Jul 1 2011

Featured Fiction Writer: July 2011 Vol. 3 # 3

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Chris Castle

Chris Castle


Chris Castle is English, but he works as a teacher in Greece. Castle has been featured in various end of year and Best Of anthologies that include Absent Willow, Freedom Fiction Journal, and The Toucan. You can reach him at this email address







The old lady across the street died without any fanfare. The postman finally reported the smell and we all gathered in small flocks when the ambulance came to take her away. One teenage kid shouted ‘Ambo’ like he was in the ghetto, and immediately his friends jeered him into blushing defeat. I watched from my bedroom window, adjacent the old girl’s. I searched my mind trying to think if I’d ever seen her—getting ready for her day, or reading by a bedside lamp—but I couldn’t recall a single thing. The ambulance pulled out into the street and it was over. The ghetto kid started a fist fight with one of the gang and the crowds gave them their attention as they threw awkward, girlish punches.

The house was neglected for a while. No relatives appeared and no yellow police tape was drawn around the timid looking lawn. I’d started working from home and spent at least an hour a day looking out the window. Initially, it was to try to catch a woman dressing or in some state of undress, but that fizzled quickly, and instead I set my schedule by the patterns of the strangers living on my street. Gone were the days of community; we were all determined strangers on this block and oddly proud of the fact. Twenty-first century living demanded we knew each other by sight and suspicion only.

I was pretty sure no one even knew the old woman by name, or by one or two pointless scraps of knowledge. My own was that she still had milk delivered to her door. I liked that about her, the fact that she held onto old routines, things of quality, like drinking fresh milk out of clear glass bottles. I suggested it to Marie one night, hoping she might fall into the same flight of fancy I was feeling about the whole thing. She told me how much it cost to get milk delivered and told me to get my head out of my ass.

Marie says things like that with a smile on her face. She’s cheerfully cynical in a way that makes her incapable of being truly spiteful. I met her a year after my last girlfriend, Natalie, left. The circumstances were peculiar as they were vivid. On the day of our regular Saturday night meet-up she bombarded me with text messages about bringing the paperwork concerning her car’s tax disc. I remember immediately feeling that something was rotten, and a cool, clear realization that she was going to dump me poured through and pooled in my stomach. It was the oddest sensation, knowing something devastating was going to happen, and simply killing time until being proven right. I even spent the afternoon drinking with my housemate, joking about it. Two hours later, I met back up with him, cradling a bottle of vodka and looking for a shoulder to cry on.

Natalie wanted to go out with a bad boy, someone who would treat her poorly; my money was on a bouncer or a smooth talking businessman, anything that was the polar opposite of a teacher-sap like me. I harboured fantasies of her meeting with someone who slapped her around, but then realized that that was probably what she was after. It was a confusing type of bitterness; I couldn’t get the pieces to fit. In the end, I thought about her for a month and then felt nothing at all.

And then came Marie. We were in love, and like any couple in love, we’d fallen into a rut. It’s a funny thing about sex—you spend most of your free time when you’re single thinking about it and then when you actually hit the Holy Grail it becomes just another compartment of your life. Thinking that way, I wasn’t sure if it made me less of a man or too much of one. Marie, too, blew hot and cold. She would scorch the sheets on weekends and then go days, even weeks, stricken and tense, as if on the verge of being told some ominous test result. But it wasn’t just the sex. It was our lives, our friends, and the fact that we lived in the days and ages that we did; we were lucky enough to be too self-absorbed to realize a lot of the world around us was totally screwed.

It was in this type of mindset that I hatched the plan, and before I even had the chance to second-guess it was already picking the lock of the old lady’s door and stepping into her house. At first I rushed round, not taking any of it in. I forced myself to steady, to take a deep breath. I retraced my steps back to the front door and made myself walk slowly. The house didn’t smell of death, but it didn’t smell the way a house did when people bustled around it. Instead, it almost crackled with emptiness, like it was in a state of limbo that kept the air from growing stale.

I felt my phone going and smiled as I picked it up. I even said something before answering. My voice filled the edges of the room and played back to me in tiny echoes. It didn’t sound like myself and I was saddened at how good that made me feel. I let it ring up to the ninth bell—I knew Marie went as far as ten before putting down—and then answered it. By then I was standing near the bedroom window looking back at our rented house, wondering where she could be. My bet was on the kitchen, until I saw her strobe by our bedroom window.

“Look out the window,” I said, trying to keep the joy from my voice. At first she looked out to the street and I saw her face moving; imagined her frowning. I was too far away to see any of the details. “Look over to the house opposite, the bedroom.”

I watched as she looked over and grinned at her. Her hands did two things: her left dropped the phone, and the right covered her mouth. I waved to her and instinctively she waved back before catching herself and pulling the phone back to her ear.

“Kale, what the hell?” she said, her voice somewhere between shock and anger. I stopped waving and put my hand to the glass hoping she would do the same, that we could make the moment beautiful somehow in a really simple way. But instead she kept on talking until I had to calm her down.

Over the following month, I went back to the house once, sometimes twice, a week. It started out as sexual—Marie and I took turns flashing and exposing ourselves, giggling the way lovers do when they’re on the verge of discovering something new. But it sometimes got to be too much and I would remember I was standing in the house of a dead woman, the feeling quickly replaced by a reluctant kind of shame. Some nights it led to a passionate lovemaking like how it used to be, and other times it led us to lie too far apart in the bed we shared, aware, looking at each other from a distance. I wondered if I would look at Marie as a stranger and feel the same hunger as I did when we first went together and worried I wouldn’t. I knew that if I was thinking this, Marie had thought about it, too. Still, our silences hung over us, neither of us wanting to break the fragile life we had together.

It changed after the initial fortnight. Instead of me telling her I was going, I rushed through the evening’s business in order to spend some illicit time in the house without Marie knowing. Sometimes I caught her looking over to the place, searching for me, but I was too well buried in the shadows for her see. The shift from being her lover to her peeping tom left me feeling used and cratered. All the sexual feeling had gone out of it for me by then and instead I was thinking about our life and the things we did together. Once, I dozed and when I came to, I couldn’t place where I was. I should have been scared, disorientated, but instead I felt a peaceful kind of relief I hadn’t felt since I was young.

What had the old lady thought, watching us? She must have done it on some level—we weren’t careful with curtains and happenstance dictates that at some point you chance upon your neighbors—it’s simply a case of whether you choose to stare or look away. After a while, I wondered how her own life must have been reflected in ours, if she had been married and lived like the two of us or if she’d always been alone, either by choice or fate. Now that she was no longer around, I found myself missing her. Now that she was gone, I wanted to know about her life. Sure, I could have hustled up some records or some such, but that would have been vague and incomplete. I hungered for her voice—the way she held her coffee cup at night.

One evening, Marie stayed at her friend Chloe’s house and I spent the night at the old lady’s. I’d almost found out her name by then but stopped at the last minute, feeling an irrational fear I can’t explain. I brought along my sleeping bag and a full thermos. The day before, Marie and I had had an almighty argument, only our second, and the timing with Chloe was either spot-on or devastatingly bad. I didn’t think she would get hammered and sleep with a stranger, but if she did, I don’t know if I would have blamed her all that much.

I’m not good at fury. I’m either placid or a coward; the jury’s still out. In my classes I avoid confrontation because I think shouting at a kid is something like defeat. Once, a year after my father died, my next-door neighbor complained over his fence about our overgrown tree and the fallout had made my mother cry. I wasn’t sure of the words, but the guy had somehow inferred my dad was either very good at working or very lazy, but by-the-by it wasn’t right. I had seen my ma trying to talk herself out of crying but not quite managing it, so I grabbed my jacket and stormed out after him.

Bristling, I slammed on the door and was greeted by a harmless middle aged woman whom I knew my mum was friends with—I had chosen the wrong door. Feeling the heat leaving me, I went to the next one, and damned if the fat asshole didn’t keep his wheelchair bound wife between us as we spoke. I said my piece, my words and face bubbling, and waited. I didn’t know if it was fear or rage inside me, but I stood my ground. In between bites of his sandwich he threatened to kick my ass and instructed me get off his property without any trouble. Flustered and vaguely unaware of what to do, I stormed off feeling like I had said my piece and done nothing at all. Ever since then I’ve wondered if true rage was in me or not. So when Marie shouted, I relented, and a day later found myself in a sleeping bag thinking about my fat ex-neighbor.

Outside, a couple screamed in the street and I checked my watch: it was three a.m. and seemed like the right time for arguments to be dealt with; thick with booze and drugs and love swaying against insecurity and doubt. I listened, rooting for one and then the other until it calmed down. I noticed a crack in the bedroom ceiling and wondered if the old girl had meant to fix it at any time, if it had kept her awake the same way it did with me.

I gave up trying to sleep and went back to the window. I looked back at my place, looking tired this time of day, as if the bricks themselves were aching from all they saw, and chose to look at the sky instead. Staring at the stars makes me feel young, the same way looking at old shopkeepers makes me feel impossibly sad. I watched them, cursing myself for the thousandth time for not knowing the names of each one. I shook my head, thinking it was a crime to be so ignorant about something so beautiful. I thought about my dad and wondered if he knew the name of the constellations. I like to think he did, but I would be lying to say that I knew either way. I missed him as much now, twelve years on, as ever, and knew the pain would only swell and not recede given more time. I thought about what I had and what I would never find and I found myself thinking of Marie so much I chose to look away from the stars and down to our bedroom window to will her there, looking back to me, by the power of my imagination.

By the time I had emptied the thermos of coffee, I was almost done papering the crack in the ceiling. I had found the tools in the broom cupboard, along with the ladder and felt buzzed from not having slept. I started to think about what else I had seen in the place, what other small slights the old lady might have missed or never quite managed to correct. I thought about how Marie wouldn’t get home until late afternoon and saw a day of repair work unfold in-front of me.

It was then that I heard the front door open.

There was no time to act; no comedic moment where I hid in the closet until the danger passed. No, I was bang to rights. I took a breath and an eerie sense of calm came over me. I didn’t even stop working, I just kept smoothing the paper, sanding over the last few flecks. I felt a weightlessness move over me as the voices grew louder and their footsteps skipped up the stairs. I had guessed by then at an estate agent and prospective clients, but for all I knew it might have been relatives catching up after a few years apart. Finally, the bedroom door came open.

“Oh!” the agent squealed, her clipboard flying away from he chest and onto the floor. The couple behind them took me in with a good-natured smile, a mock-comedy shrug of the shoulders. “I’m sorry, who—”

“I’m doing some repair work on the place. Just smoothing over the cracks and creases, you know?” I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t continue. Instead, I waited for the flustered woman to say something else to which I could respond. 

“I’m sorry, are you here at the families request or the council’s? I’m afraid I’m at a loss…” her cheeks flared and I could see she was trying to get angry, but bloomed instead into uncertainty and borderline embarrassment. She could have been my soul-mate.

“I was given keys and told to fix everything up, spick and span.” I didn’t commit to anymore than that. From what she had blurted out, I could guess the old woman had been co-sharing with the council, and her family was eyeing up the profits. I didn’t want to chance a guess.

“And it looks like you’ve done a great job,” the woman piped up. Her man nodded along. I could see they didn’t want any hassle and that secretly they were delighted at this odd turn of events. I gave them a thumbs-up and winked, feeling the lunacy of what I was doing wash over me like a cool breeze.

“Well, I’m afraid I wasn’t informed about this on my paperwork. What do you plan to do with the keys?” the agent said quickly, trying to maintain order. She reminded me of myself in a class that was slipping away from me, piping up long after control was lost.

“I was planning to return them to my boss, or I could drop them at your agency, if you think that would be more appropriate,” I said. “Or I could just slip ‘em under the welcome mat.”

“There’s no mat,” she muttered, and I saw the couple trying to hold it together for the poor girl’s sake, as I dusted down my clothes.  

The couple was gone a few minutes later and the girl, sufficiently calmed to be able to talk down to me again, handed me a timesheet of her viewings for the day. She left in a bluster, not shaking my hand. She stumbled to her car and was gone. I closed the door and counted to one hundred, the way I did when I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, half-speaking, half-miming. I got to eighty seven before I dissolved into laughter and slumped howling against the door.

I high-tailed it out a half hour later, replaced the tools and jammed my sleeping bag, which by fool’s luck had been tucked behind the ladder when the others had entered. I left by the back door, the last residue of bravado having gone about five minutes after my laughing jag. It felt strange being around the house in the sunlight; for the first time I actually felt like an intruder. I scrambled into the hedges and out into the communal park alleyway and back to the main street.

I sat in my bedroom and looked back to the other place. I knew I would need a back story if that couple took the house, and settled on telling them I knew the old dear and just wanted to help out. My mind, almost feverish without sleep, was capable of coming up with these ideas now, but I knew in an hour all this rapid-thought would drain away and be gone for good. I tried to smile again and laugh about it, but nothing came. Instead, I waited for Marie to get home so I could share it with her—and if she loved me the way I realized I loved her, she would accept it. If not, then it was out of my hands.

I kept looking at the window, choosing to fall asleep in the chair rather than take the bed. I stared at the glass until my own handprint became visible to me in the distance. It began to glow almost and when that happened, I finally closed my eyes, satisfied; knowing before long it would be smeared away and the last part of me, of all of this small, warped adventure, would be gone.