Friday, 7 August 2009

Living Across The Road -- Clare Fisher


















‘Frank, I’m not being funny, but I think you should take a look at this.’

Aida knew her husband wouldn’t have heard her: he had tinnitus. Almost every day he complained of trains chugging through his ears. So she peeled herself off the window and went over to him.

‘They’re knocking our old house down,’ she shouted, stooping towards his armchair.

‘Alright, alright’ he grumbled. ‘There’s no need to shout – it’s only the morning Aida. It’s never so bad in the mornings.’

‘Come and have a look then. They’ve already stripped off the front wall – you can see inside and everything!’

Frank shrugged. ‘Maybe later. I’m busy now.’

‘No you're not’, said Aida. ‘You’re just sitting there – and you do that every day.’

‘What was that?’ he said, leaning forward.

Aida groaned and stomped back to the window. Frank put his hand to his mouth and muttered something into it. Although registering the sound, Aida did not ask him to repeat himself as she usually would, for she was lost in the demolition taking place across the street. She really was: in the bare-faced sitting room she saw fond memories. The wallpaper had changed since she’d lived there – it was plainer, smoother – but she could still see herself, a nervous twenty-something, flitting about those rooms full of enthusiasm for life.

She and Frank had met in that house – as lodgers. She hadn’t liked him at first – she’d thought him dull and rude – but he’d been so insistent on talking to her whenever they met in the corridor, she couldn’t help but get to know him. She’d said no the first three times he proposed: she knew who she wanted to marry – he was tall and handsome and witty and slightly mysterious – and she knew the day would soon come when he’d stop her in the street, keen to get to know her too.

But a year ran past – it ran away from her – and she was still in her rented room. The only man she saw regularly was Frank. When he rambled, she amused herself by inventing alternative plots for her favourite sitcoms. She trained herself to look at him with more care: if she only looked at his button-nose and neatly pressed suit –avoiding his premature baldness and pointy, mischievous eyes – he was almost attractive. And so, when he proposed the fourth time, she could think of no reason to say no.

She’d thought it might be a weird, wrong somehow, to buy the house opposite. However, once they’d moved in she felt nothing but gladness for this strange coincidence. It gave her so much pleasure to peek out of her net curtains every morning – especially on the sunny ones like this – and sniff that old life, fluid and flapping in the wind. Occasionally she’d mention some of this to Frank, but he’d say there was nothing to make a fuss about, that it was just a house.

That was how it had been for decades. And now it was going. It was dying: a yellow-toothed bulldozer was biting into her past; it was chewing it – masticating it as a cow would grass. It had eaten the dining room where the landlady had served their meals – they had been awkward affairs and as far as Aida was concerned the bulldozer could help herself to them all it wanted. Now it was craning its neck higher, towards her old bedroom. It was preparing to pounce and she wished it wouldn’t. She wanted Frank to see it – no, he had to see it – before it was gone forever.

She rushed over to his armchair, surprised at how close to a run she managed to get.

‘Frank! Please come!’ she said.

‘What?’

She tutted and rolled her eyes. With one arm, she grabbed his hand and pointed furiously at the window with the other. He sighed heavily.

‘Alright, alright.’

By the time they got to the window – he had arthritis – the bulldozer had eaten her old bedroom. A tear elbowed into the corners of her eyes. Then she noticed that a bit of the corridor remained, and that it even had the same thread-bald carpet she remembered.

‘Look!’ She pressed her finger against the glass. ‘That spot there – that’s where we first met, remember?’

He squinted. When he didn’t reply she thought he’d misheard her – his trains always seemed to arrive at times like this – but then he said:

‘Oh yes. That’s where I proposed.’

Aida laughed.

‘Only the fourth time,’ she said. ‘The first three times you asked me in the dining room – don’t you remember the landlady’s face when I said no? – and that’s gone – look!’

She pressed her finger in the direction of the gaping, dusty hole at the bottom of the house.

He furrowed his eyebrows, which had grown so long and thick with age that they covered his eyes completely. Aida suspected he’d grown them like this on purpose.

‘No, no,’ he said, turning firmly away from the window:

‘In the dining room – I remember it clearly – I asked whether you would marry me. The first time, you said: ‘I’m not being rude but I don’t want to marry just yet.’ The second time, you answered: ‘No offense, but I don’t think I would.’ And the third time: ‘I’m not being funny but I don’t like the idea of marriage.’ That third time was a bit strange, I’ll admit – but you never said no. So I waited. And when you looked ready I asked: ‘will you marry me?’ I waited all that time to say ‘will,’ you see.’

He hobbled back to his armchair. Aida could tell he was willing his legs to go faster; he was desperate to get back to the dark side of the room, away from the sunlight falling through the window. Aida shook her head in disbelief.

‘Honestly Frank,’ she said. ‘At the end of the day… you just don’t listen, do you?’

He was struggling into his armchair and she didn’t expect him to hear. But when he’d settled, he replied:

‘Don’t be silly Aida. It’s not the end of the day – it’s the morning. And my hearing’s fine in the mornings.’

Aida turned back to the window. The bulldozer had gobbled the old house up. It had left a dusty carcass and a few tendons – electrical wires, splinters of floorboards – dangling hopelessly in the air.

She turned away. But she could not look at Frank. She nuzzled her head into her hands. How strange they were – her own hands! So papery-soft and strange. The sun beat onto her back. It brought with it the smell of fossilized flesh – a bland smell, a nothing-smell – and she realized – looking at Frank as she did so – that she’d known it all this time. She just hadn’t noticed – that she lived opposite a carcass, that is. But now – now the bulldozer had ripped out its stuffing – she could no longer believe it was alive. She didn’t know when she’d be able to lift her head out of her hands. She thought she might stay like that forever. And why not? Frank wouldn’t even notice.


Painting: Lori Andrews for The Front View

About The Author: Clare Fisher recently graduated in History from
Oxford University. She enjoys reading, walking and staring at people on the
tube. She is currently working on a novel.