It was a Sunday when Alice first noticed the back gate was off the latch. It must have been, because she was pegging out her weekly wash, a Sunday job. At the time, she thought nothing of it, putting it down to kids mucking about or a drunk, taking a sly pee on the way home. But two days later, when she went out to the bin, the gate was open again. And again the next day, when she crossed the yard to check.
Not long after, she found fresh ciggie stubs scattered at the back of the house, the tips stained waxy crimson. She swept them away, blushing.
“Only sluts paint their faces,” Da once said.
She took a parcel for her neighbour. The woman’s name was Jodie Firkell. Later, when Alice took the parcel round, she could hear a baby crying somewhere in the back of the house. Jodie Firkell was new to the area. She’d thought it was nice at first, but now she wasn’t sure.
“Never seen so much dog shit.” Twice she’d brought it in on her shoes. “And the pub down the road… Christ. When people are tipping out at night. Sets the baby off.”
Alice told her about the gate and the fag ends.
Jodie bristled. She’d found beer cans in her own yard and, once, a solitary stiletto. Spent hypodermics, she feared, would be next, chucked over the fence like lethal confetti. And the landlord wouldn’t do anything. She’d put her name down for a flat near her mum’s because you couldn’t be too careful, not with a little one to think of.
The weather turned. Christmas came and went. Jodie and the baby went, too. Different, adult voices drifted through to Alice’s living room, sounds of anger and protest. Sometimes there were shouts, thuds. She thought of Da.
One grey morning, she looked up from the kitchen sink and saw the door of Da’s old shed swinging provocatively in the wind. Zipping her fleece, she padded, slipper-shod, down the path. The padlock had been forced, but inside, Da’s bike was in the usual place, all four tyres flat and useless. Next to it, his leather work boots stood ready. His metal toolbox, in the corner, was unopened. If anything was missing, she couldn’t identify what, and besides, she cared for none of it. With a length of string and a nail, she tied the door shut.
Eavesdropped conversations in the corner shop told her other people’s sheds and outbuildings had been tampered with.
“Vagrants,” said one man to the shopkeeper, sniffing as he pocketed his change. “Looking for shelter. What next?”
Snow fell. Alice took to watching TV quiz shows. Mam used to love quiz shows. Her favourites were Double Your Money and Take Your Pick. She would settle herself in a corner of the settee to watch, forgotten knitting at her side, stubbornly ignoring Da’s sneers until he fell silent.
After the freeze, the string on the shed had rotted; the back gate dragged on the path, impossible to close unless you lifted it on its hinges. It was beyond Alice to repair these things. One morning, a scarf was tied around the soft wooden gatepost—pink, floaty, and transparent, it fluttered in the wind. Alice pressed it to her face, inhaling the scent of rose and freesia. She didn’t untie it in case the owner came looking, and, sure enough, next day it had gone.
On a spring morning, drawn by glinting metal beneath weak rays of sunshine, Alice found a brooch, tiny stones of marcasite fashioned into a crescent moon with satellite stars. Her stubby fingers scrabbled to retrieve it from the corner of a broken paving slab. Standing in front of the hallway mirror, she pinned it to her old Fair Isle, twisting this way, that way, to catch the gleam, holding her breath. Jewellery had always been taboo. Mam had a pearl necklace; she’d shown it once to Alice. It lay in a box lined with peach-coloured satin that Mam took from the back of her clothes drawer and put back carefully, pressing her finger to her lips. Their secret. After Mam died, Alice searched for the box again, but it had gone.
At night, she sat the brooch carefully on her bedside table, next to her water glass and Bible. Lying still beneath worn candlewick, she waited to enter the shadowy pass between wakefulness and sleep, imagining she could hear the faint chimes of laughter, footsteps, the scrape of wood on concrete, night visitors stealing into her garden, bringing danger, decadence, and, above all, life.