There were stories about Mole. Allegedly, he had once been seen in the town centre sporting green eye shadow. Another time, sparkly nail polish. If I was leaving my house as he was coming out of his, he would immediately go back inside. The people who shared his drive said that they had once offered to help him cut his hedge, and he had promptly dropped his shears and run indoors shouting. They weren’t sure what he was yelling.
Unremarkable is the best description I can give of his appearance: average height and build, slightly balding, always dressed in dark trousers and a white shirt. He was a creature of habit. Every Thursday, he would trim the tall laurel hedge which formed the front border of his garden. Fridays, just before the refuse lorry reached his house, he would wheel his bin out, and as soon as it was emptied drag it back in again. His curtains were always opened before 7.00 am and shut at precisely 6.00 pm. This despite the fact that sometimes I saw him leaving or entering his house as soon as it got light, or as late as 11.00 pm. Occasionally, I had seen his car parked at the local supermarket, and once my daughter had seen him in a neighbouring town. Beyond that, I had no knowledge of where he went or what he did. He didn’t keep his car at his property, I had noticed it parked on various close-by streets.
It was a Wednesday when I first noticed that his curtains hadn’t been opened. The next day they remained closed. No hedge trimming this week. Perhaps he was unwell. Friday, I got up and immediately checked his house – blinds still shut. I listened all morning for the sounds of the bin lorry, as soon as I heard it, I watched Mole’s house. There was no movement. Now, I was really worried. I crossed over to his house and knocked on his front door – no answer. It was a double-glazed glass door, so I was able to see into his hall. There were no discernible signs of life. I stood there glancing at the windows. The net curtains were yellowing, but beyond that, all I could see was the fabric of his heavy closed curtains.
Our houses are semi-detached, and although solidly built, you can hear certain sounds, people going up and down the stairs, water running, and doors slamming. In the house adjoining Mole’s, an elderly couple lived, Mr. and Mrs. Reilly. I knocked on their door, and Mrs. Reilly answered. She was a small, voluble Italian lady.
‘Sorry to bother you, but I’m worried about next door…he hasn’t put his bin out’ Even to my ears it sounded lame. ‘And he hasn’t opened his curtains for three days. Have you seen or heard anything of him?’
‘’E’s mad. We don’ talk to ‘im… Some nights he makka lotta noise…I bang on the wall and say to my ‘usband ‘‘’e’s drunk’’ or ‘‘’e need ‘is medication changed.’’’ I persisted,
‘Have you heard him this week?’ Mrs. Reilly put her head on one side and thought.
‘No, I er don’ think I ‘ave.’
Back home, I rang the local police station and they said that they would look into it, but ‘it may be some time.’ I pottered around, getting on with my day as best I could, but there was a nagging feeling of disquiet constantly with me. Several hours later, my doorbell rang and when I answered it, a young police officer stood on the step. They say that, don’t they? That all police officers look young when you get old.
‘Mrs. Brownlow, I’ve come about your concerns for John Roberts at number 23…I can’t get any answer … None of the neighbours seem to have seen him recently either…I’m going to go round the back and attempt to get in…Will you come with me?’ I was reluctant, supposing he was laying in there dead?
‘Haven’t you got a colleague who can go in with you?’
‘Call like this doesn’t warrant it.’ I glanced up and down the road. There was no sign of a police car.
‘Did you walk?’
‘Came on my bike ma’am.’ And then I saw it, a black bike in Mole’s drive, propped against the side of his house. Picking up my keys, I followed the police officer across the road and around the back of Mole’s house. I had never been here before. His rear garden was spartan, just a well-mown lawn. There were no flower beds or shrubs. I’ve lived in my house for nearly forty years and in that time, I’ve seen people do all sorts of things to their properties: rooms in lofts, conservatories tacked onto the back of the house, extensions onto the side. Anything to make these small two-bedroomed houses bigger. Mole’s had nothing like that, it appeared as basic as when it had first been built.
The policeman fiddled with a selection of keys at the back door, until he was able to swing it open and we could walk into the kitchen.
Like the exterior, nothing appeared to have been changed in the kitchen. There was a sink and what I remembered as the original units. More curiously, there were no white goods. Nothing, no cooker, washing machine, fridge, nothing. Instead, there were children’s replicas of these items. A wooden toy cooker, with fake utensils hanging from it, a tiny washing machine, and a mini red plastic shopping trolley filled with imitation cereal boxes, fake tinned goods, and plastic fruit.
‘Did Mr. Roberts have any children?’
‘Not that I know of.’ With a shrug, the officer led the way into the living room. Light seeped dimly through the threadbare curtains. The room was unfurnished and uncarpeted. I could remember the brown tiles on the floor. My own home had the same ones hidden beneath the carpet. The room was filled with a miniature railway track layout. There were stations, signal boxes, locomotives, carriages, tiny trees, and people. It was a small boy’s dream. All around the perimeter of the room, stuffed toys were propped against the walls, their inanimate eyes watching the railway. Teddies, bunnies, elephants, every creature conceivable lent along the skirting board. Treading carefully, we stepped over the tracks and crossed the room until we reached the doorway.
When these houses were originally built, the front door opened onto a small hallway, which the stairs led up from, and there was a door into the living/dining room. The officer and I were now in the hallway about to go up the bare, wooden stairs.
‘Mr Roberts!’ The policeman’s voice echoed eerily back in the empty house. The walls of the stairway were covered in paintings and drawings. Not framed pictures or even posters tacked onto the plaster, but crayon, chalk, and poster paint applied directly to the grey emulsion. Some of the images were unidentifiable squiggles, but others were pictures of stick people, simplistic houses, and vehicles, interspersed with basic arithmetic sums and letters untidily written. On either side of each tread, a cuddly toy was placed. The policeman let out a low whistle. As I followed him up the stairs, the bare boards creaked, and I was aware that we sounded like an army marching rather than two people going upstairs.
We reached the upstairs landing, and the officer went into the main bedroom. Due to the closed curtains, the room was gloomy, but I could see that there was a single bed in the corner, made prettily up in a pink matching duvet cover and pillowcase. A collection of stuffed toys was placed upon it, I even spotted a large, fluffy yellow duck and a small pink giraffe. There was also a white set of drawers. Some of the drawers were half open, and sparkling concoctions of satin and net spilled out, alongside strings of beads. On top, there were plastic tiaras, garishly packaged items of make- up and plastic hair brushes. Had the neighbourhood gossips been wrong about Mole? Rather than a crossdresser, was he someone who played with dressing up clothes in the privacy of his own home? I was unsure which was the odder scenario. The remainder of the space was covered with a doll’s house, doll’s cot and pram, and dolls of every imaginable size, style, and clothing.
The second, smaller bedroom was filled with colouring books, arts and crafts equipment, children’s Christmas annuals, storybooks, and jigsaws. After a glance in, the policeman stepped out and closed the door behind him.
‘How long have you known Mr. Roberts?’
‘I don’t…I’ve lived here since the houses were built, and I think he has too, but I’ve never spoken to him.’
The final room to be investigated was the bathroom. Even through the closed door, I could smell the stench. I knew, just knew that Mole’s body would be laying, decomposing in the bath. With a deep breath, the policeman threw open the door. Apart from a plethora of plastic ducks, buckets, and bubble-making toys the bath was empty, the disgusting aroma appeared to be originating from the unflushed toilet. The policeman quickly reclosed the door, and said unnecessarily,
‘Well, he’s not here.’
Once outside, he asked,
‘Do you know if Mr. Roberts had any relatives or friends?’
‘I’ve told you, I’ve never spoken to him.’
‘Never seen anyone call at the house?’
‘Years ago…an older woman used to come and pick him up every Sunday…she’d reverse her car down his drive…he’d get in…and off they’d go.’
‘When did you last see her?’
‘Years and years…I presume it was his Mum…she’s probably dead by now.’
The young officer gave me a card with a direct dial and incident number on and asked if I remembered anything else, please could I contact his office. After commenting that ‘they would continue with their inquiries.’ He got on his bike and cycled off.
Three days later, when I got up and pulled back my curtains, glancing as I always did at Mole’s house, I could see that his curtains were open! Fumbling in my haste to pull the policeman’s card from my purse, I dialled the number. When a female answered I gave her my name and the incident number and told her of this latest development. Over the next few days, Mole resumed his routines, and I heard no more.
* * *
It wasn’t until several years later that a chance encounter provided me with some more information. My youngest daughter had separated from her husband and had met someone else at a singles club. She was keen on him and after a few weeks, she asked if Steve could come and join us for Sunday lunch. The man she ushered in looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
‘Mrs. Brownlow…I thought it must be you…remember me?...I met you when I was in the police.’ He continued, ‘Not in the force anymore…couldn’t hack all the rules and regulations.’
‘Ah yes…I remember now…you came when Mole, I mean Mr. Roberts over the road went missing.’
Over the dining table, as we toyed with our roast chicken and crispy potatoes I asked Steve if he knew anymore about Mole’s disappearance.
‘Shouldn’t really tell you…confidentiality and all that.’ And then with a chuckle ‘but I will…turns out he’d gone to a plushie convention in Germany.’
‘It’s where people who like to dress up in furry animal suits get together.’
My daughter started to laugh and said,
‘Get together in all senses of the saying.’
‘All the years you’ve been calling the man across the road ‘Mole’, did you know something?’
‘No, no!...it was just because he used to rush back into his house like a mole into a hole when he saw anyone.
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Thought of John Lennon’s Eleanor Rigby eerie and suspicious. You captured this character so well. Kept up the suspense till the end. Good piece
Thank you for your kind words Mary.