It was another lazy day. Heather and I sunbathed in our small garden, everyone in the flat above us had left so we had it all to ourselves.
‘You know I actually think the pink would look better than the purple.’ Heather sat beside me. She was working on a tapestry, her latest piece, that she hoped would be accepted at the next exhibition when lockdown was over. ‘What do you think?’ she asked, raising her head to look at me.
I shrugged, ‘the pink?’
She nodded, pulling the purple thread from her needle. I collapsed onto the blanket we were sitting on, smoothed out my dress, and stared up at the cloudless blue sky. The air buzzed with heat and sounds that reminded me of summer. R&B music filtered through the trees, a lawn mower hummed, and the excited shouts and shrieks from the children next door floated across to us. I stretched my arms out, enjoying the warmth on my skin. Heather sighed beside me. I opened one eye and watched her.
‘I feel like stripping off,’ I said, trailing a hand through my hair.
I expected Heather to laugh but she was too absorbed. There was silence and then she agreed, ‘it would be freeing, though we don’t want to scar the bitch’s children.’
I sat up and looked across to the garden next door. All that separated us was a low, green wire fence.
‘We need to ask Tony to put in a bigger fence when this is all over, I’m sick of feeling watched by her.’
‘We can ask but I won’t agree if he takes it out of our deposit.’
‘I don’t think we’re getting the deposit back Heather, we smashed the mirror, the lamp and remember at the last gaff, Gemma spilt red wine all over my floor.’
Heather laughed and lifted her eyes to catch mine.
The children were playing football, their Mum sat near them flicking through a magazine. I wondered what she’d do if I did take my dress off and lye naked? She’d probably call the police like she’d done before. As I mused over this scenario, the football bounced across the fence, landing a few feet away from us. I pushed myself up and picked up the ball. The bitch hadn’t noticed and her kids jostled each other, shouting.
I walked up to the wire. ‘Hey,’ I called, ‘I’ve got your ball.’
The little boys ignored me, but the woman’s head snapped up from her magazine. She stared blankly at me before seeing the football in my hands.
She stood up quickly, her shrill voice piercing the air, ‘You won’t be able to touch it now Alex, it won’t be clean. That’s why I told you not to kick it over.’
She then turned to me, her face serious, ‘you shouldn’t have touched the ball.’
I was unsure what to say, ‘it’s okay, we don’t have the virus.’
‘You don’t know that. Place it over the fence and we’ll leave it there for now.’ Her dark eyebrows were drawn together, and her arms were folded.
There was silence as I placed the ball on the grass. When I stood up, the family were staring at me. The little boys looked scared, while their Mum’s harsh eyes stung.
I smiled awkwardly, ‘it’s okay, we can just wash our hands.’ I felt like I should walk back with my hands up, but the woman swiftly turned away from me and began lecturing her children again.
‘She’s such a bitch. A simple thank you would have been nice,’ I flopped down next to Heather.
‘They’re going inside now,’ Heather said.
I turned and watched the bitch herd her children inside their fancy sliding door. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but her voice rang across to us in a high, frantic tone.
I grimaced, ‘those poor kids, they’ll probably never touch that ball again. She’s made out like they’ll die immediately if they do.’
The next day was just as sunny. I lay like a cat stretched out on the lawn, and when the sun went in, I sat, my head burning, in front of my laptop. Heather was always busy, she woke up early, did her daily exercise and then spent the rest of the day working on her tapestry, cleaning, and chatting to people online. Each day I watched her floating around like a little fairy and groaned. Usually I could get inspired by going out and seeing people. I needed that to write.
Since the incident the boys hadn’t played football. I found myself watching them as I lay beside Heather. They didn’t seem to like their mum very much. The younger boy would shrink away from her and the older boy deliberately wound her up. She always reacted with anger, sending him to his room and threatening to tell his Dad.
One afternoon, I sat on my own in the garden. Next door, the children listened to their mum reading. I was painting a water colour of a dandelion and her voice drifted to where I sat. There was a harshness in the way she pronounced words that seemed to demand my attention.
I gazed towards the group huddled on the lawn. The woman wore a blouse and white trousers, her hair tied back in a loose bun. She always looked stylish. Before lockdown she’d worn business suits, I’d never seen her in jeans. She felt my eyes on her and looked up, I hadn’t expected her to, and my cheeks burned. She was straight-faced. I held her gaze, expecting her to look away and continue reading, but instead she smiled. I instinctively smiled back and then, embarrassed, pretended to concentrate on blending my paints.
Later that evening, Heather and I were watching TV when we heard muffled shouts through the wall. The characters on the screen continued talking and the TV audience laughed.
‘That’s probably the bitch and her husband,’ Heather said.
‘Probably.’ I turned the volume down on the TV. It sounded like her, the same hysterical tone. ‘It’s strange I’ve never seen her husband outside.’
‘Maybe he’s got coronavirus,’ Heather joked.
‘He better not, I touched their football!’
‘Well, we’ll all get it at some point.’
The next day we sat in our usual spot. I looked next door. The woman lay on her back, her hair untied, curling down her arms. She wore a low-cut summer dress and large sunglasses, her bare feet, which had always worn sandals before, poked above the grass. She was turned away from her children, who sat quietly together, coloured pens scattered around them.
‘It looks like she’s finally caught up with the rest of us,’ I whispered to Heather.
‘What?’ Heather glanced at the family.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen her with her hair down before and she’s ignoring her kids.’
‘I haven’t really been watching them,’ Heather said.
The oldest boy stood up and went to his mum, pulled on her arm and whined.
She slowly sat up and looked at him. ‘No, you are not going on the trampoline Alex, you’ll make too much noise.’
The boy protested, but his Mum continued. Alex turned away and stomped towards the trampoline. His Mum stormed after him. In three long strides she grabbed his arm and violently spun him around. He cried out as she clenched his shoulders.
‘You are not going on the trampoline! Do not disobey me!’
‘You’re hurting me!’ the boy bellowed.
Heather and I looked at each other.
‘She’s evil!’ Heather mouthed.
‘You’ll annoy the neighbours,’ the woman shouted, ‘you’ve already disturbed them enough by kicking your football!’
‘I hate you!’ the little boy shrieked; his Mum clung to him fiercely.
‘Go to your room, I’m sick of telling you off Alex.’
She let go and the boy ran inside. The woman clenched her fists and sighed, then fell back onto the grass, smoothing her hair. Then she sat up and tied her hair before lying down again.
Heather and I spent the next five minutes discussing in hushed tones the drama that had gone down.
‘I feel like saying something to her,’ I said.
‘I dare you,’ Heather’s eyes sparkled.
I looked over at the woman bathing in the sun.
‘Okay,’ I stood up determinedly and padded across the grass.
She didn’t notice until I spoke, ‘Excuse me.’
She sat up suddenly and took her sunglasses off.
‘Hi,’ I smiled brightly at her. ‘Sorry, we couldn’t help overhearing, I just wanted to say we really don’t have a problem with noise, its completely fine with us if your son plays on the trampoline.’
The woman frowned and I wondered if she’d heard me.
‘I’m Julia,’ I introduced myself.
She stood up and walked to the fence, stopping with her arms folded across her chest.
‘My husband doesn’t like noise,’ she said sharply, ‘and you introduced yourself when we came to your flat a few weeks ago.’
I was about to say that I was drunk out of my mind at the time but stopped myself. It was the night she threatened to call the police because of the noise.
My skin prickled under her cool stare, but I tried to be friendly, otherwise I knew I’d never feel comfortable in the garden again while she was there.
‘Oh…yeah I remember. Is your husband working from home?’
She frowned a little, ‘It’s his day off, usually he’s at the hospital. He’s a consultant. He’s isolating from us because he’s in close contact with the virus.’
‘Oh, that must be hard,’ I said, trying to sound genuine. Though I did feel a little sorry for her, it would be hell being stuck on your own with two kids.
‘Yes, it’s difficult to get used to,’ she smiled tightly.
I smiled back and then glanced behind me at Heather. My heart thumped against my chest.
‘Heather and I are working from home too,’ I said, ‘We’re both slowly losing our minds not being able to go out.’ I sounded serious, though I’d meant it as a joke.
The ghost of a smile played on her lips, ‘I know the feeling.’
I laughed, ‘So are you working from home too?’
‘I’m an editor for Heart magazine.’
‘Oh! I’m a freelance journalist! I tried writing for Heart.’ I didn’t tell her that they’d rejected me.
Her blue eyes shone in the bright light. Suddenly her youngest son ran over to her and held her hand, exclaiming that he was hungry.
‘I’ll have to make lunch.’ She smiled at me and this time I felt warmth in her eyes.
‘You were talking to her for ages,’ Heather said, ‘I tried to listen but—’
‘She’s an editor!’
‘Really? She doesn’t seem the type.’
‘She was actually quite nice.’ I was grinning wildly.
‘Well of course you think she’s nice, you should cosy up to her and try and get a deal.’
I laughed, ‘maybe I should.’
At eight o’clock Heather and I stood outside our flat and joined everyone on the street to cheer for the NHS. Applause spread and hoots and shouts echoed between the houses. Next to us the little boys clanged their pots and pans.
‘Cheer for Daddy!’ their Mum said. I wondered if Daddy was watching from his window. My palms tingled and the noise vibrated around us. I scanned the street, everyone was out, it was the only time people felt power from uniting together. The rest of the time we skittered around like beetles, terrified of coming close to anyone. I missed strangers and I missed watching people.
We watched TV, our nightly ritual, and heard voices next door again. This time there was the low resonance of a male voice as a woman’s high shriek pierced through the cracks in the wall.
‘What the fuck are they doing?’ said Heather, ‘I might call the police if they don’t shut up.’
There was the distant sound of a door slamming, then silence. I sat, sipping my tea.
‘Did you hear me?’ Heather asked.
‘Yeah, just tired.’ A strange feeling had come over me and for a moment I felt like my Mum; middle-aged and fermenting in a life of routine and trivial pleasures. I left and rummaged in my room for the joint I’d been saving.
I stepped outside, the sun shimmered through the trees, and flies danced in the golden light. I glanced next door and stopped. She was standing almost parallel to me; her long hair tumbling down her back and a large silky cat cradled in her arms. She kissed its head, and its tail curled around her. I watched the peaceful scene. Her skin glowed in the evening sun and the soft, muted colours of her brown hair and blue dress complemented the dove greyness of the cat’s coat. I drew my eyes away from her, conscious that she could look up and catch me staring.
I walked into the evening light, feeling the grass between my toes. I lit the spliff and held it between my fingers, wondering if she was watching me. I breathed in and exhaled, the smoke hung around me before disappearing in the warm air.
There was a sudden cry, I turned. The cat had escaped and jumped over the fence. Its eyes were fixed on me as it ran over, its tail up.
I knelt down to stroke it, ‘hello beautiful.’
It rolled excitedly on the ground. I rubbed its belly and it sat up to sniff my fingers.
‘Do you want to get high too?’ I asked.
‘Can you pass her over to me? She shouldn’t be outside, she’s an indoor cat.’
I looked up at the figure on the other side of the fence. The sun shone across her face, framing her cheekbones and emphasising her furrowed forehead.
‘Of course.’ I ground the end of the spliff into the earth, hoping to salvage it later and scooped the cat up quickly. It wriggled in my arms.
‘How should we do this?’ I asked.
Her blue eyes shimmered in the light, the redness around them making them more vibrant.
‘Could you place her on the ground? And I’ll pick her up.’
The operation was successful, and the cat was secure in her arms again.
‘Thank you, I knew I shouldn’t have let her go. We were just coming out for some fresh air.’ She smoothed the cat’s hair.
I wanted to ask her if she was okay, if it was her husband that had made her cry?
‘Sometimes she gets restless stuck inside with the kids grabbing her.’
She laughed, her eyes sparkling, ‘yes, very relatable.’
We stood on either side of the fence, a couple of meters apart. ‘Did you get any writing done?’ she asked.
I glowed inside but tried to stop it showing on my face.
‘Not really. It’s hard to be inspired by anything other than the pandemic.’
The woman nodded, ‘Yes, it’s a difficult time for news. Everything’s stagnating and it feels wrong to write about anything else, but people will get sick of only hearing about Covid.’
For the first time she’d said something that interested me. My cheeks burned and I held her gaze, ‘How’s your work?’
She strained a smile and looked down at the cat, ‘I’m trying but it’s too much with the kids, I think I’ll have to stop.’ She ran her hand down the cat in slow, broad strokes. She didn’t look up but continued, ‘I’m not used to it and the kids aren’t either. They miss their nanny.’
‘I’m sure they enjoy having more time with you.’
She finally raised her head and looked at me, her blue eyes soft. ‘I hope so…I’ll be glad when this is over and things are back to normal,’ she smiled sadly.
‘Yeah, sometimes I feel like it’ll never end and when it does, I wonder if I’ll miss it? All this time with nothing to do.’
We both looked at each other, though it didn’t feel like she was seeing me, her eyes were misty. The cat began struggling in her arms, and she blinked.
‘I should probably put her inside.’
I nodded and watched her walk away. She turned before opening the door, ‘I think I’ll come back and enjoy the last of the sun.’
‘Sounds like a good idea.’
‘Will you stay out longer?’
I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. ‘Yes, I think I will, it’s a beautiful night.’
She went inside and I waited. The evening sun fringed each blade of grass with gold and I breathed in its sweet scent. I remembered the many summers I’d lived through and how very different they all were. Though some things, it seemed, stayed the same each time.