She watches him as he drags his suitcase along the hall carpet, leaving dark furrows where the pile has been disturbed. She presses her face closer to the wood of the door, trying to line her eye up perfectly with the crack. She wants to see everything.
This is his third bag so far, and there are boxes piled up in the stairwell. It looks unlikely that he’ll be able to fit it all into the one small bedroom, but she knows spaces can be deceptive. He stops briefly outside her door, wiping his forearm across his brow, the sweat leaving a dark, damp patch on his shirt. She holds her breath until he moves on, then eases herself away from the crack, turning back to her desk.
So far the experiment has gone according to plan. She’d interviewed five candidates in total, two women and three men. The women were hopeless, far too vapid for her purposes. She figured it’d take an earthquake to get a reaction out of them.
The men were better. The first was Colin, a computer programmer from Essex. He’d moved up here because there were less people, he’d told her. He didn’t get on very well with people, you see, and crowds brought him out in a cold sweat. She’d suggested that he was perhaps a bit abnormal, you know, and did he have any mental problems or was he just a weak character? He’d blushed and stammered, stains spreading across the pits of his shirt. Far too reclusive, really. She needed a backbone to break.
Alasdair was different, but no improvement. He was a part-time DJ at one of the local clubs, so any time she wanted tickets, just let him know. Oh yeah, and was it okay if he brought a bird or two back from time to time? Only they wouldn’t always let him stay at their place, see. She got rid of him in the end by making unsubtle insinuations that the toilet in the flat upstairs sometimes leaked through the ceiling above the spare bed. She made retching noises behind the door once she’d ushered him out - too much of a sleazeball.
Craig had seemed unpromising too, at first. He was a bricklayer, which immediately put her off. He’d be up early each morning, would probably eat out most days, wouldn’t bring anyone back. She’d hardly see him, in fact. He just wanted somewhere to crash. It was only once she’d asked him why he was moving out of his current house that she hit gold.
‘It’s those bloody neighbours, you know? They have these shouting matches in the middle of the night, and I’m not the sort that can get by with only an hour’s sleep. So, I figured I’d had enough. I went round there and told them to keep it down. I don’t like to get heavy, but they were driving me mad. Anyway, there’s been a tension in the air ever since, and I came home the other week to find a turd pushed through my letterbox. I mean, what kind of psycho does that? I figured it was about time to get out of there.’
She smiled. Bingo.
She sits down at the desk and takes out her notebook, writes ‘Day One’ at the top of the page. She thinks for a few seconds, and then writes ‘Pleasant, friendly, neighbourly’ on it.
Then she steps out into the hallway, and asks Craig if he’d like a hand with his bags.
She took a while deciding how to play today, but in the end her hand is forced. Craig disappears before she even gets up, a dirty mug left on the worktop where he’d helped himself to a quick coffee before leaving. There’s also a note, telling her that he’s not likely to be back much before nine. She has all day to think, to plan. She knows she’ll only have one chance to do this right.
After her five o’clock lecture she hurries straight home, wanting to be ready for his arrival. She places the dirty mug on the kitchen table, where he can’t help but see it, with a bottle of Fairy and some lurid yellow washing up gloves. The message will surely be clear. She also prepares a tape for her nocturnal activities, and sets up the stereo so that it faces the wall separating her bedroom from his. She’s already tested it with her knuckles, and was pleased to find that it’s little more than plasterboard. The sound should carry well.
By the time he gets home she’s almost nodding off, her hectic evening taking its toll. While he slips his boots off in the hallway she drops a couple of caffeine supplements, something to see her through the night ahead. She presses her cheek to the coarse wood of the door again, her eye pressed up to the crack running through it. She can see him loitering in the hall, then walking through into the kitchen. She waits a few seconds, and then the taps start to run. The first bait has been taken.
At ten o’clock Craig turns in for the night, and she eagerly takes the opportunity for a few hours’ rest. At midnight her alarm goes off, the volume set down low so that its noise doesn’t penetrate the walls. She slips out of bed and tiptoes out into the hall, her socks only making a faint rustling on the carpet, her breathing ragged with excitement in the still night air. Pausing outside his door, she can hear him snoring lightly in his sleep, a sound like the gentle sawing of wood. She tiptoes back to her room, makes a note of the time from her bedside clock, and presses the ‘On’ and ‘Play’ buttons of her stereo in quick succession.
Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’ blasts out into the night as she sits at her desk, pen poised above her notebook. She smiles at her own ingenuity, and imagines the grade she’ll receive as Craig begins to stir next door.
She sleeps in today, to make up for last night. Craig had been polite at first, calmly asking her to turn the volume down a little, but by the third and fourth time of asking she could see him fraying at the edges. She had waited for the soft sounds of his snoring to return once more before turning it back on, this time louder than before. She could almost see him beginning to crack as he came through, the weariness in his voice now replaced with anger. This time she left it off - no use in cracking him too early.
Today marks a change in tactics, a move intended to confuse and disorientate. He’d be feeling that he’d made a mistake by moving in, that last night had defined the way their relationship would stay over the ensuing weeks. He would be wrong. Tonight, he would come home to a different flat.
He’s late tonight, a sure sign that yesterday got to him, and she makes a mental note to record this later. When he arrives through the door she comes out to meet him in the hallway.
‘Good day on the site?’
He grunts, a non-committal expulsion of air.
‘I’ve made you dinner. To say sorry for last night. Shepherd’s pie - I hope you like it?’
‘Yes. Thank you. You needn’t have -‘
‘It’s okay, it’s okay. My treat. You’ve been working hard, it’s the least I can do. Now, do you want it now, or do you want to get changed first?’
He nips into his room to change his shirt, allowing her to light the candles in the kitchen. When he returns the mood is subdued, romantic, another twist designed to confound his expectations. She pulls his seat out for him, giggling girlishly and allowing her breasts to brush against his back. She can almost feel the air of arousal rising off him, his hormones awakened by the contact. Good. All is going according to plan.
They share a bottle of wine over the meal, although she makes sure that he drinks most of the bottle. As she gets ready for bed she leaves the bathroom door slightly open, so that he can see her in her nightdress and underwear as he walks past. She hears him pause briefly by the door as he passes.
She marks it down in the notebook before falling into a deep sleep.
Before he returns home tonight she cuts holes in two of his shirts, pulling his belongings from the cabinet drawers and littering them across the floor. She finds some personal letters folded up in the bottom of his sock drawer, so she rips them into little pieces, letting them fall like confetti over the bed. She burns one, just for variety. Then she sits on her bed, and waits.
He’s home earlier tonight. Her performance yesterday obviously made him feel welcome. There’s a pause as he enters his room, before a cry of ‘What the fuck?’ can be heard through the wall. Next, the pounding of angry feet, and then a sharp tap on her door.
She waits for a few seconds, preparing mentally for tonight’s role, and then shouts out.
He crashes through into the room, flinging the door back so hard that it hits the wall. She thinks she sees the crack widen a little. His face shows anger, but also confusion and perhaps, maybe, betrayal. It’s details like these that she stores away for her notes later.
‘Do you know what happened to my room? Someone’s trashed it, there’s stuff everywhere, the whole place has been done over.’
‘Yeah, it was me.’
He’s baffled, unable to comprehend this sudden switch from flirtation to vandalism over the course of twenty-four hours. She notes that he appears to have a nervous tic in his right hand, a finger that’s twitching beyond his control. His left hand clenches and unclenches sporadically.
‘You what? Why would you do something like that? I don’t understand.’
‘As if you don’t know.’
A puzzled frown, the cogs of his mind slowly ticking over.
‘Did I do something? You can’t just go through my stuff, my shirts are wrecked. Are you crazy or something?’
She resists the urge to laugh, to tell him no, it’s you that’s going crazy. Instead she twists the laugh into a scowl.
‘Some girl came round here asking for you today. What’s all that about, hey? What about me? I thought we had an agreement, I thought I knew where I stood. Who is she? What are you playing at?’
‘A girl?’ He starts to grow angry again now, now that he understands. ‘Well, I don’t know who it was, but why shouldn’t she come here? It’s not as if you and I - I promised you nothing. I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, but I just want a room here. We’re just flatmates. Not lovers.’
She pushes him out into the hallway, managing to shift his weight more through surprise than any great physical feat, and turns the key in the lock that she’d had installed in her bedroom door last week, in preparation.
‘I’ll see you in hell, you two-timing bastard,’ she yells through the door before collapsing onto the bed in a fit of silent giggles. Once the laughter subsides and the air has returned to her lungs she moves across to her desk and records the entire altercation, from start to finish, every detail and nuance that she can remember.
At the bottom of the page she writes - ‘Beginning to crack.’
Tonight she locks him out of the flat. She knows he’ll need to get back in for some clean clothes, so he won’t just walk away. She leaves him a sleeping bag and a note out on the stairwell.
When he first gets back he rattles the door in its frame, then she can hear him knocking on all the doors on their floor, asking if anyone knows what’s going on. At around midnight he settles down and appears to fall asleep just outside the front door, the sleeping bag wrapped around him. She waits until she can hear him snoring, and then she creeps out and unlocks the door.
She hears him come in at about six the next morning, shower, and then leave again, slamming the door on his way out. She checks that his belongings are still in the room before crawling into bed herself, trying to make up for lost sleep. It’s all still there. He’s not going anywhere.
She has the locks changed while he’s out at work, replaced with an identical set that require a new bunch of keys. Just to look at them, you’d never notice the change.
She has to wait by the door this evening, so that when she hears him outside she can open it before he tries his keys.
‘You think you can show your face around here still, do you?’
She storms back into the flat before he can reply, trusting his fighting instinct to draw him in. His feet sounding heavy in the hallway as he plods along after her, like a dog on a lead. She notices that he doesn’t take his boots off when he enters the house any more.
‘What was last night all about? Hey? I slept out on that fucking freezing floor because of you. My back’s killing me, I almost fell asleep on the job today. What are these games about? Are you mad, or something?’
She just scowls.
‘What? What are you thinking, you crazy bitch?’
‘You know what you’ve done. Don’t pretend.’
She turns her back on him, as much to hide the self-satisfied smile on her face as for the effect.
‘You’re mental. I’m getting my stuff, and moving out of here. One of my mates has said he can put me up for a few days, till I find somewhere else. I’ll settle with you later.’
He stomps off to his room and she knows she has to move fast. She runs through to her bedroom, grabs the bag and coat from the bed, presses the play button on the stereo. The CD begins to whirr in its tray as she slams and locks the bedroom door, running up the hallway before Craig realises what’s happening. She pulls the front door closed behind her and turns the bright new keys in their locks.
There’s no noise as yet. It’ll probably take him a few minutes to discover that he’s locked in. Maybe a few more to find that the telephone has gone. It’ll be at least a few hours before he realises that the CD is looped to play all night. She calls this the Crypton Factor stage, an ingenuity test. A rat in a maze. She can’t wait to see how he reacts.
She returns to the flat sporadically throughout the night to check that he hasn’t tried climbing out through the windows or sending SOS messages, but from the street the building is silent, dead. She waits until ten o’clock the next morning, two hours after he was supposed to start work, and then she turns her keys in the locks, opening the madhouse for inspection.
It’s silent inside, which surprises her. As she walks into the hall she discovers that the door to her bedroom has been burst in, the crack now splitting the entire panel in two. So much for the new lock. There are scratches and dents along the walls as she walks towards the living room, as if someone has been punching and tearing at them with their nails. She thinks she sees specks of blood in one of the dents, although she can’t be sure.
Her mouth is open as she rounds the corner into the living room, expecting the worst, but the room is relatively intact. A few cushions have been thrown on the floor, but nothing is broken.
It’s as she takes a step inside that she feels the heat of his breath behind her, and she turns and staggers backwards into the room. There’s not much time to make many mental notes as he rushes at her, although she does notice that his eyes look like they’re popping out of his skull, his knuckles bloody and beginning to scab over as he lifts the crude club above his head, a piece of skirting board pulled away from the walls, the nails still sticking through the splinters.
He says nothing, only grunts as he swings it down for the first time.
(Dan Coxon, 2007)