Fiction from Luke Brown.
It was eight weeks in when Lauren saw the builder working on the roof outside her bedroom. She hadn’t sat down with a friend or been touched by anyone for all of that time and in the nights she had started to shake with a feeling that seemed separate to her, her mind watching her body process all the events she had postponed thinking about when there was life to at least observe in offices and galleries and cinemas and pubs.
This feeling seemed then to belong to another character, a heroine, she imagined, in a French film. But it was hers. She was on this floor, observing herself on this floor. The sense that she was more witnessing this feeling than experiencing it must have been her way of managing its madness, of repurposing it as though it might be useful, though she worried it was harming her in ways that were permanent, just as permanent pain might begin to feel normal, manageable, seen through a screen of drugs or reduced expectations of pleasure. In the days the sun blazed down on the no fun anyone was having. The mind rebelled. The body–
The builder had dark hair and tanned arms and a dirty white T-shirt. Outside her bedroom window there was a roof you could climb out on to, with a wooden table and two chairs where she had used to eat dinner with Jack when they were still speaking. When she first saw the builder she was lying on her bed, on a new white bedspread with embroidered flowers, reading a novel, appearing like a vision of an angel, or rather a princess, locked in a tower, waiting to be rescued. That’s how she saw him see her. Which wasn’t not a hot thought. He waved. She waved back. She took a picture when he wasn’t looking and sent it to Reema.
Hot builder alert.
He just waved at me.
He looked up again and smiled at her. He had a dark complexion, with a black beard and thick hair swept back from his face. He looked Mediterranean, or maybe Argentine, a Latin hipster builder – there was enough there to imagine the start of a romantic or at least erotic story.
Hot, wrote back Reema. How are you looking?
She was still getting dressed every day as though Jack might pop round. What else was there to do? When she looked at herself in the long mirrors facing her bed she liked to think he would suffer if he could see her. Today she was wearing a cute blue dress cut low at the sides so you could see her bra there if she was lying down and holding her novel above her head, which: she was. The only clothes she owned that weren’t designed to make an effect were those she wore for yoga and running, and it would be a surrender to wear–
She lay there for a while reading, listening to him sawing and drilling, feeling his eyes on her skin. She lifted her knees and let her dress slide down her thighs. She took out her nail varnish and painted her toenails pale blue.
When she next looked up he was staring over at her. She smiled and he smiled back. She carried on painting her nails. She felt powerful, vengeful, free.
When she had finished she looked up and held his gaze. He made a sign of writing in the air like he wanted the bill. She laughed and hid behind her book. She texted Reema. He’s just asked for my number!
Are you going to give it to him?
Well, it’s up to you. Does he look dangerous?
I don’t know. He’s a builder.
I see. Class snobbery.
Which settled it. Her parents had worried when she went to university; with her gifts she could have made a good estate agent. She was not a snob.
He was stooped to whatever he was doing to the rooftop. She put the book down, ripped out a piece of paper from her notebook and wrote on it.
To get through the window she sat on the sill and swung her legs over one at a time. She made sure he wasn’t watching her while she did that, but he looked up and saw her as she came to the fence between the rooftops, watching her bottom half as she walked towards him. He was not as handsome close up. He had a look of fearful and excited hunger, like he had stolen something and needed to hide somewhere so he could examine it.
She decided not to give him the number.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘My name is Badil.’
‘Hi Badil,’ she said. ‘I’m Lauren.’
He held out his hand. And she watched herself give him the note with her name and number written down in her neat handwriting. With the little heart she’d drawn next to it, like a teenager.
‘I better get back to work,’ she said. Up close, she didn’t like him.
‘I will call,’ he said.
She turned and left. At the windowsill, she turned and looked round. He was staring straight at her, waiting for her to hitch her leg over the sill. She looked back, hoping he would turn away. He didn’t turn away. She climbed back in and closed the window. Locked it and moved to her living room on the other side of the building to work.
He had been Kurdish, she thought now. She had met Kurdish men when she lived in Turkey. She knew that you couldn’t generalise about millions of people from one example. But she had not been lucky with that one Kurdish man. She had got away. Made light of it. That was one of the things her body had been processing recently, she supposed, when she lay there at night, watching herself grieving something she didn’t fully understand.
Badil had WhatsApped her at seven that evening. I love you, my dear.
Thank you, but I shouldn’t have given you my number. I was feeling lonely for a minute, but I’m not looking to get involved with anyone.
I would look after you very good. You are beautiful. I love you. I have to be with you.
Thank you. That’s very kind. But I’m really not interested. Sorry!
The messages continued till midnight. She ignored them but then sent one more.
I’m really not interested. Sorry. I’m going to block your number now.
She blocked him. She hadn’t been in her bedroom since she had climbed back into the window and locked it behind her, but now she went in and looked out into the darkness. The rooftops were empty. She pulled her blind down and tried to sleep. She wanted to tell someone who lived nearby. A friend to tell her that there was nothing to worry about, but then she’d have to admit to giving a workman on a roof her number before she’d even had a conversation with him. The man she wanted to tell about this was only two miles away down the road, sleeping, she imagined, beside his wife, their daughter asleep in the bedroom he had decorated for her at Christmas, the last time that Lauren had been losing her mind.
She thought about painting her toes in front of the builder.
She would never tell anyone about that.
She had blocked the builder on WhatsApp but not on her phone and, intrepid, he began to send her text messages.
I can not live without you.
I would make you so happy. I love you.
I will die if you do not love me.
He began to call her phone late at night. She didn’t answer. She thought about blocking the number but she knew that it wouldn’t help her peace of mind as much as if she knew for sure he had stopped trying to call her.
He didn’t stop.
One evening she was reading in her bed and she looked up to see him there, on the roof where he worked, looking at her, his face impassive. She screamed, she did scream, and shut the blind. For the next week it stayed shut. There was such brightness suggested behind it. He kept ringing. Once, when he was texting her, she looked out of her front window to see the glow from a phone inside a doorway. She did not look long enough to know it was him but shut the blinds again. Then she went on Amazon and bought a defence spray and an aluminium baseball bat. And then, finally, when she had run out of things to make her feel like she was acting in control of the situation, she wrote an email to Jack. He had always said if she ever needed him then he would come immediately. She checked her emails again in an hour but there was nothing. She imagined him asleep with his wife. She wrote back to let him know she was just being silly, that there was no ‘mini-stalker’, as she had described it.
She stayed awake all night, imagining a knock on the window, then the glass shattering, and him coming through, and in the morning, while she was dozing, her phone rang. It was Jack.
She could hear birds in the background, the sound of children, geese honking. The wholesome sounds of the park. He would be pushing his daughter around in the buggy, a daughter she would never lay eyes upon.
‘What’s happening?’ he asked. ‘Are you OK?’
‘Honestly it’s nothing.’
‘It’s not nothing. You said you were scared. What is it?’
She took a while to tell him. She didn’t mention painting her toenails.
He sounded like he was about to cry at the end of the story. ‘You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,’ he was saying. Adding, ‘I love it that you gave him your number.’
‘Not that you gave him your number but that you inhabit a world where you might make a connection with a man you meet on a roof. Why shouldn’t you make a connection with a man you meet on the roof?’
‘I can give you one very good example.’
He kept on about how there was nothing to be ashamed of, and she believed he believed that. She felt him romanticising her. The liberated temptress, the noble slut.
This was part of what might have made him a good man. That proximity to goodness that made him so awful. He liked people, believed they should be free and forgiven. He made friends wherever he went. I’m so glad to have met this wonderful new friend, he kept telling her, before they started to sleep with each other. He was good fun. He was bad news. She would have liked him to be more angry with her.
‘You’re not living in the Victorian age,’ he was saying. ‘And you really really have to ring the police.’
She called the police afterwards. A blunt woman asked her questions. Have you had sex with him? No. But there was no telling off. She was given a number to quote when she rang 999, if she was in danger. She did not mention to the policewoman that she had painted her toenails in front of him.
Afterwards she forced herself to open the blinds of her bedroom. She had made her room into such a pleasing space, with her new wardrobe and pictures on the wall. It was a light, calm room. She lay down and looked out at the bright blue sky, the sun adazzle in the shiny silver cross of the Baptist church overlooking her. There was no one outside. It was only May. This weather would last forever.
The lads who ran the Turkish supermarket were being lairy. A man coughed in the queue. ‘One cough warning, mate,’ the lad behind the till said sternly, waggling his finger. ‘Two coughs and you’re out.’
‘Hello darling,’ he said, when it was her turn. ‘Everything all right?’
She thought about telling him. Maybe he’d round up his friends and sort out the problem. Maybe he’d be delighted to.
‘All good,’ she said. ‘Pack of Camel Blue, please.’
After their last separation, he had told her that in moments of desperation he had ridden his bike past to see if she was there looking out of her window.
‘Does that help?’ she’d asked.
‘No,’ he’d said, and sighed. ‘No, it really doesn’t.’
Now she looked out and waved. Oh Christ, she thought. It starts again.
She walked down the stairs to let him in. He had told her before that he was always treated to a tremendous view of her legs when she came down in one of her miniskirts. That’s what she had become, a gifter of tremendous views of her legs, to the stalker out the back and the original stalker out the front. She watched him swallow the appreciative remark he would have made in the past.
‘Why are you here?’
‘I wanted to check you’re all right.’
‘That’s sweet of you.’
‘Do you want to get a coffee?’ he asked, looking back at the high street. ‘Can you get a coffee here?’
‘You can. It’s not just chicken shops.’
‘Chicken or coffee, which would you choose if there was only one?’
‘I have coffee upstairs. No chicken though.’
‘I didn’t want to assume you’d want to let me in.’
He followed her up the stairs. She didn’t hurry.
They sat on the sofa, drinking the coffee, vibrating. He had asked her to show her where the man had been and so she’d led him into her clean white room, watched him look at the bed.
‘He must have thought this place was heaven,’ he said.
He looked back to the mirrored wardrobe. They both looked at it, at these two grinning people with home-cut fringes and bare ankles.
‘We look cute,’ she said.
‘You do,’ he said. ‘I look lucky.’
Back on the sofa she leaned and put her head on him. ‘I haven’t hugged anyone in weeks,’ she said, and they clung on to each other until there was a hard knock on the door.
She jumped up. ‘No one ever knocks the door. How’s someone got in here?’
He walked over to the kitchen area, opened a drawer and looked in, then shut it.
‘Who is it?’ he called at the door.
The knocks came again, louder. ‘Police. I’m looking for Lauren. Who’s that? I thought she lived here alone.’
For a couple of seconds they just looked at each other, as if working together silently on their story, a plausible angle to justify them being together now or ever.
‘It’s OK,’ she shouted. ‘I’m here.’
Before the policeman left he had said to her, looking at Jack, ‘Will he be staying here tonight?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘He’s just a friend.’
Meaning the new stalker, she understood, though he hadn’t seemed to warm to Jack much, maybe because he was breaking the rules by being there but more likely because he was trying too hard to be charming, thanking him too much, telling him what good work he did, coming on like one of the overconfident murderers on Columbo.
They watched him walking away down the high street from the window.
‘Do you think they came round because they recognised the stalker’s number?’ she suddenly thought out loud. ‘And they know he’s dangerous?’
‘No. They’d have said. Wouldn’t they?’
And he ran down the stairs and into the street after him. She wondered if she should quickly shave her bikini line and then hated herself.
When he came back, he shook his head. ‘No, nothing like that. I could tell he was telling the truth. He seemed to think I was a bit strange.’
‘You are a bit strange.’
‘Then that’s a good sign. A perceptive policemen on the case.’
He looked around awkwardly.
‘You probably need to go?’ she said.
‘I don’t have to go unless you want me to.’
‘You can stay.’
‘In which case I need a drink. I need ten drinks.’
Jack was in the bathroom when she looked outside and saw the builder again. He was looking at her, his face still and not revealing anything. He didn’t smile. She rolled down the bed, out of his sightline. She put her dressing gown on and returned to the window. She had left the sash window slightly open and they had been making a lot of noise. He had probably heard them. He might even have seen them.
She pulled up the window and shouted. ‘What are you doing here? Why are you looking at me?’
‘What’s wrong?’ said Jack, behind her. She turned to look at him, his outraged face, his T-shirt and socks. Her absurd hero.
The man outside didn’t say anything, but he shook his head and turned round. Jack was pulling on his jeans. ‘It’s him, isn’t it? Where are my trainers?’
Jack found his shoes and ran out of the front door.
‘I couldn’t find him,’ he said, after he she had let him in. ‘Oh, you’re crying,’ he said, like he had said so many times before.
‘He was watching us, he was listening to me.’
‘Let’s ring the police,’ he said.
‘What would I tell them? You know what we just did was illegal?’
‘That’s just . . . frowned upon. We don’t need to tell them that, anyway.’
‘That’s how you always like it. Tell some of the story but not the whole truth. There was a reason I stopped talking to you.’
‘You’re always sorry.’
‘I know you’re sorry. I’m sorry! The only person who isn’t sorry is that fucking pervert out the window who’s probably sharpening a knife to murder the pair of us.’
‘We have to ring the police.’
‘I don’t want to. I refuse to. I want you to stay and look after me, just for tonight. Like you said you would.’
‘OK,’ he said after a pause and with a sigh of resignation that gave her a burst of hope. ‘I will, I promise.’
He went outside to call his wife, said he was going to pick up some more cigarettes along the way. She was glad she didn’t have to listen to him lie to her.
‘I’ll just be a little bit,’ he said. ‘Then I can come back.’
But he didn’t come back.
She texted him after an hour but he didn’t answer. She had never been in the habit of calling his phone – what a considerate idiot she was, protecting him and his wife from her existence. She tried calling him this time but it just rang out.
The street was quieter than she would have liked it. But one of the Turkish lads was smoking outside the shop. She wandered over.
‘You haven’t seen my friend, have you? That man I come in with sometimes. He went out to buy cigarettes and didn’t come back.’
‘Foolish of him,’ he said, grinning.
‘I agree. Do you remember him coming in?’
‘Maybe. Beardy guy? Glasses?’
‘A lot of them round here though.’
‘Too many in the world full stop.’
‘Innit. Sorry, love, I don’t know.’
She walked to the end of the high street and peered round the corner. It was a quieter road here, the church facing the repair garage under the night’s pale purple light. There were shadows she imagined taking shape and moving towards her. But she took a deep breath and walked forwards.
He was on the pavement, unconscious, lying next to a bin in a way passers-by who noticed him might have attributed to booze or smack. Or simply thought someone else would deal with the problem. Or perhaps no one had passed him. Perhaps it had only just happened. He was bleeding from a gash above one eye. He was still breathing but he wouldn’t wake up.
After she had called an ambulance and answered all their questions she called his best friend and asked him to tell Jack’s wife what had happened. Then she sat down and stroked his back. It would not be long until the paramedics got there, and then they would take him away from her. She had broken something that wasn’t hers to break and she knew now that she would never get to borrow him again.
‘Was he at yours?’ Sophie, the wife, asked her. If she was angry, it was submerged beneath weariness. They were standing outside the hospital smoking cigarettes together. Sophie’s sister had come over to look after her daughter. They were doing something to Jack inside. They had to wait for news. It would be at least half an hour. They’d been told they had time to get a coffee. Sophie had asked Lauren if she had any cigarettes and they had gone out together onto the high street.
‘Yes. He’d just got there. He was going out.’
‘Why was he there?’
She told the story of the stalker. The basic outline, not the details.
‘And that’s who’s done this to him? Well done for telling him then.’
‘I tried to tell him it was nothing. I told him not to come when he called me.’
‘ I said I was being silly.’
‘Yeah, well. You weren’t. Who is this fucking psycho and what did you do to him—’
‘Oh, don’t go. Give me a break. Allow me to be a bit fucking bitter. You get to fuck my husband, I get to be a bit sarcastic. Surely you can cope with that.’
It was an awful relief to hear it said out loud.
Sophie looked at her and shook her head. ‘Oh, don’t look like that. Of course I knew. I’ve known ever since that time he introduced me to you at that party a year ago. It took me till that evening to work it out, but as soon as I realised . . . everything that hadn’t been making sense made sense. He told me this afternoon he was going for a bike friend with his friend: his friend who was the best man at our wedding, the one who called to tell me he’d been attacked and who knew nothing about any bike ride. And you’re still fucking him?’
‘I hadn’t seen him in months.’
‘So that’s what he’s been so depressed about.’
‘I think you might like me to go.’
‘No., Stay. I might need another cigarette.’
A stream of cars made their way past them to wherever the people were going that wasn’t the shops and the pubs and the cinemas and the other shuttered places.
‘Why aren’t you shouting at me?’ asked Lauren.
‘You two are welcome to live in a soap opera but I want to live in the—’ She threw her fag down and looked up at the sign for Accident and Emergency. ‘Who am I kidding?’
‘I can’t see what good shouting at you would do.’
It was a terribly grown-up response. Lauren was overawed by it. She expected that she would have acted differently, more dramatically, childishly.
They agreed after a while that Jack was an idiot.
‘Yes, he really has been an idiot,’ said Sophie. ‘I don’t mean that as aggressively as it sounds. What are you going to do about this stalker? Whatever I might think of you, this man isn’t your fault.’
‘I flirted with him.’
‘And that’s an excuse to terrorise you and put Jack in hospital?’
She had painted her toenails a pale, clean blue, like a baby boy’s room.
‘We don’t know for certain it was him.’
‘Who else was it then? And what was going to happen?’ asked Sophie. ‘Have you and Jack made some sort of plan to get together?’
‘We hadn’t spoken for months. But what’s your plan been, if you knew all this time?’
‘I tried not to think about it. Christ, there are enough things to think about already. My plan now is to tell him to get together with you if that’s what he wants and leave me to start again, or, if that’s not what he wants to say goodbye to you for good and grovel for my forgiveness.’
‘Right,’ said Lauren.
‘Is that all you’ve got to say?’
‘If I were you I couldn’t forgive him.’
‘Spare me. You’re nothing like me. Have you got another one?’ After Lauren had lit it for her, Sophie asked, ‘And what do you think he’ll choose?’
‘I think he’ll choose you or try not to choose at all.’
‘I worry he won’t choose either.’
‘He has to. Doesn’t he?’ asked Lauren.
‘He hasn’t so far.’
But that was too painful. To acknowledge out loud that he might still want them both: that he had not stuck with Sophie out of loyalty but out of love, nor had he used Lauren unscrupulously for sex, for a set on which to dramatise a crisis of manhood he would have sought whether Lauren had existed or not. That he had decided to believe in something impossible. And that he was still trying to, and would carry on trying to, and never make the decision he needed to make to be with her.
‘He told me you used to have other men too,’ she said to Sophie.
‘Did he? Oh, that’s perfect.’
‘I’m not saying this to make a point; just to tell you why it didn’t seem so morally awful to me at first, after which . . . I was sort of, we were sort of—’
‘Of course he would say that to you, would use that. Of course he would. Well, yes, we weren’t entirely faithful. Though there was nothing like this. I don’t have the imagination to come up with something like this. And, oh! He probably says something like that when he’s with you. My wife lacks imagination. Can I fuck you up the arse? My wife lacks imagination.’
‘Give me a cigarette.’
She handed over the cigarette. She nearly said, ‘He didn’t fuck me up the arse,’ but instead she said,
‘I was painting my toenails.’
‘That’s why it happened. I was painting them when he was watching me through the window. The pyscho. If he is a psycho. I was painting them because he was watching me through the window. It’s what gave him the wrong idea.’
‘Or the right idea.’
‘Yeah. Or the right one.’
Sophie started to laugh. Lauren waited for the laughter to harden at the edges into a harangue but when it didn’t she started to laugh too.
She could never have imagined sitting here smoking with his wife. He had imagined this, into its reality, had put her in conflict with an opponent who should not have been an opponent. He had imagined this situation by refusing to imagine what it would be like for all of them, or by imagining it only when it could not be otherwise, swimming in their pain and his sympathy for it. He had imagined all of this. He should be ashamed, she thought, but then she knew he was ashamed. I am ashamed. He had been waiting for someone like the man she had dreamed up on to her roof to attack him, waiting for the builder, waiting for her to go mad with loneliness and set him on his path. Everything was how he had made her dream it for him.
She looked at his wife, smoking.
Go on, he would be thinking in his dream inside the building, stretched out in his bed as if he were powerless and defeated, an object of sympathy. Go on then. Make my choice for me. What are you waiting for?
She was waiting for his wife to finish her cigarette and come to the point, to begin to tell her off like she had expected her to.
Sophie looked down at Lauren’s feet, in their sandals.
‘That’s a nice shade, actually.’
‘What is that?’
‘Just Rimmel. It’s the Rita Ora range.’
‘Oh. I didn’t know she had a . . . range.’
‘Yeah. Hang on, it might be in my bag.’
Inside, he was dreaming. The cars came past the women, heading to the nowhere that was open. An Uber driver waiting to pick up a couple with their new baby looked at the two women standing by the entrance and wondered. They were smoking cigarettes and one of them was holding out what looked like a little bottle for the other to look at. She took it, examined it, and nodded. Then she handed the bottle back. They looked at each other without speaking for a few seconds. Then one of their phones rang and they went back in.
The pubs had reopened and now they were about to shut again. She hadn’t spoken to Jack in six months and might never again, she supposed, though she was not yet at the point where she entirely hoped that she would never again, in spite of the new boy who was keeping her occupied. There wasn’t the same chemistry as with Jack, but whenever was there the same thing with anyone new? If Jack had come after Patrick she might be saying that there wasn’t the same chemistry with him. This was twisting the truth. But she was glad to have this new boy, someone she would be able to watch films with on the nights where there was nowhere to go, to smoke joints with on her couch and get fucked by with puppyish energy and imagine sometimes that she was doing it to turn Jack on, with his permission, that it was one of those fantasies they had breathed into each other’s ears at night.
She was buying garlic and chilli and cigarettes in the Turkish supermarket. Patrick was coming over later.
‘Two chillies? Don’t you like it spicy?’
‘That is spicy!’ she said.
‘Girl. You don’t know what spicy means.’
So many possible answers she felt at the tip of her tongue, but she just smiled, maybe winked a little bit, or perhaps had only imagined winking as she left the supermarket and looked up across the road at her living room window. Her lamp cast a pattern on the wall and when she lit candles the room would be filled with soft light perfect for company. She wondered if he would still ride past her flat from time to time, and what he would think if he looked up now, what he would be looking for, in this street two miles from his wife and daughter. Light shining through a frame. Voices, a figure, two. The curtains closing. Someone glimpsed, someone that was her or himself or no one.