70 comments

Friendship Contemporary Coming of Age

Mrs Cockroach, my neighbour from 507 Nightingale Court, had a distinctive door-knock. It was like the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth; three quick taps and one solid rap. 

   I’m coming! I said, closing my laptop. Hold on, Cally! 

Her dishevelled straw mop and skimpy summer dress made her look like a knock-kneed scarecrow after an autumnal storm. 

   What’s up, neighbour? I asked. 

   There’s a taxi on its way, she said, scratching her blotchy elbow. I need help to move out of my flat.

* * *

Nightingale Court is at the intersection of Balham Hill and Nightingale Lane, and perched above the entrance to Clapham South Underground Station. I lived on the east side of the apartment block overlooking Balham Hill, better known in London parlance as the South Circular. Entire fleets of the capital’s biggest juggernauts roar along this arterial highway night and day; only easing off at three in the morning before picking up again around four. Looking back, I wonder how I ignored the constant throb of diesel engines, horn blasts and brake squeals, twenty-three hours every day. 

   Apartment 509 was a concrete-lined sarcophagus on the fifth of five floors and boasted roof-top views of the city with easy access to public transport and a variety of handy independent stores. That wasn’t far from the truth because the 355 to Clapham Common chugged under my balcony every fifteen minutes, and at lunchtime, when I was working from home, I’d smell sizzling hot fat wafting up from Moxie’s Fish Bar below. It was a half-decent ‘chippy’ abutting Moxon’s Fishmongers, whose nauseating odours were less welcome during the summer months. The parade of shops also included Mox’s hair salon, who’d give me a quick trim for cash, MoxiFix for knackered PC repairs and, if all else failed, Moxwell’s funeral directors. 

   Who could ask for more? 

   A bar, you ask? 

Of course, there had to be a place to hang out after a long day at the office. Number 3 Nightingale Lane offered respite from life’s hustle-and-bustle and a ‘quintessential English menu with contemporary twists in luxurious surroundings’. Despite trip advisor’s spectrum of conflicting reviews, Beverley Moxon never failed to satiate my thirst with her trademark ‘Moxito’ – a lethal combination of ice-cold white rum, fresh mint and zesty limes. 

   Beverley was the enterprising proprietress of the Balham Hill business empire and my landlady at apartment 509. ‘Moxy’, as she was known, had been everywhere and done it all. She’d both a patient ear and a strong shoulder, and offered sound advice to all and sundry. Number 3 Nightingale Lane was also a popular venue for the local constabulary, because of her late opening hours. They turned a blind eye to the licencing laws providing she drew her curtains and locked the doors before last orders, and all the punters remained compos mentis. I neither witnessed any trouble on the premises nor heard about complaints from the local community. The heavy police presence put a stop to any nonsense, period. 

* * *

It was Mr Warbuoy from apartment 505 who first referred to our neighbour Cally as Mrs Cockroach. All right, I admit Calista Roche sounds a bit like a cockroach. Given the circumstances, it was funny the first time he made the comment, but then I realised he wasn’t joking. He had a ‘thing’ about her accent that was both cruel and quite irrational. Mr Warbuoy despised any foreign influence in his parish and often ranted about the ‘invasion’ from Eastern Europe after the war. 

   Occasionally, he cornered me on my way to the lift and engaged me in conversation about his latest campaign to cleanse Nightingale Court. They brought pestilence and disease here, he’d say, sweeping his hand as if making a profound and grandiose statement. She does nothing but complain about cockroaches, don’t you know?

   I couldn’t argue with him on that account. Cally had a terrible time with the little devils. She’d knock on my door in tears of desperation after employing the latest spray or powder to rid herself of the problem. Whatever she’d tried made no difference, and the cockroaches only returned in force. The stress had affected her health, and she’d developed eczematous dry and inflamed skin. 

   Mr Warbuoy had no sympathy for Cally and the more she complained, the more he referred to her as Mrs Cockroach. He’d curse ‘her kind’ as invaders and saw them as cheats and thieves who’d come to abuse the welfare system and destroy his way of life. When his face turned scarlet, I knew to change the subject and make my excuses. On one occasion as I retreated, he’d collared me with a gnarled claw and whispered, I blame hussies like her at apartment 507. My jaw dropped as he turned to jab his forefinger at her doorway, as if placing a curse on the poor woman. 

* * *

I never allowed myself the luxury of a drink before five o’clock. However, I recall one frantic lunchtime when I needed a break from work and ventured round to Moxy’s place for a stiffener. Straight away, I noticed Cally sipping a modest glass of Cava at the bar. She smiled and raised her glass as I approached. Hey, neighbour, Cally said. What are you drinking? 

   He always has a Moxito, said Moxy, from behind the bar.

   Another Cava and my usual, I said, returning her wry wink.

   It was odd meeting Cally in an environment away from Nightingale Court and the gloss-painted corridors that perspired glistening droplets throughout the year. I’d hoped we might escape our usual topic of conversation. However, she spoke at length about her various allergies and how her youngsters drove her mad. They’re exhausting, she said. You’ve no idea. 

   Cally was right. She had far more experience of raising children and bore the scars to prove it. I know she moaned about the endless infestation problem and whinged about her little ones, but she never mentioned Mr Warbuoy’s sarcastic comments. So, either she was incredibly thick skinned or hadn’t noticed his pointed remarks.

* * *

Mr Warbuoy had an insistent door-knock. It was like a road drill; four fast raps and a triple tap, repeated in quick succession. He refused to be ignored, especially on a Sunday morning, and continued pounding away until an adjacent neighbour appeared to quell his zeal. I’m off to church, he’d say, clutching his trusty folding-bike. Will you join me in worship today? 

   I’d decline his kind invitation every week, but like a true and valiant pilgrim, he saw it as his sacred mission to encourage me and cleanse my weary soul. Perhaps next week, neighbour? He’d say, strapping on his homemade bike helmet. 

   I don’t have a bike, I’d say, curious about his odd headwear.

   Why waste good money on designer gear when one can make do?

A good question, however, I’d met no one else who’d constructed a bicycle helmet from expanded polystyrene packaging, secured with acres of thick black duct tape and used a bungee-tie as a chin strap.

* * *

The day Cally vacated Nightingale Court was the first time she’d invited me inside her apartment. She looked like a tiny lost fledgling as I followed her inside. I’d imagined her living quarters would be both dirty and disorganised. But, I was wrong. Cally had packaged all her small family’s possessions into four suitcases, three bin liners and two sports bags. The furniture and fittings belonged to Moxy and there was nothing left to arrange other than load the taxi down below.

   I caught my breath and swallowed with embarrassment as I scanned the flawless walls, brushed carpet and neat kitchen. Her flat was immaculate; every surface gleamed, and she’d suffused each room with fresh-smelling air cleanser. All right, the general odour had a hint of biocide, but either way, it was spotless. I bit my lip when I recalled laughing at her unkind nickname with Mr Warbuoy. We knew nothing about her life. 

   Mr Warbuoy was mean spirited, but maybe that’s because his wife had died and left him incapable of keeping house. After all, he was a member of that generation of men who married women in order to be looked after, fed, and watered. They never imagined what would happen if their loved ones departed first.

* * *

Mr Warbuoy was never the same after Cally departed. Perhaps he missed that burst of rage first thing in the morning when he witnessed Cally struggling to control her brood of dishevelled ragamuffins. I’m sure he relished the self-righteous indignation when her uncouth whirlwind of unbridled youth careered past his door, shouting and squealing on their way to school. 

   He was calmer than normal when he requested help to shift a second-hand sofa into his apartment. It was the first time I’d entered his property, and it came as a surprise to witness his front room, or what I could see of it. The room was full of newspapers; piles of cuttings bound with string, bundles of red-tops and bails of broad-sheets stacked high like rusting vehicles in a breaker’s yard. 

   After returning next door, I wondered whether the infestation had come from Mr Warbuoy’s home. He was clearly a man who had difficulty parting with possessions. There were piles of once-glossy Sunday supplements dating back twenty years or more. Apart from providing an immediate fire hazard, the stacks of yellowing paper would provide ideal nesting material for colonies of burrowing mice. I imagined the vertiginous towers of paper hollowed out like a Swiss Emmental and chock-a-block with chuckling rodents, scampering round his apartment with impunity inside their spiralling superhighways.


The End









June 01, 2024 03:52

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

70 comments

02:41 Jun 08, 2024

Loved the characterizations!! The story fitted this prompt well. This prompt is ideal for all those very cool descriptions. Very funny in a profound way. Cava is a Spanish bubbly. What nationality was Calista Roche? The name is Norman/French in origin. Or did you mainly choose it to do the play on words with 'cockroach'? Sorry I read your story a bit late. Deadlines and all that. I find them difficult as well. One point. 'unbridled youth careered past his door' - I'm sure you meant 'careened'?

Reply

Howard Halsall
04:08 Jun 08, 2024

Hey Kaitlyn, As I'm one prone to tardiness, myself, I can hardly complain. Anyway, thank for reading it and I'm pleased you enjoyed it. I really thought I'd come up with a winner this time, but ho-hum, as long as people liked it and I learned something new, then all is well. BTW - as far as I know, 'careening' means teetering from side to side, as a boat might well do. Whereas, 'careering' means dashing with reckless haste; like young tikes might behave in a narrow corridor, on their way to school. However, I'd be happy to hear any alternat...

Reply

08:21 Jun 08, 2024

I reckon there is a furious debate amongst the judges and yours may well have been a contender! Sometimes I'm surprised at what stories actually win. LOL. I am more familiar with careening. They have their similarities, turns out. I looked up both meanings. Both paint a similar picture. move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way:-careening. Additional meaning is lurching to the side Present participle for to move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way-careering.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Trudy Jas
03:15 Jun 07, 2024

Let's see if this'll work again.📢🛎️🕦⌚🕰️⌛⏲️⏰ 23:50 left 😵‍💫😊

Reply

Howard Halsall
06:59 Jun 07, 2024

Blimey, Trudy! I’m up against the clock again, and you’ve written three already…. Clearly, one of us needs to get his finger out :)

Reply

Trudy Jas
10:12 Jun 07, 2024

The other needs to get a life. ow stop dawling. LOL

Reply

02:26 Jun 08, 2024

Sorry can't resist. do you mean 'dawdling'?

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Trudy Jas
02:07 Jun 08, 2024

It's 4 of mine, against one (no wait that's0) of yours. ;-) Can you hear the crack of the whip? Less than2 hrs. BTW: in Dutch we say Ha as opposed to aitch. So, you are HaHa.

Reply

02:30 Jun 08, 2024

LOL. Made me think of this. My Dutch mother speaks English well but still calls eggs - 'aches'. In Dutch they are called 'eieren.'

Reply

Trudy Jas
02:43 Jun 08, 2024

Kaitlyn, how does mother go from eieren to aches? Always curious hoe words evolve.

Reply

02:49 Jun 08, 2024

It's the vowel sound that has carried over. It's even more interesting how idioms and expressions evolve. From sailing terms etc. I recently read how the word 'surf' has become attached to so many modern things that have nothing to do with the sea.

Reply

Show 2 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Howard Halsall
03:58 Jun 08, 2024

Ha! Made it with moments to spare... :)

Reply

Trudy Jas
04:01 Jun 08, 2024

Got it, will read it tomorrow. Go to bed now (this is your mother speaking - crikey) :-)

Reply

Howard Halsall
04:09 Jun 08, 2024

Better late than never, eh what? :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 2 replies
Show 2 replies
Show 1 reply
Martin Ross
15:32 Jun 05, 2024

Helping clean up, sanitize, sort out, and deodorize my wife’s ex’s hoard-y, formerly five-dog house while he begins his new life of dialysis, PT, and waiting for a liver and kidney that most likely aren’t coming. We did a similar process after my dad died — my folks hoarded, too, and it took years for me to totally break from it, with Sue’s help. By the time I left home, I had hundreds of mystery books stacked all over my bedroom, and I still remember one night reading in bed to find a mouse sitting on my shoulder. It was not a Stuart Little...

Reply

Howard Halsall
17:57 Jun 05, 2024

Hey Martin, Thank you for reading my latest story, sharing your thoughts and experiences. I love reading reactions to my work, and yours made me chuckle. I guess it takes a book hoarder to spot and identify with that trait. Who was it that said, “So many books, not enough time….”? (…or some such) Book hoarding may be a chaotic mania, but it’s relatively harmless and belies a sense of optimism. I mean, there must be scores of books I’ve purchased with every intention of reading and they’re still on my ‘must-read’ list. I’ll get to read them a...

Reply

Martin Ross
19:07 Jun 05, 2024

🤣🤣👍 Mine are all now neatly arranged on one wall of the basement, per spousal orders! Have a great week!

Reply

Howard Halsall
19:14 Jun 05, 2024

I hope all those books don’t attract mice down there; a warm, dark basement is perfect those furry fellows :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Brandon Cox
13:07 Jun 05, 2024

What an immersive bit of writing! The world feels entirely real, and the characters are great. I could feel the dirt and smog through the page. Topped with digestible but fantastic prose, this is truly a great piece.

Reply

Howard Halsall
15:18 Jun 05, 2024

Hey Brandon, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your positive feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed it and trust you won’t be put off living in South London :) Take care HH

Reply

Brandon Cox
03:28 Jun 06, 2024

If anything, I think I’d pay it a visit after the texture(?) you gave to it here!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
John McPhee
21:13 Jun 04, 2024

OK this story gave me the willies - LOL. Years ago when I lived in an apartment in Toronto, new neighbors arrived and shortly thereafter so did dozens and dozens of those "little devils". It wasn't a nice place to bring a new date. But I stomped out those old nightmares and enjoyed the hidden theme in your story. Well done HH.

Reply

Howard Halsall
21:47 Jun 04, 2024

Hey John, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your experience. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and hope it didn’t conjure up too many painful memories….. Take care HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
L. D.
18:24 Jun 04, 2024

I laughed as I put together the "Mox" pieces. The best part, artistically, IMHO, was the subtle comparison with Mr. Warbuoy and the cockroaches. Both were burrowed into their homes, both were repugnant to their neighbors. Thank you for refusing to leave Mr. Warbuoy one-sided. Grief leaves many people lost, and while it should never excuse unkindness to another, I appreciate that you reminded us he is human, too, and just as deserving of our pity. Mrs. Roche is lost in this English community, but Mr. Warbuoy is lost even at "home", and th...

Reply

Howard Halsall
20:56 Jun 04, 2024

Hey L.D., Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it and pleased you picked up on so many crucial elements. As you pointed out, even Mr Warbuoy has a story to tell too and wouldn’t be human without his own predicaments; it’s so important to create a balanced view and a sense of symmetry within a story…. Take care HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jeremy Stevens
13:23 Jun 04, 2024

Ah, no one left to blame. Don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Good insight also into unfounded judgement. Good read!

Reply

Howard Halsall
17:45 Jun 04, 2024

Hey Jeremy, Thank you for reading my latest story and leaving your positive feedback; it’s much appreciated. Take care HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Eddie Collins
11:17 Jun 04, 2024

Very detailed, and easy to transport yourself into this realm. We'll done.

Reply

Howard Halsall
17:43 Jun 04, 2024

Hey Eddie, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. Take care HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Graham Kinross
10:22 Jun 04, 2024

These characters feel like people I know. Well done on capturing their quirks and rounding them out so well so quickly.

Reply

Howard Halsall
17:42 Jun 04, 2024

Hey Graham, Thank for reading my story and sharing your positive thoughts. I trust you’re keeping well and busy writing…? Take care HH :)

Reply

Graham Kinross
22:24 Jun 04, 2024

I’ve been editing for a while and the prompts recently have been too specific for my liking. I’m well, busy with dad life. I hope you’re well.

Reply

Howard Halsall
07:18 Jun 05, 2024

Glad to hear you’re well, Graham. I’m keeping in good health too and still scribbling away :)

Reply

Graham Kinross
12:25 Jun 05, 2024

Reading anything at the moment? I’m reading Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty right now.

Reply

Howard Halsall
15:25 Jun 05, 2024

Hey Graham, I’m reading Martin Amis’s ‘Money’ at the moment. It’s both a tour de force and a master class in the use of voice driven prose, and a classic example of an unlikeable protagonist who we care about…. I know it came out years ago, but ho-hum; better late than never, eh?

Reply

Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Galaxy Grandeur
05:34 Jun 04, 2024

Thank you for liking my story! Your's gives me Great Gatsby vibes and I mean that in the best way!

Reply

Howard Halsall
06:21 Jun 04, 2024

Hey Galaxy, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your reaction; it’s much appreciated :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Carol Stewart
18:03 Jun 02, 2024

The details captured my attention from the start - well thought out and executed. The knock like Beethoven's fifth - superb, then the descriptions of the area and bringing this back full circle with the 'superhighway' at the end. Subtle connotations there with the perceived infestation inside the bigot's flat.

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:40 Jun 03, 2024

Hey Carol, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. It’s useful to know I grabbed your attention with the first line and trust you enjoyed the pace throughout…. HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Daryl Kulak
15:58 Jun 02, 2024

Great story, Howard. I especially liked Mr. Warbuoy and his homemade bicycle helmet!

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:34 Jun 03, 2024

Hey Daryl, Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to comment. I’m pleased you liked Mr Warbuoy’s makeshift bicycle helmet, however I wouldn’t recommend copying him; it didn’t seem very durable :) Take care HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Courtney Moore
15:54 Jun 02, 2024

Wonderful description! The spliced format works well to break up important bits of information. Great choice. I must say, you have a gift for describing characters! They felt so lifelike. Great story!

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:27 Jun 03, 2024

Hey Courtney, Thank you for reading my latest story and leaving your thoughts. I’m particularly glad you liked the format because I enjoy figuring out how to structure my stories and link my ideas together. Take care HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Denney Owen
13:52 Jun 02, 2024

Loved how this story captures the quirks and conflicts of apartment living vividly! It's a charming mix of humor and heart!

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:17 Jun 03, 2024

Hey Denney, Thanks for your positive feedback; it’s much appreciated…. Take care HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kristi Gott
19:08 Jun 01, 2024

Wonderful in-depth characterizations that show instead of tell. The descriptions and imagery are so focused and original with that authenticity that makes them believable. The story hooked me with its uniqueness right away. I am an admirer of your skillful character portrayals. Very well crafted interesting story! Enjoyed this!

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:06 Jun 03, 2024

Hey Kristi, Thank you for continuing to read my stories and take the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed my latest submission and hope you’ll return here for more in the future…. HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Helen A Smith
18:25 Jun 01, 2024

Love the strength of these characters. I can vividly picture them in their surroundings. Interesting how obsessed Mr Warbuoy was with his neighbour, his determination to call her “the cockroach” and her infestation which it seemed he was probably responsible for. He harboured so many prejudices and false ideas which he seemed to need to feed his ego and maybe give meaning to his existence. Great imagery with the roaches. They really are freaky little creatures.

Reply

Howard Halsall
23:52 Jun 02, 2024

Hey Helen, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your thoughts. Judging by your comments, it’s clearly made a strong impression which is more than I could wish for. Hopefully it will provide food for thought in the future…. HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
18:16 Jun 01, 2024

Rather suspected MrW was responsible for Callie's problem. Thanks for liking my 'Follow Me'. And 'Not Another One'.

Reply

Howard Halsall
23:40 Jun 02, 2024

Hey Mary, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your reaction. I hope the outcome wasn’t too predictable…. HH :)

Reply

Mary Bendickson
00:51 Jun 03, 2024

It was perfect.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Alexis Araneta
17:49 Jun 01, 2024

Oooh ! Interesting story ! Got to love how...visceral the imagery is. Great flow to this too. Lovely work, Howard.

Reply

Howard Halsall
23:36 Jun 02, 2024

Hey Alexis, Thank you for reading another of my stories and offering your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. HH :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
13:10 Jun 01, 2024

Great story! I was not expecting Mr.W to possibly be responsible for the roach issue. I enjoyed the contrast between the narrators reaction between the two apartments. Very entertaining!

Reply

Howard Halsall
23:31 Jun 02, 2024

Hey Stephanie, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your thoughts. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and glad it contained a few surprises :) Take care HH

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Trudy Jas
12:12 Jun 01, 2024

Fun! You're not trying to imply that Mr. W was projecting, were you? LOL Loved the image of the rodents and insects scurrying around the superhighway inside his hoard, lovely way to bight is back to the beginning. Of course, the fact that Mr. W's hoard evoked flashbacks to my ex's hoard (every pair of running shoes he had ever owned, among others) won't be blamed on you.

Reply

Howard Halsall
23:24 Jun 02, 2024

Hey Trudy, I’m glad you enjoyed my latest story and apologise if it evoked painful memories….. I certainly had fun writing it so I’m glad that energy translates to the humour :)

Reply

Trudy Jas
23:57 Jun 02, 2024

All's forgiven (and old age short term memory issues too care of any lingering trauma) :-)

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:15 Jun 03, 2024

Fair enough - I’m glad it didn’t cause a problem :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.