soon. Don’t embarrass me.’
Uncle stalks out of the front room, giving it a once-over with his darting eyes. He doesn’t notice the cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling with a shrivelled spider carcass entombed in its shroud.
Sam wishes she could do something with her body and also with her mind. Something useful; something beautiful like – imagine being a painter! If she had access to an easel, a set of oil paints which come in tubes, a fine paintbrush, and a smock – not to forget a beret – then she could become a great painter. She knows it. She would shimmy down to the pier, prop up her easel, and balance herself on a stool to paint the seagulls in mid-flight, swooping down to snatch up the leftover chips. Happy days.
But there are all these obstacles in the way, like where would she find a beret big enough for her head? Growing afraid of the seagulls pecking at her arms and legs, she decides against the idea of painting outdoors: there are all sorts of wildlife that could attack her there. Yet, there will never be enough natural light indoors unless she has access to a studio to paint in. Sam would have to look up in the yellow phone book whether there were any local studios for hire.
Where is the phone book? Do we still get one delivered? Sam wonders.
While constructing her plan to become a painter, Sam notices a man standing outside the window looking in. Her eyes swivel in their sockets, focussing on the man who is wearing a dark overcoat and hat. He only stops for a beat, then walks away down the street.
‘Suspicious-looking fellow,’ she murmurs. But, then, the street party often coaxes people out she never sees again.
The party went by without much excitement. The old biddies sat with their hot mugs of china looking at Sam with expectant gummy grins hiding their morbid curiosity. Sam recognised a few of them from their conspiring on the pavement outside her window, talking in their witchy whispers about her sorry, locked-up figure. She knows they talk about her. The grotesque pleasure people get out of discussing her impotence gives depth to their uneventful lives. The couple next door swilled tea and pleasantly enquired after her health, but then walked away before she could answer. All newcomers had shied away entirely.
Whenever Sam felt trapped in dreadful moments, her unruly thoughts would go wandering towards the light of the moon – how dispassionately it lulls you. The orb’s magnetic force pulls you in like you’ve been caught on an invisible line. The moon’s latent light is incredibly forgettable, yet slowly, unconsciously, you find yourself hypnotised by its luminosity. A sensation that dazzles and does you no good, but you long for it once it’s gone.
Suddenly shattering her reverie, Sam hears a loud bang at the front door. The sound of a sledgehammer. A loud bang, then a crunch. A shovel being struck against the doorframe, gouging out chunks of weak, rotten wood. Another violent crunch and a rip. Uncle comes running downstairs. He scurries into the front room and fiddles with the curtains, flicking up the tattered edges, fretfully peering out. He only wears a pair of worn-out Y-fronts that hang from his scrawny frame like a loincloth.
It had turned into the dead of night whilst Sam had been obsessively dreaming of her satellite, but the fright from the bang and the excitement of her visions had caused her to make a sticky mess down there. She can feel the couch sticking to the sides of her in a way that is unnatural, as if she were stuck to fibres in cement. Sam decides to stop breathing, so as not to bring any attention to her mess below. Then, hopefully, Uncle will go back upstairs after twitching the curtains some more.
‘What in hell’s name was that, Sam?’
Her uncle sounds scared and looks ill with his pasty face lit by the glare of the tungsten street lamps outside. Sam can’t speak. Dread swells inside her body as she feels an oozing sensation, thick and viscous, seeping out of her like a nightmare.
She remembers the crows being positioned strategically outside along her street, on the lookout for dead meat on a blistering summer’s day. Each solitary bird was perched on top of a wheelie bin, devilishly scraping its beak against its wings, preening for parasites. A lady with a gigantic bottom was heaving herself up the road. She held a paper bag squeezed tightly to her bosom, burgeoning with glittering black grapes. Each stalk was bulging with what looked like the purple egg sacs of amphibious creatures. She was plucking the grapes into her jaws, and the sticky juices covered her fingernails. She was chewing and walking and spitting out each pip, and gradually her paper bag soaked through and disintegrated. Black balls began plopping all over the pavement, rolling under her shoes and down the drain. The dirty crows hopped excitedly on their spindly legs as grapes scattered and bounced, each blob reflecting the sunlight for a short-lived second before leaving a dark stain on the tarmac.
‘What the bloody hell have you done to my carpet?’
The front room looks like an oil spill. Uncle tries to mop it up but only adds to its spread.
‘You’ve done it now.’
Uncle stalks out of the room thudding up the stairs. The taps begin to roar, and Sam hears the boiler cranking deep within the wall cavities. Sam is sorry because she has never done anything like this before and didn’t want to make matters worse. She slows her breathing to try and stop it entirely before her uncle returns. Then she notices, standing very close to the windowpane, that same man in the dark overcoat. He has a penetrating stare and tiny black eyes beneath the rim of his hat. Sam feels weak, but she must warn her uncle, who appears at that moment in the doorway, sweating profusely, his white vest now clammy. The unblinking eyes of the stranger are right behind him.
Then, for the first time in her adult life, Sam feels the sensation of being held. Her body flops onto her uncle’s puny frame like a deflated lifeboat being hauled out of the sea. Sam tries to tell him about the man looking in. There is something very sinister about this stranger. Her words come out in dribbles. While her lifeless body is carried up the stairs, Sam notices a black trail of what looks like blood staining the carpet behind them.
Rimika Solloway keeps a creative writing blog called A Lack Thereof and is part of the South East London Creative Writers Group. She was born in Japan, raised in Orkney, and grew up in London. She was a Bold Types 2020 Finalist for the Glasgow Women’s Library, and her writing has been featured in Potluck Zine, All My Relations Vol. 1, and other independent publications. alackthere.blogspot.com