By Mark Towse
As I reach for the towel, the phone’s loud and unwelcome tone rings from somewhere in the house—thankfully, it’s only allowed to ring twice. But suddenly, I am distracted by a different noise: sobbing coming from next door’s garden. It’s Tom.
Our elevated single storey block provides exceptional views of the bay, but it also means we are privy to the neighbour’s goings-on. The bathroom window looks directly into their backyard, and it’s like a portal into a reality show, but without the pretence for the cameras—a suburban opera of laughter, screaming, shouting, and crying. Nobody stays, and when the final curtain falls and the house goes back on the market, Liz and I are never surprised. There have been bad times, but this has been our home for thirty years now. We have raised two children in this house.
Carefully stepping back behind the peeling frame of the sash window, I lean close to the open window and try and decipher his morose mumblings, but through the tears and croaking, any lucidity is lost. Carefully, I stretch my neck just enough to be able to see him sitting on the white stone seat that he and Susan frequently share throughout the warm summer evenings. But it’s October now—the air has a bite, and he must be cold in that T-shirt. It also occurs to me that I’ve never seen Tom sitting on that seat by himself.
Many people have lived at number seventy-two, but they never stayed long. I feel silly saying this, but I believe the house is evil, that something menacing lives there too, and it’s like a mould spreading its spores—everyone that inhales it seems to turn bad. Too many strange things have occurred—an abnormal number of dead pets, too many heart attacks, depression, drugs, divorce, and the list goes on.
Tom gets up and moves out of my line of sight. Only flashes of his white T-shirt are now visible through the sprawling bushes that leak over our side of the fence. But when I hear the raucous sound of metal on concrete, I guess that he has just picked up the spade—the one I saw him using yesterday to prepare the vegetable patch. They have been talking about growing their own vegetables for the last couple of years—yesterday he shouted across the driveway that he was finally ready. And he winked.
Even the friendliest people seem to self-destruct in that house. Take the last couple, Tony and Melissa, for example. We even got an invite to the wedding. Their positivity was infectious, in the beginning, anyway, but then the arguments started—the usual stuff. Old material that Liz and I have covered many times before—finances, kids, work and life balance, and so on. But then the accusations came, and through the open bathroom window we heard it all—the screaming and the shouting, the worst names under the sun being bellowed, windows smashed, doors slammed, plates thrown and the tears—so many tears. I saw Melissa the day before she stabbed him, walking around the garden—cigarette held in a shaky hand—face swollen, an eye almost shut. I am pleased to say the wedding never happened, but sad they became another casualty of that house.
We loved Tom and Susan immediately and have spent many drunken nights in each other’s company. It’s the longest anyone has stayed in that house, and we feel honoured to have such beautiful people in our lives. Susan and Liz are like sisters and even started their own book club.
I can still hear him talking to himself but can’t make out what he is saying. And then he walks over to the fence line and disappears—seconds later I see him walking back to the patch of overturned soil carrying four plants. The chatter is becoming more urgent, as though he is spitting words out.
I move my head as close to the window as possible without giving myself away, and this time, when he returns to the fence line, he begins to sob. And I can finally understand what he is saying—one word repeated over and over: sorry.
Suddenly, I feel quite sick, almost lightheaded. It’s that bad feeling again, something I haven’t experienced since Tom and Susan moved in. I tell myself that it’s probably nothing, but this isn’t like Tom—not one bit. I hear him sniff and blow his nose, and then he is off again with more plants in hand. He stops then and looks down at the dark soil—I can no longer hear him, but I can still see him mouthing the word sorry repeatedly.
I shuffle away from the window and poke my head down the hallway. “Liz!” I hiss.
And then I hear him grunting, and it sounds as though he is lifting something heavy. I tiptoe hastily back to the window and see Tom coming back into view—he is pulling something along. I hold my breath, afraid to give away my presence, and watch as the body-shaped bundle wrapped in bin liners and tied with rope is dragged next to the vegetable patch.
My heart begins to thump, and the nauseous feeling returns, but I can’t take my eyes away as I watch Tom pick up the spade. But suddenly he looks directly into our bathroom window, and I immediately drop to the floor.
Three years of festering malevolence.
I stay silent, frozen to the ground.
I’m not sure if he saw me but daren’t look back just in case. I crawl away on all fours into the hallway. “Liz!” I hiss again.
And suddenly there is a frantic knock at the door.
“Brian!” Susan’s voice explodes down the corridor. Behind her, I can see the silhouette of Tom with the spade.
I see the note on the kitchen table then. Liz’s handwriting:
Gone next door to get a book from Susan. Back soon x