LESSONS FROM THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

By Timothy Willmore-Flowers

‘Explain it to me again’ he asked.
‘Sure.’ I replied.

Wednesday.
I finished work twenty minutes early so I could go to the gift shop and buy ten heart-shaped helium balloons. It was our wedding anniversary: ten balloons, ten years, it was obvious, but perfectly appropriate.
On the overground train heading home, I mostly apologised for the inconvenience the balloons were causing. Three times I told the kid with the ‘Adventure Time’ rucksack that balloons were not punchbags. The remainder of the journey I continually tried to call my unreachable wife.

*******

After a balloon-bobbing twenty minute walk from the train station I arrived at my front door. At first, I thought I might have strolled up the wrong path, to the wrong house, but a man knows his front door like a familiar face, and this was my door, but bizarrely, the lock wasn’t accepting my key. Anyway, a long story short, my wife didn’t want to be my wife anymore, so she had ‘Dan Dan the Door Lock Man’ come and change all the locks while I was working hard for our future.
Wendy, that’s my wife, called out from the front bedroom window and told me that ‘changing the locks was a statement that even I couldn’t ignore.’
Was I missing something?
Apparently I was.
Wendy said our marriage was like the aftermath of a high-speed car crash, and by some miracle we were still trapped and surviving in the wreckage.
‘But I’m happy there’ I pleaded.
‘And I don’t love you.’ she stonily revealed.
Weakened by the cold words that sliced straight through me, the helium balloons wriggled free from my hand. I didn’t bother watching as the ten heart-shaped tokens of my love, separated and drifted away on a brisk evening breeze. There was a metaphor in there somewhere, I know it.
I looked up at this woman I no longer knew, as she leant out the bedroom window, her arm flinging out gestures.
‘Just go away!’ She bluntly said.
‘Go where?’
‘I. Don’t. Care.’ She said it like that. ‘Go, or I’ll call the police.’
‘For what?’
After a long day at work, I wasn’t expecting this, but here I was, awkward and confused on the doorstep. That’s when Nibbles our cat ambled over to rub up against my trouser leg. At least someone was happy to see me, I thought.
‘Can I at least get some clothes? Please.’ I sounded apologetic by now, with no idea why.
‘No’ snapped Wendy, her scowling face getting redder.
I gazed down at Nibbles.
‘And don’t touch my cat’ Wendy warned.
I had the lightbulb moment right then. I looked back up at Wendy and felt evil tugging up the corners of my mouth. I smiled.
‘Don’t you dare’ she screamed. ‘I’ll kill you. I swear I will kill you.’
She knew what I was thinking.

*******
That was Wednesday evening.
Yesterday, Friday night, me and the ginger cat Nibbles were moving into a grubby little first floor flat, somewhere up the reckless end of an undesirable neighbourhood. I don’t even like the cat that much, but I had to walk away with something, didn’t I? Taking the cat was a small victory in my heartbreaking discovery that I was unloved, as was hearing Wendy scream out the window as I ran away up the road, Nibbles tight under my arm.
‘Don’t you take my cat!’ Wendy shouted. ‘Somebody, help. Thief.’
I threw my redundant door keys over the high hedge of number 37 and heard a satisfying plop as they landed in the garden pond.
Yes!
Now a man with more time on his hands would have done his homework on the area he was about to call home. You know, a few observational laps around the potential neighbourhood, assess the hostility of the natives, look for green spaces, book clubs, that sort of thing. But beggars can’t be choosers, right, and this bloke at work, Ahmed, said his dad had an empty flat above a laundrette. He said I could live there rent free.
‘Free?’
‘Yes, mate’ Ahmed replied. ‘Just give it a lick of paint.’
‘That’s brilliant. Thanks Ahmed.’
Then Ahmed said, ‘you might need to get rid of the squatters though.’
‘The squatters?’
‘Yeah, but don’t worry about them, the rats are more of a problem than the squatters.’
‘AND RATS?’
‘Yeah. Rats, squatters, a lick of paint. Do you want the flat or not?’
I hate rats and am indifferent about squatting, but the previous two nights on my Aunt Erica’s couch had my posture begging for realignment.
‘I’ll take it’ I said to Ahmed, trying my best to appear grateful.
We shook hands to seal the deal, though I had my fingers crossed, because you never know.

*******
So Friday night and I am stood outside Ahmed’s dad’s empty flat: a first-floor ruin with views to make an inmate weep unfair. Upon a busy junction, thick with the misery of traffic, and a brutal wind that never heard of giving up. It is a place so wretchedly unhappy that even the Black Death would have took a wide detour.
I looked at Nibbles, who seemed content, under my arm for another day.
‘What do you think Nibbles?’ I asked, despondently.
Nibbles said nothing. He’s not much of a conversationalist. God, two days single and already asking the cat for his opinion. Is that what they will call me around here? The cat man. The mad cat man.
It was about 9 pm when the black sky boomed, cracked, and burst an aorta, and the rain came lashing down. It was time to go inside.
I turned the key in the lock, but the door wouldn’t budge. It took a couple of shoulder barges after that before the swollen door flung open and I landed on my knees in the downstairs entrance hall of the upstairs flat. Remarkably, Nibbles was still under my arm, though his claws were now hooked through my parka and into my skin. Ouch.
I flicked the light switch on and off but there was not a single spark of electricity. Then I remembered that useless little torch on my mobile phone. A light that was unlikely to brighten anyone’s day, though it was all I had. With mobile phone flashlight in hand, I noticed some writing on the grimy wall above the light switch, it read:
‘1, 2, 3, and lift’

What’s that about?
I aimed the beam from the torch up a weary-looking staircase. Half illuminated, I could see graffiti sprayed walls. Further up, the bannisters rickety and gapless like the teeth of journeyman boxer.
I stood on the first stair, and it creaked. The second was much the same. The third, more of an unsteady groaner, and the fourth, well, that fourth stair gave up the moment I stepped on it. As my foot and leg went straight through the rot, Nibbles broke free from under my arm, but more important things were about to happen. I went crashing down until my crown jewels slammed so hard against the wood, I swear I dislodged at least one fleshy diamond. The pain is hard to describe, but it was there, a hot rush of pure unpleasantness filling my body.
So there I was with my left leg through rotten wood and tears ready to be deployed, when I heard a dreary voice call out from upstairs.
‘Dude, what’s all the commotion? The voice said.
I heard footsteps above, then someone appeared at the top of the stairs: a gaunt face in the flickering glow of the candle he was holding. I shone my torch up to reveal a lank crusty character, with body and clothes equally undernourished.
‘Hello,’ I winced.
‘What the heck dude’ the crusty one cried, shaking his head like a disappointed parent. ‘Listen man, everyone knows not to step on the fourth stair, and if you didn’t know – try reading the damn notice.’ He pointed a finger down the stairs toward the ‘1,2,3, and lift’ scribbled on the wall.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That’s what it means.’
‘Well it means fuck all now’ he said irately. Then puffed hard on a cigarette, which seemed to calm him instantly.
There was silence as I tried to free my leg from the hole, but life is extra challenging when the gonads are still ringing from being chimed.
The crusty, who said his name was Swampy, sat down on the top step and smoked his cigarette. ‘You don’t look like our typical kind of squatter’ he remarked.
Before I could say ‘hey, I’m not a squatter’, Swampy started giggling, then pointed toward the open front door.
‘Hey dude, look outside! Your cat is sitting in the rain! Awesome.’
‘A what? Oh no.’ I shifted and turned, leg still down the hole.
Nibbles was sitting kerbside, under battering rain and the glow of a streetlamp, unbothered, like he was already king cat of the hood.
‘Argh. Come here Nibbles!’ I demanded. ‘Biscuit. Biscuit Nibbles.’
Either Nibbles couldn’t hear me, or he didn’t want to. This had me thinking that the cat was more like her than I had ever cared to acknowledge.
There was a lot of awkward manoeuvres before I finally freed myself from the hole, and fell to the bottom stair.
With pain and a wide stance, I stepped outside, but Nibbles was gone. Believe me, it crossed my mind to let that soggy ginger cat wander off forever, but any chance of a reconciliation with Wendy would definitely include Nibbles, so I had to find him, for the sake of my car crashed marriage.
It took 2 seconds of being drenched by the rain for me to start thinking like a cat. It was another 10 seconds before I noticed the door of the laundrette was ajar. Yes, of course. If I were a cat, I’d go through that open door.

*******

Inside the laundrette, it was hard to tell who was there for laundry and who was there sheltering from the weather. Obviously, I was there looking for the cat, on all fours as I crawled down the centre of the laundrette, looking left and right, and calling out. ‘Nibbles. Nibbles?’
‘Did you say nipples?’ a young mother asked, a snotty baby stacked on her protruded hip.
‘No’ I replied. ‘I’ve lost my cat. Nibbles.’
‘You called your cat nipples? What kinda of moron does that?’ Someone joked, then laughed.
Did you know laughing is contagious? It is, I saw it happen in the laundrette. Soon everybody was laughing about the Nibbles/nipples confusion. Even the snotty baby was giggling about something, and babies know nothing.
‘It’s not funny’ I said. ‘I’ve lost my cat’ which only caused the people to laugh harder. ‘Stop laughing!’ I shouted. ‘What the hell is wrong with you people?’ I stomped to the door and made an exit in what I could only describe as a temper tantrum any toddler would be proud of owning.
I slammed the door behind me.
Outside and greeted by the only reliable thing in my life right now – rain. I could still hear laughter as it seeped from the laundrette. I looked up and down the pavement for a roaming ginger cat, but nothing. I even checked the road, just on the off chance Nibbles had become a victim of his own curiosity, but nothing. I was on the verge of giving up, when I heard a noise behind me.
Swampy and his musty odour materialised through the haze of his own smoke. ‘Dude’ he said, ‘a buddy of mine just saw a ginger moggie go into Kebabs-4U.’
‘And where the fuck is Kebabs-4U?’ I asked, my patience threadbare.
‘Hey, mellow that aggression, dude. No need for it. No need.’
I stepped back, took a moment, then stepped forward and apologised.
Before Swampy disappeared back into his smoke cloud, he told me the kebab shop was just past Tescos. I couldn’t miss it, he said.
My phone rang, deep in the drenched pocket of my parka.
It was Ahmed from work, asking how I was settling into London life, then getting to the real reason for his call. He forewarned me that a screaming Wendy phoned the office, only for Ahmed to let slip that I was moving into his dad’s flat. He gave her the address too. What the…
Trying to terminate a phone call in the rain was another problem I had to deal with, but don’t worry, because a hooded curse on a pushbike went whizzing past, snatched the phone clean from my hand, and pedalled away like he was Brad ‘bloody’ Wiggins. I couldn’t be bothered to chase him. I couldn’t even be bothered to pull the hood over my head to stop the rain and its tortuous pummel. I wandered off to find Kebabs-4U, and hopefully Nibbles. If nothing else, I wanted to find that ungrateful cat so I could tell him he wasn’t wanted.

*******

Eventually I found it, Kebabs-4U, a place of overwhelming fluorescent glare, an underwhelming menu, and a queue of downbeat carnivores waiting to be served a Friday night treat.
I won’t go into detail about what happened in Kebabs-4U, but suffice to say, it doesn’t matter what I said or meant, or what those customers thought I said or meant, just mention a cat, dog, or rodent in a fast-food joint, and everyone starts leaving by the nearest exit. Trading Standards being the very next people to come through the door.
After the queue of people had left the shop, vowing never to return, I sensed something unpleasant was manifesting when I noted the aggressive faces of the staff. I considered running, but the door seemed further away than I remembered. I heard an angry voice say something like, ‘i’m gonna smack the bitch out of you, bitch.’ After that, I don’t remember.

*******

Not sure how much time had passed when I woke flat on the pavement, spread out and wet like a starfish. People stepped over me, around me, and that one idiot stepped all over me and laughed. The left side of my face throbbed like a toothache, but much bigger. Blood trickled from my nose. I wasn’t quite ready to stay on the floor amongst the wetness and rubbish, so I mustered the strength to pull myself up a lamp post, back on to unsteady feet. My eyes tried to focus, but the world was shrink-wrapped in a blur, my equilibrium punched out of shape. I stayed where I was, held on tight to the post, and breathed.
And breathed.
My vision was clearing, and I breathed.
I could feel energy refreshing my legs. And I Breathed.
And I…
And I couldn’t believe what I saw.
A black cab drove past. Through the back window of the taxi I could see the silhouette of someone’s head – and I could see Nibbles. His ginger face peering out the back window like a stolen child who didn’t give a shit.
‘Oh for God sake. Really?’
The next bit was the easiest part of the night: I raised my arm and a taxi rolled up. Easy as that.
I jumped in the cab and said, ‘quick, follow that taxi!’
The cab driver thought I was joking. ‘Is this for real?’
‘Of course it’s real’ I told him. ‘Follow that taxi.’
Without another word, we were in (slow) pursuit.
Shortly after that, I fell asleep.

*******

The taxi driver must have slammed the brakes hard, because when I woke up I was in the process of hitting my head against the glass partition that separates cabbie from the passenger. As I struggled from the floor and back onto the seat, I noticed the fare meter was reading 127 English pounds.
‘Jesus Christ! How much?’
‘Listen, mate, you said follow the taxi. So I followed the taxi.’
‘Where did we go? Timbuk-bloody-tu.’ I was unimpressed.
‘More like Essex’ he said.
‘Essex?’
Across the road, five or six cars up, the other taxi had stopped middle of the road. I could see someone getting out.
I got out of my cab and instantly recognised the place: it was the street I lived in with Wendy.
‘Oi’ the cabbie shouted, ‘you owe me hundred and twenty-seven quid.’
Across the road, the other cab drove away, and I saw Wendy standing on the pavement, Nibbles reaching over her shoulder like a burping baby.
‘Wendy!’ I shouted. ‘Give me that damn cat.’
‘You don’t even like the cat’ she shouted back. And then she started running.
I started running, but she was closer to the house than me. I could see Wendy was already thinking ahead: door key in her hand. I started running faster, but Wendy was already in the front garden.
I could hear the cabbie shouting, ‘Oi, you owe me money’, but I kept running.
Wendy had the key in the lock by the time I stepped onto the garden path. By the time I reached the door, it had already been slammed in my face.
I banged my fists on the door. ‘Wendy. Give me that cat!’ I rang the bell, over and over, but eventually I gave up. I couldn’t be bothered anymore.
Defeated, I turned to leave, but the cabbie was standing there on the path, his hand out and palm up, ‘you owe me a lot of money’ he said.
That’s when I realised I didn’t have my wallet. Stolen or lost, it was the same end result. I had no cash.
The cab driver was stronger than he looked. He grabbed the scruff of my parka, lifting me so I was on the tip of my toes, then said, ‘what happens next is up to you, pal.’
I don’t remember anything after that.
Until now.

‘And that’s exactly how it happened officer. Can I go now?’

<<<<>>>>

Advertisements