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Narrator: Molly King
Yvonne's sure there's something wrong with her new landlord.
He insulates his apartment against the noise of the outside world, but it's the voices that bother him most, and only a special kind of insulation can give him peace from the ghosts in his head. But when his new tenant stumbles on the secret he's kept so well, he can't let her leave...
And she'd rather not stay.
The moving man said something. It sounded like, 'Where?', but it could have been anything. Yvonne could barely think, and it seemed making out simple words was beyond her. Every shift in her position, even the slightest change in the light lancing into the room or the angle at which it hit her watering eyes, a tiny noise, scrape, whisper...all she really understood at that moment was the white sheet of pain hitting her brain, something like a burning knife, sliding through from her right eye and on down toward the base of her skull...a serrated knife, something wicked and white hot, pushed in and allowed to sit a while, until the evil MIGRAINE decided to tug it a little, yank it out, slam it in. MIGRAINE was a sadist, a laughing maniac and an utter bastard.
Where what? Was that it? Was that what he was saying?
'Er...Miss? It's kind of heavy...'
Heavy...yes. And, where...
That made sense, in as much as she could drag up anything worthwhile from the flood of noise in her head.
‘The bedroom,’ said Yvonne. She tried to whisper, but it sounded like shout.
She sat on the couch. The couch was in the wrong place. It felt wrong, and that feeling disquieted her, too, like a moustache on a twelve-year old kid might.
The moving man said something else, but she couldn’t talk anymore. Gently, so gently, she shook her head. Perhaps she could have said something, made an effort to be polite, but she didn’t want to. She opened her eyes to see what the man was doing, but only for a second and then closed them immediately. It was midday and too damn bright. Summertime was always worse. The light, the sun. It set her off without fail.
Spots danced brightly in the middle of the room. Where her peripheral vision should be was only shadows. The mother of all migraines was coming on and it was a conga line, full of drunken fat feet, kicking the shit out of her brain.
Footsteps, impossibly loud, on the stairs. There was a bang, making her wince, from pain and dread.
If they smash up mother’s dresser I'll kill them.
Maybe tomorrow, though.
The movers scraped something on the way into the room. Something about the cadence of wood, scraping on painted walls, flakes of paint dust hitting the carpet, maybe.
She couldn’t hear all that, but it felt like she should.
‘What was that?’ she managed. To her, her voice sounded croaky, but impossibly loud. The effort of speech made her woozy, nausea rising right to the back of her throat.
‘What did you just break?’
‘Nothing...nothing broken. Just…a scratch.’
Thumping now, real thumping. Like a body thumping up the stairs, being dragged feet first, the head hitting the risers. Not the sound of furniture dragged up the stairs over carpet, but of the blood in her brain. Blackness crept from the edges of her vision to the centre. All too soon she’d be blind, maybe for the rest of the weekend.
‘Be careful, please. Please.’
‘Sure,’ said the man. Her eyes were closed. Something in his tone told her he thought she was nuts. She couldn't have cared less. Two hours of driving in the heat and the sun. The trees flashing by, the dappled light which made things worse. The dark glasses she usually wore hadn’t helped. When she set out in the early morning sun, already it slanted through the trees from the east, flickering at the edge of her vision for an hour, maybe. The visual companion to the clack clack of a train on the tracks, constantly battering her senses. After that, the motorway had been fine, but by then the damage was done. Her migraine was already on the way.
First day in her new house, a new start away from the bright city lights of London, and she’d be spending the rest of her day in bed with the curtains drawn and something heavy and dark over her eyes.
They put the bed up when she asked, and when they finished, she lay on it, a bucket to one side of her, her migraine pills her system, but too late to stop it growing.
She didn't have any covers or sheets on the bed, but she could always make it later. Maybe.
At four o’clock that morning, in the apartment downstairs, Simon smoked like a man in front of a firing squad. Always one more puff.
Time for one more?
Ah, go on, then. Just one more...
He smoked tip-to-tip, often burning his fingers when he got to the roach, or his lips, or both. His tobacco came from the local newsagents, his weed from a guy named Dave, who kept a samurai sword on his wall, or a guy named Paulo, who drove a Volvo and worked days at an insurance company.
Simon was sure it was the tobacco that was making his teeth turn an ugly yellowy-brown.
The weed cost a fair amount, but probably not as much as the tobacco, overall. His own fault for breaking down ready-rolled Marlboro Reds for the mix, rather than just getting rolling tobacco. But money wasn’t an issue anyway, other than being pissed off about the price of things.
Simon owned his apartment outright, thanks to his parents who died when he was nineteen. It turned out being an only child had nothing but upsides; when you kill your parents, you get all the money.
FUCKED YOUR ASS scrolled across the bottom of his computer screen. Stupid American. Probably some ten-year old dickhead not even old enough to bash one out in his mummy's silk knickers.
Simon didn’t get angry, though. He re-spawned, hid, ran, and eventually picked up a sniper rifle.
He held his joint between his index and middle finger. Used his ring finger to right-clicked his mouse, brought up the scope.
He waited for the little cunt to pop up, used his scroll wheel to zoom and left clicked for a sweet fucking headshot.
SHIT 4 BRAINS CAMP ON THAT.
He pulled off his headset and left the game and saw the time.
Four in the morning.
He smiled. His favourite time of day, this. The golden hour, when the whole block slept. Soon, the sun would rise. He couldn’t see the sun from his computer room, because he’d blocked up the window. He didn’t need to look out of the window to know the sky was getting lighter. He’d looked it up online.
At 5.05, like clockwork, David, the annoying guy from the apartment downstairs, would slam his front door. His car would start at 5.07, perhaps 5.08, if annoying guy walked a little slower than usual. Then his car would beep. Just twice, but enough. Enough so Simon hated him. What the fuck did he have to beep for? 5.08am, beep-fucking-beep.
But he couldn’t hear annoying guy from his sanctuary. Insulation. That was the trick.
Right on cue, the annoying guy's annoying car beeped and unlocked, unheard because Simon smoked until the last second possible. At 5.10am he went to bed and slept like a dream right up until midday when the new woman moved into the apartment right over Simon's head.
Then, something splintering. Whatever it was, it was loud in the bedroom. Simon pulled the covers over his head.
Shut up, thought Simon, fucking shut up.
He tossed back and forth for ten minutes, refusing to get up even with legs covered in sweat.
'Fucking cunt,' he said, but he wasn't angry, not really. Just...grumpy.
He sighed, figured fighting it any longer was pointlessly stubborn. Then he got up, his back cracking a little. Sniffing, a gentle morning cough, a hitch of his piss-stained pants;
Seven hours sleep...not bad. Pretty good, really...
He pulled on his combats, which were scratchy on his sweaty legs.
The bedroom wasn’t as well insulated as his game room. Two feet of insulation round the walls. A raised floor, newly laid over a foot of insulation he’d built up. A new oak door between the bedroom and the hall outside. It was getting there, but the ceiling wasn’t complete.
Maybe it's time to finish the ceiling.
He nodded to himself. It felt right. The room would be done, pretty much and then most of the noise outside wouldn't bother him any longer. Most, not all sound, though, because no matter how much insulation he had, somehow the voices still got through.
The migraine was one of the worst she ever had...but then, weren't they all?
Three days of hell left Yvonne wiped out by Monday when the last of the pain finally faded away. Her eyes still hurt, her head was tender, the muscles at the base of her skull sore to touch, even.
Something beeping outside, really early, woke her first. She’d dreamed that someone spoke to her. Some dark voice, and even though she didn’t often hear voices in dreams, these voices had felt...real. She couldn’t make out the words and had no sense of what was said. She decided when she woke that not knowing was just fine by her.
When most people dream, they dream in picture and motion. They have a sense of what was said, but they don’t actually have a sense of hearing in the dream. Similarly, it's uncommon to read in dreams, to dream in words, or for smells to linger...dreams are just thoughts, after all...they have little to do with the senses (though touch or sound may shove their way through from time to time...), but more to do with the memories and worries of the day, all played back to us on that deep television inside our heads.
Yvonne, too, dreamed in nothing but images, for the most part, yet this was different; it was just the noise, those voices, and some kind of blackness, like people speaking through a void. Voices without the pictures. Not a television in her head, this time, instead she seemed tuned into a radio in the dark.
She shook when she woke, but she didn’t know why after a few moments. The dream faded away, and soon after she fell asleep again and slept soundly until 10.30am, when hammering woke her. At first she thought she was being noisy, like when someone hammers on a neighbour’s wall to tell them to shut up, without having to risk some kind of fight by actually going round and asking them politely.
But I was asleep...I wasn't making any noise.
But it wasn’t hammering on the ceiling with a broom handle or the flat of a hand, was it? It was big hammering. A claw hammer, too, not a pin hammer. Thick nails into thick wood, rather than pins into plaster for a photo of a loved one or a dead pet.
Pretty much construction from the sound of it. And right below her bed. To her still tender ears it sounded as though someone was trying to get at her through the floorboards.
It took Yvonne a while to get going most mornings. She wasn’t a morning person. But then, she worked from home, so it didn’t really matter what time she got up, as long as she got her three chapters written sometime during the day, and whatever else needed doing. Sometimes she would field queries from her agent, or she might get sucked into doing an interview for a magazine. What’s it like to be a writer? How did you get started? When did you know you could write?
She wrote romantic mysteries, but there really wasn’t any mystery about her writing. She stuck with pretty much the same plot, with interchangeable characters, over and over again. There wasn’t much skill to it, other than disguising that what she did was work, pure and simple. It wasn’t quite the same as just finding and replacing names in her word processing program. It wasn’t far off, though.
She pulled on a dressing gown and padded down her hall to the front door. It wasn’t a big apartment, but it was a beautiful old Georgian conversion on the Brighton sea front. She could sit in her living room and watch the sea and the people go by with a cup of tea if she wanted to, though that wasn’t why she chose the apartment. Looking into the sun all day in the middle of summer wouldn’t do her any good at all.
She had to crouch down to check her hair and face in the mirror in the hall. She didn’t have much choice until she got round to hanging the mirror from the wall.
I look like crap, she decided.
The black bags under her eyes she could do something about easily enough - she put her sunglasses on and things seemed a little better.
There wasn’t much she could do about the rest of her face, save a couple of hours showering and making up and maybe even another three or four hours dead sleep. But the hammering hadn’t stopped, and from the rhythm of the hammer beating on iron and wood it didn't seem the wielder was going to tire anytime soon.
Yvonne straightened her back and tried to look half-way awake and human. Then, sighing, she undid the three locks on her front door and stepped out. The hall outside her door was one of the reasons she’d decided on the apartment. It was well-kept - a sign of a good apartment block. Good carpets, well-maintained, a tidy, recent paint job.
It should be, too, she thought, with the obscene amount she’d paid for a 75-year leasehold.
And you don't pay that amount of money to put up with some inconsiderate arse hammering on their ceiling right beside your head.
She nodded to herself outside whoever's door it was. She knew she was in the right as she knocked waited in the hall, feeling like shit and knowing she looked it and just as certain she had the right of that, too.